Jordan Peterson and the War Over Eugenics

Sam Young
10 min readOct 10, 2022

In my last article responding to Jordan Peterson’s Conservative Manifesto, I argued that his prescription for a society based in “competence hierarchies” related to innate biological characteristics like IQ provided a clear path of thinking towards eugenics. Recently, he posted an interview with British Conservative Party politician and Olympic rower Alex Story titled “Eugenics: Flawed Thinking Behind Pushed Science.” I felt I had a personal responsibility to watch it and respond.

The central framing device for the discussion between Jordan Peterson and Alex Story is Story’s experience raising his first son, a child with Down’s syndrome. According to Story, many people in his life asked whether “he knew” that the child was going to have Down’s, with the implication that they should have aborted the child and not let his son live. This disturbed him to the point of looking into the history of eugenics, the idea that human reproduction should be controlled for the genetic “improvement” of the human race. This was a core component of the Nazi regime, whose genocidal program began with the sterilization and murder of disabled and neurodivergent people.

This narrative is used almost entirely as a launch point for a polemic against the political left, with the son being used as an object for Story’s personal development and politics rather than being treated as an agent in his own right. He talks about how his son made him a better person, taught him personal responsibility, and improved his marriage, but says absolutely nothing from the child’s perspective, not even who he is or turned out to be as a person. It reminded me a lot of the discussion around leftist Youtuber Big Joel’s video where he critiques the Christian TV show The Dream Motel for its treatment of disability.

In one episode, a woman who feels stifled taking care of her mentally challenged brother gets an It’s a Wonderful Life type opportunity from an angel to live in a world where her brother didn’t exist. Her life without him turns out to be horrific because without taking on the personal responsibility of taking care of a disabled person, she makes awful life decisions and becomes a miserable alcoholic. So, she rationally decides her life was better with her brother in it, and the angel brings him back into existence. I think the comments from disabled people speak for themselves.

god i hate the implication that the purpose of our existence as disabled people is to make abled folks more compassionate, but it’s literally everywhere in media

I hate watching shows that use disabled people as ways for “normals” to learn compassion, I even more hate when they can’t even bother to use an actually disabled person in the role.

I used to be obsessed with the Book of Job and what it meant. His children died to teach him a lesson, but that only works if you’re a main character. What about his children? Far more than suffering being meaningless, far more than being punished for my sins, I was terrified by the idea that my suffering existed for somebody else’s personal growth. I had recently been diagnosed with a long term disability, and I started to really focus on the Evangelical dialogue on disability. The main idea is that a disabled child is “a special angel sent to teach you about kindness”, and, though I’m sure that helps some parents find comfort in what can be a painful and exhausting process, there are not words for the pain of feeling that your life, your struggles, your happiness, only has value as somebody else’s moral prop. At least it’s better than ‘your disability is a symptom of incomplete faith and, if your moral were better, you’d be healed’, but damn, at least that narrative gives you some agency

the disabled guy story hit hard because i’m a disabled, “mentally challenged” (autistic) young man just like the one in the story, and i hate how the existence of us disabled people, no matter the disability, is often written as a prop or as a plot device in the story of an able-bodied or able-minded person. no one really seems to care about how ~we want to live our life, and that some of us are members of religions or believe in god? i’m not a christian, but i hate, as a believer, when religious media uses disabled people like me as plot devices for a “religious lesson”. do the people creating this realize they’re sending the message we do not exist in the eyes of god in the same way as others, because we’re somehow less human? idk, i’m just rambling because the first story personally resonated with me and i do not want my existence and the existence of other disabled people to be an “inspirational story”, “a lesson that teaches you something about religion”, or any kind of prop or plot device.

This is not to comment on Story’s relationship with his child: That, I cannot possibly know. Rather, this reinforces the conclusion I reached in my previous article, that the conservative (Petersonian, perhaps) perspective treats marginalized people as objects, as sources of meaning for those on top of the “competence hierarchy.” Story tells us that all people have value and should be treated equally, and I believe him, but the way he uses his son as an instrument for his own personal ends, instead of as an end in himself with his own search for meaning, fits a little too well into my analysis of Peterson’s conservative philosophy. Isn’t the joke that you can’t get a parent to shut up about their kids?

While I don’t know a thing about his kid’s life, Alex Story does tell us quite a bit about his own. Apparently he was a problem child in school, always challenging authority, so his father took him into the world of rowing where he achieved an incredible level of discipline. He loves his father for this, and says that his privilege, if he has any, is that his parents were there. This is right after he talked about his father walking into a French Olympic gold medalist, who later became his teacher, and was a good teacher because “he was very helpful and he also had Olympic gold medals around his neck.”

Honestly the comedic timing is pretty great. Watch the interview. His dad was an INSEAD.

(Peterson) claims it’s fundamentally impossible to train the bottom 10% of humanity to function in a cognitively complex society. So, the only options he really leaves us with are to leave a class of miserable people incapable of living meaningful lives begging and dependent on the noble ruling class, or eliminate these people from the gene pool. — Jordan Peterson’s Manifesto: Shallow Gobbledygook, but Still Horrifying

Okay, so we can see that Story comes off as a little self-centered and pompous, he comes from a long line of rowers, he’s 6'8", and he likes good wine. Who doesn’t? The important thing for my purposes is that Jordan Peterson doesn’t advocate for eugenics. In his own biological essentialist way, he advocates for “the spirit of playful reciprocity,” based on voluntary association and consent. He claims that based on research into chimp societies, successful, stable hierarchies are built on leaders who are the best at making peace and cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with all the other chimps. I think this is very nice and good.

Charitably, I think we can now interpret his Conservative Manifesto as an effort to bring forth what he hints at as a “hierarchy of play.” He appears to have just started to develop this idea, but my interpretation is that he looks forward to a world full of free actors who in as decentralized a manner as possible create healthy relationships of reciprocity and creativity. Necessarily there will be hierarchies and people at the top, but those people should be proper alphas who build mutually beneficial relationships with those at the bottom, and give the little guy a chance to win and find meaning and purpose.

I make Peterson sound like some sort of anarchist, somewhere between a Mutualist and an Egoist. Maybe he’s heading in that direction, and one day we’ll see Comrade Peterson man the barricades.

Probably not. Primarily, Peterson is skeptical of activism and change and sees it mostly as an excuse for weak, useless, and predatory men to grab a hold of power. Peterson sees eugenics as a phenomenon of the left: an effort to create a utopian society in the same way Mao Zedong’s bloody Cultural Revolution was. There’s no discussion of how the Bell Curve, which Peterson cites whenever he feels like talking about IQ, directly cites eugenicist scholars and advocates for eugenics, nor does he have anything to say about the actual white supremacist with whom he had a congenial public discussion on “the IQ problem”. The core of this video is mud raking against various left-wing figures and implicating efforts against covid and global warming as the first steps towards a technocratic effort to “beat the communist record for extermination” and depopulate the earth.

“Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. Guide reproduction wisely.” — Georgia Guidestones, a guide for humanity to recover in the event we are nearly destroyed.

To put it delicately, Jordan Peterson and his friends appear to be going batshit. Story mentions “a woman” at the World Economic Forum advocating for bringing the population of Earth down to 500 million, which is similar to a conspiracy theory that led to the bombing of the Georgia Guidestones. In my little bubble on the left, I’m used to seeing eugenics described in the historical and contemporary context of white supremacy and ableism. Apparently, the right sees it in terms of Marxism, globalism, birth control, abortion, environmentalism, and vaccines.

I’m pretty sure Story’s referring to Jane Goodall, who advocates for scary depopulation policies like women’s education, family planning workshops, and reducing poverty — Photo by Mark Garten

I’m not here to carry water for anyone. The socialist Fabian Society advocated for eugenics, as did Liberal economist John Maynard Keynes. It’s a blot on our history and it’s fine to be concerned about technocratic elites trying something similar in the modern era, given the long history of people in power advocating for it. However, Peterson is wading waist deep in conspiracy theory, feeding into the political movements that pose the most immediate and credible threat to the stability of his beloved western civilization. Climate change denial is dangerous enough, but when you pose it to your millions of fans as part of a conspiracy to eradicate 7.5 billion human souls, that’s unconscionable.

Jordan Peterson has a dangerous habit of carelessly throwing out ideas that have the potential to cause serious harm. He is a creative thinker who clearly struggles to grapple with his own ideas, which appear to be constantly evolving, but his personal instability has a massive impact on world politics. This alone is an effective enough rebuttal against unquestioningly reproducing the hierarchies that afflict our society. No one man should have all that power, and certainly not a man who puts so little effort into making sure the things he says are true or helpful.

Like so many of his ideas, Jordan Peterson’s analysis of the monarchy, while having the immediate appearance of being interesting and profound, is ultimately not very well thought out. Perhaps the very sad state of conservative thought nowadays has something to do with the same cult of celebrity he fears in others. — No Mr. Peterson, the Monarchy is Not Brilliant

I don’t think that Jordan Peterson is malicious. Honestly, I think he’s arrogant in a way that makes him lazy. This will be my third article in a row on him, and the most consistent attribute I’ve noticed, besides a family resemblance to Edmund Burke, is sloppiness. Do we believe in meritocratic hierarchies of competence, or do we revel in the glory of the hereditary monarchy and resent Hollywood actors for being held up as “paragons of virtue?” Should we trust the filtering mechanism of competitive institutions to produce experts deserving of power and influence, or should we fear the elites and trust our own knee-jerk reactions about climate change above expert consensus? Is concentrating our productive resources and control at the top of the free-market competence hierarchy a good thing, or is the concentration of power inherently deadly?

There’s nothing inherently damning about having conflicting interpretations of someone’s work. That’s been par for the course for philosophers from Hegel to Nietzsche. My problem is that while I honestly can’t figure out a consistent interpretation of Peterson’s work, many of the possible interpretations are frankly disgusting. Looking at where he devotes care and what he leaves ambiguous or doesn’t address at all, I can’t help but see him as a political enemy par excellence. Knocking the “woke moralists” down a peg is clearly more important to him than empowering the marginalized, and when push comes to shove I can’t help but see him fighting along culture war lines rather than actually challenging institutional power, if that’s something he’s even interested in doing.

I don’t think we should base our politics on our enemies. I sincerely wish him well, and I hope he ends up doing good for the world. Many of his ideas have positively influenced my own political thought, and he seems to genuinely care about people. But as I reach the end of my quest to deeply understand this person, I must ask myself: Was it worth it? Do I actually care about Alex Story and his charmed life, or Jordan Peterson and his bizarre hatred of a fat swimsuit model and a highly decorated veteran biologist among the top 1% most cited scientists in the world”?

Peterson is broadly uninterested in discussing the possibility of solving systemic issues systematically, and he will almost always defer to some concept of personal development, fixing your own house and rising to the best of your abilities in our meritocracy. He doesn’t think most poor people are going to rise in that meritocracy, mostly because he thinks a lot of them are extremely fucking stupid. — “Big Joel”

This video goes over a lot of the claims I make about Peterson throughout this article.

Why should I listen to a confused and bitter man shout at clouds and complain about woke postmodern neomarxism, or an obscure old money athlete turned political commentator weaponize his kid, when I could spend my time trying to understand the people they and so much of society carelessly gloss over? I wanted to see Jordan Peterson pay some genuine attention and care to victims of the eugenics movement. Instead, I had to sit through an hour and a half of culture war. To mirror his favorite Orwell quote, he doesn’t love the divergent or the differently abled. He hates the left.

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Sam Young

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.