From now on, I’m going to send all those obnoxious Peterson cultists to Adam Rutherford


I hope he enjoys them, because I’m more than a little tired of those obtuse wankers. Rutherford is writing about what makes humans unique, and isn’t shy about pointing out that most of the pop sci claims are nonsense.

Because sex and gender politics are so prominent in our lives, some look to evolution for answers to hard questions about the dynamics between men and women, and the social structures that cause us so much ire. Evolutionary psychologists strain to explain our behaviour today by speculating that it relates to an adaptation to Pleistocene life. Frequently these claims are absurd, such as “women wear blusher on their cheeks because it attracts men by reminding them of ripe fruit”.

Purveyors of this kind of pseudoscience are plenty, and most prominent of the contemporary bunch is the clinical psychologist and guru Jordan Peterson, who in lectures asserts this “fact” about blusher and fruit with absolute certainty. Briefly, issues with that idea are pretty straightforward: most fruit is not red; most skin tones are not white; and crucially, the test for evolutionary success is increased reproductive success. Do we have the slightest blip of data that suggests that women who wear blusher have more children than those who don’t? No, we do not.

Peterson is also well known for using the existence of patriarchal dominance hierarchies in a non-specific lobster species as supporting evidence for the natural existence of male hierarchies in humans. Why out of all creation choose the lobster? Because it fits with Peterson’s preconceived political narrative. Unfortunately, it’s a crazily poor choice, and woefully researched. Peterson asserts that, as with humans, lobsters have nervous systems that “run on serotonin” – a phrase that carries virtually no scientific meaning – and that as a result “it’s inevitable that there will be continuity in the way that animals and human beings organise their structures”. Lobsters do have serotonin-based reward systems in their nervous systems that in some way correlate with social hierarchies: higher levels of serotonin relate to increased aggression in males, which is part of establishing mate choice when, as Peterson says, “the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention”.

I’m definitely buying his new book, The Book of Humans: 4 Billion Years, 20,000 Genes, and the New Story of How We Became Us when it becomes available in March. I’ve been praising his last book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, to everyone I know, and I just learned that it’s going to be used as a text in one of the anthropology electives offered at our school. He’s an author you must not miss if you’re interested in good explanations of evolution and genetics.

Comments

  1. kestrel says

    Oh! I thought that name sounded familiar – he was just interviewed by Cara Santa Maria on her podcast, Talk Nerdy, on Sept. 3. He sounds like such an interesting person. The book should be outstanding.

  2. monad says

    I still don’t get this “lobsters don’t have brains” reaction. Like most cephalized animals, lobsters have some centralized portion of their nervous system. Though probably evolved separately, we call these brains in fish, molluscs, and worms; a search through papers finds many people do not hesitate to use the term on insects or spiders. How do people like Rutherford determine some of these to be actual brains, and others not?

  3. screechymonkey says

    Wait a second. I thought that, during the cartoonish version of prehistory that evolutionary psych loves so much, it was the women who did all the gathering of fruits and such, while the men were off hunting saber-toothed tigers or whatever. So shouldn’t it be men who were blush on their cheeks to attract women, while women, I don’t know, put tiger dung behind their ears?

    (Then again, aren’t some women’s perfumes made from animal urine? Maybe I’m on to something!)

  4. bhebing says

    Adam Rutherford has a podcast on BBC4 together with mathematician Hannah Fry: the curious cases of Rutherford and Fry. Easily one of the podcasts you will listen to this decade.

  5. woozy says

    I still don’t get this “lobsters don’t have brains” reaction.

    What “lobsters don’t have brains” reaction?

  6. monad says

    @5 woozy: You know, like in the linked article where Rutherford says lobsters don’t have brains.

    Peterson believes that the system that is used by lobsters is why social hierarchies exist in humans. The problem with the assertion is this: serotonin is indeed a major part of the neural transmitter network in humans, but the effect of serotonin in relation to aggression is the opposite. Lower levels increase aggression, because it restricts communication between the frontal cortex and amygdala. Lobsters don’t have an amygdala or frontal lobes. Or brains for that matter.

    Peterson has a bad agenda and he uses bad distortions of science to justify it. All of this correction seems appropriate to me – except the last bit, where it’s suddenly as if crustaceans don’t have a centralized nervous system like all other cephalized animals. What does it mean to say they don’t have brains?

  7. chrislawson says

    monad@2–

    Echoing woozy here: there is no mention of the word “brains” in the original post. Lobsters — and insects — don’t have any nervous tissue structure corresponding to an anatomical brain, although the collection of ganglia in the lobster’s head is often referred to informally as a brain, but I’ve never heard the argument “lobsters don’t have brains” used against Peterson. Admittedly I find Peterson so appallingly idiotic and hateful that I can’t enthuse myself to read all the takedowns. Maybe you’ve heard the argument elsewhere.

    Anyway, it’s a moot point in this setting. We know that serotonin evolved before multicellularity. Today we can find it as a signalling molecule in unicellular organisms like Entamoeba histolytica, as well as multicellular organisms like plants and fungi. Which means it exists in organisms that don’t even have nerves let alone brains. Which means we should not expect the specific behavioural effects in one organism to have much bearing on behavioural effects in distantly related organisms (in the case of lobsters and humans, there’s been >500 million years since divergence; we are more closely related to sea cucumbers!). And indeed we have observed serotonin producing opposite effects on foraging behaviour in different organisms. Which means Peterson’s argument is a stupid, stupid wash and arguing over whether lobsters have brains is a distraction.

    (I have heard the “lobsters don’t have brains” argument used to justify boiling them alive for food. It is a distraction in that setting too.)

  8. chrislawson says

    Sorry, I wrote the above while your next post was coming through. Obviously Rutherford made that argument.

    But he’s correct. Using an anatomical definition of a brain, lobsters and insects don’t have them. The problem is that it makes the argument appear to hinge on whether lobsters have brains when that specific is irrelevant. Serotonin exists in a much wider range of organisms than just those with or without brains, and even among animals with brains the range of social behaviours is so broad as to make Peterson’s argument foolish. After all, if Peterson had chosen frogs instead of lobsters for his argument, and frogs undoubtedly have brains, his argument would be just as stupid.

  9. chrislawson says

    Or in short, monad, I think we agree. I just hadn’t seen that particular argument until now.

  10. woozy says

    Part of the problem with refuting Peterson is… there’s little to refute.

    He claims that lobsters have hierarchy somehow refutes supports his hypothesis and refutes his opponents. Well, okay, but for us to refute that what exactly does lobsters hierarchies have to do with either his or our hypothesis. We can’t refute it if we can know what the relevance is. Otherwise it’s an “(a + b^n)/n = x therefore God exists; I demand you respond!” situation.

    Is he claim we claim natural hierarchies can’t exist in nature? Is he claiming that the ones existing for lobsters apply to humans as humans and lobsters are similar? Or what. I suppose if we respond in any way we run the risk of pursuing the utterly irrelevant. But that is because there is nothing relevant to pursue.

    I suspect Rutherford went too far but then he seems to have read Peterson’s original claim. He seems to have gotten the idea that Peterson claim both humans and lobsters “have nervous systems that ‘run on serotonin'”. This would imply the similarity that lobsters and humans “running on serotonin” somehow accounts for the similarity between humans and lobsters hierarchies.

    If so pointing out that lobster don’t have nervous systems even remotely similar to humans and serotonin is not relevant and that lobsters don’t even have what we would call brains seems utterly relevant. i.e. human and lobsters have nothing in common that would make a social heirarchy among lobsters relevant to anything. Rutherford points out also humans don’t urinate out of our faces. That humans and lobsters run on seratonin and that lobsters have hierarchies are equally irrelevant non-sequitors.

    Unless “running on serotonin” wasn’t relevant. But if not, what was? Lobsters exist. So do every other animal on the planet.

  11. says

    @23 Hmm. Interesting point. Mind… There are various cultures, and times, in which it “was” men putting on absolutely silly assed amounts of makeup, and women that tended to do less, or none, of it. But.. Seems to me those tended to be very culture specific, and fairly “recent”, for the most part, even historically. lol

    But, yeah.. Just another data point in the endless list of, “Why this nonsense is purely an exercise in justifying they way things are now, and why the person/people supporting it at not assholes, or worse.”

  12. monad says

    @8 chrislawson: I don’t disagree that Peterson’s argument is drivel, for many different reasons, but it bothers me when corrections also don’t make sense. To me “brain” means the developed anterior portion of the nervous system; the wikipedia article on them says insects and crustaceans have relatively complex brains, and many papers talk about insect brains without any indication it is informal.

    Yet this is not the first response to Peterson I’ve seen that claims lobsters don’t have brains, and you say that is correct. So what do those words actually mean? What is this “anatomical definition of a brain”, as you put it, that lobsters lack?

  13. chrislawson says

    monad@12–

    You prompted me to do more reading and it turns out that some researchers refer to the ventral ganglia of lobsters (and other invertebrates) as brains and other researchers claim quite emphatically that lobsters do not have brains. I think I am going to have to abandon my position that the brain has a well defined comparative anatomical meaning. Interestingly, the research institute that most definitively stated that lobsters have no brain is from Maine University…where the lobster industry is quite important.

    Anyway, as I think we both agree, the existence or absence of lobster brains neither helps nor hinders Peterson’s folly.

  14. KG says

    The appropriate question is not whether lobsters have brains; it’s whether Peterson’s fanbois do.

  15. says

    chrislawson “Interestingly, the research institute that most definitively stated that lobsters have no brain is from Maine University…where the lobster industry is quite important.”

    Now THERE’S a conspiracy theory I could get behind!

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