The bunk theory of eugenics has come up once again as a talking point in the wake of the devastating May 14 Buffalo shooting, where a white gunman drove 200 miles to target people at a supermarket in a majority Black town, shooting 13 and killing 10.
The scene of violence took on a very modern context. The white supremacist announced his plans on messaging app Discord. He livestreamed his attack on Twitch. His since-removed manifesto was full of memes often used by the alt-right.
But his diatribe was swimming in old, racist, antisemitic ideas given new context. Many media outlets have latched onto the shooter espousing Great Replacement Theory, the racist and eugenicist belief that immigrants and “other” out groups will reproduce enough that their progeny will exceed the current population and eventually take over. Some prominent figures such as Fox News’ premiere baby-face Tucker Carlson have become a Greek fountain of replacement theory, anti-immigrant hate streaming out his many ends.
But despite how much replacement theory has come up in the news, it misses the roster of both accredited and discredited science the shooter used to support his beliefs. Amid the shooter explaining how he planned to carry out his attack, he laid out dozens of cherry-picked links to a multitude of scientific articles, graphs, and papers from all over the scientific spectrum, no matter the quality or content as long as they could be used to justify his murder.
This episode of violence fueled at least in part by modern scientific literature is dragging a debate into clear focus: How should scientists deal with the prevalence of scientific racism lurking at the borders of the fields of genetics and biology? Janet Stemwedel, a philosophy professor at San Jose State University wrote in Scientific American that white scientists have for too long propped up racist figures in the scientific community, and that it’s time for scientists to understand that racists are capable of weaponizing their words.
Stemwedel and several others in the scientific community Gizmodo spoke to said there needs to be a reckoning. Some scientists say they need to identify why their theories are being used to justify racist violence, and disrupt the pipeline that helps lead to further racist radicalization.
Many of the shooter’s chosen studies were pushed by controversial or discredited figures from modern science. He picked up on disgraced Canadian psychologist Philippe Rushton’s since retracted theories released in the late 20th and early 21st centuries which constantly tried to correlate race with intelligence.
The shooter had other racist sources to pull from, some of which are much less well-known. He cited Tatu Vahanen, a Finnish political science professor who tried to draw long-debunked connections between genetic intelligence and race. The shooter was heavily into pseudo-intellectuals bankrolled by the Pioneer Fund, a eugenics-based foundation that has a long history of backing racist theories. Rushton and Richard Lynn, who was also cited in the shooter’s diatribe, headed the Pioneer Fund at various times.
Inside Higher Ed reported that University of Notre Dame professor of marketing John Gaski was cited by the shooter. His 2013 opinion piece claimed using vague and extrapolated figures from old crime victim data that rates of Black-on-white crime are higher than the reverse. “Liberal, politically correct feminists need to reflect on that one,” Gaski wrote in his piece. The professor changed his tune in a statement earlier this month, where he said he was “appalled and deeply distressed that the information I provided is associated in any way with this young man’s horrific actions.”
Anything that could be applied to the shooter’s worldview was incorporated into his fragmented screed, especially studies that dealt with intelligence and genetics or any concepts linking the heritability of violence. It’s unlikely the shooter comprehended any of this science beyond a certain point, but the fact that he collected so much from such a variety of sources points to support he got within extremist communities online.
Jedidiah Carlson, a population geneticist working in Minnesota, has for years analyzed the ways the the radical right uses and abuses science. Online hate groups form what he called small “journal clubs” that act as crowdsourced bibliographies for any and all published science they can co-opt or twist to make compatible with their racist ideology.
These online bands find community on social platforms like Telegram. The now-defunct “Iron Mirror,” which described itself as “an online Library on society, economy, psychology as well as genetics on topics relevant in our decade” was used to spread bad interpretations of scientific studies amongst others in the far-right. The Buffalo shooter was unique because he’s one of the few shooters to include links to his citations similar to how these journal clubs collect their data, according to Carlson.
“In the shooter’s document, you have studies looking for genetic markers associated with educational attainment as a trait, and some people are pointing out this is research that is directly feeding into the shooter’s ideology,” Carlson told Gizmodo. “[Science has] been a bit naive; we’re not recognizing that racist co-option is something that can happen.”
Dr. Fatima Jackson, an anthropologist and biologist at Howard University in Washington, DC, told Gizmodo the very basis of great replacement theory is, of course, flawed, but the racists need these studies to make sense of their defective worldview. The ever-narrowing sense of “whiteness” will forever need to eliminate any identifiable heritable traits outside the norm, such as a broad tropical nose or kinky, frizzy hair. She said that with the nascent technology for genetic engineering, old concepts of eugenics are coming back, strengthened by today’s political climate.
“This is a product of their own Goldilocks tales; its emphasis on a very narrow range of acceptable phenotypic looks,” Jackson said. “The translation of the scientific paradigm to the lay community has stumbled. We haven’t been able to adequately supplant the racist, eugenic notions that many people still have.”
Many scientists reject “race” as a biological and genetic concept, but that doesn’t stop regular people, and even some scientists, from letting that inform their understanding of the world. It’s why attempts at intelligence testing between “races” remains a popular sticking point for race-based arguments, despite scientists routinely disproving IQ-like tests as a quality means of measuring intelligence.
“White supremacists, for a very long time, have attempted to couch their arguments in racial superiority,” said Dr. Joseph Graves, an evolutionary biologist at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Graves has written multiple books about race in modern society and the ways genetics research can get co-opted by racial arguments, and his latest co-authored text Racism, Not Race came out at the end of last year. And it’s exceptionally easy for racists to misinterpret scientists’ work. Graves cited the recent examples of white supremacists chugging milk to prove their superiority because of their supposed “superior” genes that let them process lactose. Never mind that groups in east Africa also carry the same gene.
“This [association with genetics and intelligence] is a thread that’s dominated the way the majority of Americans, particularly Americans of European descent, think about these issues,” Graves said. “It’s difficult for population geneticists to anticipate how basic science can be co-opted by people who want to use it for propaganda purposes.”
What makes him most concerned is how much these modern eugenicist ideas have taken hold among both the far right and parts of the mainstream Republican party. A recent Yahoo/Yougov poll showed that a majority of people who voted for Trump also believe in the core idea behind replacement theory. A recent AP/NORC poll before the shooting noted similar results.
Modern day genetics were built from a crumbling bedrock of eugenics. Nowhere is that more literal than at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. The area around the lab is bucolic, serene. The lab sits on the edge of the glittering bay that gives the lab its name. The surrounding trees change with the seasons, but the building’s and area feel timeless.
The lab was once a centerpoint of the American eugenics movement. These days, it focuses on genomics, biology, and neuroscience, but it’s maintained artifacts and records of its eugenics past for posterity. This has allowed researchers like geneticist Elof Axel Carlson to get in-depth about the world-spanning and extremely local influence that eugenics had on the scientific community. Though he’s 90-years-old now and retired, he still talks about eugenics’ history with a reserved passion.
His 2001 book The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea identifies two types of eugenics. “Positive” eugenics offered an idealistic, 18th century enlightenment-era belief in the best of society— the genius artists, scientists, mathematicians, etc.—needing to breed at higher rates. It might have been born of vanity or prejudice, but what came after was worse. “Negative” eugenics came from the same smog-clogged stacks of the industrial revolution. Amid the widening gap between the “nouveau riche” and the masses of urban poor, modern thinkers start to consider certain elements of society, whether they’re poor, Jewish, non-white, to be “their own victims,” effectively “degenerates” living on the fringe of modern society.
In the U.S. during the mid-to-late 19th century, some thinkers originally argued these “degenerates” lived in “bad environments” and just needed to be put to work in “good environments” and supply them with a basic education. Another group of thinkers said environments didn’t change heredity. Notable eugenicist Harry Laughlin estimated as much as 10% of the population were “unfit.” These judgments of human souls often took on a racist overtone, especially in the U.S. southern states where any alleged crime committed by a Black individual was just another symbol of issues with the entire Black population. The problem was in the selves, whether they were stupid, poor, the scions of ex-slaves. To some of these late eugenicists, curtailing reproduction of those “unfit” was the only means of ending many of society’s ills.
Some of these eugenicists practiced removal of ovaries, castration and vasectomies as a means of limiting these “degenerates” ability to reproduce. As advocated by notable eugenicists like Harry Clay Sharp, some states like Indiana went as far as codifying sterilization laws as a way to “prevent procreation” and “deter crime.” Hundreds were sterilized by law in the U.S. throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Racist and antisemitic groups like the Ku Klux Klan and anti-immigrant groups like the Know-Nothings were the offspring of these eugenic ideologies, according to Carlson’s book.
The ideas presented by American and European eugenicists culminated and festered in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. An estimated 6 million Jews and 5 million others were killed in that systematized slaughter. After World War II, the rise of mendelian genetics took hold and supplanted eugenics. The last international eugenics convention was held in 1932. Since then, what has appeared from eugenicist circles in the U.S. has largely been studies promoted from the Pioneer Fund along with the regular slate of white supremacists.
But this most recent resurgence of hate has Carlson more than a little concerned, especially by the way its being promoted by figures on Fox News.
“[People] have been duped,” he said, moving closer to his screen as he talked to Gizmodo over Zoom. “They need to understand that race is a fallacy… Any of those types of assumptions that are rooted in heredity or biology, that are just prejudice or wrong and should be called out, and we should not see them on our screens. Tucker Carlson, you’re wrong. That’s not biology. That’s prejudice.”
Stacy Farina, an assistant professor of biology at Howard University, said those attempting to equate race with IQ or violent behaviors has become more fringe, but there are several ways similar ideas persist within the margins of the scientific community. Yet even when that racism is exposed, some scientists will argue against tarnishing the legacy of once-respected researchers. In February, she co-wrote an article discussing the support disgraced psychologist J. Philippe Rushton got from eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson. The biologist’s death in 2021 sparked an intense debate among her peers about how to grapple with prominent scientist’s historical support for scientific racism.
“I think we have to have really brutally honest conversations about how scientific racism has permeated our fields, how it persists, and how it influences the way that we talk about science even today,” she said. “I think science is fundamentally political, and there’s lots of different ways that we can address this topic that doesn’t necessarily involve shutting people down.”
Jedidiah Carlson argued part of the problem lies in how scientific studies are published. While some journals are overtly racist (such as the Lynn-backed Mankind Quarterly), poorly communicated science is incentivized by academic publications and universities that want to build notoriety for scientists’ work. Carlson added that Academic preprints, where science isn’t presented to the public before peer review, have been abused by white nationalists, with 10% of preprints containing notable connections to alt-right audiences.
Yet what remains controversial in academic fields is whether scientists should change what they study and how they present their findings, knowing that science can easily be used by racists to support their views.
“We’re still grappling with the legacy of a system that has been sympathetic to racial hierarchy, or a worldview that supports racial hierarchies,” Carlson said. “Nuance is so easily lost and making an airtight explanation of the results that you see often falls on deaf ears.”
Computational biologist C. Brandon Ogbunu wrote in Wired a problem with these accredited studies linking genetic data with statistics is that it often leads to eye-grabbing headlines that aren’t actually backed up by data. He argued that well-intentioned scientists need to work harder to make their research less applicable to racists, even if it makes the research sound “less sexy.”
Graves disagreed with the notion that changing the way scientists present their research will dissuade racists groups from misinterpreting their studies. He related it to his experience with his first book, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, which described how there is no real biological basis behind our categorization of races. Graves said a Texas circuit judge used his book as a way to argue against affirmative action.
“People should be careful,” he said. “But at the same time, we can’t stop doing the work we do.”
Jackson, who in 2020 became the first Black woman to receive the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award, said a part of the problem lies in how the scientific community relates its information to the public, particularly how it is so often “couched” in technical jargon that most laypeople fail to comprehend. For example, she said most people don’t have a good idea what CRISPR genetic modification really is. The other problem is cultural. The U.S., in particular, struggles to understand the nuances of science and scientific research. Research operates in probabilities and ambiguity, requiring a rigorous and time consuming process of self-review and peer review in order to establish theories.
“We in America look for quick answers, answers that cruise through all levels of analysis that are true, now and forever, when that’s not how it works” she said. “But we could do a better job of understanding and explaining the science at the multiple levels of inference.”
For Graves, the lasting problem is how often the world views the scientific community as monolithic. Black and Brown scientists have for years been trying to shift the views of how science is perceived both outside and within the realm of science.
“We are a minority—but we are here—we have been working diligently to address these issues,” he said. “I’ve been doing it all of my entire scientific career, and there were people before me. Our voices have always been here. Now, the media doesn’t always pay attention to us, but that’s something I think the media could do a better job at, is listening to Black and Brown voices who are reputable scientists, and have been doing this work for centuries.”