Science versus White Nationalism

People of good faith are reeling over the loss of three lives in Charlottesville, Virginia this last weekend. These deaths were brought about intentionally and unintentionally by a gathering of white nationalists/supremacists whose goal it was to protest the taking down of the statute of Confederate general Robert E. Lee under the banner of “unite the right.”

White nationalism is a pernicious term that has always been associated with the subordination of those deemed “not white.” Whiteness itself has been a fluid concept. In the modern sense it generally applied to persons of European descent with fair complexions. However it has not always referred to all persons of European descent. In the 19th century it generally referred to persons of northern and western European descent, excluding of course the Irish. For example, in a 1870’s lecture tour of America, Oxford Historian E.A. Freeman opined that the best cure for the United States was “for every Irishman to kill a nigger, and be hanged for it!1” Indeed, southern and eastern Europeans were not considered “whites” in the United States until well into the 20th century, particularly as part of creating the white suburban identity2. In a unique position amongst those of European descent have been people of the Jewish faith. Generally, American white nationalists have been strongly anti-Semitic. This in part accounts for their long-standing alliance with European fascists, e.g. the Nazi party. The American industrialist Henry Ford was a vicious anti-Semite and racist. He reprinted parts of the Tsarist fabrication “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his newspaper “The Dearborn Independent.” During the rise of the Nazi party in Germany he was an ardent supporter who was eventually awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from the Nazi regime3. Of course, many American white nationalists belong to American Nazi party groups.

Behind all white nationalism is the idea that persons defined as “white” are better than those who are not white. In the context of the United States, this particularly means that they feel superior to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Arab Americans, and Asian Americans due to their genetic inheritance. Candidate, now President Donald Trump once claimed that he believed he had a “genetic gift for real estate development4.” “Better” has taken on different meanings in different historical periods but has generally included intellect, morality, athleticism, thriftiness, amongst other traits. This belief system can be driven by either religious white nationalism, such as modern groups like the “Church of the Creator”, or scientific white nationalism. It is the latter ideology that I will discuss in this piece.

Race, racism, and white supremacy

The pseudoscience of white supremacy is at the core of all white nationalist belief. Unfortunately, this view has a long history and has been responsible for the destruction of millions of human lives5. It is often mistakenly believed that Europeans always believed they were superior to non-Europeans. However, the ascendance of this ideology is really the product of the last five centuries. Johan Friedrich Blumenbach (1752—1840 CE), considered the founder of modern anthropology did not think that there was any objective way to rank the human races6. Of course, with the ascendancy of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonial conquest of the Americas the views of European naturalists changed7. However it should be understood that the view of naturalists in this time period were creationist and thus unscientific. The scientific tools to understand both the origin and the maintenance of human biological diversity did not arrive until after the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 18598.

Contrary to both creationist and white supremacist fabrications, Darwin was actually opposed to both slavery and racism9,10. Indeed he wrote to his friend American botanist, Asa Gray in 1864:

“The destruction of slavery would be well worth a dozen years of war11.”

Despite Darwin’s best intentions however, Darwinism was associated with racist and white supremacist views in the latter portion of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century12. Specifically, pseudoscientific movements such as “Social Darwinism” which is more appropriately named “Spencerism” after the English sociologist Herbert Spencer; and Eugenics which was begun by Darwin’s first cousin, Francis Galton, are often confused with evolutionary theory.

There is a deep link between Spencerism, Eugenics, and Nazism. What most people don’t know is that these links were forged in the United Kingdom and the United States, not Germany13. Modern white supremacist theorists rely on the same discredited beliefs of the leaders of this movement, Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, Arthur Comte de Gobineau, Charles Davenport, and Eugen Fisher. These beliefs are:

  1. Human behavior and intellect are primarily controlled by genes.
  2. The genetic controls of behavior and intellect are simple.
  3. That biological races exist within the human species.
  4. And that the biological races of humans differ in the frequencies of beneficial genes that positively impact intelligence and behavior.

Thus, the immoral calculus of the modern white supremacists devolves into the simple logic that their genes make them smarter and more trustworthy than the rest of humanity. For this reason, they should rule society, particularly societies that that they claim belong to them: “blood and soil.” Of course, one might have some sympathy for that logic, if you were referring to European countries, where the recent evolutionary history of Europeans occurred. However, it seems to fall onto its face immediately when applied to nations in the Western hemisphere. Of course, to the white supremacist this logic is rescued by their claim to have “made the United States.” This claim conveniently ignores the fact that the European inhabitants of North America are conquerors who displaced the American Indian nations by a combination of genocidal murder, rape, plague, and slavery14!

The real problem is that modern science is against the claims of white supremacy. Each one of the early 20th century claims of the Spencerists and Eugenicists has been disproven. We now know that while genes do contribute to intellect and behavior, they are by no means the controlling force determining either. We also know that the controls of all complex traits, including intelligence and behavior are exceeding complex, resulting from genetic, environmental, epigenetic, and random chance factors operating in development15.

Furthermore, we understand that while the human species does have geographically based biological variation, there is not enough to divide humans into racial groups16. Thus, the “white” race is a socially defined and not biologically legitimated entity. This makes the last plank of the white supremacist’s racial reasoning even more difficult to claim. Human populations differ in the frequency of a variety of genes, resulting from both past histories of selection and genetic drift (random chance). However, it is utterly nonsensical to claim that any specific population has a greater frequency of genes contributing to socially value traits than any other group of people. Indeed, what we know about the genetic load (deleterious mutations) found in Europeans suggests that if genes alone determined the frequency of beneficial traits in populations, Europeans would have less beneficial traits compared to others17!

The disconnect between scientific reality and the claims of white supremacists is one of the reasons why fascists have always had an ambivalent relationship with science (see my April post on Science and Health Democracy18). Indeed, the Nazis were both anti-science and anti-Christian, rooting their ideology in the Germanic myths of the Thule. This blatant disregard for scientific reasoning explains how they can arrive at their social programs of euthanasia and genocide.

What is to be done?

Understanding the misconceptions inherent in white nationalism by itself will not protect us from its agenda. It is more important to recognize the social forces that are calling increasing numbers of European American youth to its banner. There has been much discussion of this in the scholarly literature20. These analyses all agree that fascism is a social phenomenon that reappears when capitalism is in crisis. It is a mass movement fueled by the frustrations of the middle class, particularly as the economy shifts in ways that benefit the super wealthy. One example of this has been the shift of manufacturing jobs away from the United States to cheaper labor markets such as China or India. The dispossessed European American worker sees there lack of opportunity as resulting from their government favoring racial minorities, as opposed to recognizing that the capitalist class does not care where it generates it profits from.  Thus, the fascist foot soldiers are misidentifying the source of their problem with groups they consider inferior, such as ethnic/racial minorities, immigrants, or other religions (Judaism, Islam). The fascist leaders, e.g. Richard Spencer, utilize this discord to turn this frustration against the working class, minorities, immigrants, and religious minorities to attempt to re-stabilize capitalism, which in the United States also means the social dominance of persons of European descent.

This is why it is important to heed what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. The popular media wants to portray these events as the actions of a few far-rightwing extremists and dismiss them. It is important to recognize that fascist movements always begin as the actions of a few extremists (The Beer Hall Putsch November 1923, Munich) was just 2,000 or so Nazis attempting to seize power. There were over 6,000 Nazis in Charlottesville this weekend.

Therefore, it is imperative for us to recognize that fascist movements are serious. Their existence illustrates fundamental problems in our society that require our immediate attention. This means we must watch carefully not just the actions of the Nazis in the streets, but much more carefully those in the White House.


  1. Gossett, T., Race: The History of an Idea in America, Oxford U. Press, 1997.
  2. Roediger, D., Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs, Basic Books, 2006.
  3. Pool, J. and Pool, S., Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler’s Rise to Power 1919—1933, Dial Press, 1978.
  4. D’Antonio, M., Op Ed: Donald Trump believes he was born to be king, Los Angeles Times, .
  5. I discuss this in detail in Graves, J.L., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, Rutgers U. Press, 2005.
  6. Graves 2005, pp. 38—41.
  7. Graves 2005, pp. 43—51.
  8. Graves 2005, pp. 55—73.
  9. Desmond, A. and Moore, J. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2009.
  10. Graves, J.L., Charles Darwin on the Races of Man, .
  11. Desmond, A. and Moore, J. Darwin, Michael Joseph Press, 1991, pg. 521.
  12. Graves 2005, pp. 55—140.
  13. Graves 2005, I describe this in detail in my chapter entitled: Eugenics, Race, and Fascism: The Road to Auschwitz Went Through Cold Spring Harbor, pp. 128—139.
  14. This sad history is well recounted in a number of works, including Zinn, H., A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005; and Dunbar-Ortiz, R., An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Beacon Press, 2014.
  15. The genetics of complex traits is feature of modern genomic research, for example: Crews, David, Ross Gillette, Isaac Miller-Crews, Andrea C. Gore, and Michael K. Skinner. 2014. Nature, nurture, and epigenetics, Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology 398:45–52; McEwen, Bruce S., and Peter J. Gianaros. 2011. Stress- and allostasis-induced brain plasticity, Annual Review of Medicine 62:431–45; Finch, Caleb E., and Thomas B. Kirkwood. 2000. Chance, development, and aging. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  16. Graves, J.L., Why the non-existence of biological races, does not mean the non-existence of racism, in: “The Mechanisms of Color-Blind Racism,” Special Issue of American Behavioral Scientist, DOI: 10.1177/0002764215588810, 2015.
  17. Lohmueller et al. 2008. Proportionally more deleterious genetic variation in European than in African populations, Nature, 451: 994-98.
  18. Graves J.L., Science and Healthy Democracy.
  19. Pool and Pool 1978, pp. 23.
  20. One of the most penetrating analyses of the rise of fascism in Leon Trotsky’s essays, collected in the volume: The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Merit Press, 1971; Daniel Guerin’s Fascism and Big Business, Pathfinder Press, 2000 and Mosse, F., The Fascist Revolution: Towards a General Theory of Fascism, Howard Fertig Press, are also important reads.

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