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Bottom Feeders

It is unsurprising that making it into the 1% is going to guarantee a life of sweetness and ease, whilst being reduced to abject poverty, say in a Brazilian favela, will produce a life that will probably be nasty, brutish and short.

In the last post we talked about Jordan B. Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, lobsters, their dominance hierarchies and how these fascinating bottom-feeders might provide a glimpse into our own social realities. Peterson points out the cruel logic of success and failure, both of which are self-reinforcing, and he argues that human dominance hierarchies, however unjust, are primordially built into our world and may be inescapable.

In his book, Peterson describes the consequences of this in a beautifully vivid, if horrifying, way. It is worth quoting at length:

‘There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society— on a scale of one to ten, for the sake of argument.

If you’re a number one, the highest level of status, you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.

If you’re female, you have access to many high-quality suitors: tall, strong and symmetrical; creative, reliable, honest and generous. And, like your dominant male counterpart, you will compete ferociously, even pitilessly, to maintain or improve your position in the equally competitive female mating hierarchy. Although you are less likely to use physical aggression to do so, there are many effective verbal tricks and strategies at your disposal, including the disparaging of opponents, and you may well be expert at their use.

If you are a low-status ten, by contrast, male or female, you have nowhere to live (or nowhere good). Your food is terrible, when you’re not going hungry. You’re in poor physical and mental condition. You’re of minimal romantic interest to anyone, unless they are as desperate as you. You are more likely to fall ill, age rapidly, and die young, with few, if any, to mourn you.

Even money itself may prove of little use. You won’t know how to use it, because it is difficult to use money properly, particularly if you are unfamiliar with it. Money will make you liable to the dangerous temptations of drugs and alcohol, which are much more rewarding if you have been deprived of pleasure for a long period.

Money will also make you a target for predators and psychopaths, who thrive on exploiting those who exist on the lower rungs of society. The bottom of the dominance hierarchy is a terrible, dangerous place to be.

The ancient part of your brain specialized for assessing dominance watches how you are treated by other people. On that evidence, it renders a determination of your value and assigns you a status. If you are judged by your peers as of little worth, the counter restricts serotonin availability. That makes you much more physically and psychologically reactive to any circumstance or event that might produce emotion, particularly if it is negative. You need that reactivity. Emergencies are common at the bottom, and you must be ready to survive.

Unfortunately, that physical hyper-response, that constant alertness, burns up a lot of precious energy and physical resources. This response is really what everyone calls stress, and it is by no means only or even primarily psychological. It’s a reflection of the genuine constraints of unfortunate circumstances.

When operating at the bottom, the ancient brain counter assumes that even the smallest unexpected impediment might produce an uncontrollable chain of negative events, which will have to be handled alone, as useful friends are rare indeed, on society’s fringes. You will therefore continually sacrifice what you could otherwise physically store for the future, using it up on heightened readiness and the possibility of immediate panicked action in the present. When you don’t know what to do, you must be prepared to do anything and everything, in case it becomes necessary. You’re sitting in your car with the gas and brake pedals both punched to the mat. Too much of that and everything falls apart.

The ancient counter will even shut down your immune system, expending the energy and resources required for future health now, during the crises of the present. It will render you impulsive, so that you will jump, for example, at any short-term mating opportunities, or any possibilities of pleasure, no matter how sub-par, disgraceful or illegal. It will leave you far more likely to live, or die, carelessly, for a rare opportunity at pleasure, when it manifests itself. The physical demands of emergency preparedness will wear you down in every way.

If you have a high status, on the other hand, the counter’s cold, pre-reptilian mechanics assume that your niche is secure, productive and safe, and that you are well buttressed with social support. It thinks the chance that something will damage you is low and can be safely discounted. Change might be opportunity, instead of disaster. The serotonin flows plentifully. This renders you confident and calm, standing tall and straight, and much less on constant alert.

Because your position is secure, the future is likely to be good for you. It’s worthwhile to think in the long term and plan for a better tomorrow. You don’t need to grasp impulsively at whatever crumbs come your way, because you can realistically expect good things to remain available. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.’

This is not news to you, I’m sure. If you have any understanding of evolutionary theory, you will be aware that it follows logically from it that, all things being equal, those most fitted to survive and thrive will pass on their genes to the next generation. The need to secure resources and mating rights in order to survive and thrive necessitates competition with others and in this race there will be winners and many, many losers and the devil take the hindmost.

This picture is difficult for us to stomach with our modern, democratic, egalitarian values. For us, everyone is equal. Peterson, like Nietzsche, points out that this is obviously not the case. It is opinions like this that get him into hot water in some quarters.

I think Peterson’s views irk a great many people because he calls out ‘the facts’ as he sees them without any attempt to mitigate the unpalatable, and to many – offensive, implications they entail. But this is unfair. Peterson is describing his observations of the all-pervasive dominance hierarchy, not advocating it. However, because he refuses to soft-soap his hard message and supplement it with glib moral disapprovals, he is open to being castigated as an apologist for the oppressive patriarchy or the neoliberal hegemony or written off as Might-is-Right social Darwinist.

I get the objection. There are some who relish Peterson’s message, that the dominance hierarchy is natural and inevitable, as a scientific validation of their own selfishness. It is usually those ensconced on the upper tiers of the hierarchy, who want to be rid of any responsibility for the people beneath them, who sanction social Darwinism. They are all right, Jack, thank you very much and they credit themselves entirely for their successes, viewing themselves as superior specimens of the species (the role of luck in one’s position on the ladder is overlooked by Peterson – an omission). A lot of people worry that such 'natural' justifications for selfishness can only embolden the social Darwinists. Peterson’s undiluted message is too threatening.

Similar anxieties attend Nietzsche’s thought. He is vilified for describing the pre-Christian Master Morality of the ‘Blond Beasts’ in valorising terms, but he is merely attempting to ‘diagnose’ the genealogy of our moral values, not advocate a return to the values of Master Morality. In fact, he presents the Blond Beasts as pretty dumb and intellectually uninteresting when compared to the conniving, but much more remarkable, Slaves. If the Blond Beasts appear valorous that may be because they were, valour being a key virtue for them.

One is reminded of the classic is/ought gap of David Hume: the confusion of what is the case with what we believe should be the case. Once you accept an atheist view of the universe, with no omnipotent legislator calling the shots, it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that all moral values are oughts, not facts, and all oughts are culturally arbitrary and relative.

Kant, that great rationalist of the eighteenth century, would argue against this with his moral ‘categorical imperative’, which he claims is a dictate of reason. He writes: "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." Essentially, it posits that immoral behaviours are self-defeating. For example, if you do not keep your promises, you are contributing to the realisation of a world in which no one keeps their promises and so ultimately a promise would become meaningless.

Though this argument may carry some logical weight, practically speaking, it can be disregarded. We don’t tend to consider the implications of universalising our actions and if we did we would readily make exceptions for ourselves when to do so would be to our advantage. And of course, to even adopt the universalising view Kant commends is to implicitly affirm some kind of equality among all human beings as identical moral agents.

Though I contend that Peterson should not be attacked for his ideas about the human dominance hierarchy, because it is plausible that it is a fact of life, I am not sure that I buy what seems to be his conclusion regarding systemic exploitation. He implies that awareness of this evolutionary inevitability de-fangs criticisms of capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, the military-industrial complex and similar social, political and economic structures. It may be that the dominance hierarchy is the real cause of most oppression and exploitation, but these structures are the manifested reifications of that brutal current. People who suffer under them, naturally, will object, resist, fight back and struggle to free themselves from domination. The situation is dynamic.

The crucial question now, is what can we do as individuals to avoid being crushed in the war for domination. Peterson has advice, as does Nietzsche. But this article has already gone on a little too long, so this will be the topic of the next post.

Next time: Enter the Übermensch

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