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Does Disbelief in Human Evolution Foment Racism?

Richard Weikart
Photo credit: Unite the Right rally, Charlottesvile, VA, © 2017 Rodney Dunning, via Flicker (cropped).

A recent psychological study by Stylianos Syropoulos et al. published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that Americans who disbelieve in human evolution have higher levels of racism and prejudice (Stylianos Syropoulos, et al., “Bigotry and the Human–Animal Divide: (Dis)Belief in Human Evolution and Bigoted Attitudes Across Different Cultures,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2022)). The implication seems to be that disbelief in evolution somehow contributes to racism.

Interestingly, however, at the beginning of the study, the authors admit that belief in evolution has been used in the past to promote and justify racism. Clearly the authors — who embrace evolution, but reject racism — find these historical connections troubling. Thus, while admitting that evolution has been historically connected to racism, they seek to counter this by allegedly demonstrating that belief in human evolution today makes one less prone to racism.

There are numerous problems with this study, but I will focus on three: (1) The correlations that they find are not necessarily caused by the idea of evolution; (2) their definition of racism is problematic; and (3) some of their findings do not support their thesis.

Correlation Versus Causation

First let’s examine the correlation versus causation problem. This study does not provide an adequate explanation as to why belief in evolution would cause one to be less racist. Indeed, the logic seems backwards. Believing in human evolution typically means that one believes that human races diverged from each other a very long time ago in the past. Those disbelieving evolution would typically believe that humans had a much more recent common ancestor (unless one believes that races were separately created, but I don’t know anyone around today who still holds this outmoded idea). This is why Darwin claimed that racial inequality was evidence for his theory (see the first chapter of my new book, Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism).

However, this study does show that there is some correlation between disbelief in evolution and racism (and if anyone reading this is actually guilty of racism, I implore you to jettison it). I consider it likely that this correlation has more to do with sociological factors, rather than ideological factors. People who accept evolution often do so because they want to conform to the prevailing opinions of the intellectual elites. These people would likely be more cosmopolitan and thus less prone to racism. They would also tend to embrace the prevailing opinions of the intellectual elites about racism. If the intellectual elites were largely evolutionists who embraced racism — as they were when “scientific racism” was in vogue in the early 20th century — then such people would embrace both evolution and racism.

A Problematic Definition

Secondly, this study uses indicators of racism that are slanted to their own progressive views. Two indicators that they use to measure racism are support for affirmative action and support for government programs supporting blacks. It does not surprise me that people disbelieving human evolution also reject affirmative action and government programs to help blacks. Ironically, many reject these precisely because they oppose big government and even see these as racist measures, i.e., as government programs that discriminate on the basis of race.

Uncertain Findings

Finally, some of the findings in this study were not all that clear-cut. In the section where they examined attitudes that were clearly racist — a section called “Feelings Towards Blacks” — the most recent surveys showed that in two of the three categories there were no significant differences between people who believed in human evolution and those who disbelieved. The two that showed no difference were “how close the respondent feels to Blacks” and “how White individuals felt about living in a neighborhood that was half-Black.” In those two categories, those believing in human evolution were no less racist than those disbelieving.  The only category that showed a significant difference was in attitudes about interracial marriage.

It’s not news to me that the intellectual elites in the U.S. largely embrace human evolution and reject racism. However, if one examines the historical background, it seems pretty clear that the reason they came to reject racism had nothing to do with believing in human evolution. If anything, belief in human evolution drives in the other direction, which is why so many white nationalists today embrace human evolution as the explanation for racial inequality (see the final chapter of Darwinian Racism).