Jordan Peterson Wrongly Claims Ancient Art Depicts Structure of DNA
Jordan Peterson is a Canadian Professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He made a name for himself on the Internet after radically mischaracterizing the Canadian human rights Bill C-16 and taking part in an interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 that went viral.
The Canadian Bar Association offered a point-by-point refutation of his claims in a letter sent from the President René J. Basque to the Senate of Canada. Peterson was also debunked by Brenda Cossman, a University of Toronto Professor of law, who explained that Peterson was intentionally misrepresenting the bill. The bill was not about legislating pronouns, but about adding gender identity to the existing anti-discrimination law that already covers gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation and so on.
Peterson even admitted on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast #1070 (around the two-hour mark) that he intentionally monetizes his critics. When people give him a platform and debate him, his crowdfunding income goes up. When people protest him or deny him a platform, his crowdfunding income goes up even more. So no matter what happens, he just makes more money from his factually dubious activism.
It also turns out that he subscribes to many unreasonable beliefs that can be refuted by basic science.
In a discussion with Matt Dillahunty, Peterson insisted that you cannot stop smoking without supernatural intervention. This surprised Dillahunty, a secular atheist who has quit smoking without any supernatural help whatsoever.
His alleged “expert testimony” in court has been met with skepticism. One judge called it “junk science” and another judge in a separate case called it “dubious” and that Jordan Peterson makes claims “without any proof”.
Besides his weird beliefs about quitting smoking and his failure to be considered a credible expert witness in the court system, Peterson has also stated in several talks that he believes that entangled serpents in ancient art represents DNA.
In one case, he even stated that this is the case as a brute fact. When called on it, he falls back by stating that he is merely guessing in a dream-like way or speculating at the edge of his knowledge. But if he is merely guessing, why present it as a fact?
This articles goes into detail on the nature and structure of DNA, why entangled snakes do not represent DNA and cites four examples of where Peterson makes this claim (together with video links, transcript, context and timestamps).
What is DNA?
Deoxyribonucleic acid is the molecule that encodes hereditary information and determines what amino acids should be included in certain proteins and what order they should be in.
It consists of basic building blocks called nucleotides. These consists of a phosphate group, a sugar with five carbons and a nitrogenous base. There are four common nucleotides in DNA: adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). A pairs with T and C pairs with G. A set of three nucleotides is called a codon and specify an amino acid. Many amino acids make up a protein.
The two DNA strands in a DNA double helix run anti-parallel (head-to-toe) in their direction. The double helix also has a major groove and a minor groove formed by the backbone of the DNA molecule. DNA molecules are copied during the production of sperm and eggs, and DNA is regularly transcribed into RNA that is translated to proteins that have different functions in the body. Some RNA molecules themselves can have important functions as well.
You can read more about the structure of DNA in this Nature Education article.
Why entwined serpents do not depict DNA
The entangled snakes do not really represent or depict DNA. They look nothing like DNA, entangled snakes have other explanations and the only citation that Peterson offers is to books written by anthropologists who came to this conclusion while being high on drugs. That is not a valid source of evidence about ancient history or symbolism.
Snakes tangle themselves during reproduction
Snakes can be dangerous creatures. They can bite their prey and it usually dies if the snake is venomous. Some of them can even kill humans with their bite.
Snakes entwine themselves when they are mating. Mating produces offspring. This is the core reason that entwined snakes exists in ancient art of mythological significance. It symbolizes reproduction, creation or giving birth.
In fact, many of the snake tangles that Jordan Peterson discusses represents primordial deities in regional mythologies. It has nothing to do with being ancient representations of DNA, the structure of which was only discovered in 1953. The ancient artists had no idea what the structure of DNA looked like or that it even existed.
The claim that entangled snakes represent the structure of DNA has zero evidence and is only based on speculations by anthropologists who were high on drugs. That is not a credible scientific argument. It is not a reasonable philosophical stance. It is just anthropologists getting high and making stuff up. It is not an argument.
It is also not an argument to point to the fact that snakes (entangled or not) appear in many different forms of ancient arts. This is because snakes existed in those environments as well, reproduced in the same way and had the same dangers. It does not represent some kind of common origins, but independent origins based on the local nature.
It should also be noted that it is possible for the people who analyze these pieces of art to read in meaning and similarities that were not intended. When interpreting ancient art and symbolism, it is important to have safeguards against the impact of confirmation bias and subjective appraisals.
Entangled snakes look nothing like DNA
The entangled snakes in the ancient art from China, Egypt or Australia look nothing like DNA.
1. The strands are not anti-parallel. The two snakes should be head-to-toe, not head-to-head.
2. There are no nitrogenous bases.
3. There are no 5 carbon sugars.
4. There is no phosphate backbone.
5. The art does not include four different nucleotides.
6. There is no internal base-pairing where A pairs with T and C pairs with G. It is the sequence of nucleotides that distinguishes different pieces of DNA in an organism from each other and it affects what amino acids will occur in the corresponding protein.
7 There are also no major or minor groove visible.
Jordan Peterson later admits that he is merely “speculating” and “guessing in a dream-like state” when he claims that these ancient art pieces represents the structure of DNA. But if that is the case, why present it as a belief or as a brute fact?
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Four times Jordan Peterson claimed ancient art depicts DNA
In a single instance, anyone can make a slip of the tongue and make a mistake.
In this case, Jordan Peterson has claimed that ancient art of various kinds represents the structure of DNA. Not once, not twice, but four times.
In some cases, he stated that he believes this to be the case, whereas in other cases he stated as a brute fact. In yet other cases, he stated that he is merely speculating or guessing in a dream-like state. In other words, making stuff up.
Let us go over each documented instance of where Peterson claims that ancient art depicts the structure of DNA while making sure we include transcripts, time stamps and the surrounding context. Supporters of Jordan Peterson often insist that criticism of him is based on quoting him out of context or not looking at more than one instance. Here, both of these objections fall apart, as context is included and more than once instance is examined.
The four cases are a talk in the maps of meaning series, a talk in a psychology course on psychology, a talk on the Bible and in the questions and answers section to that same talk. In other words, his claim is not just a slip of the tongue, but something he genuinely thinks is true.
He even gives multiple references to books by anthropologists doing drugs in the jungle to back up his claim.
Maps of Meaning 8 Talk
In the video “Maps of Meaning 8: Neuropsychology of Symbolic Representation” (March 13, 2017), Jordan Peterson discusses Mesopotamian methodology, the basic structure of how they viewed the world and different representations of deities in ancient arts.
Close to the two hour mark, Peterson makes the astonishing claim that two snakes with entangled tails is an ancient representation of the DNA double helix (1:43:40 – 1:47:29):
Here’s how the Mesopotamians conceptualized the world. There was a…let us call it a disc. That’s salt water. Why? Well, what happens when you go to the end of the continent? Salt water. Everywhere, right? So wherever you go, you run into salt water so that is the disc that surrounds everything. Now why is it a disc? The world is a dome on a disc. Why? Well, say, you are standing in the middle of a field. What does the world look like? A dome on a disc. So it is a phenomenological representation. So the bottom of the dome is the ground on which you stand. What happens if you dig? You hit water. Freshwater. So the dome of the land is on a disc of freshwater. What happens if you go to the edge of the land? You run into salt water. The dome of the land is on a disc of freshwater on a disc of salt water. Okay, those are the two gods, Tiamat is the god of salt water and Abzû is the god of freshwater. It’s happenstance in some sense because that is the masculine and the feminine and they can be attributed to all sorts of different geographical areas. So for example…let’s see if I can think of a good example…it doesn’t matter. I’ll just leave that for now. Okay so the two primary gods are Abzû and Tiamat. Tiamat is female and Abzû is male and they are locked together in an inseparable embrace. Okay, so how do you understand that? Easy. Yin and Yang. It is the same idea. Here is another representation…this is a cool one…I have a couple of them here that are really cool.
This is from China. So this is Fuxi and Nuwa, I think I got that right…But I just love that representation…It is so insanely cool this representation! So you see the sort of…the primary mother and father of humanity emerging from this underlying snake-like entity with its tails tangled together. I think that is a repres…I really do believe that this, although it is very complicated to explain why. I really believe that is a representation of DNA, so…and that representation, that entwined double helix, that is everywhere…you can see it in Australian aboriginal arts and I am using the Australians as an example because they were isolated in Australia for like 50 000 years. They are the most archaic people that were ever discovered and they have clear representations of these double helix structures in their art, so…and those are the two giant serpents out of which the world is made, roughly speaking. It is the same thing you see in the staff of Asclepius, which is the healing symbol that physicians use although that is usually only one snake but sometimes it is two. So that is a Chinese representation and then there is this.
That is the Egyptian representation. We talked about the Egyptian story the other day, right? We talked about Isis and Osiris. So there they are, cobras. Their tails are twined together. See they emerge out of that. That is the dragon of chaos that manifests itself as culture and nature. That’s the representation. That is unbelievably cool. So anyways back to the Mesopotamian story. So Abzû and Tiamat are the primordial deities, nature and culture, they are entwined together and they give rise to the first category of children.
Note how Jordan Peterson states that he really believes that entwined snakes are a representation of the structure of DNA. Not merely that they look like DNA (they don’t) in the same way that a cloud might look like a car or something like that. He really believes it.
Personality 22 Talk
In the video “Personality 22: Conclusion: Psychology and Belief” (Jun 11, 2017), Jordan Peterson delivered a final lecture in a course of personality psychology. After about one hour, he repeats the claim that entangled snakes are “two halves of the DNA molecule” (1:05:40-1:06:49):
You see the same thing in Hinduism. That’s the yoni. The feminine symbol in case you were wondering. Masculine symbol, that is the union of the two right. That is the union of chaos and order. There is a snake luring in the background, and it is golden. Because it is the union of those two things producing the power of the snake that is something you might think about. You can think about those as two halves of the DNA molecule. That is what they are although I cannot tell you how I know that but it is the same idea. It is the same idea here. So this what happens here is, this is a very remarkable picture, so this is Eve. Eve is handing out skulls to mankind, right. It’s self-consciousness and the discovery of death and this is Mary as the church on the this side and she is handing these things that are the hosts, those are pieces of Christ’s bodies, and so he is put up there on this tree same as the skull as an antidote and the antidote is something that you incorporate and the thing you incorporate is the voluntary acceptance of suffering as the cure for death. That is what that picture means.
Here, Jordan Peterson insists that “this is what they are”, although he adds that he cannot tell you how he knows this. This is a terrible argument. He merely asserts it as a fact without providing any evidence. In fact, he just refuses to explain how he supposedly “knows” this.
Again, Peterson is not saying that he merely thinks they remind him of DNA, but “that is what they are”.
Biblical Series IV Talk
In the video “Biblical Series IV: Adam and Eve: Self-Consciousness, Evil, and Death” (Jun 19, 2017), Jordan Peterson analyzed biblical stories from Genesis, including Adam and Eve, and compared it with other mythologies and ideas from psychoanalysis. He repeated the claim that the snakes represents the structure of DNA (1:32:12 – 1:33:50):
This is an old Chinese symbol. I think it’s Fuxi and Nuwa. I think I have the pronunciation wrong, but it’s really cool. See the snakes, down here? They’re kinda like the DNA symbol, which I find very interesting. That’s the original cosmic serpent – the potential out of which that emerged—then that’s the differentiation of that into male and female. So that’s like the predatory unknown. That’s one way of thinking about it. The most fundamental conception of mankind is the predatory unknown, and then the bifurcation of that into the two fundamental, cognitive elements of human perception: masculine and female.
You see the same thing, here. This is Egyptian. and also extraordinarily old. It’s the great serpent that underlies everything, bifurcating itself into Isis, queen of the underworld, and Osiris, king of kings, pharaoh, king of order.
You see the same thing in an old alchemical symbol. I love this one because it looks quite a lot like the little thing that Harry Potter chases around. That’s not accidental, by the way. The Seeker is the thing that chases this, and the Seeker that chases this and catches it wins. That’s a really old idea. I cannot figure out how the hell J. K. Rowling knew that, because that is a very, very archaic and arcane symbol. On Google it’s called the round chaos, and the only reference to the round chaos that I can find on Google is on my webpage. And so I have no idea how Rowling came up with that. I mean, I know she looked at a lot of old texts, but the idea that if you play the meta-game and you catch this, you win all the games, is exactly right. That’s the motif for…What’s the name for that…Quidditch.
In this clip, Jordan Peterson is more vague about it. He will backpedal even more in the Q&A section.
Biblical Series IV Q&A
In the questions and answers session of the same video, Jordan Peterson now attempts to backpedal from the earlier times he talked about this issue (2:22:22 – 2:24:57):
Q: Hi Dr. Peterson, earlier you showed a picture of Fuxi and Nuwa.
Jordan Peterson (interrupts): Yeah! Right! (points to the person asking the question).
Q: …and Osiris and in your Maps of Meaning lecture you also explain that cultures around the world have these twin snakes that
Jordan Peterson (interrupts): Yeah, they are everywhere man!
Q: … yeah and so you mentioned that you believed this is a representation of DNA
Jordan Peterson (interrupts): You would bring that up too, Jesus what is it with you guys tonight? Hah. Well, yeah, no, I wouldn’t say that I believe that. I have my suspicions that that might be it, yeah because believe is too strong a word but those representations, are everywhere, and…Read this book…this is a good one. Um,..Now I have to remember the book. It is by an anthropologist who went down to the Amazon jungle and experimented intensively with ayahuasca. I think it is called The Cosmic Serpent. I think that is the name of the book. You could read that. There’s another one called Breaking Open The Head, which is also pretty damn interesting and there is something to those books. I mean The Cosmic Serpent kinda goes of on a bit of a tangent, I would say, although Breaking Open The Head is better. It seems to stay more constrained, but there is…We do not know the limits of our perception, especially under certain conditions and I think people have had intimations of DNA as the cosmic serpent forever. So…yeah…
But that is way out on the frontiers of my knowledge, right…I’m guessing in a dream-like way when I am making statements like that.
Q: … but you didn’t mention that you did believe in that they where sort of maybe some dreams and interpretations that might have emerged but I don’t see how we could have perceived DNA as it is.
Jordan Peterson: Right!
Jordan Peterson: We didn’t objectively, but I am not so sure we didn’t subjectively. But I mean it is very strange that these double helices in so many places and are often utilized as healing symbols with the snake, so…anyways like I said that’s…what do you call that…I am uh…it is not hypothesizing…it is one thing worse than that..speculating! Those are speculations. I am operating at the edge of my understanding, but our perceptions are very mutable and they can…we can see things under some conditions that you would not think that anyone could see, so…okay, yep.
Jordan Peterson is more or less acknowledging that he is speculating when he claimed that entwined snakes represents the DNA double helix. It is not based on scientific evidence, but speculation. Recall that in the Maps of Meaning 8 Talk, Jordan Peterson says that he believes that the entwined snakes are a representation of DNA. In the Personality 22 talk, he states point-blank that they are two halves of the DNA molecule. In the Biblical Series IV talk, he just says that “they’re kinda like the DNA symbol”. Now, in this Q&A section, Peterson admits that it is just speculation.
This is remarkable, since he presented it as a brute fact and stated that he really believes it in previous talks.
The books he cites involve anthropologists who came to this alleged “insight” after using drugs. But this is not a valid source of evidence about the structure of DNA or the history and symbolism of ancient arts. People can have all sorts of weird experiences when they are high on drugs, but this does not make it scientific evidence for any particular claim about history.
Jordan Peterson is literally saying that he really believes that those entangled snakes represents DNA. He insists that “that is what they are”.
Jordan Peterson has repeated this belief several times and backpedals when confronted. He has no clear evidence for this claim. Peterson cites books written by anthropologists who have come to that belief during drug use. But this is not a valid source of scientific or historical knowledge.
The entangled snakes look nothing like the structure of DNA and it is much more likely that the ancient art just represents snakes mating, especially when seemingly indicating when two primordial gods create the world in different ways.
The claim that ancient art represents or depicts the structure of DNA is bullshit.
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People who have also criticized Peterson for this claims includes Genetically Modified Skeptic and PZ Myers.
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