I’m on vacation, trying to ignore the world’s madness, but I just spotted “Why I Was Fired by Google” in The Wall Street Journal, by software engineer James Damore, and I can’t let it pass. Google canned Damore for a memo in which he attributes “the gender gap in tech” to biological differences between men and women. 81 percent of Google’s employees are male.
In his memo, Damore says females are on average less ambitious and more prone to “neuroticism” than males and “have a stronger interest in people rather than things.” Damore claims these male-female differences are “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.” That is, the differences are innate, bred into us by natural selection. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai fired Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” a violation of the company’s code of conduct.
Damore’s Wall Street Journal essay is suffused with self-righteousness. He calls his memo a “reasoned, well-researched, good-faith argument,” which suggests that “at least some of the male-female disparity in tech could be attributed to biological differences (and, yes, I said that bias against women was a factor too.)”
He presents himself as a courageous defender of truth. Google, in contrast, is an “echo chamber” that is “intolerant of scientific debate and reasoned argument.” Damore notes that Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic, once wrote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
But Chomsky has expressed abhorrence for research into cognitive differences between different groups. In his 1987 book Language and Problems of Knowledge Chomsky wrote: “Surely people differ in their biologically determined qualities. The world would be too horrible to contemplate if they did not. But discovery of a correlation between some of these qualities is of no scientific interest and of no social significance, except to racists, sexists and the like.”
Historically, research into cognitive differences between males and females and between races has justified sexism and racism and white, male dominance. The research has had less than zero redeeming value. Evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, which seek to trace cognitive differences between genders and races to genetic differences, have atrocious track records, as I showed in critiques for Scientific American in 1995 and 1993 and in my 1999 book The Undiscovered Mind.
Damore’s musings on female “neuroticism” and lack of ambition remind me of nonsense propagated early in the last century by geneticist Charles Davenport, founder of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The ability to be a naval officer, Davenport asserted in 1919, is an inherited trait, composed of subtraits for thalassophilia, or love of the sea, and hyperkineticism, or wanderlust. Based on the absence of female naval officers, Davenport deduced that the trait is unique to males. At the time, American women still had not won the right to vote, let alone serve as military officers.
The Damore brouhaha resembles the 2013 debate over Jason Richwine, a Harvard Ph.D. and scholar at the Heritage Foundation. Richwine suggested that Hispanic immigrants are innately less intelligent than white Americans and should be screened more vigorously. The Heritage Foundation disavowed his views, and Richwine left the organization. Journalist Andrew Sullivan nonetheless warned that the "effective firing" of Richwine "should immediately send up red flags about intellectual freedom."
Similarly, New York Times columnist David Brooks defends Damore's scientific claims and declares that Google’s CEO Pichai should resign for squelching “the free flow of information.” (I’d rather see Brooks resign for propagating bad Darwinian science. Evolutionary psychology, he once argued, has shown that we are “descended from creatures that killed to thrive and survive. We're natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.”)
Damore and his supporters present themselves as heroic champions of free inquiry in an era of stultifying political correctness. But when you suggest that white males are biologically superior to other groups, you are sticking up for those who hold power and denigrating those who lack it. You are feeding our society’s corrosive sexism and racism. That makes you a bully, not a hero, especially if you are a white male yourself. You deserve to be fired.