Monday 25 March 2024

A quick browse of Steve Peters: The Chimp Paradox


I’ve had an enjoyable hour looking at The Chimp Paradox. I hadn’t realised when you said his name that he is that Steve Peters.

Here are my quick thoughts.

My first question opening the book was why is there a ‘paradox’ and what was it? I think of a paradox as a conceptually baffling phenomenon. Perhaps some issue where we are drawn to two answers, for very strong reasons, but which cannot both be true. I’m not sure that there is any paradox in the book. And I’m not sure he uses the word ‘paradox’ more than twice (I’ve searched), which is odd. I think what he means is that there are two elements in human psychology that pull in different ways. That’s not quite as dramatic a notion. I think that anyone who balances, say, wanting a donut now and wanting to have that same donut later already knows that choice is a balancing of competing wishes. You couldn’t sell a book on that revelation.

There is then the ‘science bit’, as Jennifer Aniston put it in her shampoo adverts. The brain has divisions and brain imaging suggests some broad correlations between mental activity and localised brain activity, as measured by blood flow. Also there are deficit studies and Peters cites the celebrated Phileas Gage case. I think it fair to say that standard neurology is that the brain isn’t homogenous and there’s quite a bit of localisation. (Gage himself recovered from impulsivity despite his brain damage a couple of years after his accident, so it’s not hard and fast. But that doesn’t undermine the basic claim of localisation.)

Labelling the limbic system the ‘chimp brain’ suggests an evolutionary story. You and I mentioned the reptilian brain. But it’s interesting that in this book, Peters does not actually use the word ‘evolution’ once. The other irritating thing here is that he uses the word ‘brain’ to refer to parts of the human brain. He even calls part of the human brain the ‘human brain’. No it isn’t! It’s part of it. We could cash this out by saying that in evolutionary theory, this bit only emerged with the development of a characteristically human organism but I’d like some indication of that story. (Fossil records make this tricky, of course, but I’d cut him slack if he made the right gestures.)

This is further illustrated by his odd habit of saying that we the reader, the humans, comprise only part of our minds. The chimp thinks one thing; we another. This is odd because ‘we’ are the sum total of all of this. (Freud has better terminology for this.)

I bet others have said this, but it all bears more than a passing similarity to the distinction between id, ego and superego in Freud. Peter’s we/‘human’ flips between ego and super-ego depending on how puritanical Peters is being.

My professional scepticism enters at this point to ask: to what extent will the body of the book reflect any of these possible neurological or evolutionary theories? I’d say: not at all. For example: he credits the inner monkey with asking what if… questions. That’s not credible. Fight-flight isn’t a hypothetical: it’s an insurance policy. Hypotheticals are tricky things to grasp and thus surely belong to the human. But it serves his purposes to suggests that this is part of the chimp even if that falsifies the evolutionary story.

All the rest is Peter’s moral world-view. He’s rather a strict Victorian parent. So we must judge the book by whether it is a helpful self-help fairy tale. (That’s roughly how I’d assess Freud too and I like Freud so I’m not being mean.) It wouldn’t help me.

I don’t like his simple split between logic and emotion. I don’t think we can draw that line (except in a way which makes logic merely an abstract calculus taught in philosophy classes). If logic is the structure of reasoning, it cannot be separated from emotional contents.

I note that he thinks that future based happiness is part of the human mind. So, some emotion is allowed into the supposedly strictly logical human as long as, like a Victorian parent, we agree to defer it to later (heaven?). Again, that fits his coaching story but isn’t very convincing.

His attitude to emotional processing is also very C19. It seems as though he concedes: Well it has to go on so we better let our inner chimp grieve the death of our beloved partner, say. But we humans just let that happen in the next room of our minds. We’re not grieving! We, humans, are weirdly unemotional – except when we’re allowed to be in the future. This is terrible psychotherapy! (That’s not a professional judgement, I concede.)

His picture of conflicts of wishes seems naïve, too. If we have a wish but wish we didn’t have it, then he seems to think that the chimp is ‘in charge’ in so far as we have the ground level wish in the first place though I assume in some further sense we are in charge because we get to say no (or at least wish we didn’t have that wish). It’s not at all clear to me that all countermanding of ground level wishes is an expression of a better self. My inner teenager often stifles my adult good intentions by suggesting that I must have an ulterior motive for a good act. The devil on my shoulder isn’t always merely a chimp-like, Freudian-Id-like desire. It may be a deep insecurity.

This is a pity because I do think that there can be interesting crossovers between neurology, evolutionary theory and psychology. For example the dopamine theory of alcoholism is really interesting. It also makes some of Peter’s questions seem over simple. He keeps asking what we want. But there may be different species of wanting. Knowing that is helpful, it seems to me. See eg:

Anyway, I’ve had a pleasurable hour looking at it, even if it isn’t for me.