Maps of Meaning

Like many folks recently, I decided to learn more about Jordan Peterson. Not being eager for self-help or political discussion, I went to his most well-known academic book, Maps of Meaning. Here is Peterson’s summary: 

I came to realize that ideologies had a narrative structure – that they were stories, in a word – and that the emotional stability of individuals depended upon the integrity of their stories. I came to realize that stories had a religious substructure (or, to put it another way, that well-constructed stories had a nature so compelling that they gathered religious behaviors and attitudes around them, as a matter of course). I understood, finally, that the world that stories describe is not the objective world, but the world of value – and that it is in this world that we live, first and foremost. … I have come to understand what it is that our stories protect us from, and why we will do anything to maintain their stability. I now realize how it can be that our religious mythologies are true, and why that truth places a virtually intolerable burden of responsibility on the individual. I know now why rejection of such responsibility ensures that the unknown will manifest a demonic face, and why those who shrink from their potential seek revenge wherever they can find it. (more)

In his book, Peterson mainly offers his best-guess description of common conceptual structures underlying many familiar cultural elements, such as myths, stories, histories, rituals, dreams, and language. He connects these structures to cultural examples, to a few psychology patterns, and to rationales of why such structures would make sense. 

But while he can be abstract at times, Peterson doesn’t go meta. He doesn’t offer readers any degree of certainty in his claims, nor distinguish in which claims he’s more confident. He doesn’t say how widely others agree with him, he doesn’t mention any competing accounts to his own, and he doesn’t consider examples that might go against his account. He seems to presume that the common underlying structures of past cultures embody great wisdom for human behavior today, yet he doesn’t argue for that explicitly, he doesn’t consider any other forces that might shape such structures, and he doesn’t consider how fast their relevance declines as the world changes. The book isn’t easy to read, with overly long and obscure words, and way too much repetition. He shouldn’t have used his own voice for his audiobook. 

In sum, Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware. But on the one key criteria by which such a book should most be judged, I have to give it to him: the book offers insight. The first third of the book felt solid, almost self-evident: yes such structures make sense and do underly many cultural patterns. From then on the book slowly became more speculative, until at the end I was less nodding and more rolling my eyes. Not that most things he said even then were obviously wrong, just that it felt too hard to tell if they were right.  (And alas, I have no idea how original is this book’s insight.) 

Let me finish by offering a small insight I had while reading the book, one I haven’t heard from elsewhere. A few weeks ago I talked about how biological evolution avoids local maxima via highly redundant genotypes:

There are of course far more types of reactions between molecules than there are types of molecules. So using Wagner’s definitions, the set of genotypes is vastly larger than the set of phenotypes. Thus a great many genotypes result in exactly the same phenotype, and in fact each genotype has many neighboring genotypes with that same exact phenotype. And if we lump all the connected genotypes that have the same phenotype together into a unit (a unit Wagner calls a “genotype network”), and then look at the network of one-neighbor connections between such units, we will find that this network is highly connected.

That is, if one presumes that evolution (using a large population of variants) finds it easy to make “neutral” moves between genotypes with exactly the same phenotype, and hence the same fitness, then large networks connecting genotypes with the same phenotype imply that it only takes a few non-neutral moves between neighbors to get to most other phenotypes. There are no wide deep valleys to cross. Evolution can search large spaces of big possible changes, and doesn’t have a problem finding innovations with big differences. (more) 

It occurs to me that this is also an advantage of traditional ways of encoding cultural values. An explicit formal encoding of values, such as found in modern legal codes, is far less redundant. Most random changes to such an abstract formal encoding create big bad changes to behavior. But when values are encoded in many stories, histories, rituals, etc., a change to any one of them needn’t much change overall behavior. So the genotype can drift until it is near a one-step change to a better phenotype. This allows culture to evolve more incrementally, and avoid local maxima. 

Implicit culture seems more evolvable, at least to the extent slow evolution is acceptable. We today are changing culture quite rapidly, and often based on pretty abstract and explicit arguments. We should worry more about getting stuck in local maxima.  

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