Is this my shocked face, or my unsurprised by Jordan Peterson face?

Speaking of bad ideas about Darwin, here’s a doozy. And it comes from the king of biased pseudoscience, Jordan Peterson!

It’s amazing, another thing that offends Peterson. He thinks there’s zero probability that Darwin could have been wrong, while if you talk to any real scientist knowledgeable about evolution (like Rutherford), they can readily rattle off a whole raft of things he got wrong. That’s not at all surprising, the Origin is 123 years old, and it set in motion more than a century of work to test and refine and expand his idea.

I need to make a couple of points here…

  • Peterson shares a trait I’ve seen often in creationists: an unshakeable belief in the authority of Charles Darwin. They think Darwin was wrong about everything. Peterson thinks Darwin was right about everything. Those are both bad ideas.
  • There’s a tendency for charlatans to hide behind invocations of unquestionable authority to defend their unjustifiable beliefs. Peterson shares this property with the racists who react to accusations that their science is wrong with “I guess you don’t believe in Darwinism, then”.
  • The article he disagrees with is not written by “some random columnist”. It’s by Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is an extremely reputable neuroscientist and psychologist. I thought Peterson claimed some knowledge of those fields? I guess not.
  • There is no mention of “wokeness” or Marxism in the article. It’s a summary of current perspectives on the expression of emotions, that mentions that a) Darwin got many things wrong, and b) much of the literature incorrectly mistates Darwin’s interpretations.
  • Peterson has just been getting angrier and weirder about everything. He’s going to have another breakdown soon, I suspect.

You might enjoy reading Barrett’s article, “Facial Expressions Do Not Reveal Emotions”. She’s explaining that old beliefs about the universality and specificity of the association of facial expressions with emotions haven’t held up, and that there’s a lot more fluidity in how we express ourselves that is often shaped culturally. This is a great summary:

An increasing number of emotion researchers are taking population thinking more seriously and moving beyond the essentialist ideas of the past. It is time for emotion AI proponents and the companies that make and market these products to cut the hype and acknowledge that facial muscle movements do not map universally to specific emotions. The evidence is clear that the same emotion can accompany different facial movements and that the same facial movements can have different (or no) emotional meaning. Variety, not uniformity, is the rule.

Darwin’s Expression is best viewed as a historical text, not a definitive scientific guide. That leads to a deeper lesson here: Science is not truth by authority. Science is the quantification of doubt by repeated observation in varied contexts. Even the most exceptional scientists can be wrong. Fortunately, mistakes are part of the scientific process. They are opportunities for discovery.

No one should be upset that one of Darwin’s ideas failed the test of time; I’m sure Darwin would have been the first to tell you that.


  1. submoron says

    In one of his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (Growing Up in the Universe) Dawkins told the young people in the audience that they knew things that would have thrilled and delighted Darwin. Or words to that effect. Darwin didn’t have a proper mechanism of heredity and still thought Lamarckian evolution valid.
    BTW, who first pointed out that religious circumcision undermines the inheritance of acquired characteristics?

  2. PaulBC says

    Every thinker of the past was wrong about some things that are now much better understood and taught to any reasonably educated person. At least, I am hard pressed to think of a counterexample. Peterson doesn’t seem to understand how any kind of knowledge progresses (not just biology but everything from physics to social sciences).

  3. says

    Back when I was an undergrad, I read Origin of Species, and it was obvious even to a casual reader that Darwin got many things wrong. While he was proposing natural selection as a mechanism for evolution, he didn’t outright reject alternative mechanisms working in parallel. So there were quite a few Lamarckian explanations mixed in. I recall an explanation of flatfish that described fish straining to move both eyes to one side of their head.

    Lisa Feldman Barrett is great, I’m going to take a look at that article.

  4. hemidactylus says

    Interesting she doesn’t mention Paul Ekman. Years ago I went down a rabbit hole starting with Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. Going on previous quotes I had used Goleman had said: “ Over millions of years of evolution, the brain has grown from the
    bottom up, with its higher centers developing as elaborations of lower,
    more ancient parts. (The growth of the brain in the human embryo roughly
    retraces this evolutionary course.)
    ” and “(Species that have no neocortex, such as reptiles, lack maternal
    affection; when their young hatch, the newborns must hide to avoid being
    Note the biogenetic parallels of the first quote. And alligators are maternal. Plus birds and “reptiles” may have some stuff not far removed from neocortex.

    I recall Goleman vaguely alluding to MacLean’s triune brain idea in other parts and relying on the sketchy limbic system notion that Joe LeDoux has skewered repeatedly. I still thought Goleman had some interesting ideas despite these common shortcomings. Long story short I stumbled into Ekman’s microexpressions concept and started learning more about him. Then I learned about SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) and my impressions of him soured a bit. There’s relevant stuff in the Criticisms section of the Wikipedia article:

    Anyway I’m really into LeDoux who has made a distinction between nonconscious processing in places like the amygdala in rapid responses to threat and the conscious experience of fear. He might have borrowed the exaptation idea from Gould for how emotions experienced by humans came about and is also critical of Darwin’s influence on popular science approaches to emotion. Not quite relevant but he’s heavily critiqued the reptilian brain notion and the existence of a coherent limbic system.

    There was a more recent book by Goleman Social Intelligence I thought had interesting ideas, but I didn’t finish it. He talked a bit about Machiavellianism, but I got sidetracked by actually learning about Machiavelli’s historic milieu in the Renaissance (Medici, Borgias etc). More fascinating. I’ve largely avoided Ekman despite initial interest. The microexpressions concept dovetails a bit with the article you referenced.

  5. hemidactylus says

    Oops I managed to avoid duscussing Lobster Boy. Yep. Woke more and more equals stuff someone hates.

  6. raven says

    Peterson has just been getting angrier and weirder about everything. He’s going to have another breakdown soon, I suspect.

    LOL. How could you tell?
    That ship sailed a long time ago.

    He has always been very weird and routinely is wrong about everything.
    Peterson just strings words together without any care whether they make sense or are correct.

    Peterson: Proof itself, of any sort, is impossible, without an axiom (as Gödel proved[note 13]). Thus faith in God is a prerequisite for all proof.[193]

    That isn’t what Godel proved. Faith in god is not a prerequisite for any proofs about the real world.

    [Answer:] Nazism was an atheist doctrine. So was Marxism.[212]

    Neither is true.
    The Nazis were all Lutherans and Catholics. Marxism is an economic and political theory that has nothing to do with religion.

    Peterson is a crackpot far out on the lunatic fringes.
    His peer group are people like Rush Limpbrain, Ann Coulter, Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, any Fox NoNews presenter, etc..

  7. unclefrogy says


    blockquote>His peer group are people like Rush Limpbrain, Ann Coulter, Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, any Fox NoNews presenter, etc..
    I think his ambition and his ego require him to not just be one among many but to be the one the many come to for knowledge and insight of the truth of existence. another ayatollah in his dreams

  8. hemidactylus says

    Joe LeDoux is well aware of Barrett’s work. After going over Ekman etc’s ideas he says : “The psychologists Lisa Barrett and James Russell have been especially strong critics of basic emotions theory, questioning one of its implicit assumptions—namely, that emotions are “natural kinds,” or biologically prepackaged psychological states…” and a little later: “Although I don’t accept all of Barrett and Russell’s arguments,61 I agree with their overall conclusions that the conscious feelings labeled with basic emotion terms are not prepackaged innate states that are unleashed by external stimuli but instead are cognitively assembled in consciousness.” From Anxious by Joseph LeDoux

    So I’d say Barrett has some familiarity with Ekman’s views.

    I thought I earlier saw an article by Barrett cited on Twitter which approaches Ekman but can’t find it now. There’s this:

    “some random columnist for “Scientific” American”??? JP should apologize. Yeah right.

  9. hemidactylus says

    Oh I found it:

    Someone points out JP’s ignorance and links to:

    I haven’t read it but this Barrett coauthored article Emotional Expressions Reconsidered: Challenges to Inferring Emotion From Human Facial Movements has 60 hits to the keyword “Ekman” so yeah. I plead my own ignorance in my first post. Ekman was very implicitly behind the scenes in the Barrett article PZ quoted.

    Maybe JP is struggling too hard to maintain a essentialist view of human behavior because Jungian archetypes have a strangely attractive allure to him. The PillPods guys were swearing off talking about JP on their podcast and I thought that a great idea, but PZ is making it increasingly difficult to avoid him lately. Ughhh! He provides so much fodder.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the Origin is 123 years old…

    Ahem! 2022 – 1859 = 163. Harrumph!

    The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals dates from 1872, so that’s another tidy 150 years, as when we celebrated the sesquicentennial of Origin of Species 13 years ago.

  11. anelson9494 says

    I discovered Peterson in 2018 and he got me through an extremely rough patch in my life. He was far from perfect, but I considered the glass half full.
    Since then however, there has been a long, slow, sad decline. Fame and shakey mental health can be a nasty combination, and I think he is the absolute poster child for this.
    He always had his unsavory moments, but I think it was his wife’s terminal cancer diagnosis that made him really start to turn. He just got angrier and angrier. EVERYTHING was cultural Marxist propaganda. His wife recovered, but then he fell ill, disappearing from the public eye and nearly dieing several times. I believe it was acknowledged that he suffered brain damage during this time.
    He has very slowly made his way back into the public sphere, but almost as a caricature of before. He just keeps going further down a very strange, angry rabbit hole. He kind of saved me and I’m grateful to him for that, but his trajectory is a train wreck I prefer to look away from.

  12. woozy says

    I’m always astonished about how amazed I am about Peterson. It’s not that he is stupid or offensive but he is just … empty. Nothing he says means… anything. I understand Rush Limbaugh and Coultair and, dare I say, in their way, they are actually smarter than Peterson is.

    I guess…. whereas most people at sometime in their childhoods think “I wonder what the world means” and most of us go on to think about it, talk to others, read about it, etc. whereas when Peterson thought it he thought “I’m thinking about what the world means– This must be the apex of everything I must be the smartest one to ever think about it” and never read, talked to any one, or thought any harder. But his fans must be people who never in their childhoods thought “I wonder what the world means” and find the concept that someone might have is so astonishing he (Peterson) must be the only person who ever has and that’s just amazing.

    He’s beyond stupid. Stupid people are wrong but he’s just empty… and wrong and I continually find my jaw dropping at any news about him.

  13. hemidactylus says

    I have found Ginger Campbell’s Brain Science podcast to be really good. I have listened to her interview with Joe LeDoux as a guest. Alongside Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish I put him high in my pantheon of science writers. I haven’t listened yet to Ginger Campbell’s relevant episode with Lisa Barrett, but will probably start soon. Thanks PZ! If JP hadn’t totally dissed her and resulted in PZ linking her article she might not have been on my radar screen:

    [quote]“In How Emotions are Made, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett challenges a key long-standing assumption about emotions. She argues persuasively that the evidence does not support the idea that emotions are universal and hardwired. She calls this the classical theory because versions of this idea have been around at least since the ancient Greeks, but the idea was also one that Darwin embraced. It is also embedded in several past episodes of this podcast, including the popular interviews with Jaak Panksepp.

    In the Brain Science 135 I spoke with Dr. Barrett to discuss the evidence against the classical view, but more importantly to consider her intriguing new theory, which is called the Theory of Constructed Emotions.

    When I started the Brain Science Podcast back in 2006, emotion was a topic I was eager to discuss, but my own thoughts had been highly influenced by Carl Sagan’s promotion of the Triune Theory of the Brain, which appeared in his book Dragons of Eden. Dr. Barrett joins Dr. Herculano-Houzel (BS 132) in reminding us that this theory must be abandoned if we want to follow the evidence. We did not inherit a reptilian brain or even the circuits of our mammalian cousins. In fact, our emotions are socially learned and language plays an important part in this process.

    Understanding How Emotions Are Made is an essential component of understanding how our brains make us human. I hope you will listen to BS 135 and read Dr. Barrett’s book.” [end quote]

    Wow…just WOW! I’m intrigued.

    Some random columnist? JP is a jackass. Before today I didn’t know who she was.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Brain science was not Sagan’s field of expertise, so I can forgive him for endorsing a popular theory that was floating around.

  15. says

    [Peterson] thinks there’s zero probability that Darwin could have been wrong…

    Dead wrong though it is, that could well be the most intelligent thing Peterson has ever said in public.

  16. imback says

    OK I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Scientific American article Facial Expressions Do Not Reveal Emotions. The article is quite good but I dislike its brash unqualified clickbaity title. Yes, facial expressions do not definitively reveal emotions, but for example from long experience one can often deduce what one’s spouse is feeling just from their face. The point of the article was more qualified than the title. Periodicals have gone to less informative and more clickbaity headlines, surely in competition with online ads and the like, and I hate it. Even old-school staid publications have succumbed to this blight.

  17. petesh says

    Inspired by this, I just wasted 15 minutes scrolling through what’s-his-name’s Twits, and found this gem, aimed at someone else:

    Narcissists always double down
    I am tempted to quote an ancient proverb concerning an omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and his search for the fruit of the oak tree. But that would be wrong, since the traditional saying underestimates the animal’s intelligence, which far surpasses that of what’s-his-name.