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 the 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 manifesto 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 leveler 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 than 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 differences 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.
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.
This article was originally published on the PLOS SciComm Blog.