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James Damore and Evolutionary Storytelling

David Klinghoffer

James Damore

The extent to which biology versus socialization contributes to differences in gender representation in the tech field is debatable. Google, however, as everyone knows, decided it didn’t want the question debated on its premises, and thus fired engineer James Damore, author of the now world-famous “diversity memo.”

Needless to say, our sympathy lies with the employee who offered a smart if controversial viewpoint and got canned for it. Proponents of intelligent design have been down that road numerous times. The difference is that James Damore, with many sympathizers on the political Right and elsewhere, will undoubtedly land on his feet, while some of the same folks who cheer for Damore couldn’t give a flip about ID scientists punished mercilessly for their views.

The diversity memo story is rich in such ironies. The most interesting may be the role of evolutionary thinking in Damore’s analysis. We read:

  • “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because…[among other factors] They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.”
  • “We all have biases and use motivated reasoning to dismiss ideas that run counter to our internal values. Just as some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the “God > humans > environment” hierarchy (e.g., evolution and climate change), the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ 8 and sex differences). Thankfully, climate scientists and evolutionary biologists generally aren’t on the right.”
  • “In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females. As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more cooperative and agreeable than men.” [Emphasis added.]

If it weren’t for the fact that Damore is the victim of politically correct censorship, I might push back harder against the simplistic exercise in evolutionary storytelling, complete with the familiar move of tarring evolution skeptics with “deny[ing] science.” When it comes to most evolutionary psychology, the science isn’t even an inch deep. It’s spray-painted on, imparting nothing more than a layer of what National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell dismissed as “narrative gloss.”

For those predisposed to agree with Damore, however, his perspective is automatically rubberstamped as “science.” “Damore Has Science On His Side,” as one conservative blogger declared, citing an opinion article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and concluding his post with the avowal, “Gender non-essentialists are the young earth creationists of the Left.” That is, I suppose, intended as the ultimate put-down.

Meanwhile, closer to the political Left, we have the strange spectacle of writers driven mad by the Google manifesto, turning on their favorite science and on science itself. Wired alludes to Damore’s advancingpurported principles of evolutionary psychology to argue that women are not well-suited to be good engineers.” Wow, that is interesting. Suddenly, when evolutionary theory is recruited to advance politically incorrect conclusions, it’s not factual anymore (“like gravity”), as in the usual presentation, but now merely “purported.”

Over at Salon, particle physicist and philosopher of science Chanda Prescod-Weinstein chides Damore for “shoddy science,” pointing to the “uses and abuses of evolutionary biology and its sibling, evolutionary psychology.” Well, well! She goes on, shockingly:

Science’s greatest myth is that it doesn’t encode bias and is always self-correcting. In fact, science has often made its living from encoding and justifying bias, and refusing to do anything about the fact that the data says something’s wrong.

That takes it a little far. The problem, obviously, isn’t science but some scientists, who are after all human beings. Otherwise she is exactly right. It’s a media myth that scientists, unlike everyone else, fly high above prejudices dictated by worldview, group think, personal prestige, and career advancement.

What Prescod-Weinstein has in mind, as she immediately clarifies, has to do with the treatment of race: the “invention of whiteness and the invention of race in tandem with the early scientific method which placed a high value on taxonomies.” That sounds like a reference to Darwin, who argued for a ranked taxonomy of races, with Africans at the bottom. Evolutionary theory has not yet shaken off or fully admitted its racist legacy. Seeing that acknowledged by a writer at Salon, even if in a highly veiled fashion, is not just ironic but almost surreal.

Returning to Damore’s manifesto, for the relevant science on the subject, you could do worse than take a look at a Live Science article, “Google Manifesto: Does Biology Explain Gender Disparities in Tech?” Megan McArdle at Bloomberg is also, as always, a pleasure to read and a model of common sense drawing on real-world experience (“As a Woman in Tech, I Realized: These Are Not My People”).

Why do men and women differ in their job choices and other behavior? I’m not sure that biology, socialization, and sexism completely exhaust the range of possible explanations. Worth debating? Definitely. How fascinating, then, to see thinkers on the Left and Right agreeing that there’s nothing to argue about here.

Photo credit: Robert Scoble via Flickr.