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Jordan Peterson talks hierarchies at the Mahaffey




Dr. Jordan Peterson, author of "12 Rules for Life."

Psychology professor, clinical psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Jordan Peterson addressed a large audience at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg Saturday night. Peterson informed and entertained the audience with stories from the natural world, and an explanation of a statistical theory to defend the hierarchical structure of American society.

“Hierarchies cannot be laid at the feet of the West,” Peterson said. Such was the fundamental message of his Mahaffey talk, one of many stops on his tour promoting his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Hierarchies can, however, be laid at the feet of the natural world, according to Peterson. He explained the hierarchical nature of human societies by describing the hierarchies in other animal species.

“Songbirds have hierarchy,” Peterson said, then went on to explain how male bowerbirds try to build the most eye-catching nest possible in order to attract female birds with which to mate. If rejected by female birds, the male bowerbird then destroys his nest.

“There’s competition for scarce resources,” said Peterson, among humans and among many other animal species. Peterson also made analogies to pufferfish and chimpanzees to explain hierarchy through a scientific lens, rather than blaming hierarchy on patriarchy, capitalism or the Western world.

Toward the middle of his talk, Peterson explained the Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule), according to which 80 percent of consequences come from 20 percent of the causes. This principle “applie[s] to all sorts of things,” Peterson said.

For example, “A very few countries have almost all of the storks,” he said. “A very small proportion of stars in the galaxy have almost all the mass.”

Peterson also applied the principle to creative production, saying, “Virtually everyone has nothing, and some people have everything.” Pablo Picasso produced 65,000 paintings in his life, amounting to three paintings a day for 60 years. Peterson used these examples to show that a Pareto distribution of wealth is not unique to economics, since very similar distributions are seen in many other realms.

Among the top-ranking members of a hierarchy, Peterson said that “hierarchical position actually depends on things other than the expression of power.” It depends on reciprocity, which helps those at the top of a hierarchy maintain their status more than tyranny. “If you’re too tyrannical … then you die,” Peterson said, true among both chimps and – more subtly – humans.

Peterson concluded the prepared portion of his talk with mentions of biological differences between men and women, drawing laughter from the crowd. “There are a lot of differences between men and women that can’t be attributed to sociocultural conditioning,” he said, underscoring his resistance to the blank-slate theories espoused by others in his profession.

“Women aren’t as tall as men, on average,” he began. “Women are not as strong in the upper body as men. … Men can bite harder.”

Peterson read at length from a recently-published article in the London Times in which fellow psychologists found that in countries with greater gender equality, men and women diverge from each other more along the lines of certain psychological traits. “When you get rid of the cultural differences,” he said, “the biological differences maximize.” Peterson used biological differences to explain why fewer women go into the STEM fields in countries with the greatest gender equality.

Generally speaking, Peterson said, “Men are interested in things, women are interested in people.” Peterson went on to note that in general, women are slightly more extroverted and polite, while men tend to be more aggressive, competitive and blunt.

Although he did not mention the concept  Saturday, Peterson speaks emphatically about the importance of personal responsibility in his book and elsewhere. In a one-on-one interview backstage after his talk, Peterson, a vocal opponent of identity politics, said, “Your best strategy is to take responsibility for things. But that doesn’t mean it will always work. .. .As a rule of thumb, [personal responsibility] is a good one.”

  • Dr. Jordan Peterson onstage at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday night.

  • Dave Rubin opens for Peterson.

  • Peterson onstage.

  • Dr. Jordan Peterson, author of "12 Rules for Life."

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