You come too!
One of the most curious things about the operation of political correctness is how certain obvious thoughts go missing from public view. They do so not because any evidence or considerations have turned up that a sensible person would take as refutation. Rather, they disappear because to believe them is held out to be so offensive that they are deemed unworthy of public discussion. The unmistakable sign of this is that no talk of these ideas–on those rare occasions it takes place–can go on without disparagement of the motives of those who might entertain them. Whatever logic and evidence may stand against the suggestions is never regarded as sufficient unto itself to address them. The moral angle is urgent, and is required for proper social closure.
So it is with the hypothesis that women don’t appear in the same numbers as men in a variety of settings largely because of biological differences. Immediately upon bringing up the possibility, one is greeted, not with real argument, but rather with terms like “sexist”, “essentialist”, comparisons with reviled groups (I’ve even heard Nazi comparisons— was Godwin’s Law discovered in vain?), and the ordnance of smears devised and perfected to squelch opposition.
But, the thing is, I just like to entertain ideas. I can take entire days out of my life to consider whether I might be a brain in a vat, and suppose my time satisfactorily spent. If that is an idea not too outlandish to ponder, why not the proposition that women and men may differ in their distributions of talents and interests based on biology?
So here I am. And not only do I entertain the proposition, I now believe it is strongly warranted.
Perhaps a little history on how I came to hold it is in order. A number of years back, I didn’t really believe in it. I was aware, as is most everybody, of the standard explanations of the gap in women’s achievements at the upper end across a number of endeavors: bias, explicit and implicit, stereotype threat, enculturation into constrained roles, etc. If someone proposed that perhaps biology was at work, I was a quick as anyone to point to these alternative explanations. But what always struck and bothered me, even back then, was that that was all I could do: produce alternative explanations. I could find no compelling argument against an importantly genetic explanation. Nor could I make out an argument that the cultural explanations might be adequate; at most, I could suppose that they might be so. And one thing that just bugged me more and more over the years is how, in certain domains, women rose in their numbers to parity, and in other domains, those numbers seemed to be going nowhere. Why no women mathematicians at the Fields Medal level? Why no ideas from women philosophers which struck me as interesting as those from the best male philosophers? Why virtually no women Nobel winners in physics and economics, or, as best I could make out, recent theories or experiments by women that might someday win a Nobel? Why so few high level achievements (although certainly there are some) from women even in biology and medicine, where their numbers are otherwise considerable?
At some point, these sorts of strains, along with a developing interest in biology and evolution, inclined me to investigate the genetic hypothesis more seriously. I can only report that walking a mile in the shoes of the genetic hypothesis was, for me, fatal to my belief in the dominantly environmental hypothesis. When one beholds the world through the eyes of the dominantly genetic hypothesis, virtually all that was a conundrum and a tribulation to explain clicks right into place.
I certainly appreciate the difficulty of this sort of transition for most people. The notion of perfect equality in aptitudes and interests across genders is the water in which we swim. In much of the academy, virtually everybody who’s anybody believes it. I found my own experience overthrowing this belief to be much akin to the period of my adolescence in which I came to overthrow my belief in God. Everybody I had known through all of my youth believed in God—or at least had said that they did. Seeing through the poor arguments for God’s existence, realizing that people I knew professed the belief only because all others around them professed it, and coming to reject it, was no easy matter. But the logic was what it was, and repudiate it I did.
Now I don’t intend in this post to convince anyone as to the strong evidence for the genetic hypothesis. Rather, I want to persuade people simply that it is an hypothesis we must take seriously. We must do so not only for rational, scientific reasons, but for social and moral reasons.
Certainly today’s larger culture regards the genetic hypothesis as obviously false — so obviously so indeed that we need not act in any way as if it might turn out to be true. If the number of women in a given domain falls well below 50%, then, in all mainstream media outlets, in the halls of the academy, in the courts, and even in Fortune 500 boardrooms, it is regarded as a problem that can be fixed by proper cultural adjustment. This is presumed even though the nature and location of that adjustment may be speculation at most.
It always seems to me a very strange fact that in the discipline of philosophy as well this attitude reigns supreme. Is there any other discipline more fully committed on principle and in tradition to the probing of authority and assumptions?
One would think that a belief held so vehemently by so many – that the cultural explanation is the only acceptable one – would have some overwhelming argument it must be true, either on theory or on evidence. Yet even the briefest foray into the matter shows otherwise. There exists no serious theoretical ground on which to eliminate the genetic hypothesis. Certainly women and men have been subjected to differing selection pressures in evolution. Cognitive and emotional traits may well have – and on the evidence would seem to have — a biological, genetic component. And so evolution may easily have altered the distributions of men and women on these traits in response to differing selection pressures. So on a priori grounds it is a perfectly plausible hypothesis.
But is there empirical evidence against it? If such direct evidence of its inadequacy exists, I just don’t know what it is. And this is not because there’s nothing realistic that would count as such direct evidence. The general claim about the genetic hypothesis here is that women, in their aptitudes for and inclinations toward abstract or deeply mathematical subjects, follow a very different distribution from that of men at the extreme right tail. That tail for women approaches zero distinctly faster, becoming far thinner than that for men. If in these domains considerable numbers of women came to exist at this extreme right tail, that would count as substantial evidence of the failure of the genetic hypothesis. Indeed even a single woman at the topmost level – say a woman in philosophy every bit the equal of Kripke or Quine or David Lewis – would seriously call into question the hypothesis. But these women don’t exist–not a single one at the very top in any such area. As easy as it would seem to be to undermine the genetic hypothesis, even by a single counterexample, it just hasn’t happened. (This is actually quite remarkable, given how much encouragement talented girls and women in such areas receive today. The world sees to it that it is their oyster. They are invited to every prestigious program and showered with every honor. They are placed first in line for the best research opportunities. Yet all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t manage to lift any woman into the Pantheon of any of these disciplines.)
So if there’s nothing either in theory or in empirical evidence to undercut the genetic hypothesis, it should on rational grounds be accorded some real respectability as an hypothesis. Only one issue remains: does the competing environmental hypothesis offer a much more compelling and complete explanation? If the genetic hypothesis decisively loses the competition, it may be rejected.
Yet no one can seriously claim that the environmental explanation in its current form neatly ties up all loose ends. The case of philosophy is on point. Some people claim the explanation is sexual harassment, or some other aspect of “climate”. Some people claim it’s something in our culture prior to university. Some people say it’s stereotype threat. And of course a number of people assert it’s some combination of all these factors. As explanations go, this is simply a mess. No one really knows how much any of these factors might contribute. Nor is there any kind of argument that, taken together, they exactly suffice to explain what we see. The environmental explanation is at best a work in progress. As an hypothesis trying to explain data, it entirely lacks the precise predictive power and simplicity of the genetic hypothesis. The genetic hypothesis produces bell curves of achievement for these areas based on simple parameters of means and standard deviations. And what we see are data that fit these curves as exactly as data might ever do.
The behavior on these extreme tails is not one strand of evidence among many. It is precisely where one would expect to see the environmental and genetic hypotheses most clearly diverge in their predictions. Who can reasonably assert that the genetic account of this behavior fares far worse than does the environmental account?
Now again my point here is not that one is obliged to accept the genetic hypothesis. It is rather that one is obliged to accept the viability of the genetic hypothesis.
As I have said, we have reached a point in our culture in which aspersions are routinely cast on those who come forward to suggest merely that there might be something to the genetic hypothesis. Yet those who actually study the phenomena relevant to the gap, even when they are strong advocates for a largely environmental explanation of that gap, are, with rare exception, quick to acknowledge that genetics may play a role. Such a concession appears to be requisite for credibility as a scientist in their domain. They of course go on to assert that that role is relatively small – though it must be said they virtually never offer a convincing reason that it should be small rather than substantial.
Now why my insistence here on the viability or plausibility of the genetic hypothesis?
Because it has everything to do with how we all proceed as a society and philosophy as a discipline. If it may very well be that the number of women in an endeavor, and at various levels of an endeavor, has an important genetic base, then a failure to achieve parity is not a presumptive case of injustice.
The crucial question at stake here is: what sort of measures to improve the prospects of women are we obliged to take? If we hold that it is obvious that women should achieve 50% in every domain, then, in domains where there is a great shortfall from that number, and in which little or no progress has been made to date, the measures must be radical indeed compared to what has taken place so far. Given the injustice now borne by women, these measures may reasonably come at great expense to men, and perhaps in some cases even to ordinary rights including some due process considerations. If we do not hold that it’s obvious, and grant that genetics may play a role, we can only justify far more moderate responses. We must factor the expense to men and to ordinary rights of a measure into the decision to adopt it.
Now one may argue that even if we are agnostic about whether the gap is based in part on genetics, we must consider the great harm to women if it is not, and only radical environmental measures will correct the problem. This argument has some merit, even weighing into the balance the harm that will come to men and ordinary rights if those radical measures are adopted. But here I think we really must at minimum take into account the history and outcomes of measures already adopted to improve prospects for women across activities. One simply can’t discount the plain fact that, in some domains, those measures have proved sufficient to bring women to parity and more. It becomes, then, a difficult argument to make that things in other domains are so very different that only radical measures will suffice in these domains when nothing of the sort was required in the domains now at full parity. Certainly the difficulty of that argument must tell against the adoption of radical measures that exact harm on men and ordinary rights. I think we must defer to the rule: extraordinary measures require extraordinary evidence.
This leaves us in the following situation. We should continue to eliminate or reduce as best we can any impediments to success that seem likely on their merits to present a real drag on women achieving to their potential. But we cannot argue that the lack of parity itself can only be explained by environmental influences that must exist, and must be corrected. So we can’t simply declare that, say, philosophy to this very day has a “climate problem” undermining the success of women, even though there exist genuine abuses in how women are sometimes treated in philosophy (and in the academy more generally). Sexual harassment and sexual predation are cases in point. It is one thing to say that something is inherently wrong and should be reduced. It is quite another to say that the full burden of the oppression of a group rests upon eliminating that thing—for that we have no good reason to believe.
The only sensible position we can take as a society and a discipline is that we just don’t and can’t know a priori where the proportion of women in various domains should settle. In a given domain, it may be 90% women, or 10% (or even fewer). We should remove or ameliorate the things for which there are good arguments that they are genuine obstacles. We should, in my view – which differs markedly from the libertarian view — also compensate for such things as implicit (or other) bias by some measure of Affirmative Action. The degree of Affirmative Action should be calibrated to the degree of implicit (or other) bias one can measure objectively. It should not be calibrated to compensate for the shortfall from 50%, which may be great. To do so can easily engender great injustices on an individual basis, undermine the standards by which achievement is evaluated, and, potentially, corrupt the standards of quality in the discipline itself.
Adopting a neutral stand on the degree to which genetics may play a role in women’s achievements is also paramount for another reason. We likely will never be able to predict with any accuracy just how many women might come to the fore in various activities, and disciplines and subdisciplines. A priori, it was not obvious that women might become 80% or more of clinical psychologists, or 50% of physicians and molecular biologists. A priori, it was not obvious that women might become roughly 40% of moral philosophers or historians of philosophy. Only by removing the barriers to entry that had been put in place was this potential uncovered.
Yet it is already becoming evident that in certain areas there is now relatively little movement in the numbers of women, suggesting we are at point of diminishing returns. In philosophy, the number of women in metaphysics, philosophy of logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology seems to be largely stuck at about 10%. This appears to be true as well for the variety of pure or theoretical branches of other disciplines, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, economics, and even biology.
In general, in any discipline or subdiscipline, I think that what we need to look at for guidance is the asymptote to which the numbers are approaching. That asymptote likely captures well what we should anticipate going forward, and we should adjust our expectations and corrective actions to those asymptotic numbers. This is likely the only way we will converge on fair proportions. We may attempt to project fair numbers based on what we may come to know about the distribution of aptitudes and interests of women vs. men via psychological and other studies. But it is unlikely that those numbers will tell us something very useful at the level of detail of all subdisciplines. How, for example, might it predict that 40% of moral philosophers would be women, when the exact characterization of moral philosophy on the features of possible relevance – perhaps level of abstraction and engagement with human beings — would be almost impossible to settle on?
Here I conclude my post. Even though I am myself quite convinced of the genetic hypothesis, I think an agnostic view regarding the genetic vs. environmental question is the only sensible way to proceed as a society and a discipline, until the issue is more definitively settled. Such a view allows us to keep intact the ordinary rights, processes, and freedoms we have come to expect, staving off revolutionary moves of dubious merit.