A Book Review

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Posted by w0ep on August 29, 2018 at 9:25 pm

[Today’s run: hill workout in Columbus, 3 miles]

While I was in Iowa I spent some time with my Uncle Ron. That was quite a treat.  Uncle Ron also loaned me a book he had just finished reading, and recommended that I give it a try, so I did.  I had heard about the book already.  So I did read it and I enjoyed it.

The book is “12 Rules for Life : An antidote to chaos” by Dr. Jordan Peterson.

I had watched some of Dr. Peterson’s lectures on Youtube and found them interesting.

I like Peterson’s stuff in some ways:  I like the conclusions he comes to, and I like the weight he gives to tradition and cultural knowledge.  But I think he has the wrong end of the stick to understand how these traditions came about.

Dr. Peterson seems to argue a version of cultural evolution, that the wisdom of many generations, on an evolutionary scale, is contained in books and stories like the Bible (and other religious works) and creation myths and other pervasive themes. Then he becomes a “conservative” in that he wants to retain the benefit of this cultural evolutionary treasure trove and not be quick to throw it over for whatever fashionable ideas may come up.

I’m for that.  But I see two problems.  The first problem is that his cultural evolutionary argument really has no moral basis other than a utilitarian argument based on the natural evolution of life on our planet.  For instance, he points out that even the most basic life forms (lobsters) live in hierarchical organizations.  Therefore we, as higher forms of the same life, are also bent toward hierarchical organization (etc) and such organizing principles are baked into the form of life that evolved on Earth.  I think a lot of his Rules build on that kind of structure.  It is not a bad structure, but I think it is ultimately built on sand:  maybe we humans have evolved more completely and are no longer  bound to all of these lower principles;  maybe other planets evolved life that would not have these principles.  So also his cultural evolution is bound by a chain to the nature of life on Earth.

My second problem is that I really don’t believe that peak cultural evolution would have happened with the writing of the Bible or the Koran or the development of these common thematic stories.  Physical evolution is said to have taken millions and millions of years.  But the Bible, for example, seems to appear near the beginning of the period of written history, not in the middle or the end.  Somehow I don’t think all of these very wise people contemplated these very wise things and eventually got around to figuring out an alphabet and writing them down and since then it’s been downhill toward People Magazine and The National Enquirer.  Peterson’s book itself is derivative of philosophy and psychology of the last few centuries, in a way of interpreting the ancient texts and stories. Maybe he would explain it by saying the ancient stories encapsulate wisdom in some unclear/prophetic form and it has taken until modern times to explain the meanings… maybe?  like reading the dreams of all of human kind.  That part doesn’t work for me.  I find it easier to see the wisdom as intentional, but that makes the timeline backwards.

I’m biased of course.  I was taught, and still believe that wisdom doesn’t only come from cultural evolution (and in fact many cultures evolve toward evil instead of toward wisdom), but mainly comes from revelation from outside sources.  When Peterson refers to God, he appears to be talking about this body of wisdom we should all be tuned into for a better life.  My understanding of God is as the designer of the system.  Peterson implies that a better life is one tuned into the wisdom of the nature of life.  I would instead say that a better life is one that is tuned into the intention of the Creator.

I find it tempting to just be happy that Peterson reaches the “right” conclusions.  After all, does God have to get credit?  Isn’t it a better world if there is more peace and harmony even if the reasoning behind it is misguided and humanistic?  Well that wisdom book, the Bible, says that God isn’t impressed with that conclusion.  It says in the book of Romans  “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”  The ‘big picture’ in the Bible (speaking of ancient themes) is one of perfection, loss and redemption, not self improvement. And in that I agree with many other reviewers who classify Peterson’s book under ‘self help’.

So that’s where I came down.  I enjoyed the book.  I think our social systems would work more smoothly if people were to embrace the “12 Rules for Life”,  that people would understand themselves better and maybe find better outlets for their energies.  But I don’t think ultimately that will happen.  People don’t seem to follow good ideas (which is why a guy like Peterson has to write a book like this yelling “stop” in the face of cultural change).  He is missing some fundamental parts of the wisdom system, things like inspiration, revelation, redemption and worship.


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  • On August 29, 2018 at 11:36 pm Jonthan Howard said

    To be attuned to the intention of the Creator implies one knows what that is.

    • On August 30, 2018 at 8:11 am w0ep said

      But that’s the part that I think Peterson’s method gets right, only he sees it as the result of eons of refinement from a basis of practical natural results.

  • On August 30, 2018 at 7:01 pm Jonathan Howard said

    There is just one?

    I’ll not read it, but on the surface it appears these eons predate the tools and technology that permitted the practical application of the scientific method. In other words, the period before that doesn’t really count.

    (And I’ll never understand worship.)

    • On August 31, 2018 at 8:42 am w0ep said

      I haven’t really touched on Peterson’s use of science and recent scientific conclusions. My recollection is that he at least seems to build on modern conclusions (not that I’m a fit judge).

  • On August 31, 2018 at 7:10 am Sue said

    I’ve enjoyed a few interviews of this guy on Youtube. I appreciate his thinking processes and enjoy hearing his ideas, whether I agree or not.

    The interesting thing is how he just sort of magically appeared in the global spotlight because he became a victim of the ongoing devolution of western culture. He has noticed things aren’t right and has made a lot of money and suffered a lot of backlash because he’s talking about things that are taboo right now in our culture. Whereas, if he’d just gone along with the vast majority of today’s campus professors we probably would never have heard of him.

    I’m stating the obvious, I guess. But when the cultural drift is pushing toward chaos, rather than order, the people who have enjoyed the direction it’s going are typically surprised and disappointed when they’ve reached their fill of change but others – friends, relatives, co-workers – are still pressing on and begin to turn against them as part of the “problem.”

    I have really enjoyed the videos and testimonies of the “Walk-Away” movement. I think most of us have to be pushed to a point of making a decision on things that really matter.

    The destruction of antiquities (okay our statues aren’t all that old) that is going on now reminds me of the things I’ve read about the cultural revolution in China. Mobs of young people would break into the homes of rich folks and destroy 2,000 year old keepsakes on the pretext of making a new and improved country. It was because they were ignorant and poor, envious and momentarily powerful.

    The only difference between those Chinese young people and ours, is ours aren’t poor.

  • On August 31, 2018 at 8:03 pm Jonathan Howard said

    Campus professors? I have no view on that as I’ve not been on a campus in 30(!) years. And I confess I am wholly oblivious about devolution of culture and destruction of antiquities and chaos. Unless you are talking about the cultural revolution, but that was several decades ago. The going on now part… I’ve not heard about. Well there’s ISIS in Iraq but that’s a direct line to the 2003 invasion. Which is to say “our bad.”

    I’m optimistic. There’s a loud voice that wants to preserve the environment for future generations, even if it means fewer coal mining or tree cutting or fish harvesting jobs. We have whales seen frequently near me and when I was born they were on their way out. If the current ruling party was running things 100 years ago there’d be no bison and the Grand Canyon would be dammed by now.

    Okay okay it’s shameful that 3x married, 2x paid off women (that is publicly known), 6x bankrupt chronic liar is holding top office… it’s disgraceful but that’s Americas choice. I don’t know what parents are supposed to tell their children. So not optimistic about that but it’s just racism and sexism and fear and lost hegemony and young people don’t think that way, by and large. Plus they are paying the price. Corporate tax breaks are forever. Tax breaks for regular folk expire. No bigger message than that.

  • On September 3, 2018 at 8:31 am Sue said

    I certainly agree there has been a real improvement in environmental awareness in the past 40 years. I never thought I’d see a bald eagle outside captivity when we were growing up, but they’re all over the place and we have things like annual “Eagle Days.”

    It seems to me 100% of people alive today want clean air and water, so not sure why these desires should be equated with a political party. Besides, I’m sure you know Teddy Roosevelt did the ground-breaking work on national environmental preservation and Nixon signed the EPA legislation.

    I’ll admit to being unsatisfied with the national news and cannot be optimistic when that’s all I hear, so to find local items from the USA and around the world I go to alternative local sources. It’s much more interesting and factual because the only agenda is who-what-where-when-how. That’s how I know about the European problem with no-go zones and the increasing problem here with the same issue. That’s how I find out about the recent destruction and desecration of public property (statues in particular) by young-ish, irresponsible people. That’s how I find out about what’s really happening in the Middle East. It’s so refreshing!

    But I can also understand if a person is happy with what the news is disseminating, there would be no need to look elsewhere.

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