Friday, August 11, 2017

The Google Memo and Reading Yourself into What You Read

Nietzsche once observed that people don't ever actually read what is written on the page, but rather read themselves into everything they read. That is, they see their own biases confirmed far more often than they actually learn anything, or read what is actually there.

If there is a document that proves that in spades, it's James Damore's Google memo on diversity at Google.I have encountered people who literally see the complete opposite of what I see him saying. They see him denying there is any discrimination against women at all, claiming that men are superior to women in math and engineering and that men have higher IQs than women, and overall seeing the work as full of sexism. I, on the other hand, see a piece arguing that there is in fact discrimination against women, that that discrimination comes about from the refusal to acknowledge there are personality differences between men and women (not differences in ability or IQ, but personality), and providing what he sees as sensible solutions to making Google more welcoming to not only women, but to everyone (he argues that Google is creating a hostile workplace with their trainings and meetings designed to shame everyone).

How can we see such different things in the same text?

I see several things taking place. One, the left still believe in the blank slate. To them, any claim of genetic predispositions immediately makes one a racist and sexist, regardless of the actual words you use. And two, most people think that when you use the word "different," you really mean "better" and/or "worse." Damore says that women are different from men, and most people interpret that as "women are inferior to men." But Damore himself takes pains to clarify he means nothing of the sort. Those who see him as saying "women are inferior to men" are themselves projecting their own beliefs on Damore, and getting offended. But they are offended at their own beliefs, not the beliefs of Damore per se.

There are those who claim that Damore's claims are unscientific. But those people refuse to address the fact that four scientists who actually study such things say the memo is mostly scientifically accurate. Naturally, that means it's time to attack evolutionary psychology itself. Not surprisingly, the article writer gets everything in the memo completely wrong, so it's not surprising she doesn't understand the arguments of evolutionary psychologists, either. Her bias blinds her to such a degree that, like a fundamentalist Baptist, she denies the overwhelming scientific evidence and even goes so far as to distort it to support her creationist beliefs.

As Damore pointed out in a footnote, it was the Left who once upon a time supported genetic explanations--and, often, make eugenecist arguments on that basis. The shame of that history is perhaps why they are blank-slaters now, project blame for eugenics on the right rather than on the progressives who actually supported eugenics, and equate genetics explanations with racism and sexism (since that's historically how progressives used it). Ironically, the Right, which are typically religious and often creationists, are now favoring more genetics-based arguments.

The problem is that genetics alone explains nothing. Genes don't act in a vacuum. Genes are expressed in cells and are regulated, those regulations are influenced by the environment, and the behaviors of the organism contribute to the creation of that environment. That is, genes regulated by the environment create the environment that affects their regulation.

Our social environments came from somewhere, and that somewhere is an evolved environment founded on hundreds of millions of years of social evolution in conjunction with genetic evolution. Before there were social humans, there were social apes, and before there were social apes, there were social mammals, and before there were social mammals, there were social reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Our genes evolved in a social environment as much as a natural environment, and those genes co-evolved the social environment.

A good example of this is incest avoidance. There are laws against incest in every culture. This prompted Freud's idea of the Oedipus complex, which is based on an unnatural imposition of incest avoidance by society. But the Westermarck effect--a genetic predisposition to avoiding incest--is what actually resulted in the laws, not the other way around. The laws only reinforced the genetically-based disposition to avoid incest. The presence of differences in those rules/laws against incest doesn't mean the underlying disposition doesn't exist. Variations are what are expected based on various degrees of understanding of the connection between inbreeding and unhealthy offspring and other cultural differences.

It's not impossible, then, that if we see universal cultural differences in the ways men and women are treated (and we do), that this is based on genetic differences getting reinforced by culture. Of course, we have also, in many cultures, developed an attitude that we should minimize those differences. Cultures can certainly evolve in that direction as well. But if, as E.O. Wilson suggests, all culture/society is on a genetic leash, we can likely only go so far. If there are in fact personality differences that affect men and women in the workplace, doesn't it make more sense to understand and acknowledge them in order to make the workplace more open to true diversity of that kind? Wouldn't that make for a better workplace environment for both men and women, and allow for rules adjustments that wouldn't punish either group for their tendencies and wouldn't discriminate against anyone?
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