When Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo about how woman are naturally unsuited to work at Google, anthropologists everywhere groaned inwardly. Our discipline’s lot in life is tragic. After about a century of research, we have a pretty good understanding of how human beings work. And yet, our findings run counter to what the average American’s ideas about how society and culture function. As a result, we face the unenviable task of having to constantly explain, over and over again, generation in and generation out, our truths to a skeptical public. It sucks. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and walk away from discussion. But we have no choice: Our integrity as scholars and scientists demands that we wade in to every public debate about race, gender, and human nature in order to explain — once again — how people actually work.
Damore’s memo exemplifies a now too-familiar trend: A bright person receive no real social science training in high school or college. They start thinking about human nature for the first time. They use their intuitions to start generating hypotheses about the difference between men and women. And voila — Google memo!
There are lots of scientific conclusions out there in the world: The Pacific was settled from Asia, not North America. Gold has one more proton in its nucleus than platinum. The Battle of Hastings happened in 1066. Most Americans don’t wake up every morning and say “wait as second, does gold really have one more proton in its nucleus than platinum? That just doesn’t seem right to me.” And yet the James Damores of the world do wake up every morning and say “wait a second, do women really have what it takes to survive in a brutal work place environment? That just doesn’t seem right to me.” Why is the first finding accepted and the second is questioned?
The answer is: incorrect claims about the weight of gold have no cultural appeal. Incorrect claims about the incompetence of women, on the other hand, have tremendous cultural appeal for people like James Damore, because he has been socialized into a culture which has very strong feelings about the essential nature of men and women, and not very strong feelings about how heavy gold is.
Armed with the intuition that women can’t code, the James Damores of the world can then get on the Internet and find a large body of poor, discredited science which confirms exactly what they’ve suspected. They can also find existing, non-suck research and string it together in a way that doesn’t really make sense. Simple answers of precisely the sort you were hoping to hear — who doesn’t love that?!? The Internet is a massive graveyard of latent possibilities, waiting to be dusted off and employed by people who have been trained to optimize algorithms, but not to think critically as citizens about the world we are building together.
This is what anthropologists face: The self-perpetuating loop of the cultural appeal. Someone comes up with an idea for what they think is the first time. They find research that supports it. We knock it down. And then their idea is picked up by the next person in the loop. It’s like endless mode in a video game which features wave after wave of brilliant but undereducated white guys who spawn before you get a chance to heal or switch weapons.
How should we respond to Damore and others like him? On the whole, it feels like people have chosen not to engage with his ideas. Google fired him — which I imagine was in their best interests. Many on social media have argued that we should not dignify his arguments with a response. Others, especially women, have chosen not to engage, because wading into this discussion again probably feels to them like a slow, endless crucifixion. Even the abundant denunciations seem more like ad hominem attacks than genuine engagement with the merits of Damore’s claims.
We anthropologists — especially male anthropologists like myself, for whom the memo is not incredibly wounding — can never stop doing the work of concrete engagement with these issues. We must always address their substance and explain why they are wrong. And we must not trot out centuries-old Boasian nostrums and call it good. We need to keep up on current research and recognize how essentialist arguments have shifted over time. We must read generously and analyze critically. We need to be able to admit when our opponents have a point, even when that makes us uncomfortable. It makes us credible, and stronger. Honestly, I don’t think it’ll happen too often.
This is the ‘profess’ in ‘professor’: To have these discussions, over and over again. To have the belief that you can win on the merits because your work is sound. The AAA or Sapiens should just create a fact-checking website where anthropologists do this full-time so that other people can just link to it and save themselves some time (for instance, here’s a good response). Someone needs to respond to the substance of these claims or else we really will become an ideological echo chamber. I feel both a sense of pride, sadness, and hope knowing that in the future, anthropologists will always be among the the people who engage with these issues. Again. And again. And again.