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What the Google Manifesto Writer Seems to be Oblivious to

The recent drama at Google where its now ex-employee, James Damore, wrote and published a memo within the company has expectedly received a lot of attention everywhere, and more so on the social media.  It is not surprising that many have written in support of Mr. Damore, both in the content and spirit of what he wrote in his manifesto, and also against his firing from Google, and while others have been very critical about what he wrote and how it affected people around him, and why Google had to fire him.

After having read the manifesto myself — at least what appeared in several sites — I have pondered over the entire episode as it has been reported. What was he really trying to say? What was his intent in writing and publishing it? How might it have affected others working at Google? What did the powers-that-be at Google think about it?

In the spirit of freedom of expression, if you look at Mr. Damore’s writing as an effort to share his views in a scientific way, it would appear harsh for him to be fired. If a company clearly encourages its employees to openly share their views, what did he do wrong?

If you look a little deeper and try to understand his perspective when he tries to establish that women on an average would be less inclined to do what it takes to excel in engineering as men would, you will see some misgivings on his part. He seems to overly equate engineering to something like working mostly in solitude, like you so in some software engineering tasks, particularly as a young “individual contributor.” But anyone who has been an engineer long enough would recognize that engineering is about solving problems, making tradeoffs, and finding more efficient ways to do some things. It is not about just sitting in a cube and writing code all the time. It takes all kinds of skills — technical and human — for a company to work efficiently as a team and produce results in a consistent manner.

It is very natural for anyone who is good at his or her job to think they they can solve every problem single-handedly given the opportunity and the time. But as psychologists would tell you, we tend to overestimate our abilities, and oversimplify problems that others are trying to solve. “I know how to do that in a better way,” is something we might think, until we get our hands dirty.  Often it’s only after we try our hands at something that we admit “No one knew that healthcare was so complicated.”

I have worked as an engineer for many years, and I have had the good fortune to work with many brilliant people, and excellent teams. I have often reflected on how my own views my work and my abilities have evolved over time. I have seen others also go through such personal transformations. Without trying to over-generalize, I think if it is fair to see that when one is young and very capable in what they do, there is a tendency to think more about oneself, and less in the broader context of the team. With experience come greater appreciation of how others contribute, and how teamwork is essential when trying to solve complex problems.

It is futile to quantify and compare the value of an average man or an average woman,  or to form a generalized theory about where their biological attributes will make them more successful. I think it boils down to realizing that it’s a big world with many wide-ranging dynamics and not just what we have seen or experienced.

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Biological Basis for Out-Group Aggression

I am listening to the audio version of the book “Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World” by Malcom Potts and Thoman Hayden. I have covered about 40% of the book so far, but I think I get the point that the authors are trying to make.

The authors quote many examples of war crimes and aggressive behavior among chimpanzees to show some very interesting parallels. Young males in some animals species have a predisposition for team-aggression: the individuals gang together and carry out systematic attacks on out-group members of the same species. The attacks can be lethal or sexual. The authors describe some of the atrocities on women that are so common during wars. They also quote many examples from animal observers such as Jane Goodall; the way male chimpanzees form groups and carry out gruesome attacks on neighboring chimpanzee tribes makes for some chilling reading.

Team aggression may have been an evolutionary necessity for survival. But on today’s world, with our planet overpopulated with close to 7 billion homo-sapiens, survival of the species does not need aggression, if anything. But millions of years of evolution and genetic programming does not get change  in a few thousand years of modern social life that our species has led.

The authors say that communities or countries with a larger proportion of young males are likely to have a lot of crime and aggressive behavior. The wars and the terrorist attacks of today’s world are the result this deep-rooted aggressive traits that are carried in our genes, they argue.

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Behavioral Economics vs. Evolutionary Psychology

I have been reading and researching books and other literature on Behavioral Economics for the last few years. It’s been a very fascinating journey in this new field for me. I have been able to relate to many of the things I learned about in this study and apply them to things I see in real life.

This study led me to another very interesting book: “Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Human Nature” by Douglas T. Kenrick.

What this book talks about is Evolutionary Psychology, a field I have been interested in, but something I haven’t explored much until now. I have found many books by Desmond Morris including “The Naked Ape” very interesting and relevant to human life, but that is considered to be the field of Anthropology.

A lot of the views on human behavior by anthropologists and evolutionary biologists seem to be consistent; they try to reason why a particular behavior pattern may have evolved and how it may have helped the human species to survive and thrive during challenging times.

Behavioral economists view human behavior in the context of today’s life. From their point of view, many of the choices that we make appear irrational or contrary to what classic economics would expect us to do. Even though these aspects of human behavior in the modern world can be considered irrational in today’s context, they were essential part of human evolution and survival, the evolutionary psychologists argue.

 

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