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Evolutionary Psychology Grapples with Racism and Anti-Semitism

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When I published my book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004), I had no idea that white nationalism and neo-Nazism would become more fashionable in the coming years. At that time white nationalism was a fringe movement that one heard very little about, and the term “alt-right” had not even been coined yet.

Some of my critics informed me that the historical links I drew between Darwinism and racism or Darwinism and Nazism were misguided, because most Darwinian biologists today are firmly anti-racist and anti-Nazi. I never quite understood why the views of current Darwinian biologists were relevant to my argument, however, because I was not arguing that Darwinism inevitably produces Nazism. I was making a more modest and less assailable historical point: Nazis embraced Darwinism and used it as a foundational principle of their worldview. (I proved this in even greater detail in Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.)

Recycling Racial Ideas

However, ironically, the recent upsurge of white nationalism and the alt-right has actually made my historical case more plausible. Not only do many of the leading figures in this movement, such as Richard Spencer, embrace Darwinism with alacrity, but they recycle many of the racial ideas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that I discuss in From Darwin to Hitler.

They argue that races are unequal, because they have evolved differently. Of course, conveniently they have discovered that their own ancestors — white Europeans — have evolved greater intellectual capacities than other races.

These racist ideas are still taboo in mainstream academe — as they should be. When the Nobel Prize-winning biologist James Watson suggested in 2007 that some racial groups, such as black Africans, had lower intelligence because of their evolutionary history, he faced outrage and sustained criticism.

Worrying Signs

However, some worrying signs are emerging that the taboo may be cracking. The journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, which has eminent evolutionary psychologists, such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker, on its editorial board, recently carried an article defending the anti-Semitic, racist views of Kevin MacDonald, a white supremacist and emeritus professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach.

MacDonald’s views are eerily similar to those of scientists I examine in my historical scholarship: racial groups are in a human struggle for existence, behavioral traits are biologically innate, and stereotypical Jewish traits are evolutionary strategies for beating other races in racial competition. MacDonald claims that anti-Semitism is a defensive strategy to help white Europeans and their descendants triumph over the Jews.

Darwin and many early Darwinists saw racism and human inequality as part and parcel of their theory. MacDonald is trying to resurrect this troubling legacy of Darwinian theory.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. He is the author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, Hitler’s Religion, and other books.

Photo: Richard Spencer, by Vas Panagiotopoulos [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.