Suddenly, Conservatives Can’t Get Enough of Science
To wield science (or “science”) is to wield the highest cultural authority in our society of secular knowledge. And we have become used to conservatives running afoul of scientific claims, whether on climate change, evolution, or the age of Earth. But increasingly, a stream of right-wing, often libertarian-leaning thinkers and pop intellectuals have embraced a certain type of science. They have promulgated a science-based critique of left-wing politics and pieties.
The right tends to favor scientific claims that reinforce their convictions that humans have a set nature and that left-wing politics run counter to our basic instincts.
The “scientistic” right includes the classical liberal website Quillette and the “new neocons” of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. More standard conservatives have also drawn on scientific backing for their politics. Both Jonah Goldberg’s and Noah Rothman’s recent books owe much to evolutionary psychology, particularly the work of Jonathan Haidt.
There is a particular form of scientific claim that appeals to these varied — although perhaps all libertarian-friendly — parts of the right. These are the discoveries—typically biological, psychological, or anthropological in nature—that find immutable characteristics in human nature. Conservatives are drawn to biological studies that emphasize our irrationality, our aggressive natures, our genetic differences, and our groupishness.
This scientific conservatism sometimes veers into race science, especially in the deliberately anodyne-sounding study of “human biodiversity.” (To be clear, neither Goldberg nor Rothman approaches race science.)
As I previously suggested for Arc Digital, the defining feature of the right is that it considers the egalitarian aims of the left either impossible or undesirable and thus opposes them.
What makes the science I’ve been characterizing—or, rather, its application—right-wing is that it’s treated as though it lays out, with scientific authority, the permanent, inbuilt, and insurmountable limits on left-wing ideology.
Economic socialism is impossible because humankind is motivated by inveterate self-interest. Trans rights are a sham because men and women are biologically distinct. Racial or global disparities have genetic roots. Or as James Burnham put it in his book Suicide of the West, “the human beings of the real world are hierarchical and segregating and discriminating animals.”
One of these avenues is the relationship between race and intelligence. For decades, various conservatives have insisted that the science of intelligence and race is a legitimate, even important, field of scientific inquiry. Recently, Quillette kicked up a storm of criticism for its review of Angela Saini’s Superior. The review insisted that race is a real and useful scientific category and that populations “might also vary psychologically.” Some of the same authors also excoriate racism and racist inferences from their work elsewhere.
But writers don’t control the reception of their work. Quillette is a major publication for a younger, more secular, right-wing set whose media diets frequently include not just Quillette but fringier podcasters and YouTubers as well. The controversial but popular YouTuber Stefan Molyneux is a good example. Molyneux crudely wields concepts like race and IQ to explain events as disparate as the failure of nation-building in Iraq and the 2008 mortgage crisis.
My point here is not to deny science. Nor is it to adjudicate between competing interpretations of the literature. Rather, I’m asking why this sort of deterministic science is attractive to sectors of the right and what it offers them. I think it’s appealing to the right for several reasons.
First, by tackling harsh “truths” with clear eyes, conservatives can present themselves as steely realists. It’s a conservative conceit that they are non-ideological or at least willing to face problems without bleeding-heart emotionalism. By embracing determinative science, especially when it undercuts liberal pieties, conservatives can feel like brave truth-tellers in a world gaslit by liberal ideologues.
It also puts conservatives on the side of science. That lets conservatives enjoy the prestige of a scientific imprimatur and helps beat back claims that they are anti-science. I don’t think it’s correct to say that the right is simply interested in scientific discovery and in following scientific conclusions; the conservative intellectual and media complex has invested much more energy questioning the premises and critiquing, rejecting, and attacking climate science and scientists or psychological studies they disagree with than ones that affirm their ideological priors.
Above all, the idea that science can provide a rational basis for conservatism, or at least for opposing the left, is especially potent for conservatives who don’t have a religious basis for their worldview. Recently, secular conservatives have often relied on claims about early humankind rooted in evolution and early human behavior to justify their politics. As Goldberg writes at the beginning of his most recent book, also titled Suicide of the West, “there is no God in this book.” Instead, Goldberg’s interested in our software, instilled into us through thousands of years of evolution. (Yes, that’s two books called Suicide of the West, written 55 years apart.)
This tendency was especially pronounced among former Marxists turned critics of the left. In the mid-20th century, the communist intellectual Max Eastman turned away from Marx and toward the scientific writing of Robert Ardrey, who popularized the idea of early humans as the “killer ape.” Eastman asked what’s left of the communist dream when territoriality and aggression are natural to the human psyche.
Likewise, James Burnham, another conservative convert from Marxism, wrote that “every modern school of biology and psychology and most schools of sociology and anthropology” had concluded that “men are driven chiefly by profound non-rational” impulses. Genetics has confirmed “the non-liberal belief that human nature has a permanent sub-stratum, that there are ineradicable differences among men not traceable to social circumstance, and that there are limits, often quite low, to what even the most perfect education could accomplish.”
Determinative scientific claims about aggressiveness brings secular conservatives into line with religious conservatives, whose view of human nature tends to be rooted in religious belief about our propensity for sin. Christian conservatives treat research into human nature as scientific support for the classical Christian concept of original sin that says, effectively “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
In the late 1980s, for example, the archtraditionalist Thomas Fleming rooted his defense of traditionalist politics in anthropology, genetics, and sociobiology, citing E. E. Evans-Pritchard, E. O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, and Richard Dawkins. Fleming argued that patriarchy and maternal instincts were biologically ordained and therefore the nuclear family was both biologically and religiously the foundation of society. Fleming used scientific claims to argue the importance of conservative religious doctrine in the otherwise secular public square.
Today we find interest in determinative science among a younger, often male right. Very often this is in questions of gender politics, whether the inherent characteristics of women and men, the biological basis of gender, or the possibility of gender fluidity.
There is a burgeoning patriarchal and pessimistic right composed of post-New Atheist “very online” young men. Biology has become original sin for the so-called Nones (those with no reported religious affiliation in polling). It’s a secularized version of the Christian concept that, in a crude form, has been used to justify prevailing — often unequal — social structures.
If we take it as gospel that human beings are naturally selfish, aggressive, and tribal, then society cannot be fixed through reform, education, and economic socialization. The scientific right can point to our human ancestors and say that a politics geared toward a utopian society effectively runs against nature. Which means the left is trying to sell you a lie.
In 1994, the agnostic libertarian Charles Murray built his critical analysis of welfare in the 1980s with The Bell Curve, a controversial book that argued intelligence is a key predictor to life outcomes. Determinative ideas about human nature dovetail with libertarian views about organic society and economics to suggest that those at the wrong end of the Bell Curve will always be with us and left-wing policies will, if anything, make the problem worse. Most controversially, The Bell Curve raised the possibility of racial differences in intelligence.
It’s true that strident faith in determinative biology can bleed into scientific racism to justify racial prejudices or inequalities. As Erika Milam finds in her extraordinary Creatures of Cain, the popular science writer Robert Ardrey was sympathetic to the South African apartheid. He joked darkly that “one might regret that more white men through history didn’t rape more Negro girls, by this time accomplishing total hybridization and absorption of the Negro into the white population genetically.”
As the historian Jesse Curtis argues, and as I argue here, the conservative magazine National Review treated racial intelligence as an open question during the 1960s at exactly the same time it opposed school integration and decolonization and criticized urban riots. (Since then, National Review has tended to argue a racial difference in IQ levels may very likely exist, but it should not be consequential politically.)
In the reaches of the right-wing internet, we see race science employed on fringe sites to justify racial immigration laws. Right-wing provocateurs have partially mainstreamed some of these ideas. Molyneux especially has settled on treating average IQ as a permanent, hereditary, and determinative force. Last December, he tweeted that “the devolution of the U.S. from an Enlightenment Republic to a semi-banana republic is also silenced, since that has a lot to do with racial IQ demographics esp permanent low Hispanic IQ.” Recently he’s implied low IQ is responsible for the failed state in Somalia and for Haiti’s slow recovery from the 2010 earthquake. Similarly, the secular conservative John Derbyshire, fired from National Review in 2012 for a racist column, has openly embraced “race realism” to underpin his pessimistic conservatism.
Race science aside — and by no means do all conservatives engage in theorizing about heritable racial characteristics — conservatives use determinative science to reinforce the status quo. It can have policy implications (welfare and foreign aid is harmful) and cultural ones (feminism is against science).
The economist and thinker Albert Hirschman suggested that right-wing intellectuals rely on three primary arguments. The “perversity” thesis — that a given policy would have the reverse effect to that intended; the “futility” thesis — that nothing can be done to change society; and the “jeopardy” thesis — we are lucky to have what we do, let’s not throw it away (this is the premise of Goldberg’s Suicide of the West).
Determinative science lends itself to all three of these arguments, although perhaps most obviously the futility thesis. You can’t fight nature. Gender is fixed. Some groups or races will always be in the underclass. Men will always dominate. Earning inequalities are ineradicable.
The thing about the futility thesis is that it seems cool and hardheaded. But it’s not as detached as it first appears. It can be self-fulfilling. By “pouring ridicule and discredit” on policies, purveyors of the futility thesis undermine efforts at reform. They can cut them short, defang them, or stifle their implementation. People wed to the futility thesis can thereby become activists in defense of supposedly impermeable laws.
Some of the scientific claims favored by the right may well be grounded in truth. It seems likely to me that the human mind isn’t just a blank slate solely shaped through nurture and easily tinkered with. As Haidt puts it, we come preloaded with basic software. But our scientific understanding of humankind is constantly updating. We should have some humility about what we think we know. More importantly, facts about human evolution, behavior, tendencies, and nature need not be taken as a justification for oppressive hierarchies or persistent injustices.
Let’s return once more to the parallel with the Christian concept of original sin. The concept went out of intellectual fashion for a long time, but it returned in the 1950s in response to the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. The American theologian who did most to revive public interest in it, Reinhold Niebuhr, rejected the frequent attempts by conservatives to claim him.
Niebuhr argued the net effect of sin was that all societies and institutions were by nature corrupt and coercive. Where many conservatives believed the response to sin should be greater faith in tradition and authority, Niebuhr did not accept the status quo. Instead, he taught the need to consciously struggle against injustices produced by human nature.
I think Neibuhr’s analogy holds. That’s the best response to determinative science today.
Joshua Tait is a columnist for Arc Digital and a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of North Carolina. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post and The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @Joshua_A_Tait.