Meritocracy and the history of the science of biological differences

From the 'Google manifesto' to white-nationalist rallies, some scholars are concerned that fringe ideas of inherent superiority and inferiority may be making a comeback.

Allen Breed/AP/File
Tony Riddick stands in front of the Winfall, N.C., home where his great-grandmother, Maggie Woodard, raised him. When he was a young child, Mr. Riddick recalls, a social worker pressured his grandmother into giving consent to to sterilize her 14-year-old granddaughter, Riddick’s mother, because she had been deemed 'feebleminded' and 'promiscuous.'

For many Americans, the principle of nondiscrimination is rooted in a deep moral commitment to the ideals of an American meritocracy. 

And many agree that, in theory, it shouldn’t matter what a man or woman’s race, ethnicity, or nationality might be: it’s merit that counts, and success should be a matter of hard work, good character, and natural talent.

It’s an ideal, but many believe that equality is fundamentally an equality of opportunity, not of outcome. Liberty, too, is fundamentally the freedom to find success in what could be called a "natural" way. Given its limitations and fallibilities, a pluralistic, democratic government should stay out of the way. Attempts to engineer more egalitarian outcomes might breed only bitterness and conflict, many say.

But when it comes to questions of gender and race, this simple ideal has had a long and stormy history. Embedded within it, many scholars say, is the fraught problem of how to explain the unequal distributions of wealth and power in the country. The gaps between men and women – and various racial groups – are either somehow embedded in our “natural” makeup, or they might reflect those subtle and not-so-subtle acts of discrimination that are rooted in age-old prejudices.

“If you think that the beautiful thing about this country is that we actually live in that meritocracy, already, then of course when you see huge disparities in class or race, they must reflect something fundamental about the groups that are in different positions,” says Rebecca Jordan-Young, a scientist at Barnard College in New York and the author of “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences.”

For more than a century, many American thinkers have argued that something fundamental is reflected in the realities of biology. Pseudosciences such as phrenology and eugenics have attempted to ascribe a biological rationalization for the oppression of certain groups. Although such ideas have been resoundingly refuted by the scientific community for decades, belief in inherent inferiority of women and of ethnic minorities has persisted along the fringes of society.

In recent weeks and months, however, these fringe ideas have increasingly bubbled to the surface. White nationalists marched with Nazi flags in Charlottesville, Va. Online commenters rallied in defense of a Google employee who was fired after circulating a “manifesto” that attributed the gender gap in the tech industry to biological differences between men and women. The apparent emboldening of divisive – and long debunked – ideas caught many scholars, and Americans, off guard.

“I was sort of naively hoping and expecting that we were making considerable progress on all these gender and racial equality issues,” says Garland Allen, professor emeritus of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, a leading expert who has studied the history of genetics for nearly 50 years. “And I think we have, but what has astounded me was the degree to which this is coming out of the woodwork in this current climate.”

A reversal of course?

To many observers, the resurfacing of these ideas of innate superiority feels like a step backward in time, and in America’s social journey.

Most scientists have long since abandoned notions of biological superiority based on gender or race, says Professor Jordan-Young.

“There is of course a vast and methodologically solid scientific literature that undermines the claim that women are, as a group, less fit for high-prestige, high-rewarding jobs whether at Google or in general,” she says. “And you could say the same for African-Americans, who are also vastly underrepresented.”

After all, as the recent film “Hidden Figures” reminds, it was African-American women whose mathematical talents and expertise propelled one of the United States’ greatest technological achievements: the moon landing. Historians point out, too, that in the early history of coding, it was considered a menial, clerical task, relegated to women who dominated computer programming until the 1980s.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, however, many scientists in the United States and Europe espoused that mental abilities and character traits were somehow embedded into the differing biologies of men, women, and racial groups, a result of evolution over time.

“And that’s a very, very dangerous place with a long history,” Jordan-Young continues. “Going back, people have tried to use scientific authority to defend existing social hierarchies – and also to challenge them.”

This history has hovered over the country for the past few weeks, especially after Google engineer James Damore, who wrote an internal memo about “Google’s ideological echo chamber” that claimed that biology helped explain why, in part, there were fewer women working in tech and the upper rungs of American corporate leadership.

Earlier last month, Mr. Damore, wrote a calm, carefully reasoned memo to his coworkers, suggesting what many Americans simply see as common sense: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

The memo, passed onto the press, piqued a wide-ranging sense of aggrievement among many on the right, and the tech worker quickly became a conservative cause célèbre after Google fired him for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Damore, in fact, had already described a "psychologically unsafe environment” and “shaming culture” directed at conservatives like him at Google. "You have to stay in the closet and mask who you really are," he told CNN.

On the one hand, Damore’s appeal to biological differences had a very specific political ideal in mind: the integrity of the American meritocracy. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” he wrote, also briefly including similar social gaps in IQ differences.

“Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business,” he proclaimed.

It’s been a common refrain for years among many conservatives, many of whom feel that, as a matter of principle, any actions to give underrepresented minorities any special attention in the competition for high-profile jobs is the very definition of discrimination.

The Trump administration, too, is discussing possible plans to investigate the admissions policies of many American universities, according to reports. If their diversity practices are found to illegally use race to discriminate against white and Asian applicants, the Justice Department could charge them with violations of the nation’s civil rights laws. (The US Supreme Court has ruled as recently as 2016 that university officials may consider race as one factor of many as they continue to strive for a more diverse student body.)

But for many observing the troubling emergence of neo-Nazi groups in the nation’s political discourse, the history of biological arguments to justify the existing social disparities has become even more urgent. Violence erupted after groups of mostly men marched recently in Charlottesville, Va., many carrying Tiki torches and some chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

“We realize that equality does not exist in nature, and a government based in the natural law must not cater to the false notions of equality,” proclaims the neo-Nazi group Vanguard Nation in its manifesto. Damore, in fact, felt compelled to publicly reject the outspoken support expressed by many white nationalists and others on the so-called “alt-right” after they began to laud the former Google engineer and his ideas.

“Unfortunately, this administration has given license to neo-Nazis and other fringe ideas,” says Debra Katz, a civil rights attorney and founding partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington. “These kinds of views about the gender inferiority of women and racial inferiority of African-Americans have been discredited forever, but now they’re being used to decry the discriminatory treatment that white men feel they’re experiencing.”

Science as political weapon

Earlier in the century, the claim that biology explained the disparities between men and women was hardly a fringe idea, historians say.

Science had just begun its quest to discern the mysteries of heredity. Researchers hoped to find those biological structures that passed down human traits, including the sources of differing aptitudes and behaviors. These might explain, in part, the “natural” differences between males and females – as well as the various immigrants and races now trying to make a home in the United States.

Many were optimistic, too, that new discoveries in biology could offer policymakers insights, as the United States was in the midst of widespread fear and political unrest.

Waves of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe were entering the country, including Roman Catholics and Jews. Workers and farmers were bristling at the influx. There were yawning gaps between most Americans and wealthy urban elites – “robber barons,” the aggressive, more progressive press began to call them.

All the while, women were demanding to be included in America’s democracy – and starting to win. 

In reaction, coalitions of American nativists began to lobby for changes in the nation’s immigration laws. These included an uneasy alliance between “blueblood” New England elites, who worried about the Catholics and Jews, and the union-member working class, who were worried about cheap labor.

Science became a political weapon. Psychologists, too, warned that for biological reasons, giving women the vote might dilute the quality of the country's collective decision-making, historians note.

“Whenever you start measuring people’s bodies, every time you start doing something like that, you end up disparaging women,” however misguidedly, says Ladelle McWhorter, a philosopher at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and the chair of its department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “It’s almost inevitable whenever you start using those kinds of biological measurements to explain what counts as a superior human body or a superior human mind. Those are always entangled.”

The politics surrounding science was by no means uniform. For many, the biological disparities simply meant that, rationally, the country should only allow in “superior races.” Sometimes labeled “social Darwinism,” many also held to the idea that government interventions to assist the needy might interfere with nature’s self-selecting order.   

These included early 20th-century eugenicists, pioneers in gathering the histories of family traits. Its leaders testified before Congress and explained how biology was showing how non-northern European immigrants might weaken the American bloodline.

Eugenic arguments underlay the rationale behind the Immigration Act of 1924, scholars note. One of the most restrictive in US history, the 1924 immigration law put heavy restrictions on southern and eastern Europeans, including Italians and Jews. It also pretty much barred the entry of all Arabs and Asians.

For a while, eugenics had a heyday. Funded by institutions such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, eugenic research was hailed by British and American leaders, including Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt.

But the effort to locate the reasons for the disparities in society soon gave way to a progressive political notion: a policy of active better breeding.

In a 1913 letter to Charles Davenport, head of the eugenics research station in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. – which to this day is a leading center for the study of genetics – former President Roosevelt wrote:

“[Society] has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind. Some day we will realize that the prime duty the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type. 

In 1927, the Supreme Court also declared eugenical forced sterilization to be a constitutionally valid tool to enhance the nation’s social fabric – a decision that sanctioned many eugenicists’ biological claims and better breeding effort.

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in an 8-to-1 decision.

That case centered a young woman named Carrie Buck, whom the state of Virginia had deemed unworthy of procreation because she was “mentally deficient.” As a result of that decision, Ms. Buck and some 70,000 US citizens were forcibly sterilized. Many of those targeted were the poor, especially white "promiscuous women.”

“Scientists during this time specifically used the disparities between men and women and between racial groups as evidence of inherited character and mental abilities – and the superiority of northern European males,” says Professor McWhorter, also an expert on the eugenics movement.

Persistence of division

When he tried to explain why there were fewer women in tech jobs and leadership positions, Damore – the former Google employee – said women generally “have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men,” which make them empathize rather than systematize, he wrote.

Women also generally express more “neuroticism,” he added, using a technical term a personality trait associated with higher anxiety and a lower tolerance for stress.

For many women, these arguments were not new.

“This argument that women are too emotional, this goes way back to when women began to move into the workplace more in the '60s and '70s,” says Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “Not only are they not suitable for the workplace, but this will mess up their families, emasculate their husbands, and they’re totally going to end up as wrecks.”

It’s an idea many confront to this day, many say.

“This is a common theme in politics, too, because female politicians are considered to be better in some areas – for example, ‘compassion issues’ like education and health care,” says Lauren Wright, lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey and author of a book on the political roles first ladies have played in US history. But they are also considered worse in other areas, she says, including those “hard issues” like foreign policy and the economy.

In many ways, scientists continue to try to measure the impact of biology in human behaviors.

But the simple dichotomy of “nurture versus nature” has become a cliche, most biologists say. The phrase, too, was coined by the 19th-century English adventurer Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin who coined the term “eugenics” and described his nascent science as an effort to promote the reproduction of the most biologically and racially gifted – namely, the British upper class.

“People have always tried to show it, but so much of the so-called ‘geneticization’ of various social and behavioral traits – you can never really tease out the difference between what is genetic and what is cultural,” says Washington University’s Allen.

“It’s like saying all the ingredients in a cake interact to make a cake,” continues Allen. “That doesn’t tell you very much that’s useful.”

Other researchers agree. “Human beings everywhere, male and female, not only differ from one another but continually differentiate themselves during their lifetimes,” Timothy Ingold, professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, told Quartz. People, Professor Ingold says, “are not ‘products’ of nature and/or nurture, let alone of ‘evolution,’ but the producers of their own lives, in the company of others.”

For many conservatives, however, individuals must produce their own lives without collective efforts to ensure that there is a basic measure of equality within a free society.

“Like all utopian visions, this quest for gender sameness lies on faulty assumptions and infringes upon individual liberty,” wrote conservative thinker Aaron Neil in a blog post cited by Damore in his memo. “Because of innate differences, the sexes make dissimilar vocational choices. Government mandated hiring practices are antithetical to individual choice. Recognising and respecting differences is exactly what a good, tolerant society does.”

He added a quote from Margaret Thatcher, too: “We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is like anyone else.”

Ms. Thatcher’s idea that no one is like anyone else resonates with many Americans’ views of individuality. But over past decades, an increasing number of Americans have come to embrace the idea that people’s differences should be seen as strengths. What’s more, they rebel against the idea that differences should be sources of limitation or cause for hate.

Those sentiments were reflected in the volume of response to both the Google memo and white nationalist rallies, Washington University’s Allen suggests.

“The response has been heartening,” he says. “The opposition to racism and the neo-Nazis is as strong as I’ve ever seen – and that was something you didn’t see to such an extent in the early  20th century.”

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