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How Science Fueled the White Supremacist Mass Murderer in Buffalo, NY

John G. West
Photo: A former Tops Friendly Market, by Nicholas Eckhart, via Flickr (cropped).

Over the weekend, a teenage male shooter perpetrated a horrific mass murder in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where 13 people were shot, and 10 died. All but two of the victims were black.

Journalists and commentators have rushed to report that the shooter is a white supremacist who hates blacks, Jews, and immigrants and subscribes to the racist theory known as “The Great Replacement.” The description is true as far as it goes. 

But it is also woefully inadequate. It doesn’t tell us anything about the roots of the shooter’s twisted beliefs. Until we start paying attention to THAT question, we are unlikely to make progress in combatting these kinds of crimes in the future.

So What Fueled the Killer’s Toxic Ideology?

It certainly wasn’t Christianity. In a manifesto posted online that has been attributed to the shooter, the author does make a bizarre claim that he “believe[s] in and practice[s] many Christian values.” (p. 7) Apparently “thou shalt not murder” and “love thy neighbor as thyself” aren’t among them. More importantly, this pro forma statement in the manifesto follows an unequivocal rejection of Christianity. “Are you a Christian?” the manifesto’s writer asks himself. “No. I do not ask God for salvation by faith, nor do I confess my sins to Him.” He goes on to suggest he is an out-and-out materialist: “I personally believe there is no afterlife.”

If not religion, what about politics? Perhaps the shooter was persuaded by the rhetoric of Republican Party politicians or conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson, as some have recklessly suggested online? Sorry, but those who want to score partisan points in this awful tragedy should look elsewhere.

Despite claims to the contrary, the shooter is hard to pigeonhole as someone who fits neatly either on the right or left. In his purported manifesto, this is how he describes his political beliefs: “When I was 12 I was deep into communist ideology, talk to anyone from my old high school and ask about me and you will hear that. From age 15 to 18 however, I consistently moved farther to the right. On the political compass I fall in the mild-moderate authoritarian left category, and I would prefer to be called a populist.” (p. 9, emphasis mine) He later reiterates: “I would prefer to call myself a populist. But you can call me an ethno-nationalist eco-fascist national socialist if you want, I wouldn’t disagree with you.” (p. 10, emphasis mine)

So if not religion or politics, what fueled his hatreds? Try evolutionary science.

The “Science” Behind White Supremacy

In his purported manifesto, the shooter asserts that blacks “are a different subspecies of human.” Why? Because “Whites and Blacks are separated by tens of thousands of years of evolution, and our genetic material is obviously very different.” (emphasis mine, p. 14) Elsewhere he suggests that Europeans and Asians are more recently evolved than blacks (p. 17), which sounds eerily reminiscent of the view of countless racists of the past (including Charles Darwin himself) that blacks are the lowest humans on the evolutionary ladder.

You won’t find the shooter drawing on Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump in his manifesto. You will find lots of citations to articles in mainstream peer-reviewed science journals, including Nature Genetics, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Molecular Psychiatry, Journal of Research in Personality, Personality and Individual Differences, and Current Directions in Psychological Science. You will also find citations to science articles published in media outlets like the New York Times. The shooter cites those sources to try to justify genetic reductionism and his abhorrent belief in black genetic inferiority.

Unfortunately, the Buffalo shooter’s evolutionary racism is not an outlier among recent mass killers. Arguments drawn from evolution have been prominent in the ideologies of many mass shooters in recent years, including Anders Breivik in 2011, a Norwegian mass murderer cited as a role model by the Buffalo shooter. Other shooters smitten by Darwinian evolution have included the Columbine High School shooters in 1999, Finnish shooter Pekka Eric Auvinen in 2007, the Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter in 2009, and the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooter in 2019. 

Obviously, believing in evolution doesn’t compel one to be a racist, let alone predispose a person  to be a killer. Nevertheless, if we want to counteract the influences that shape people like the Buffalo shooter, we need to face the way evolutionary science is being misused to support the new white supremacists.  

To some degree, the past is coming back to haunt the scientific community. The historical connections between evolutionary biology and racism are undeniable. As historian Richard Weikart meticulously documents in his recent book, Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism (2022), evolutionary arguments have been a staple among scientific racists over the past century right down to the present. You will find some of the same evidence in my documentary Human Zoos

To their credit, most supporters of Darwinian evolution largely abandoned their scientific racism after the civil rights era, if not earlier. The problem is that they had little positive to replace it with. Think about it: If humans truly evolved through a blind and accidental process that did not have them in mind, it’s not much of a jump to believe that some human populations must have evolved in ways superior to other human populations. Thus, a tendency toward racism was sort of built-in to evolutionary theory from the get-go. While most scientists have turned their backs on such racism, the misanthropic foundations of Darwinism have not been replaced. Today the misanthropy usually shows itself not in the support of racism, but in the denial of value to all humans. This is what one finds in the current animal/plant/nature rights movements as well the population control movement. (If you doubt this, see my colleague Wesley J. Smith’s book and documentary, The War on Humans.)

And yet… what happens when some now seek a return to the earlier days of Darwinian racism? The scientific community’s rejection of scientific racism after the civil rights movement was more sociological than scientific. So when white supremacists come along today and resurrect arguments for Darwinian racism from years gone by, modern evolutionary theory may not have the moral resources to persuade them otherwise. 

By contrast, if you have a teleological view of the development of life, you have more resources to draw on. If you believe humans and their capabilities resulted from a transcendent plan rather than the happenstance of unguided evolution — if you believe that science shows man is, to invoke biologist Michael Denton, a “miracle” rather than an accident, it’s a lot easier to believe that humans are fundamentally equal. All of us reflect the same underlying plan. Any differences that exist are variations on the same overarching theme.

Unintended Consequences?

A coda to the Buffalo shooter bears mentioning, because it is also connected to science.

In his manifesto, the shooter says he didn’t always hold his current hateful views. So when did things change? He recalls: “I started browsing 4chan in May 2020 after extreme boredom, remember this was during the outbreak of covid.” (p. 13) Left to himself, he had endless time to lurk on the web, which means he had endless time to discover — and then be persuaded by — the arguments of the vile merchants of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and scientific racism. 

Recall that most schools were closed for in-person interactions in 2020. So were churches. So were gyms and recreational facilities. So were many other institutions of normal socialization. The shutdowns were imposed in the name of science and with the support of leading scientific and medical authorities. 

At the time, some people dared to raise questions about what the unintended consequences might be for young people if we shut them off from healthy in-person interactions. Now we have the answer for at least one person. 

Only one data point, I know. But in coming months, I fear we may have more.