On Saturday, Gizmodo published a 10-page-long screed written by Google software engineer James Damore blasting the company’s diversity policies. In the now-viral document entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” Damore asserts that women are biologically ill-equipped to handle the rigours of the tech industry. The encouraging news is that Damore has now been fired from Google, according to multiple news reports. Sadly, the ideas espoused in his letter echo the same pseudoscience peddled by eugenicists and white supremacists for decades—and they’re unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Many ideas embraced by this ex-Google employee are based largely on the so-called conclusions of evolutionary psychology, a field premised on the idea that our psychological traits are the product of the same natural selection that shaped early human evolution. In practice, evolutionary psychology has been used to justify everything from rape to claims that certain groups of people are inherently more intelligent than others. It has also been criticised for shoddy methodology, ignoring cultural context, and “leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence.” Evolutionary psychologists have tried to use their science to determine the best way to seduce women, which they think can be gamed out like Battleship.
The field’s fraught and controversial history didn’t stop Damore from espousing some evolutionary psych of his own, to justify the underrepresentation of women at an enormous technology company.
“On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways,” Damore wrote. “These differences aren’t just socially constructed because [for one thing] they often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone...they’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.”
Citing something like “prenatal testosterone” to justify why more men occupy leadership positions in tech reads like classic evolutionary psychology: using a vaguely scientific (and controversial) concept to explain an incredibly complex, multifaceted issue. But in evolutionary psychology, many differences between genders in our society (including deep inequities) can be neatly explained away by hard-wired differences in in our brains.
“We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” Damore wrote, citing pseudoscientific claims that men get paid more because they have a “higher drive for status” instead of the overwhelming evidence that gender-based discrimination is closely linked to the wage gap.
Of course, using “science” to justify male superiority is much older than anything espoused by evolutionary psychologists. The idea that women are less psychologically stable—or more, bluntly, “hysterical”—has been around at least since Hippocrates wrote about it in the 5th century BCE. As Freud and his contemporaries later posited, women’s biology explained their “inherent” insanity. Or, as this particular Google employee called it, their neuroticism.
“Women, on average, have more neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance),” Damore wrote. “This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”
It’s true that women are more likely than men to be anxious, but they’re also more likely to have experienced physical and emotional abuse, both of which contribute to anxiety, for obvious reasons. So the claim that women are “neurotic” without any context as to why—possibly some differences in brain chemistry, but also, just maybe, greater levels of sexual harassment and social isolation in the workplace—is misleading and frankly, insulting.
A female “hysteric.” (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
And while Damore wasn’t so extreme as to claim women should be extirpated from the tech world, some of his pseudoscientific notions about why men are inherently better suited to certain jobs ring strongly of eugenics, a school of thinking premised on the idea that certain groups are biologically superior to others. Damore argues that “highly heritable” personality traits (including higher “agreeableness” and a preference for “artistic” jobs among women) are responsible for gender gaps in tech, ignoring cultural explanations. By this logic, attempting to level the playing field for women is thus misguided—we should be selecting candidates (read: men) with the most desirable traits for high-stress, technically-demanding jobs.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some evolutionary psychologists have expressed support for the idea of modern eugenics projects. While technology changes and the “science” evolves, the inclination to use biological differences as an excuse for discrimination remains the same. And while the Google screed focused largely on gender, many of these same arguments have been used to justify racism.
A poster supporting the eugenics movement. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
“I would argue in fact that the whole idea of whiteness and white supremacy wouldn’t exist without science,” Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Washington, told Gizmodo, noting that the European Enlightenment spawned the (now widely-debunked) field of scientific racism.
As much as the Google employee’s anti-diversity letter reeks of centuries-old junk science, it’s important to emphasise that even today women, non-binary people, and people of color in STEM fields are still regularly confronted with bigoted attitudes wrapped in a guise of “biology.” All too often, these people fear being blacklisted within their industry if they speak out against workplace discrimination.
Oddly enough, the same white men who dominate tech industry in numbers seem to have convinced themselves they’re the ones whose status in the workplace is being threatened. Ironically—as Damore’s manifesto and the subsequent fallout now illustrate—they may be their own worst enemy.