The Whites Of Their Eyes

I’ve had my attention drawn to Jordan B Peterson over the past two or three months. He’s become something of a celebrity overnight, almost. And I find him very interesting to listen to. He brings a certain passion to what he’s saying.

Nevertheless, I never find myself completely buying what he says. And in this respect something he said at about 3 minutes 20 seconds into the video below is an example of something I couldn’t buy.

He said:

“What are you really up to? Everyone’s always wondering that. It’s why they’re watching your eyes. Because your eyes point at things. And they can infer what they’re interested in, what you’re up to by looking at what you look at. And that’s why your eyes have whites, so that we can see where you’re pointing, because gorillas don’t. And so what that means, roughly speaking, is that all your ancestors whose eyes couldn’t be reliably tracked were either killed or didn’t mate. It’s a big deal for us to see where people’s eyes are pointing. And so we’re always watching each other’s eyes constantly.”

Herrumph! That made me sit up:

all your ancestors whose eyes couldn’t be reliably tracked were either killed or didn’t mate.


Is it really true that we can only see where other people are looking if we can see the whites of their eyes? Isn’t the pupil in the middle of the eyes, with the coloured circular iris around it, enough to gauge in which direction someone is looking?

After all, is it impossible for people to tell in which direction green-eyed cats or brown-eyed dogs are looking, because they have only vestigial whites to their eyes? I could tell when my cat was looking at me, and even looking into my eyes.

But – hey, wait – there’s another problem: we’ve got two eyes. And we can only look at someone else’s eyes one at a time. You look at either their right eye or their left eye: you can’t see both of them at the same time. And when someone’s looking at something that’s near to them, their eyes swivel together. And when they’re looking into the far distance, their eyes point in pretty much exactly the same direction. But if you can only see one eye at a time,  you can only gauge in what direction one of their eyes is looking, not what they’re looking at. If you’re trying to find out what people are looking at,you’ll have to look at first one eye, and then the other, and hope that their attention remains on the same thing (which it may not be).

So is it ever possible to know what anyone is looking at? Or what the lenses in their eyes are focused on? No. It isn’t. There’s no way of reliably tracking anyone else’s eyes. It’s a physical impossibility.

So if you ended up killing or not mating with people whose eyes you couldn’t reliably track, you’d wind up killing everyone.

And wouldn’t doing something like that be a bit Darwinian? Is life really such an awful Struggle For Existence that you have to kill off even people who don’t have any white in their eyes? I don’t think so.

But it’s more than that:

“we’re always watching each other’s eyes constantly.”

Are we? I don’t. Usually when I’m talking to people I don’t look at their eyes. I don’t even look at their faces. Sometimes I just look at the floor. Most of the time, I don’t really care where they are looking either. Do I really need to know? Mostly I don’t. Most of the time it’s good enough to just hear what people are saying.

And there’s another thing: he’s really only talking about people in social contexts, where they’re interacting with each other. We use our eyes to do lots of other things as well, like aim a rifle or a bow, or look out for approaching tigers and wolves, or see how far we have to jump or throw something. Social interactions make up a very small part of people’s lives, if they’ve got jobs to do, tasks to carry out. And for the most part I think it’s those other tasks – all of which require using our eyes – that seem more important than after-hours social interactions.

Anyway, on thinking about what he said, it just didn’t stack up right. And I wound up dismissing more or less everything he’d just said.

And that’s pretty much how I usually end up feeling. He initially sounds very persuasive, but on close examination it doesn’t really make much sense.

But, hey! That’s just me.

About Frank Davis

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20 Responses to The Whites Of Their Eyes

  1. I am amused at the outrage that seems to follow this chap. Freedom of speech? it wont last much longer…..

  2. look out for approaching tigers and wolves

    So basically…if you aren’t mating or killing those you cannot mate with, you are on the lookout for tigers and wolves.

    Frank…you’ve an extraordinary life. I think you should write a book about your adventures. :-D

  3. garyk30 says:

    Body language is also a very good indication of people’s/animals feelings or intentions.

  4. Roobeedoo2 says:

    I listened to that talk this week, Frank. In fact I’ve been listening a few of his talks recently, since the Channel 4 Cathy Newman interview. The ‘gotcha moment’ in that did something that we don’t get to witness normally – a strident advocate for social change being stopped in their tracks. The Strident Advocates for Changing Society aren’t happy about that…

    *With his eyes closed, Clicky… “KILL HIM!!” .. /wipe tear from eye…*

    I dunno, Frank, he seems to be Fourth Turning ‘gray champion’ archetype to me:

  5. Roobeedoo2 says:

    */sigh… Idiot fins. I just wanted you to show the @Steveblogs11 twitter image from the Guardian, Clicky…*

      • Barry Homan says:

        I’ve been reading a few articles/commentaries on Peterson. It gives me a headache, and I never get headaches.

      • Oh – fantastic lecture! I’m a Peterson fan. His lectures are fascinating for the details. If he said Hitler bathed four times a day – he did! There will be evidence to back it up. But did you HEAR what he is saying? In an ‘orderly’ (over civilised) society you don’t want ‘mess’. Smokers are ‘mess’. And we pollute society. Anti smokers are ‘controllers’, cleaning up society – cleaning up ‘mess’… they even want to clean up outdoors. How close are we to totalitarianism? I think we are IN it NOW.

  6. Rose says:

    But we aren’t descended from gorillas.

  7. Frank – it’s an evolutionary thing – eye whites – it’s not his idea!
    I look at eyes all the time. It’s where you can see the ‘soul’ of the person! And clear whites, indicate health. If you don’t look at peoples eyes, maybe you are autistic? Lots of us oldies are, but we didn’t know it…..

    • Rose says:

      According to Peterson’s theory, I would have been a gonner for sure, I have complete heterochromia, but the brain seems to correct visual anomalies and it usually takes about six months before someone I see everyday even notices.
      One day, I wore coloured contact lens so both eyes looked the same and everyone remarked that I looked different somehow but couldn’t work out what it was.

    • Frank Davis says:

      it’s an evolutionary thing – eye whites – it’s not his idea!

      It doesn’t matter whether it’s his idea or not. I still think it’s an idea that doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

  8. Emily says:

    I first became aware of Peterson following the controversy in Toronto when he refused to use gender neutral pronouns. I liked what he had to say about the danger of totalitarian control of language but I haven’t listened to any his other videos. I’d agree that this idea doesn’t seem to withstand scrutiny.

  9. RdM says:

    OT – before I launch in to my exposition about vision, dot dot dot

    Michael Hudson’s “TED TALK” on Economics

    I’ve emailed the author and the webmaster about typo – well, errors, repeating paragraphs in the transcript, before (and I haven’t yet) I viewed the video, but this seems important and worthwhile.

    See what you think.
    Are we in the 95%?

    I sure am.

    • RdM says:

      The webmaster responded extensively and kindly and has fixed the errors in

      I think too that there are quite a few other interesting and worthwhile reads there.
      Including more on the Greek debt crisis, from earlier. So have a look!

      (It’s not really a ‘Ted Talk’. It might be worth a read, though!)

      But that talk, and questions, thinking of issues of morality and the obvious issues of fighting the anti-smoker meme, led me to explore others, and in the unlikely apparent guise of a biblical talk (his specialty actually Babylonian economic archeology.) he expounds some some extraordinarily relevant modern economic themes in this one

      And how do we fight this, from the last paragraphs, in general?

      Well you’re right, that’s the problem: How do you popularize it all? What do you do today? The first thing is I think you have to frame it in the big picture.

      The way you get to people is to say: We’re at a turning point in history. If we don’t solve the problem of economic polarization, which is caused mainly by debt, we’re going to go into another dark age. We’re going to have neo-feudalism. We’re going to have neo-serfdom, except that you’re not going to be tied to the land like serfs were. You can live wherever you want, but wherever you are, you’re going to have to pay about 40% of your income just for housing. And you’re going to have to pay for water, and you’re going to have to pay for the other needs. This is the new kind of serfdom. You have to re-frame what the economy is about in a way that people can understand.

      And you need a multi-pronged approach to fight on four or five fronts. You need academics so that nobody can say you don’t know what you’re talking about. You need an organ, a periodical; you need books; you need to make use of the Internet; you need films; and you need a political group. You need to institutionalize this idea and give it a critical mass of coherence, and I think that’s what you folks are doing.

      (my last para quote in bold for emphasis)

      Is this not quite applicable to what we need?
      Well, in a sense, all these things are gathering, and can come to fruition.
      Already are in place, just need to progress.

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