Jordan Peterson is a celebrity intellectual who tends to sow division wherever and whenever he shows up. I don’t know whether he likes it that way, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have substantially harmed his celebrity status. He has outspoken views on many of the subjects that tend to divide us, so I suppose one would have to accept his notoriety as an occupational hazard and leave it at that. But there is one source of his notoriety that tends to crop up more often than not and so it is perhaps worth spending a little of our time to delve a tad deeper. Yes folks, I want to talk about lobsters.

It all started when Peterson wrote a book aimed at encouraging young males to take more personal responsibility, and he chose to draw parallels between lobster neurochemistry and that of mankind. Specifically, he pointed out the role that serotonin plays in helping lobsters establish hierarchy within groups. The point he wanted to make was that, despite our evolutionary remoteness from the lobster, the same neurotransmitter could be found in the human brain performing a similar role. This observation led to a great deal of mockery, somewhat akin to that encountered in early debates between Darwinians and theologians, in which the latter tried to put the scientists on the back foot using the descended-from-ape straw man. His lobster thesis seemed an easy target for ridicule, and so ridicule is what it has received. Surely, Peterson was being simplistic at best and ill-informed at worst. You can’t base a strategy for personal improvement upon an understanding of lobster psychology.

Peterson sticks by his remarks but so does the army of critics who cite his lobster references as clear ‘proof’ that he is a pseudo-intellectual who appeals only to your average, cognitively challenged, right-wing conspiracy theorist. Neuroscientists, many of whom I suspect just don’t like what Peterson stands for, have been queuing up to attack Peterson’s be-more-lobster entreaty, on the basis that he is plain wrong about the lobster and that you just can’t draw any parallels with the much more complex neurochemistry of the human brain. But are they being entirely fair in their criticism?

The sort of attention Peterson has attracted can be found in an article published on The Conversation website by Dr Leonor Gonçalves, Research Associate in Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology, UCL. The article emphasises the vast difference in complexity existing between lobster and human neurobiology before pointing out what seems to be a glaring hole in Peterson’s argument:

While lower levels of serotonin are associated with decreased levels of aggression in vertebrates like the lobster, the opposite is true in humans. This happens because low levels of serotonin in the brain make communication between the amygdala and the frontal lobes weaker, making it more difficult to control emotional responses to anger. So not only does it seem unlikely that low levels of serotonin would make humans settle in at the bottom of a hierarchy, it goes to show that lobsters and humans are just not a great comparison.

This seems quite damning. However, Dr Gonçalves misses out an all-important word when referring to levels of aggression in humans – and that word is ‘impulsive’. The real picture is provided for you by Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, in his book ‘Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst’:

Starting with a 1979 study, low levels of serotonin in the brain were shown to be associated with elevated levels of human aggression, with end points ranging from psychological measures of hostility to overt violence. A similar serotonin/aggression relationship was observed in other mammals and, remarkably, even crickets, molluscs, and crustaceans. As work continued, an important qualifier emerged. Low serotonin [in humans] didn’t predict premeditated, instrumental violence. It predicted impulsive aggression, as well as cognitive impulsivity.

Whilst Dr Gonçalves may be right with regard to serotonin and impulsive aggression, it isn’t impulsive aggression that Peterson is referring to in lobsters. As far as premeditated, instrumental aggression is concerned (the sort of aggression that might get you promoted within a hierarchy), there is nothing in the research that Dr Gonçalves cites to suggest that serotonin levels correlate any differently in humans than they do in lobsters, despite the massive differences in complexity. Besides which, levels of aggression are a bit of a red herring. The important issue instead is how impulsivity in its many forms can be controlled by serotonin. If anything is designed to get in the way of social advancement, it would be impulsivity.

Based upon her misunderstanding of the link between serotonin and aggression, Dr Gonçalves speculates that it is unlikely ‘that low levels of serotonin would make humans settle in at the bottom of a hierarchy’. The reality is that there are many reasons why low levels may result in such settlement and one doesn’t have to look far for the research that confirms this. Take, for example, research conducted by Dr Anna Ziomkiewicz of the Ludwik Hirszfeld Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy, Polish Academy of Sciences, Wroclaw, Poland, which states:

Serotonin was found to directly support dominance structure in primate groups. Studies conducted in vervet monkeys (Cercopithecusaethiops) demonstrated that alpha-male individuals had higher levels of blood and brain serotonin that decreased when dominant position was lost (Raleigh 1984).

Which, of course, is exactly what Peterson has said regarding the much less complicated lobster. That said, the relationship between dominance, serotonin and aggression for the vervet monkey is a lot more involved than for your average crustacean:

The serotoninergic system was demonstrated to support all of these behaviors, i.e., aggression, cooperation, and affiliation, however not in a simple manner. In vervet monkeys, subordinate group members treated with serotonin enhancers achieved dominance by first increasing affiliative behavior toward group members and creating a support group. During this period, aggressive behavior significantly decreased, while affiliative behavior (approaching and grooming) was significantly increased. Only after coalitions with other individuals were established dominant individuals engaged in aggressive encounters with conspecifics (Raleigh et al. 1991).

One should not be surprised to see such complexity. If there is one thing to appreciate regarding the actions of neurotransmitters it is that their importance is highly context-specific and they can effect quite different behaviours depending upon environmental factors and the machinations of other neurotransmitters. Those who criticise Peterson with his lobster observations seem to assume that he is unaware of such complexities and is attempting a trite comparison. I don’t see it that way. I would rather assume that a Harvard professor fully understands how complexity in life-form and social structure complicates the relevance of the serotoninergic system but might still seek to point out that even species that are vastly separated on the evolutionary tree nevertheless can still both have a serotoninergic system that plays a role in establishing hierarchies.

I started out this essay by pointing out that Peterson is a divisive character, and I’m afraid that when divisive characters hold forth on subjects you will find that the divided are quick to judge. The easiest approach to take by those who disagree with Peterson’s conclusions is to characterise his arguments as lacking academic rigour. A lobstergate scandal fits this bill nicely. If you get enough neuroscientists posting critiques on websites such as The Conversation, scoffing at Peterson’s science, then the man can be taken down. However, for that to work effectively, the criticisms themselves have to be based upon a sound understanding. Failing to understand the important difference between aggression and impulsive aggression, and failing to appreciate the many ways in which serotonin is implicated in social behaviours does not benefit Peterson’s naysayers. Furthermore, it is no more appropriate to suggest that Peterson is saying we are all basically just lobsters than it was for Darwin’s detractors to suggest he was saying we are all basically descended from apes. In both cases the edict seems to be that one should never let a good straw man go to waste.


  1. MIAB,

    Yes, I believe you are correct regarding Dr Leanor’s sex. Also, well-spotted regarding her gaffe. I have corrected my mistake but hers will have to remain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The woke truly practice the principle of “the conservation of strawman arguments” as an offset to their well documented inability to actually do science.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. John,

    Thanks for the link to the article in the Conversation. I see that it is a little over five years old, and I also see that the comments were numerous, free-flowing, and many were critical of the article author and supportive of Peterson. Those were the days when one could have a conversation at the Conversation. And not a single reference to climate change!

    And I believe the good doctor did make an error in describing lobsters as vertebrates.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Mark,

    I have been looking for a pretext for writing an article about Peterson for some time. Since he recently came up on ATTP, and since the Conversation article got a mention too, I took my chance.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. SSRIs – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Increase the level of serotonin in the brain. The modern “happy pill”. Half of the populations of the UK and US are on them it seems. GPs hand them out like Smarties. Big Pharma cashes in. A Swedish study now suggests that they increase the level of innate aggression in certain individuals:

    “STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are some of the most widely prescribed antidepressant drugs in the world. Now, an unsettling new study out of Sweden finds that some people given these medications develop a “tendency” to commit violent crimes. According to the research, this violent effect can even last for up to 12 weeks after halting SSRI treatment.”

    A huge proportion of mass shootings are also linked to SSRIs but the link is ‘highly controversial’ because it could be the mental illness which is causing the violent behaviour, right? In which case, antidepressants don’t work because the “happy” young people taking them are going around grievance-murdering innocent people.

    We need gun control for lobsters.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Jaime,

    As I said in my article, the effects of neurotransmitters is very context-specific and so it is difficult to form simple rules. Impulsivity seems to be the more pertinent factor rather than violence, though impulsivity can be linked to certain types of aggression. SSRIs should be reducing impulsivity so the Swedish research results seem surprising. I am inclined to think that you are correct in your suggestion that it is the underlying mental state that is acting as a confounder.

    But getting back to Peterson and his lobsters, I think the kind of impulsive aggression associated with anti-depressant takers is not the kind that will help in gaining social status. Mass shooters, for example, are usually dysfunctional within society and have a slew of mental health issues that are not limited to violent tendencies:

    “Impulse control, emotional regulation, and social functioning appear to be important qualifiers of the violent behavior associated with serotonin dysfunction. They also serve to characterize further the overall functioning of the violent individuals whose difficulties are rarely limited to aggression alone.”

    As for gun control for lobsters – yeh, I’ll vote for that. Giving a gun to a lobster just seems irresponsible.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. since all land/air breathing animals came from the sea, I think we all have a bit lobster lurking in us.
    hence the saying “make it snappy”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The following paper has caught my eye: ‘Serotonin, social status and aggression’:

    The abstract reads:

    “Serotonin, social status and aggression appear to be linked in many animal species, including humans. The linkages are complex, and, for the most part, details relating the amine to the behavior remain obscure. During the past year, important advances have been made in a crustacean model system relating serotonin and aggression. The findings include the demonstration that serotonin injections will cause transient reversals in the unwillingness of subordinate animals to engage in agonistic encounters, and that at specific synaptic sites involved in activation of escape behavior, the direction of the modulation by serotonin depends on the social status of the animal.”

    There are three reasons why I find this interesting:

    1) It demonstrates that, despite the obvious differences in neurobiology, scientists still see value in studying crustaceans as a ‘model system’ to explore serotoninergic effects, hoping no doubt to transfer understanding to the human serotoninergic system. And yet when Peterson takes a similar position, suddenly everyone is scoffing.

    2) The complexity I referred to in my article also applies to relatively simple creatures such as crustaceans.

    3) The research is not focussed upon impulsive aggression but talks of ‘agonistic encounters’ and ‘escape behaviour’.


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