The Untold Story

A Tale of Two Sisters

August 30, 2017

Multiple Pages
A Tale of Two Sisters

Much of the mania of the moment stems from a growing crisis of faith among elites over how much longer they can expect the ideological dogmas under which they have prospered so mightily to withstand the onrushing findings of genetic science.

No family illustrates this tension more ironically than the Wojcicki sisters, Susan (the former landlady of Google guys Larry Page and Sergey Brin) and Anne (the former wife of Sergey).

Susan Wojcicki (pronounced Wo-jit-skee) now heads Google’s subsidiary YouTube. This month she has taken the lead in corporate America’s march toward censorship of genetic explanations for sex and race differences, getting Google engineer James Damore fired and installing a system for neutering the impact of politically incorrect videos.

Meanwhile, Anne Wojcicki is the cofounder and CEO of 23andMe, a well-known genetic testing service for quantifying your racial past and what your genes might portend for your future.

The Wojcicki sisters enjoyed the ideal nature and nurture for fabulous Silicon Valley careers. Their father was chairman of the Stanford physics department, their mother an energetic teacher at Palo Alto High School, and they grew up in faculty housing on the Stanford campus, surrounded by brilliant scientists.

And the Wojcicki sisters were in the right place at the right time to meet the right people.

“The Wojcicki sisters enjoyed the ideal nature and nurture for fabulous Silicon Valley careers.”

As you’ll recall, the Internet was initially hyped as a breakthrough that would eliminate the tyranny of location: You could work from anywhere in the world! But, it turned out, where you live matters not less but even more in the Internet Age.

After completing her UCLA M.B.A. in 1998, Susan and her husband bought a five-bedroom house (with help from her parents) in Menlo Park near Stanford for about $600,000. They rented the garage to grad students Larry and Sergey to use as an office. Soon the landlady was working for nascent Google as a marketer and introducing Sergey to her sister.

This month, Susan won the power struggle within Google over software engineer James Damore documenting some of the biological science behind Google’s hiring patterns. (Paradoxically, Damore was fired for defending the hiring practices of Google executives, such as Susan Wojcicki.)

And Susan has now had YouTube enforce, in cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League, a policy of soft censorship of heterodox videos, such as journalist Jared Taylor’s “Race Differences in Intelligence.” Heretics are currently being allowed to keep their videos up on YouTube’s near-monopoly service to deny them martyrdom. But most functionality, such as comments, advertising, and sharing, is being stripped away.

As Susan asked in an op-ed condemning Damore’s impudence:

For instance, what if we replaced the word “women” in the memo with another group? What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their underrepresentation in tech and leadership roles? Would some people still be discussing the merit of the memo’s arguments or would there be a universal call for swift action against its author?

Of course, Susan has not used her power to get Google to actually hire a proportional number of blacks, Hispanics, or women. Google’s technical workforce remains only 1 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent female.

(On the other hand, how much evidence is there for Susan’s contention that “LGBTQ” employees are underrepresented in Silicon Valley? For instance, the CEO of Apple, the only company richer than Google, is gay. And I suspect Google employs a disproportionate number of ex-men transgenders among its programmers.)

Susan’s not going to risk Google’s immense market capitalization by forcing radically different hiring patterns. But she doesn’t want anybody talking about even the possibility that there are genetic reasons behind why Google does what it does when it comes to hiring engineering talent.

In contrast, Susan’s younger sister Anne has been encouraging everybody to talk about genetics and race since she cofounded 23andMe in 2006.

It’s widely assumed in the conventional wisdom that race doesn’t exist or is just a social construct or is merely skin-deep or whatever. But if you send 23andMe a vial of your saliva and $199, they will tell you what your racial background is rather precisely.

For example, Anne has shared her ancestry. She is 100 percent European, with 50.2 percent being Ashkenazi Jewish (i.e., her mother, Esther) and the rest being 41.2 percent Eastern European, 2.7 percent Northwestern European, 0.4 percent Southern European, and 5.5 percent “Broadly European” (i.e., her father, Stanley, an anti-Communist refugee from Poland).

These kinds of racial estimates aren’t perfect, but they’ve improved dramatically since 2009 when one DNA service reported that Larry David was three-eighths American Indian. The price of genome testing is falling with remarkable speed, allowing more and more data to be analyzed at a moderate price.

And 23andMe analyzes your DNA for its implications not just for your past, but for your future. (It notoriously sells this data to pharmaceutical companies.)

A famous example of genetic testing is Anne’s ex-husband, Sergey Brin, who has an unfortunate mutation more common among Ashkenazi Jews. Sergey blogged in 2008:

There is one particular mutation of the LRRK2 gene—known as G2019S—that, while rare even among people with the disease, accounts, in some ethnic groups, for a substantial proportion of familial Parkinson’s….

So, when my wife asked me to look up G2019S in my raw data (23andMe scientists had had the forethought to include it on their chip), I viewed it mostly as entertainment.

But, of course, I learned something very important to me—I carry the G2019S mutation and when my mother checked her account, she saw she carries it too….

Nonetheless it is clear that I have a markedly higher chance of developing Parkinson’s in my lifetime than the average person….

He concluded on an optimistic note:

I have a better guess than almost anyone else for what ills may be mine—and I have decades to prepare for it.

Fortunately, Brin’s mother’s case isn’t as severe as, say, Michael J. Fox’s.

After eight years and two children, the Brin-Wojcicki marriage broke up in 2015 as Sergey’s affair with an ambitious young Google executive, Amanda Rosenberg, became public knowledge. Anne spent 2016 being seen in the company of baseball slugger and fellow biomedical innovation connoisseur Alex Rodriguez.

The contradiction between Anne’s science triumphalism and Susan’s science denialism doesn’t appear all that obvious to most people. I haven’t found anything on Google that suggests many others have even noticed it yet.

There is huge money to be made in Big Data by noticing patterns, as Anne Wojcicki does. But patterns are what Susan Wojcicki had James Damore fired for noticing.

As the incongruity between the power of genetic science and the anti-science extremism of The Narrative worsens, Susan’s successful demand for “swift action” rather than discussing the merits of the argument will no doubt appeal ever more to the powerful.

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