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The “Google Manifesto”: Bad Biology, Ignorance of Evolutionary Processes, and Privilege

By Agustin Fuentes, PhD, University of Notre Dame

There are biological differences between the sexes, including average body size and upper body strength, and aspects of reproductive physiology. There is also a range of gendered differences in behavior and perception as contemporary societies structure developmental patterns and expectations differently for boys and girls. But there are more biological similarities than differences, and more gender overlaps than discontinuities, between males and females—we are the same species after all. These differences and similarities can, and do, play roles in shaping performance on specific tasks by individuals and by classes of individuals.

However, this very general statement is not what is at the heart of James Damore’s manifesto, Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber. Rather, the manifesto makes claims about human nature—about what it means to be human and what our species is “really” like. How do we know this?  Because the language used is rooted in the terms “biological difference”, “biological causes” and “evolutionary” or “evolved” psychology. In a non-academic context such as this manifesto, these are code for an “innate humanness” and imply that social action, however well-intended, is not going to change who we are. This is bad biology and displays a radical ignorance of what biology is and how evolution works.

The Damore manifesto asserts that “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways” but only offers examples of general psychological differences assumed to have “biological causes.” The only actual biological factor mentioned is testosterone—a hormone that plays a primary role in development of male reproductive tissues (e.g., testes and prostate) and the development of secondary sex characteristics like increased muscle mass and bone strength in men—but without any understanding of the hormone and its complexity biologically and culturally. What the manifesto actually refers to is a set of psychological assessments of gender difference drawing on the work of a few evolutionary psychologists, some magazine articles, and Wikipedia.

The manifesto tells us that compared to men, women are more open toward feelings rather than ideas, more open toward people rather than things, show gregariousness rather than assertiveness, have higher rates of neuroticism, and are more prone to anxiety. Moreover, the manifesot asserts that men have a higher drive for status and are more capable of dealing with stress and technological challenges. These general personality trends, we are told, are biological and culturally universal. Spoiler alert! They are neither.

There are hormonal, neurological and other physiological factors in the expression of behavior associated with assertiveness, emotion, stress responses, anxiety, etc…but the real assertion in Damore’s manifesto is not about the behaviors themselves, or their biological components, but about the evolved patterns that led to them. This is about human evolution. Inherent in the manifesto is the assumption that human males and females experienced different patterns of evolutionary pressures and thus evolved different systems of response and perceptions. And that is why the author believes Google’s attempt to develop a more level structural landscape of access will fail.

Let’s unpack this idea a little. The main gist of these assumptions is that male humans (at least ancestrally) experienced stronger pressures due to their role as hunters, protectors, and creators/users of technology (stone tools and such) and, therefore, their psychologies (and bodies) were shaped accordingly. Women, on the other hand, were under the intense pressures of childbirth and child care and getting men and kids connected and interacting, maintaining social cohesion. Thus, men evolved the tendency to deal with stress and seek status more effectively (or be eaten or killed), while women were geared towards social connections, compassion, and thus more susceptible to social disruption and anxiety (more emotional).

We actually know quite a bit about human evolution and the patterns and processes that our ancestors faced. How do these assumptions hold up? Not particularly well, as it turns out.

Men made the tools? We have no evidence of any sort that there were any sex or gender differences in the creation and use of stone, wood, bone or other technologies for the vast majority of the Pleistocene (the last 2 million years or so).  Some evidence in bones and materials for gendered differences do show up in the latest Pleistocene and Holocene (~25-10,000 years ago) especially when we see the emergence of craft specialization, domestication and sedentism.

Men hunted and fought one another? For the vast majority of human evolution we do not have clear evidence that only men hunted. In fact, for some ancient humans there is strong likelihood that both sexes participated in hunting. And, importantly, earlier humans were substantially more robust that we are today…that is, a large percentage of females in the past were more robust than many males are today. Plus, depending on what hunting technology you use, size and muscle density might not be critical factors. Also, the evidence of interpersonal violence is pretty minimal for much of human history, insufficient to see if there was a sex-based pattern. When we do start to see more robust evidence for lethal violence (war-like events) the distribution of injuries and evidence of participation is not biased by sex and until quite recently (last 7,000 years or so). There are no clear biases one way or the other in regards to gender representation in hunting and violence until very recently.

Women cared for babies/children and did the social work for the group? Females give birth and lactate; men don’t. This is a major sex difference. However, a hallmark of human evolution is extensive cooperative parenting, a very idiosyncratic pattern among primates and mammals at large. Human infants, from at least 1-1.5 million years ago, are born extremely early in development, in order to accommodate very large brains relative to body size. This early birth also results in extremely slow motor skill acquisition—the slowest of all mammals. Subsequently, human infants require massive care-taking, and our ancestors adapted to this pressure via increased care from diverse members of the group, including both sexes and all ages. There is widespread agreement that cooperative care had and has a significant impact on the shaping of both male and female human physiology and behavioral patterns.

An evolutionary history clearly divided into women staying home caring for babies while the men made tools and hunted, both experiencing different evolutionary pressures, is not borne out by the available archeological and fossil evidence.

Were there gender difference in the past? It is extremely likely. Do we know if they were like gender differences we see today? No. And the majority of the current evidence suggests that male and female lives, and thus evolutionary pressures, overlapped much, much more than they diverged. This makes humans pretty distinctive relative to many other mammals, and is likely one of the major factors in our astonishing evolutionary success.

The data for human evolution currently available do not support the underlying assumptions for the information the Damore manifesto offers as “biology.” This in no way denies that there are many patterns of difference between male and female gendered individuals and that those patterns can be quite relevant in many contexts. It does deny, however, the assertion of biological and evolutionary underpinnings to the differences in capabilities for leadership and tech-based positions. Simply noting a few highly contended, and structurally very complex, generalized psychological trends as “biology” is bad science and reflects substantive ignorance of the biological and social sciences.

But then again, the manifesto was never about biology. It is about anger, ignorance, and resentment. Its author states that women, as a gender, have made much progress and that men are more constrained by restrictive gender expectations. Damore claims that 95% of the social sciences and humanities are left-leaning and create myths that are unsupported (like the gender wage gap and the theory of social construction) thus biasing social and corporate actions in favor of some (women and minorities) and against others (white men).

Sound familiar? Given the political and social state of our country, the widespread ignorance of biological and evolutionary processes, and Damore being from a class of people who are used to having inherent structural benefits in the American system (and now fear losing them), it is not at all surprising that the manifesto was written as it was.

Scientists, especially biological and evolutionary scientists, cannot allow the ignorant and erroneous misuse of “biology” as a tool to control and repress. We have seen the effects of this too many times in our own society and in many others. At the same time, we cannot shut down debates and discussions about difference and similarities…these are needed now more than ever. What we can do is participate, offer knowledge, data and insight from scientific investigations to correct errors, to reject lies, and to provide access to understanding everywhere we can.

In fact, let’s heed Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s suggestion that society “eliminate structural biases in education, health care, housing, and salaries that favor white men and see if we [women and everyone else] fail. Run the experiment. Be a scientist about it.” This is science worth trying.

Edited by Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.


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About the Author
  • Agustin Fuentes

    Dr. Agustin Fuentes is professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His current research includes cooperation and creativity in human evolution, ethnoprimatology and multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and interdisciplinary approaches to human nature(s). His most recent book is The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (Dutton, 2017). Follow Agustin on Twitter @Anthrofuentes.

Discussion
  1. Back in the late 80s I researched much of the literature on gender related cognitive differences as this related to performance in mathematics. My conclusion was that statistically there were differences and that while much of this could be attributed to social and cultural factors some biological differences did existed (we’re talking about small differences in mainly overlapping distributions). But since small differences can get culturally magnified the situation is more complex. With mathematics, which requires intense mental focus, the field has historically been developed almost entirely by men. So, it seemed natural to suppose that it would show an intrinsic bias toward use of the sorts of cognitive skills where males seem to do well. One way to take this is that it would be quite reasonable to suppose that in mathematics women will always be a minority. But another way is to ask the question: what is mathematics? Because of the way it has developed historically, could it be the case that there are entire fields of mathematics that have never been developed, or only marginally developed, because they require cognitive skills at which women tend to do well? That gives an entirely different take on the question of gender differences in general.

  2. Although I agree in some ways about his psychological motivations for writing his manifesto, cooperative care, males being more competitive is generally true, though there are nuances. I care to disagree, however, with the use of the phrase “bad biology” as well as the idea that interpersonal violence has been “minimal.” A simple scan backwards in recorded history for the past 3000 years and you will find incredulous numbers of deaths and fights due to our tribalistic (i.e., evolutionary) instincts. The I/O literature also shows a trend towards employees and managers having a strong preference for more “masculine” and aggressive traits in males and females in positions of power. Generally, an evolutionary psychology discussion of traits or basic behavior is going to be oversimplified. I appreciate the nuances of your argument though Dr. Fuentes.

  3. Thanks for the comments. yes, I agree…but 3000 years is , for me, very recent….Remember, i am tlaking about broad evolutionary sequences. I note that in the blog. We have good evidence that violent (and male biased) conflict increases pretty dramatically in many (but by no means all) places across the Holocene and especially in the last 4000 years or so. Please do not conflate “tribalistic” and “evolutionary”…they actually don’t go together and describe totally different realms of analysis.
    Contemporary management issues are extremely impacted by gender expectations and social norms…and in the ways you note.That is indeed a critical problem

  4. If men are the oppressors and that’s why for all time the majority of empires and civilizations have been ruled by men. That einstein, tesla, darwin and newton are just a result of oppressing woman and that more woman would be involved in ruling civilization and progressing the foundations of science were not men so oppressive. Then why has biology awarded men this inherent and obvious dominance over woman both mentally (obviously if they keep tricking them into oppression) and physically? Why for 9 months is a woman tender and vulnerable with a child and the duties of providing in the hands of man (especially ancient days where hunting was survival)? Has biology not spoken? This isn’t to say it is ok to deny woman rights to be scientist, engineers, etc. This is the simple fact that the majority will still be men not because of any other reason other than biology.

  5. Where is the evidence that gender gaps are all social, discrimination or culture? I think if you defend what google is doing you have to show scientific evidence for it. What Demore is saying is that there are some differences that are biological and even if there are more similarities than differences, these differences could be at the root of the gaps, or be resopnsible for a good part of it. So, if you want to force people into bias training, if you want to silence people like Demore, and things like that, then you have to offer evidence of discrimination, of unfair hiring procedures, etc, and also evidence for the effectiveness of these training and the reliability and validity of unconsious bias tools and so on. I think that is what Demore is saying.

  6. I think that your use of the term “bad biology” and suggestion that contemporary management issues are “extremely impacted” tend to foster a schism. Those are strong words, perhaps not supported by strong evidence (i.e. gender expectations and social norms impact issues, but likely at the realm of a mild correlation). The heterodox academy article finishes with the quote:”Nearly all academic psychologists who study personality, including gender differences, say that nature (biology) and nurture (childhood socialization, social norms, social roles) are both essential for explaining development, even if most researchers tend to focus their own work on one or the other.” We are choosing what dimensions to emphasize, and for google….apply (perhaps with an iatrogenic impact). In many of the discussions I feel that folks are talking past one another by de-emphasizing the impact of either biology (however construed) or socialization. Things also seem somewhat discipline specific. I am awaiting a conference presentation on “the google memo” from a multi-disciplinary panel.

  7. Shock-value, questionable dogma busting, controversial theories which make good headlines for Huffpost and asinine language (bad biology) aside…

    If let’s say there really is something as an long term verbal and ideological oppression of women resulting in smaller interest of women in IT education, would it be righteous to create another type of mechanism – quotas which will result in acceptance of a number of females that have lower scores than males which were not accepted to the education? From a historical standpoint – is anything like this even possible without a mayor backlash?

    Medicine/pharma schools in my country are 3 to 1 female to male ratio and it never crossed anyones mind to create special programs for males or even talk about this issue. I studied a 4 to 1 school and worked in companies that were about 7 to 1 and the crazy stories I could tell.. oh boy.

    I simply see this whole issue as a simple power play between men and women. It’s in every groups interest to hold as much power as possible and IT seems as the #1 profession that holds the most prestige right now.

    But anyway it really bogs all down to one simple question… if oppression exists.. is it really worth creating another to counteract it?

  8. Respectfully, I think you have extrapolated far more from Damore’s statement than he may have intended. I read a piece purporting to speak about the facts on the ground TODAY, not a treatise on where evolution, biology, or societal forces would/could go in the future OR even an in-depth WHY we are here today.

    I think he simply purported to address the unscientific notions that 1] all gender group disparities seen TODAY are the result of discrimination occurring TODAY OR that 2] all gender group disparities seen TODAY are the result of discrimination occurring in the past and must be remediated by affirmative discrimination today.

    Damore did NOT say that group biological differences dictate the abilities/proclivities of an individual unlike heavy-handed disparity theory which revolves around a simplistic oppressor-oppressed paradigm that leaves little leeway for individuals and their choices, etc. Disparities, ideally, should simply be a jumping-off point for investigation, NOT immutable evidence of discrimination. Sometimes, discrimination is at play. Other times, economy of information is at play. AND, sometimes, discrimination IS at play. BUT, few forces have wreaked as much havoc on the body politic as the bludgeon of disparity-theory-means-discrimination and its remedies.

  9. All this “scientific” stuff can be twisted hither and yon. (But the data on left-leaning college professors is clearly that some 3/4 of college professors are Democrats.) The real question should be, but is not, will diversity of skin color and sex cause a better return to the stockholders of corporations for the fairly staggering amount of money and time devoted to it? The goals of corporations are by law and judicial opinion to be protection of assets and generation of profits for stockholders. I would venture to guess there is NO, ZERO, NADA empirical evidence that diversity of skin color or sex improves profitability. But in this man’s opinion, while the USA is devoting massive amounts of time and money to diversity, China, Japan, Germany and most every other country is trying to outcompete the USA in technology, innovation, and strength. We as a nation must decide to order diversity or attempt to compete.,

  10. ‘@Burton
    I like that idea that there might be whole new fields of mathematics that will be more likely to be discovered by women, or others who have somewhat different traits than most mathematicians to date. My apologies to Emmy Noether.

  11. So if there is no direct evidence that 20000 years ago men hunted it must be that both men and women hunted. Just look at modern hunter gatherer societies. Look at biology: men run faster and have much stronger upper bodies. Have you not heard “Do not throw like a girl”. Look at how boys and girls play. As to tool making: who makes tools today? Why would it have been different before? This does not mean there are no individual differences or that people cannot bend to unfamiliar tasks when needed. In the past mortality has much higher so it was necessary to be versatile. I am amazed how willing people are to ignore biology for political reasons.

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