The “alt-right,” like “alt-left,” functions in part as a designation for the boogeyman. They are people we don’t like, don’t understand, people who embarrass us or frighten us. Besides being a term of abuse, however, the “alt-right” also refers to a core of Americans and others who share fairly consistent beliefs.
The label is new, but there is now, and long has been, and probably always will be a fringe of hateful racial tribalists. One point about this narrow demographic that has gone largely unnoticed is the degree to which its thinking embraces evolution to justify dehumanizing people they don’t like. While the Confederate cause in the Civil War has been the subject of much chatter, the modern racial right owes far more to Charles Darwin than to Robert E. Lee.
That’s a takeaway from a pre-print study, “A Psychological Profile of the Alt-Right,” by two social psychologists, Patrick S. Forscher and Nour S. Kteily of the University of Arkansas and Northwestern University respectively. Their news peg, predictably, is the 2016 presidential election. They report:
We surveyed 447 alt-right adherents on a battery of psychological measures, comparing their responses to those of 382 non-adherents. Alt-right adherents were much more distrustful of the mainstream media and government; expressed higher Dark Triad traits, social dominance orientation, and authoritarianism; reported high levels of aggression; and exhibited extreme levels of overt intergroup bias, including blatant dehumanization of racial minorities.
They paid alt-right members of their sample $3 to participate, while a comparison group got $2, “because we assumed [alt-right adherents] would be more difficult to recruit.” Much of what they found is no surprise, but the frankness of their questioning about evolution is refreshing (emphasis added):
Dehumanization scales. We measured blatant dehumanization of various groups using the ascent dehumanization measure (Kteily, Bruneau, Waytz, & Cotterill, 2015). This scale asks people to rate how ‘evolved’ they perceive people or groups to be using a diagram shown in Figure 1. This diagram depicts the purported biological and cultural evolution of humans from quadrupedal human ancestors. People use a 0-100 slider to decide where a person or group falls along the continuum established by the silhouettes in the image, with a score of 0 corresponding to the quadrupedal human ancestor and a score of 100 corresponding to a modern human. Higher scores therefore indicate humanization, lower scores dehumanization.
We assessed humanity attributions towards a broad array of targets. On the basis of exploratory factor analysis among the alt-right sample, we created three subscales corresponding to (1) the humanity attributed to targets favored by the alt-right (Americans, Europeans, Swedes, White people, Donald Trump, Republicans, Christians, men); (2) religious and ethnic groups targeted by the alt-right (Arabs, Muslims, Turks, Mexicans, Nigerians, and Blacks); and (3) political opposition groups (Hillary Clinton, Democrats, feminists, Republicans who refused to vote for Trump, journalists).
You won’t be startled to hear that alt-right believers were more inclined to dehumanize, in evolutionary terms, their disfavored racial and ethnic groups, rating “White people” as more “evolved” than, say, “Mexicans, Nigerians, and Blacks.” Or rather you won’t be startled if you’ve been paying attention to our reporting here on the role of evolutionary thinking among racist right-wingers. (The left has its own racialists, but that’s a different discussion.)
Before anyone was talking about the alt-right, the racialist right was enamored with Darwinian theory as a justification for its prejudices. Not unlike some more conventional conservatives, they were impressed by its academic prestige and the way that it seemed to give support to preferred opinions.
As of a couple of days ago, white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups were being pulled offline by their web hosts. One of those groups is Stormfront.org. Back in 2009, in the wake of a shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, I described Googling the phrase “natural selection” as it appeared among writings of the website’s users. The shooter, James von Brunn, had composed a manifesto, highlighting his idea that “Natural Law: the species are improved through in-breeding, natural selection and mutation. Only the strong survive. Cross-breeding Whites with species lower on the evolutionary scale diminishes the White gene-pool.” Such thinking, more or less sophisticated in how it presents itself, finds an audience on the less extreme right.
Even the most respectable conservatives have to be wary. In 2012, I wrote about how National Review had acted correctly in cleaning out two contributors with racialist or white nationalist ties. One was John Derbyshire, long known to us as a vitriolic critic of intelligent design. The other, Robert Weissberg, had spoken at an event that, I pointed out, was “heavy with evolutionary, Darwinian and eugenic themes, sponsored by a group [American Renaissance] with similar interests.” See “With Concerns about Darwinist Racialism in Mind, National Review Cleans House.”
In 2015, another white nationalist shooter, Dylann Roof, contributed his own manifesto, complete with a nod to pseudoscientific racism. Media reports tied Roof through a series of associations to activists who lean on scholarly sounding evolutionary racial theory. See “In Explaining Dylann Roof’s Inspiration, the Media Ignore Ties to Evolutionary Racism.”
In 2016, when the alt-right came to light under that now familiar name, I noted that, “Though this has escaped focused attention, the alternative right draws heavily on themes of evolution-based racism,” including eugenics, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary “race realism,” and more. I pointed to alt-right leader Richard Spencer’s Radix Journal (also now shut down by its web host) as the “mother lode of pseudo-conservative, pseudo-scientific racism.” See “Evolution and the Alt-Right.”
Of Spencer and his journal, National Review noted the other day that “The Alt-Right Carries on Margaret Sanger’s Legacy of Eugenics.” The evolutionary backdrop to this is, though, typically missed. Darwin himself, of course, a kindly figure, was no proto-Nazi. However, Darwinian theory and Darwin’s own writings have fueled racial and eugenic thinking for more than a century and a half, including that of Margaret Sanger, as John West has detailed at The Stream (“The Line Running from Charles Darwin through Margaret Sanger to Planned Parenthood”) and as we have noted here repeatedly. In his books, historian and Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Richard Weikart meticulously describes the intellectual descent from Darwin to Hitler. Ranking the human races in relationship to gorillas is straight out of Darwin’s Descent of Man.
So the study by Forscher and Kteily really tells us little we didn’t already know. It merely provides empirical support for the observation that, whether styled as the alt-right, white nationalism, or however you like, evolutionary theorizing is a vital support for one brand of hate, with historical ties going back to the earliest modern evolutionary thinking. Take away Darwinism, and today’s racialists would hardly be recognizable.