Google Engineer Fired for Sexist Memo Ain’t No Hero

Last month, I was trying to enjoy the final weeks of my summer vacation when a ruckus I couldn’t ignore erupted in the tech world. Google fired software engineer James Damore for writing 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 canned Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” a violation of the company’s code of conduct.

In a Wall Street Journal essay, “Why I Was Fired by Google,” Damore defends himself and denounces Google. 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 the research 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 pointed out on 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 and a prominent proponent of eugenics. The ability to be a naval officer, Davenport asserted in 1919, is an inherited trait that 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 scholar at the conservative 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 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 and declares that Google’s CEO Pichai should resign for squelching “the free flow of information.” Damore and his supporters present themselves as heroic champions of free inquiry in an era of stultifying political correctness.

Here’s the problem with that position. 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.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings. This column is adapted from one posted on his Scientific American blog “Cross-check.”