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Ties that Bind: The Alt-Right’s Connections to Social Darwinist Madison Grant and Eugenics

Photo: Charlottesville demonstration, 2017, by Anthony Crider; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 20:37, 9 April 2018 (UTC), CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

In his new book Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism, historian Richard Weikart devotes a chapter to explaining the continuing influence of Darwinian racism in American society today, including its connection to the “Alt-Right.” It’s a topic that we’ve covered before at Evolution News, but it deserves more attention. 

Unfortunately, in recent years the term Alt-Right has been misused as something of a catch-all for “conservatism.” That’s a slander. Most conservatives have nothing to do with the actual Alt-Right. In reality, the Alt-Right has an ideology of its own, a mix of both left-leaning and right-leaning elements. But their various positions are united by one belief: that the white race is genetically superior. And as Weikart points, they draw toxic inspiration from the claims of Darwinian biology.

Understanding the Alt-Right

In claiming that the white race is superior, Alt-Right articles and podcasts cite certain early 20th-century social Darwinists. Three of these thinkers are Madison GrantSir Francis Galton, and Lothrop Stoddard. The last of these three, perhaps a less familiar name, served as a director for Margaret Sanger’s Planned Parenthood

The ideas of the social Darwinists permeate the Alt-Right ideology. Some years ago Richard Spencer, an Alt-Right writer — most notably recognized for his role in the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” demonstration in 2017 — interviewed thinker and painter Jonathan Bowden on Spencer’s podcast Vanguard. The episode is titled “The E Word: Eugenics & Environmentalism, Madison Grant & Lothrop Stoddard.” During their interview, Spencer and Bowden not only detail the history of the eugenics movement, they defend it, even attempting to connect eugenics with both abortion and environmentalism, using Grant as their justification. They argue that if the Left could only embrace the notion that some men and women are genetically inferior, then they could deal with the environment effectively.

Academic Language and a Harsh Message

During the podcast, Bowden states: 

…if one eschews the politics of human rights in a grandstanding and universalist way and sees human identity and glory in very much an individual or localized manner then deep green and ecological ideas have a lot to say to all forms of conservativism that wish to preserve and restore as against that which is transitory and that which is to our end and which is purely and only concerned with human life to the detriment of the ecology without which mankind couldn’t subsist. 

These men have a habit of using academic language to mask their harsh message. What he’s basically saying is that if we’d just get rid of this troublesome notion of human rights, we could deal with overpopulation and save the environment. 

When it comes to abortion, both Bowden and Spencer consider it a backwards form of eugenics. As Spencer explains, “they [the elites] are in some ways pursuing negative eugenics in the sense that they are certainly much more willing to abort a child with Down syndrome or so on, and that, of course, can be discovered in the womb. In some ways, one could also suggest that eugenics is still living on.” 

Bowden adds:

I also think it’s important to realize that essentially what’s happened is that two concepts have been conflated into one another in order to summarily dispatch both. This is the idea of eugenics as against dysgenics. Dysgenics, which is, if you like, the negative side of eugenics whereby you act though as to prevent harm, but you also act as to, in some senses, prevent life through abortion or through selective contraceptive use or through sterilization. The proactive and yet sort of snip-oriented and negative side of eugenics is its really controversial feature. The wholesome side, the building people up, the tonics for the brave sort of side, is one which only the most… nihilistic and sordid Left-winger would be opposed to, because they find nauseous the idea of happy, athletic, intellectually precocious families beaming for the camera in an Osmonds-like way, you know.  

Both Bowden and Spencer blame the public’s rejection of eugenics on the move away from Galton’s understanding of Darwinism after the Second World War. Spencer says, “…you were talking about the academic side of this issue and the fact that so many of these researchers who were quite predisposed to Galton, Darwinism, eugenics that switched. Is that part of the so-called Boasian revolution in anthropology? What I mean by that is, of course, Franz Boas, who was a sworn enemy of Madison Grant.”

Bowden affirms Spencer’s suspicion and then adds a revealing statement about the motives behind this switch. He comments, “Yes, I do think it happened in a certain context though. I think that people who supported eugenics found that unless they found a different vocabulary for it their support couldn’t be sustained in polite society.”

Eugenics as a Worthy Practice

Regarding this switch, the two conclude their conversation when Spencer says, “When you had baby boomers and our generation, you were essentially having people who were influenced by Boasian anthropology. They did not think in terms of Galton and let’s call it classical Darwinism. Really those people lost the battle, and this is the reason why eugenics kind of vanished after the Second World War.”   

These two think eugenics was a worthy practice and they lament that it is no longer openly used. Spencer summarizes his thoughts on the subject:

What do you think about our unique ability to reclaim conservationism or naturalism and how, much like Grant, that should be a major cause for us, which is to keep the world green and beautiful and to fight things like the terrible overpopulation that you see in some kind of horrifying city like Mexico City or São Paulo? We want quality over quantity, and we want to live on a beautiful Earth. 

While venerating Galton and Stoddard, the conversation mostly centers on the legacy of Madison Grant, a New York lawyer who popularized the eugenics movement with his books, including The Passing of the Great Race and The Conquest of a Continent. Here are some samples of his thought:

  • “…the intelligence and ability of a colored person are in pretty direct proportion to the amount of white blood he has, and…most of the positions of leadership, influence, and prominence in the Negro race are held not by real negroes but by Mulattoes, many of whom have very little Negro blood.” (The Conquest of a Continent)
  • “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.” (The Passing of the Great Race)
  • “Where the environment is too soft and luxurious and no strife is required for survival, not only are weak strains and individuals allowed to survive and encouraged to breed but the strong types also grow fat mentally and physically.” (The Passing of the Great Race)

Clearly, Grant has been an influence on Spencer’s thinking. In that connection, Spencer has a book to recommend, historian Jonathan Spiro’s Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant: “He [Spiro] offers a very useful and rich biography of Grant, which has really influenced my interest in Grant, and one of his major themes is that if you tell someone that Grant is an early environmentalist that’ll usually bring a smile to their face, but if you tell someone he’s also an early eugenicist, that will usually inspire shock and horror. But as Spiro points out, there was no contradiction in Grant’s mind between saving the redwoods and saving the White race.”  

Confused Terms

It’s a strange thing to hear these individuals claim they are on the Right while simultaneously affirming abortion, an act considered a form of murder by many conservatives. The reason for this confusion of terms is that Spencer, Bowden, and others on the Alt-Right regard themselves as the Right in the same way Mussolini or Hitler might be considered on the “Right” today. That, however, ignores that Hitler’s platform was, after all, “national socialism.” Conservatism today is not only defined by social issues but by a belief in limited government, and there can be nothing more invasive than eugenics.

It’s important to understand what the Alt-Right believes. They are not just an extreme offshoot of either the Right or the Left. Instead, they have their own ideology based on antiquated ideas from the early 20th century, an ideology heavily influenced by eugenics, which was inspired in turn by — as Spencer puts it, not incorrectly — classical Darwinism.