Diversity V: Nurture vs. nature

I feel the need to make a few more statements about the firing of James Damore by Google, which I discussed before, in particular insofar it concerns his claim that biology may be partially responsible for observed differences between the interests of the average man and average woman in society, and how this claim seems to be interpreted.

As Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote on the reason for Damore being fired: “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” I read Damore’s treatise, and nowhere in it I can find him saying that his female colleagues are less biologically suited for their work — he only states that the biological differences between men and women may make the average woman less suitable for tech and leadership than the average man. He is not saying that his female colleagues are less suitable than his male colleagues. He only says that these biological phenomena may explain why we see less women in tech and leadership, and that trying to enforce an equal representation of the sexes in tech jobs in Google may be misguided.

The only way that someone can interpret Damore saying something about his colleagues is if you assume that what he says about the average woman holds for all women — and he quite clearly says the opposite; he even spends a considerable portion of his treatise discussing that it is a mistake to regard each individual as representative for their sex. That, however, is what is done when you treat women differently than men just because they are women (which is what Google does). You might think that a CEO who fires a person would at least check whether the reason that he gives for the firing holds water, but it looks like Damore’s firing was not because of what he factually said, but because many people found him offensive — the numerous tweets and responses on the Internet suggest as much.

So what could people find offensive about his text? It cannot be the statement that people should not be equated to the average of their sex — only the opposite could be found offensive. Considering Pichai’s statement, and what I read in many of the comments on Damore’s text, what is found offensive is Damore’s suggestion that the cause for observed behavioral differences between men and women may be partially found in biology.

If you examine literature, you will find that there are certain scientists who state that, while there are definitely biological differences between men and women, they are much smaller than generally assumed, and that all behavioral differences between men and women are the result of culture. If you believe that what these scientists say is undeniably true, then you may feel offended by anyone who is merely suggesting that there are innate differences between men and women. In comparison, if you believe that the Bible speaks holy truth, then you will probably feel offended by anyone who says that there are indications that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Such a person is an infidel and should be burned at the stake.

However, what these scientists say is not scientific consensus. Other scientists state that, while culture obviously has an influence on behavior, there are clear, experimentally demonstrable, indications that the innate biological differences between men and women influence interests and behaviors, which partially explain the differences that we observe between the averages of men and women on a population level. Even without running any experiments, I’d say that there are numerous easily-observable indications that biology influences behavior. I give three of them:

  • In most animals, mammals in particular, there are clear behavioral differences between the sexes. Animals do not have cultures, so these differences are all biologically driven. I see no reason why humans would be exempt from these biological influences.
  • Biological differences between men and women result in the production of different quantities of particular hormones. We know that hormones not only influence physical development, but also behavior. In particular, in puberty, when the hormonal production starts to get radically different between men and women, the behaviors of men and women start to diverge extensively. Moreover, if you feed people particular sex-related hormones, their behaviors change too. Again, this shows that biology influences behavior.
  • In western countries, people have been given a lot of freedom of choice. In north-western Europe, the cultural pressures on men and women to stick to particular roles in society have been mostly eradicated. If the theory that all behavioral differences between men and women are the result of culture would be correct, the differences in interests between men and women would dwindle away. This has not happened. Women have entered the job market, but on average choose more people-oriented jobs than men; for instance, 50 years ago there were many more male physicians than female physicians (as few women had a job), but these roles are reversed now. However, 50 years ago there were many more male engineers than female engineers, and these roles have not changed. Also, 50 years ago it was not common to have a part-time job for men or women, but nowadays women predominantly work in part-time jobs, while men do not. If release of cultural pressure increases differences in behavior, that is a clear indication that the differences are at least partially caused by something else than culture.

Moreover, the arguments that I read on why some people believe that only culture plays a role in determining differences in interests between men and women seem faulty to me. For instance, it is pointed out that the roles of men and women are not innate, as there is an African tribe that has a matriarchal structure in which women have the role that is traditionally associated with men, and vice versa. To me, it seems that the existence of such a tribe is the exception that confirms the rule: everywhere in the world, one tiny place excepted, men take a particular role and women another, which shows that these roles are nearly universal. The fact that the exception exists only shows that culture may overrule the traditional roles. Now, I am not an expert on this topic, and thus I might have missed some very convincing arguments for assigning all responsibility for behavioral differences to culture. However, I think that if convincing arguments would exist, the scientific world would have reached consensus by now, and that clearly is not the case.

The claim that only culture influences behavior is much, much stronger than the claim that behavior is partially the result of culture and partially the result of biology. If you want to make the first claim, you have to come up with strong evidence that biology does not play a role. I have not seen that evidence. And since there are no ethical experiments that you can perform to exclude biology as a partial cause for observed differences between men and women on average, it will be very hard to come up with it.

I am not saying that it is definitely false that only culture is responsible for behavior. It might be true, though considering the observations that we can make, it is unlikely to be true. The problem is that just like you cannot prove that biology has no influence on behavior, you cannot disprove that only culture is responsible for behavior. However, claiming that biology has no influence means upholding a belief in the face of observable facts that point in a different direction. It is a belief that has to resort to shaky claims like “unconscious biases” to explain why certain observable facts exist. And since it is hard to use factual arguments to defend this belief against grounded criticism, believers may feel a need to attack the credibility of non-believers by accusing them of being reprehensible sub-humans, i.e., “sexists.”

James Damore’s statements seem innocent to me, but to someone who upholds an ideology that is based on the premise that there are no biological differences between the sexes, they are dangerous, and must be attacked. Labeling him a “sexist” is an easy way of making him harmless.

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