Stepping up to the mike Jordan Peterson surveys the crowd, breathes in, and tells them that there is “an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings.” This calculator is shared by all life, from the lobster to the human, according to Peterson, and it tells you where you “stand” in society and reveals a lot about human males and females. [i] “Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back” In other words, trust your deep biology because it will guide you to do what is natural. Peterson, as usual, is wrong.
Which brings us to the lobster. Peterson loves to use this sturdy crustacean as his example of how biology tells us who we are. Now, when Peterson talks about lobsters, he is actually referring to the animals called clawed or “true” lobsters (family Nephropidae or Homaridae). As any good biologist knows, there are also spiny lobsters, slippery lobsters, squat lobsters and a number of other critters called lobsters. Those “other” lobsters live somewhat different kinds of lives from the clawed lobsters. Variation Peterson ignores. One should not ignore biological variation, it is the spice of life and the substance of evolution.[ii]
Those “other” lobsters live somewhat different kinds of lives from the clawed lobsters. Variation Peterson ignores. One should not ignore biological variation, it is the spice of life and the substance of evolution.
As for the clawed lobsters, they come in about 28 different species distributed around the world. Clawed lobsters generally have strict dominance hierarchies and don’t interact much with other clawed lobsters outside of having sex and competing for food. Not an overly exciting, or complicated, life. This pattern of behavior is tied to the biology, evolutionary history and ecology of clawed lobsters. Clawed lobsters don’t have much of a range of possibilities for “being” a lobster. They have a pretty tight window for form and function. Basically, each lobster achieves an adult form, very similar to all other clawed lobsters in their species, pretty early on and just keeps growing as long as it lives. All clawed lobsters do mostly the same thing with bodies that are very similar. If they get very lucky and are not eaten at some point, they can live up to about 50 years and have lots of offspring. This is what lobsters do. It is not what humans do.
All clawed lobsters do mostly the same thing with bodies that are very similar. If they get very lucky and are not eaten at some point, they can live up to about 50 years and have lots of offspring. This is what lobsters do. It is not what humans do.
Human do not have a super rigid body structure or grow in the same manner, do not have the same sensory, nervous or digestive systems, and do not live in an environmental setting anything like that of clawed lobsters. Humans have much more complex and diverse neurobiological and sensory systems, live on land, display much more variation in bodies and behavior capacities, and have exponentially more complex social systems, technologies and cultures. No offense to lobsters, but humans are much more varied, dynamic, and interesting (at least to me, but probably not to lobsters).
Jordan Peterson thinks that because lobsters have sex to reproduce, and live in a certain way he appears to admire (strict dominance hierarchies), he can extrapolate lobster “nature” to human “nature” (because humans also have sex to reproduce). The error here is that Peterson is taking a basic biological pattern (sex to reproduce) and assuming that because two very different kinds of organisms both share this core biological process they can be seen as sharing a “nature.” One core way of being in the world. That is not the way biology and evolution work. Despite sharing some basic biological processes and some DNA in common (as we do with most living things), we cannot look to lobsters to understand what is “natural” for humans. Simply put, each organism’s biology is the product of long histories of evolution, usually in very different places, contexts, ecologies, etc.
No offense to lobsters, but humans are much more varied, dynamic, and interesting (at least to me, but probably not to lobsters).
Biology is also shaped by the life of the individual via all the ongoing variations in processes and patterns of genetics, epigenetics, development, physiology, etc. You cannot compare entirely different kinds of organisms (humans and lobsters, tuna and wildebeest, eagles and sharks) and expect it to reveal a true nature underlying all of life. For example, things that have wings and fly share some key constraints, like gravity and aerodynamic restrictions on wings, due to the issues of flight. So, of course there are some very specific “natural” patterns in common. But when you actually compare the details of their lives a bat, a moth and a condor are really, really different in how they live and act in the world. To use the basic biology of reproducing sexually as a way of identifying “true nature” is just wrong. Lobsters, humans, mole rats, blue whales, vultures, monarch butterflies and anacondas all have sex, but they most certainly have very different ways of being in the world.
You cannot compare entirely different kinds of organisms (humans and lobsters, tuna and wildebeest, eagles and sharks) and expect it to reveal a true nature underlying all of life.
The biology of any given organism is a dynamic process of multiple interacting factors (genes, epigenetics, cells, tissues, organs) all in constant interaction with their environment and with other organisms. This biological diversity and complexity reject the assumptions that there is one “way” for all organisms to be. Each linage is shaped by different evolutionary histories and processes, sometimes these produce very limited ranges of “how” to be (like in lobsters) and other times very broad and dynamic ranges of “how” to be (like in humans). Biology is not static nor is it the only part of an organism that matters “for real.” Any organism’s “nature” is a dynamic set of biologies, behaviors and environmental processes all part of its evolutionary history and present. Evolution, as it turns out, is really complicated.
Any organism’s “nature” is a dynamic set of biologies, behaviors and environmental processes all part of its evolutionary history and present. Evolution, as it turns out, is really complicated.
[i] Peterson, J. (2018) 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Random House, Canada.
[ii] For example, many kinds of lobsters apparently have some really cool communication systems using their antennae, shells and water acoustics. See Takeru Nakamachi, Akira Asakura, Noritaka Hirohashi, Chapter 4 – Acoustic/vibration behaviors in crustaceans, Editor(s): Cheryl S. Rosenfeld, Frauke Hoffmann, Neuroendocrine Regulation of Animal Vocalization, Academic Press, 2021, Pages 39-54,ISBN 9780128151600.
Trained in Zoology and Anthropology, is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. His research delves into the how and why of being human. He is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger, lecturer, tweeter and a writer and explorer for National Geographic. His current projects include exploring cooperation, creativity, and belief in human evolution, multispecies anthropologies, evolutionary theory and processes, and engaging race and racism.