Lord of the Snakes

Our primate ancestors lived in trees. For primates living everywhere other than Madagascar, there were snakes at the bottom of those trees. Snakes who, if they had been able to speak, would have called our ancestors “lunch.”

Lots of fascinating things happened in those trees.

Our male ancestors competed with one another for dominance, just like lobsters, with whom they (like us) shared ancient serotonergic systems. (That means our brains have lobster-like elements for detecting social hierarchies, pace the social constructionists.)

The better our male ancestors competed with each other, the more likely the females were to look kindly on them and choose them as mates. They might even offer them fruit. (Which put a premium on competing well long before Wall Street was a twinkle in our great-great-great-grandfather's eye, pace those convinced that capitalism invented competition.)

Sometimes, however, things got even more exciting. Maybe the snakes started climbing the trees. Maybe our ancestors got thirsty and climbed down the trees to go to the river. One way or another, our ancestors had to deal with the snakes.

Professor Peterson talks all the time about snakes. They are at the root of all human mythologies, the dragons lurking in the chaos at the bottom of the trees. They are the monsters that the hero goes out to fight to bring back treasure and knowledge, the source of terror and wisdom. They are the reason that we developed such keen eyesight. Snakes taught us to see.

Most people have some fear of snakes. Me, for example. Certain members of my family discovered this by the age of three. All they had to do was wave something vaguely snakelike just below my line of vision, and I would be screaming before I was even aware that I had seen the toy. And I would keep screaming long after I could tell it was fake.

See something out of the corner of your eye that you can't quite identify, some problem that you aren't able to solve, and your primate ancestors all scream, “Snake!” The neural circuits are that ancient. It is the reason Medusa had snakes for hair and Hercules had to fight the Hydra. Snakes are synonymous with anxiety. All that clutter in your life is like a nest of snakes, waiting to strike. No wonder you procrastinate. Who wants to fight snakes?

Heroes do. Heroes are the ones who fight off the snakes. They are the ones who grow teeth themselves and face the terror, rather than cowering in the trees. They are the ones who save us from the dragon of chaos and death.

You think you can fight monsters without being yourself a bit of a monster? This, as Professor Peterson tells it, is what Adam and Eve learned when they listened to the snake. They learned they were naked. They learned they were vulnerable. Which means they learned how to hurt. And became human, knowing good--and evil.

In Professor Peterson's words:
You might say that someone who is incapable of cruelty is a higher moral being than someone who is capable of cruelty. And I would say...that that's incorrect. Dangerously incorrect. Because if you are not capable of cruelty you are absolutely a victim to anyone who is. Part of the reason people go watch anti-heroes and villains is because there is a part of them crying out for the incorporation of the monster within them which is what gives them strength of character and self-respect, and because it's impossible to respect yourself until you grow teeth.

And if you grow teeth then you realize that you are somewhat dangerous. Or maybe somewhat seriously dangerous. And then you might be more willing to demand that you treat yourself with respect and other people do the same thing. And so that doesn't mean that being cruel is better than not being cruel. What it means is that being able to be cruel and then not being cruel is better than not being able to be cruel. Because in the first case you're nothing but weak and naive. And in the second case you're dangerous but you have it under control.

A lot of martial arts concentrate on exactly that in their philosophy of training. [They say,] We're not training you to fight. We're training you to be peaceful and awake and avoid fights. But if you happen to have to get in one...and you're competent at fighting, that actually decreases the probability that you're going to have to fight because when someone pushes you, you'll be able to respond with confidence, and with any luck--and this is certainly the case with bullies--with any luck a reasonable show of confidence, which is equivalent to a show of dominance, is going to be enough to make the bully back off.

And so the strength that you develop in your monstrousness is actually the best guarantee of peace.
Back in February at the beginning of time, the bullies tried to take out Milo. But on Friday he came back...wearing a snake. And vowed never to let the bullies silence him or any other conservative or libertarian again.


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