Tag: Biology

Jordan Peterson Manipulates Language to Appear Smarter

Ellie McFarland | United States

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson rose to prominence after a video of him defending free speech against the Canadian human rights bill C-16 surfaced online. This bill, among other things, would make it a crime to misgender a trans person. Dr. Peterson’s assertions in the original video were clear and admirable, but further, it was a direct deviation from the current common discourse. He was rocketed into public intellectual stardom after the episode at The University of Toronto; booking speaking event after guest lecture after television appearance. He was, and still very much is, the freshest philosopher in the free marketplace of ideas.

However, with closer examination, it seems his transparency and edge are inconsistent in his current work. Specifically, in the now infamous Cathy Newman interview, Dr. Peterson jumped from hard-hitting clear claims about the nature of political correctness to vague and meaningless facts about lobster dominance hierarchies.

The Bridge Between Lobsters and Humans

Dr. Peterson’s constant metaphors involving lobsters are actually very important to the way he manipulates language. For instance, he might say something about how dominance hierarchies are inherent in human beings and then go on a tirade about shellfish serotonin levels. While both statements are correct, but they don’t inform each other in any relevant way. This is called a non sequitur and means “it does not follow” in Latin. When someone uses a non sequitur, the premises do not logically inform the conclusion, even though all parts of the argument may be correct. Even though it is true that humans naturally fall into hierarchies, and lobsters do have very similar endocrine systems to humans, those facts do nothing to prop each other up, or to prop up his point, which usually amounts the differences between men and women being biological rather than social.

All of these declarations are technically correct according to everything we know about both human and lobster biology. However, neither of them does anything to prove whether or not there are actual differences between men and women beyond the social sphere. There is astounding evidence that he does frequently bring up to prove men and women, our masculine and feminine strengths and weaknesses, are biological. But he very rarely brings them up alongside that specific issue. Instead, he uses them in conversations surrounding crime and antisocial behavior. When these facts, however rarely, are brought up in the context of the conversation they actually belong in, they are cheapened and sandwiched between lobster-talk and dominance hierarchies.

This is actually a spin-off of a well-known debate technique called Gish Galloping, where a debater will try and overwhelm their opponents with as many arguments as possible in the shortest time possible. Dr. Peterson tweaks this idea. Instead of overwhelming his opponent with a lot of arguments all at once, he opens into an explanation of something that has very little to do with his real point in hopes that his opponent won’t bother to address it. The truth is, lobsters have nothing to do masculinity or femininity. But that sort of niche diatribe does impress people even though, critically, it carries no real value.

Redefining the Words We Know

The second way Dr. Peterson manipulates language is through the changing of definitions. The most atrocious example of this definition hopscotch is when he speaks on the topic of religion. He has said consistently that he believes all people are religious because religion is “what you act out.” This is just an unhelpful shifting of meaning. According to this definition, prayer, martyrdom, and communion are all religious acts in the same way driving, making a salad, watching TV, or participating in Punk Rock are religious acts. After all, “you can’t be a disbeliever in your actions”. This is an intentionally blunt definition that detracts from conversational productivity. Sam Harris explained this best when he said,

“People have traditionally believed in ghosts, it’s an archetype you might say– the ghost: survival of death is certainly an archetype. And we know what most people most of the time mean when they say they believe in ghosts. And I say I don’t believe in ghosts, and you say ‘No no, you do believe in ghosts. Ghosts are your relationship to the unseen. That’s a ghost.’ So you have a new definition of ghost that you’re putting in the place provided, to which I have to say of course I have a relationship to the unseen. So yeah I guess I do believe in ghosts. You win that argument. But that simply isn’t what most people mean by a ghost.”

Peterson Manipulates Words for Conclusions

Redefining words is not always such a slimy debate strategy. In many instances, it can be very helpful in coming to a conclusion about rather nebulous words such as “good”, “evil”, or even “god” in order to further some sort of discourse and continue the conversation. Dr. Peterson’s redefinition of religion, though, is all-encompassing by design. This basically boils down to an equivocation fallacy. Dr. Peterson’s definition of religion is clearly not the same as the average religious person’s definition. Therefore, it’s meaningless within any conversation about its impact.

This is not to say that Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is not intelligent, that he doesn’t have anything important to say, or that his philosophies outlined in 12 Rules for Life are immoral or fundamentally wrong. This is to say that not all of his proclamations are valid and we shouldn’t ignore his metaphorical talk-arounds of legitimate criticism. It is fine, even good, to admire Jordan Peterson. It is intellectually dishonest, however, to pretend he is flawless or doesn’t use manipulative language. In doing so, he makes himself seem more intelligent and convinces good-hearted people of positions with little merit.


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Epigenetics: Where Biology and Culture Meet

By Craig Axford | United States | @CraigAxford

Sperm meets egg and your genetic destiny is sealed. For most people it’s just that simple. But genetics are anything but simple. While certainly a necessary event in our individual creation story, our parents getting together for a proverbial roll in the hay is hardly the only act in our life’s genetic drama. Life continues to mold the way our DNA expresses itself in ways we have only begun to fathom long after our parents did their part to bring us into the world.

Genes don’t exist in a vacuum. Given the right circumstances they can turn on or off. This capacity to respond quickly to environmental stress can have significant consequences for generations to come.

While it’s often thought that mutations are where all the action is, the interaction between our genes and the larger world is going on in real time beneath the radar, frequently with health consequences that can be as severe as cancer even if they are less perceptible to those suffering from them. Of course, this capacity for genes to express themselves or not in response to cues from the environment can also have positive impacts on our well-being. This phenomenon, known as epigenetics, is now well documented.

. . .

Epigentics has to do with gene expression, as opposed to gene alteration. Much of our DNA spends its time silently replicating without actually doing anything remarkable, or even much of anything at all. It’s somewhat analogous to a program that’s been downloaded onto a laptop that the owner has forgotten about. It’s only when someone asks “what’s this?” and double clicks on the icon that we discover what the software does and whether its activation comes with any compatibility issues that might cause us to regret our curiosity later.

Sadly, the event that turns on a formerly silent portion of the genetic code, or turns off a formerly active one, is often a traumatic one of some sort. Indeed, it was a famine that gave epigenetics its first real moment in the scientific spotlight.

During the winter of 1945, the Nazis cut off food supplies to the Dutch to punish them for a railway strike by Dutch workers that had been launched with the intent of interrupting the flow of reinforcements and supplies to the front. By the time the war ended in May of that same year approximately 20,000 people had starved to death in the Netherlands as a result.

In 2013, while reviewing the medical records of 408,015 Dutch males born between 1944 and 1947 and subsequently examined for possible military service at the age of 18, a team of researchers from Columbia University found that men whose mothers had been pregnant with them during the famine of early 1945 were far more likely to suffer a variety of health problems later as adults. As a result, these men experienced a far higher mortality rate than those conceived and born either before the famine or afterwards.

The epidemiologists at Columbia University were only the latest to document significantly greater occurrences of health issues among those in utero during the months known as the Dutch Hunger Winter. Prenatal exposure to malnutrition during that period had already been linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease to name just a few. Overall, if your mother was pregnant with you in the Netherlands during the winter of 1945, your mortality rate was 10% greater after the age of 68 than those born prior to or conceived following those horrible months.

. . .

Saying that a gene ‘decides’ when it is transcribed is like saying that a recipe decides when a cake is baked.
Thus transcription factors regulate genes. What regulates transcription factors? The answer devastates the concept of genetic determinism: the environment…genes don’t make sense outside the context of environment. Promoters and [DNA] transcription factor introduce if/then clauses: ‘If you smell your baby, then activate the oxytocin gene.’ ~ Robert M. Sapolsky

While studying anthropology at university, an elephant was often present in the classroom. Sometimes it was gingerly acknowledged. Other times it was simply ignored or dismissed as self-evidently false with an off hand remark. That elephant was genetic determinism.

Determinism is, in my experience, a label that critics like to attach to other ideas they want to undermine more than it is a doctrine people typically claim to strictly adhere to. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a true absolute determinist. That said, there seemed to be a reasonable amount of tolerance for certain varieties of determinism within many of the same academic circles often hurling the charge in the direction of the physical sciences.

For example, culturally determined (or constructed) things were considered less toxic to concepts like free will or humanity’s supposed elite status than genetically or environmentally determined aspects of our existence. The reason cultural determinism is more likely to get a pass has little to do with the evidence and a great deal to do with human psychology. It’s much more comforting to believe that humans serve as the fundamental unit of change than it is having genes or random forces of nature play this role to an equal or greater degree.

The field of anthropology long ago split itself into physical and cultural branches, in part, I think, to accommodate those uncomfortable with the demotion humanity had been dealt by evolution. This bifurcation never felt quite right to me. It seemed that once again humans were removing themselves from nature by treating culture as an entirely separate force acting independently rather than a product of natural forces, with all the connections and limitations that entails. That any major environmental change, whether it was one we intentionally initiated or one thrust upon us, would have physical and psychological impacts upon both the individuals and groups experiencing them seems obvious. The only question is how these impacts will manifest themselves at the personal level and what the consequences will be if these effects are scaled up to involve large populations.

. . .

Epigenetics is quickly erasing much of what’s left of the artificial line many in fields like cultural anthropology would prefer to keep between humanity and the physical environment they inhabit. Scientists are now finding it’s not just sudden traumatic shifts in a person’s environment like a war induced famine that shape gene expression, typically for generations to come. Day to day culture itself influences gene expression, creating self reinforcing feedback loops between the genes being switched on or off and the behaviors influencing their expression.

In a study just published in the journal eLife, researchers report that as much as one quarter of gene expression is likely the result of cultural differences between populations rather than their genetic ancestry. The researchers were examining two diverse populations of Latino children, one in Puerto Rico and the other in Mexico.

That 25% of the gene expression in these two populations might “reflect a biological stamp made by the different experiences, practices, and environmental exposures of the two subgroups” has profound implications for how we view both our culture and our biology. As Noah Zaitlen, one of the co-authors of the study put it, “These data suggest that the interplay between race and ethnicity as social constructs and genetic ancestry as a biological construct is more complex than we had realized.”

. . .

Culture is a broad term that touches upon virtually every aspect of human activity. Simply sitting on the couch eating a bag of potato chips technically qualifies as a cultural activity given both the couch and the chips, to say nothing of the eater, are products of a particular cultural milieu. Most of the time we are swimming through culture the way fish swim through water: without either much awareness or effort.

But if our culture is both shaping and being shaped by our environment, providing feedback that influences gene expression as it does so, then we owe it to ourselves and to the future generations whose genetic story we are continuously writing and rewriting to take a more deliberate stance. Public policy, diet, and even time spent in front of the screen could very well be triggering changes both subtle and profound that we are not even aware of. Many of these changes may be positive, while others will be only temporary. Regardless, that a more reflective intentional approach to culture would likely have a net positive effect from our genome to whole ecosystems appears increasingly difficult to seriously dispute.

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

Other recent stories by Craig Axford: Are You Getting Enough Awe in Your Experiential Diet? & Objectivity vs. Subjectivity: An Incongruity That Isn’t Really

Read Craig on Medium.com