Friday, August 17, 2018

I'm still mad about the Google Memo and David Brooks's column about it

In 2017 there was the Google Memo (When your memo's bad theories give girls heebie jeebies ... That's Damore) and then David Brooks supported Damore in his New York Times column. So I  pitched a reply to the New York Times (rejected by silence) but never posted it here because I was department Chair and [fill in the blank with your wildest dreams].

But it’s not too late to post my thoughts here, and they’re still fresh in my frontal because I’m in the midst of some writing projects where I’m happily channeling my rage against the misuse of my beloved evolutionary thinking. 

So, mermaids, here’s that response to Brooks.  P.S.  I’m on sabbatical, so pardon my fucking French …

Dear Editor,

I write to you regarding David Brooks’ column about the firing of ‘Google memo’ author Damore titled , “Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O.” I offer some corrections and context for Brooks’ innumerable readers.

There is no debate about human nature being either, on one side, a blank slate or, on the other, evolutionary psychology. The debate pitting nature against nurture is long over and I tell all my students that anyone who says it's still a thing is mistaken. Everyone by 2017 agrees that genes + environment  shape an individual human's behavior over their lifetime (if one must boil biological complexity down to two vague, enormously complicated variables and simple arithmetic).

What is more, the description of evolutionary psychology Brooks provides (genes + environment), while it may describe the perspective of many evolutionary psychologists, is not a description of the field as implied. It describes what experts think across *many many* fields, including evolutionary biology, anthropology, and genetics, even the humanities, where many researchers and scholars are not terribly fond of evolutionary psychology, at least not with the simple, deterministic, overly-confident brand that folks like Damore and Brooks wave about.

By giving this particular brand of evolutionary psychology credit for what most experts in many fields already believe, Brooks has elevated it to the status that Damore did in the memo. Both Brooks and Damore are misleading their audiences about the state of science itself and it's ingenious because it helps them perpetuate the image they want to portray: that science is on their side. It is not.

And Brooks does it again when he quotes evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, as a sort of fact-check of Damore’s claims in the memo. Brooks' presentation of Miller's validation leads readers to believe that the empirical support for sex differences is the product of evolutionary psychology. But these data are the products of numerous fields, psychology being one and evolutionary being the theoretical prerogative of some. I’m sure that every one of the scientists and scholars who produced the empirical data to establish sex differences in behavior and personality accept the reality of evolution, but evolutionary psychology, especially this particular brand, is something different.

Most people who have really grappled with how evolution works appreciate its complexity. Unfortunately these usually do not include people with tremendous influence, like Brooks. And Brooks is smitten with some problematic takes on the evolution of sex and gender differences in behavior.  

Could this ignorance, manipulation, or flat-out dishonesty--all with negative consequences for women and people of color--be what was so offensive about the ‘Google memo’ and Brooks’s column to the minds of many academics, instead of it being just some knee-jerk liberal reaction by leftist elites with weak, unscientific cognitive skills? Absolutely.

Evolution is true but it’s complicated and sticking to overly-simplistic and out-dated thinking makes it easy to bend to fit and justify one’s worldview. This is why racists think white people are the pinnacle of evolution. Darwin might have in the nineteenth century, but evolution in 2017 does not. 

Lest readers assume that because I am a female anthropology professor that I am diametrically opposed to the entire enterprise of evolutionary psychology, I am not. But I am critical of its over-zealous application to conceptions of 'human nature' and that's because (1) I regularly take scientific issue with the logic behind the claims, and (2) I understand the history of science and how many mistaken evolutionary claims have harmed human beings, and still do.

And it is really a shame that I have to add something like this but it's *because* intelligent people like Brooks and Damore don’t give enough fucks to think deeply about evolutionary biology, what it is and isn't, that they're able to empower their opinions with old, bad, weak, even untestable 'science.'

I wish I could say that in 2017 people, even the very learned ones, were cautious about what they can and cannot claim about complex phenomena. Here’s to a more humble, more fun future where we can actually figure cool shit out.

Evolution is everyone’s origin story. But takes like Brooks’ and Damore’s drive people away from the thing that gives me so much meaning and the thing I find so beautiful. So here I am. Sincerely,
Holly Dunsworth

1 comment:

taratronic said...

Brilliant, agree with every word. Thanks for writing this