Wednesday, January 31, 2018

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos: The Eternally Feminine. Part Two Of My Book Review

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Playing Hide-And-Seek With Women And the Feminine

Remember how angry the Channel 4 interviewer, Cathy Newman, appeared to be while interviewing Jordan Peterson on this book?  How her questions were almost all about the gender gap in earnings, the scarcity of women on the top rungs of business hierarchies and so on?

I had read ten chapters of the book before I came across what made Newman so angry.  It was the eleventh chapter, supposedly about not bothering children (read: boys) when they are skateboarding, but in reality about the horrors of any attempts to achieve gender-equality.  Because most of the explicit evidence on how Peterson views women and men is packed into that one chapter, my discussion here will also divide into two parts:

This post is mostly about the pervasive atmosphere of the whole book, about the sometimes subtle and often not at all subtle erasures of women's ideas and women themselves from the book, and about the way Peterson assigns sex or gender to abstract concepts.  The next post is explicitly about the material in Chapter 11 of the book.

Let us begin then, you and I.  That is a misquote from T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Peterson quotes Eliot fairly extensively, but he doesn't quote, say,  Emily Dickinson.

Not that it matters.  Perhaps Dickinson never wrote a poem that supported Peterson's beliefs.  But surely Hannah Arendt, on the origins of totalitarianism, should have been invited to Peterson's discussion about Hitler and Stalin and Mao, as one of the acknowledged experts in the field of totalitarianism?

Granted, the published field of science severely tilts toward men.  But even given that tilt, I think Peterson includes fewer female thinkers than would come about by pure chance.  Not even Ayn Rand is worth spending a sentence or two on.

Thus, in one sense women are invisible  from the very beginning of the book.  Yet Peterson treats the ideas he picks and the interpretations he gives to history as a gender-neutral endeavor.

Peterson begins the book by telling us much about the hierarchies among lobsters and the way lobsters compete for the best living spaces.  Both female and male lobsters compete, but Peterson later spends extra time explaining the great benefits for the top male lobster from such competition:  He gets any amount of nookie he wants!

In an almost-aside, he tells us that the first female lobster presenting herself for sex with the top lobster guy is actually also the winner of some kind of sexual competition, but we aren't told more about how that gender hierarchy came about.  Rather, we are told that the second-ranking female lobster will offer herself next to the top guy lobster and so on.

The above example is a trivial one, but worth pointing out, because similar slight changes in emphasis happen a lot in the book.  Another example is his retelling of the myth of Osiris which utterly removes Isis, the goddess, from the myth.

Thus, the "feminine" or "female" is erased from some aspects of the book while it is stressed in the equation of chaos with "the eternal feminine".  Chaos is frightening, something that needs control, something that appears to both lie outside the individual and also threatens the individual from inside.  No wonder that women would be less likely to find Peterson's approach useful.

Named women (and goddesses) are scarce in Peterson's book, though Tiamat is mentioned as the goddess of chaos and as the Terrible Mother,  and virgin Mary as the perfected Eve.

The Biblical Eve is, indeed, the one named (mythical) woman who gets a lot coverage in the book.  Peterson gives us the Genesis message about the doom of Adam and Eve, how they (us) had to leave the Paradise, how Adam (all men) had to now work and toil hard, and how Eve (all women) had to now give birth with great pain and be subjugated to Adam.  And then Peterson interprets it, without saying a single word about the subjugation part.

But he does discuss Eve, the snake (4) and the apple, and this is one of the parts of the book I found hilarious.  Peterson tries to answer the question why it was Eve who listened to the snake (Satan) and not Adam.  He discards the possibility that Eve was chosen by some random lottery, that it could equally well have been Adam who listened to the snake.  Instead, this is Peterson's explanation:

Perhaps primordial Eve had more reasons to attend to serpents than Adam.  Maybe they were more likely, for example, to prey on her tree-dwelling infants.  Perhaps it is for this reason that Eve's daughters are more protective, self-conscious, fearful and nervous, to this day (even, and especially, in the most egalitarian of modern human societies).

Tree-dwelling infants in Paradise!  I love it.  I also love him momentarily forgetting that it's a myth, a Biblical story he analyzes there, not an actual explanation for some inherited gene that goes down only in the female line (5).

But the main reason I found all this hilarious is that there's a much more convincing reason for Eve being picked as the one who took the apple from the snake:

This is one of the creation stories which "explains" to us why women, as a class, have fewer rights than men, as a class, and why women are to be subjugated.  It's how-the-leopard-got-its-spots type of story, and its function has always been to justify women's lower standing and even the pains of giving birth.  Occam's razor supports this particular explanation over the one Peterson offered.

As I stated before, the themes of chaos as feminine and order as masculine are integral to Peterson's thinking:

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the aforementioned yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol).  This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match.  It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, the stonemasons, bricklayers and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.  Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments.


Chaos — the unknown — is symbolically associated with the feminine.  This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers.  Chaos is mater, origin, source, mother; materia, the substance from which all things are made.


In its positive guise, chaos is the possibility itself, the source of ideas, the mysterious realm of gestation and birth.  As a negative force, it's the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road.  It's the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces.

Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection.  Women are choosy maters (unlike female chimps, their closest animal counterparts).  Most men do not meet female human standards.
Fascinating arguments.  What happens if I see chaos as masculine and order as feminine?  Is Peterson correct or am I correct?  Or is assigning gender to abstract concepts really that useful, unless one wishes to make some other point?

Peterson does make such a point when he talks about female choice in sexual selection (6):

It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, "No!"  For the men that's a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date.

And that, my friends, is the link between Peterson's abstract thoughts (about how to gender order and chaos) and the interests of many of his acolytes who want simple advice about their lives, including how to find someone to love.

But to turn real, breathing human women into some abstract principle, such as chaos, is never going to help them in that endeavor. It would have been much better if Peterson had written more about love, bonding, women-as-human-beings and that it's not actually true that men are order and women chaos.

As an aside, Peterson regards chimpanzees as our closest primate relatives and a good behavioral match.  But, in fact,  bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) share the same percentage of their DNA with us as chimpanzees do.  If that's the basis for finding a good behavioral match for humans among primates, why not consider the bonobos? 

They are different from chimpanzees.   One site tells us that while chimpanzees are male-dominant, bonobos are female-dominant, and while chimpanzees tend not to engage in sexual activity that is not reproduction-related, with high-ranking males attempting to monopolize the females in heat, bonobos tend to engage in a lot of non-reproductive sexual activity, including homosexual interactions.

That Peterson chose chimpanzees as the best mirror for humans is pretty common among certain types of evolutionary psychologists.  Thus, it comes as no great surprise that where biological sex is highlighted in the first ten chapters of the book it is in the context of evolutionary psychology.

Peterson sees evolutionary psychology as the final answer that explains what percentage of average behavioral, character and cognitive differences between men and women have a biological origin.

Never mind that evolutionary psychology does not have any genetic proof for its arguments, but is much more speculative in nature,  and never mind that  the more current understanding of the interaction between environment and genes is much more complicated than the sources Peterson links to.  Finally, never mind that Peterson ignores the studies which do not support his preferred answers (7).

One example of his approach might serve as an illustration: He suggests to us that the ancient preference for sons over daughters, the preference that is still prevalent in many Asian countries and perhaps elsewhere, has its origins in a simple (and simplistic) theory from evolutionary psychology:

There are plausible psycho-biological reasons for such an attitude, and they are not pretty, from a modern, egalitarian perspective.  If circumstances force you to put all your eggs into one basket, so to speak, a son is a better bet, by the strict standards of evolutionary logic, where the proliferation of your genes is all that matters.  Why?

In fact, there are pretty strong proximal reasons for preferring sons over daughters in cultures  a) where daughters will leave home because of patrilocal marriages and their labor will therefore benefit a different family, b) where daughters will not be providing for their parents in old age but for the parents of their husbands, and  c) where daughters will have to be provided with a dowry when they do leave home.

Peterson continues:

Well, a reproductively successful daughter might gain you eight or nine children.
But the sky is truly the limit with a reproductively successful son.  Sex with multiple partners is his ticket to exponential reproduction.
The forefather of the Qing dynasty, Giocangga (circa 1550), for example, is the male-line ancestor of a million and a half people in northeastern China.  The medieval Uí Néill dynasty produced up to three million male descendants, localized mainly in the northwestern Ireland and the US, through Irish emigration.  And the king of them all, Genghis Khan, conqueror of much of Asia, is forefather of 8 percent of the men in Central Asia — sixteen million male descendants, 34 generations later.  So, from a deep, biological perspective there are reasons why parents might favour sons sufficiently to eliminate female fetuses, although I am not claiming direct causality, nor suggesting a lack of other, culturally-dependent reasons.

The evolutionary psychology theory Peterson uses here is an old (and perhaps an outdated) one, and can be summarized as "sperm is cheap and plentiful, ova are expensive and few."  Because sperm is both cheap and plentiful, and because the male body is not used (after the ejaculation) in the reproductive labor, whereas the female body is, the optimal mating choices should differ between women and men.

Men should (8) aim for a great quantity of partners, women for the highest available quality of one or few partners, preferably ones with a lot of resources.

I have criticized that simplistic theory in the past, largely, because it ignores two important real-world phenomena, for such a behavior to be an adaptation:

First, we are not told how ancestral men were able to find so many different sexual partners if they lived in small, kin-based nomadic groups during some decisive Era of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), and if they were able to find them, why others (men or older women, say) in the kin group didn't constrain their access to ancestral women or girls.  Neither are we really told if the ancestral women had any say about sex during the EEA.

Second, the theory equates ejaculation with first the fertilization of the egg, then with the safe delivery of a live child, and ultimately with the production of adult, sexually mature offspring in the next generation.

It ignores how very difficult it could have been, in the assumed EEA, inside a small kin-based nomadic group,  for all those multiple, now-pregnant, partners of one single man to carry out a pregnancy on their own, to give birth on their own, and to feed, protect and educate the resulting child on their own.

Thus,  the best reproductive strategy for even men might not have been to scatter their seed as widely as possible while ignoring the quality of the ground those seed fell on and while refusing to do any watering or tending of the resulting crop.

What about the examples of men Peterson mentions?  Men who indeed appear to have enjoyed tremendous "reproductive success"?  Isn't that proof of his initial argument about the best reproductive strategy for men?

 Giocangga, king Niall (the founder of the Uí Néill dynasty) and Genghis Khan were not the generic men of their times.  Indeed, they were extremely powerful men and that power could be used to amass any amount of riches and women.  It could also be used to kill anyone the powerful warlords wanted dead.

I doubt that the women and girls in, say, Genghis Khan's harems were asked if they would like to be there, and I doubt that good things would have happened to them or their families if they or their families had refused him.  On the other hand, the families of those women and girls may well have monetarily benefited from handing them over.

Besides, the harems of the powerful men were often filled with women who were slaves or captured in wars and who had no say about their fate.

Thus, it's unlikely that the female sex partners of those men were exercising the kind of sexual choice Peterson attributes to ancestral women.  

But it's also true that those men were very unusual in actually having the resources to feed and clothe hundreds of children. That is almost never the case.  Most men don't have limitless power, resources and the ability to ignore female refusals, but these men probably did (9).

So why does Peterson use this example in his advice book clearly aimed at men?  Your guess is probably as good as mine.   But I do have a few guesses:

Peterson might want to suggest (along the lines Roy Baumeister took earlier) that men have been exposed to more selection pressure in evolution than women.  If only the most competent men left progeny while almost all women did, well, perhaps men, on average, are now just more likely to be competent, more justified in holding on to the top rungs of all kinds of hierarchies?  And don't blame us, ladies.  It was your sexual choices that got us here!

The above "theory" would naturally require that inherited "competence" cannot be passed down from father to daughter and that inherited "incompetence" cannot be passed down from mother to son.  This is very unlikely. Neither does it explain why various distributions relating to cognitive skills today do not show the drastic sex differences it predicts.

More generally, Peterson's central message is reinforced by the examples he selects.  That message is that it's not patriarchy which holds women down, but nature, and attempts to correct nature, that Terrible Mother,  has resulted in the mistreatment of men.  How that works is Peterson's topic in Chapter 11 of his book and my topic in the next post. 


(4) He refers to snakes a lot.  A lot.   And that makes me feel weird, because he ignores all the positive mythical interpretations of snakedom.

(5) The studies Peterson links to  when trying to justify the last sentence of that quote (in the parentheses) about women being more protective, self-conscious, fearful and nervous especially in the most egalitarian of modern human societies are interesting.  The one he links to in this context argues:

Secondary analyses of Revised NEO Personality Inventory data from 26 cultures (N = 23,031) suggest that gender differences are small relative to individual variation within genders; differences are replicated across cultures for both college-age and adult samples, and differences are broadly consistent with gender stereotypes: Women reported themselves to be higher in Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Warmth, and Openness to Feelings, whereas men were higher in Assertiveness and Openness to Ideas. Contrary to predictions from evolutionary theory, the magnitude of gender differences varied across cultures. Contrary to predictions from the social role model, gender differences were most pronounced in European and American cultures in which traditional sex roles are minimized. Possible explanations for this surprising finding are discussed, including the attribution of masculine and feminine behaviors to roles rather than traits in traditional cultures.
He also links to another study which found sex differences in self-reported personality traits to be larger in prosperous and gender-egalitarian countries, and uses both of these studies repeatedly in the book to argue that such differences must therefore be innate:

Strikingly, these differences, strongly influenced by biological factors, are most pronounced in Scandinavian societies where gender-equality has been pushed hardest:  this is the opposite of what would be expected by those who insist, ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct.  It isn't.  This isn't debate.  The data are in. 

Given that strong claim (in Chapter 11 of the book), it is of interest to note that David P. Schmitt,  one of the researchers of the very study Peterson uses as his proof of the importance of biological factors, refuses to go along with that simple interpretation.

Schmitt, in an interview about the famous Damore debacle, stated this:

"We should rely on rigorous evidence for making claims in this area. And I believe there is good evidence of both sexism (including sex stereotypes) and real psychological sex differences (some of which may be evolved) to be causes of the gender gaps across occupations," he said.

"Both can be true, and we need much better evidence to know what percentage of the gender gap is caused by each. To make matters worse, it's likely that psychological sex differences and sex stereotypes are interrelated, feeding off of one another in complex ways over historical time, and over developmental time as children grow up. There are no simple answers here."

See also Wood and Eagly (2012), especially pp. 93-100, on overall evidence on the reduction in sex differences (of various types) over time within a country,  and also on the question why some studies show greater sex similarity in more gender-egalitarian and prosperous countries and some (such as the ones Peterson uses) show greater sex difference.

Wood and Eagly note that the evolutionary psychology explanation of the latter (that such differences are largely innate and only freely blossom in less oppressive countries) does not explain why other differences (such as mate selection preferences), also assumed to be innate in evolutionary psychology, nevertheless diminish with greater gender-equality.  Wood and Eagly offer several alternative explanations for the finding Peterson regards as final and decisive.

I would add the effect of the media in more prosperous countries, where movies, music, books, magazines, newspapers and now the social media are likely to have an effect in creating a framework which people use as one frame of reference for self-assessment of their personality traits.  Many of the messages we hear are not exactly feminist, perhaps partly, because the culture changes more slowly.

(6)  The preamble to this quote argues that we have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors.  This finding is supposed to tell us that human females have always been extremely choosy about whom to mate with, so that some men (only the better ones) had many female partners while other men had none. 

This conclusion about women's choosiness is based on the unstated assumption that it's human females, and only human females, who have always decided whom to mate with.

Human males are assumed to exhibit zero choosiness about sexual mates.  That is patently untrue.  Likewise, this assumption ignores the prevalence of marriages arranged by the parents of young men and women over many centuries of recorded history, and it also ignores the possibility of forced mating, not based on any kind of female choice.

Finally, it's worth noting that the initial study Peterson uses to argue that we have twice as many female as male ancestors could be interpreted quite differently. See my 2013 blog post about it.

(7)  His choice of the studies to link to is not neutral, based on my checking on many of his references.  He often links to a study that agrees with his beliefs, usually one based on evolutionary psychology as the explanatory framework, but he fails to link to any refutations of criticisms of that study.  One example is that he links to a meta-analysis which argues that female mate preferences vary with the ovulationary cycle, but he does not link to the study which does not support those conclusions, or to any of the debate which then followed.

This selective use of academic evidence is a real problem for someone trying to review the book, because Peterson argues, for example, that research is quite clear on the evolutionary foundations of sex differences in behavior, mate preference and personality when that, in fact, is not the case.

To review not only the book but all the references it uses, too,  is, however, an impossible task, and would result in a longer book than the 12 Rules for Life.

I cannot do that, given the time constraints (life is brute and short!), but instead urge strong caution in interpreting the scientific basis for his arguments as proof of the generalizations he makes, given the omissions and selective choices I have spotted.

(8)  It's worth noting that evolutionary psychology does not assume that people consciously make such choices.  For more on how evolutionary psychology views human mating behavior, see this Wikipedia article, especially the part on sexual desire.

(9) There's a further twist to these examples, in terms of their probable instability:

 Remember that birth rates of the two biological sexes are roughly equal at birth, which means that there will be roughly equal numbers of fertile-age women and men in any particular society, barring something that kills off disproportionate numbers of one sex. 

If a few powerful warlords monopolized large numbers of women, it must follow that either the society was then left with an equally large number of (heterosexual) men without any partners (or only a fraction of a partner, perhaps in some type of polyandry) or the warlords had to wage adequate wars to kill off the surplus men.   None of these alternatives looks like a good candidate for long-run social stability.


The first post in this series can be found here, and the third post here.