The Discovery Institute Claims That Science Fueled the Buffalo Shooting

This article is about the mass shooting that took place at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, 2022 in which 10 people lost their lives. While I am going to write about issues peripherally related to this tragedy, rather than on the shooting itself, this is by no means intended to overlook the loss and suffering that the loved ones of the victims and, indeed, the Buffalo community as whole are continuing to deal with at this moment. I am sure the rest of the Panda’s Thumb team will join me in offering my thoughts and support to the people of Buffalo, as well as those affected by the more recent shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as they attempt to go forward with their lives and repair their shattered communities.

The horror of the Buffalo shooting was compounded by the fact that it was clearly racially motivated, with the shooter leaving a manifesto in which he expounded at length on the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. This has caused consternation among members of America’s Republican Party and the right wing media with which it is allied. For some time now, the American Right has been making subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, overtures to White Supremacists in order to bring them into their “big tent” as part of their political base. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that many swing voters will be repelled by associations with such movements. This likely explains why, immediately after the shooting, the right wing media went into overdrive trying to downplay the killer’s racial motivations and, instead, shift the blame to other less politically inconvenient targets, like video games and mental illness. A question arises: If the American Right was not courting the support of White Supremacists, then why would it be so important for them to deny the killer’s White Supremacist motivations? I don’t really have a good answer for that.

In any event, it should come as no surprise that the Discovery Institute is more than willing to lend a helping hand to this effort. And if it provides them an opportunity to engage in their favorite pastime of Darwin bashing, so much the better. Which explains the article posted on the Evolution News website May 16, written by the DI’s Senior Fellow, Managing Director and Vice President John G. West and bearing the eye-opening title How Science Fueled the White Supremacist Mass Murderer in Buffalo, NY. While acknowledging the killer’s motivation in White Supremacism and Great Replacement Theory, West goes on to state that this “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.”

The reader can probably guess where this is going. Despite acknowledging the tangled and incoherent mess of ideas the killer drew upon to justify his act, West decides to focus on one aspect of his attempted rationalization (emphasis is West’s):

(T)he 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.” (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…

To some degree, the past is coming back to haunt the scientific community. The historical connections between evolutionary biology and racism are undeniable…. 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.

How ought one respond to such accusations? One way to not respond would be to deny the kernel of truth in West’s article, which is that science, and evolutionary theory in particular, has been used through history to support ideas that we would now consider to be clearly racist, eugenics being but one example. However, is West justified in laying particular blame on what he calls “Darwinism” for this state of affairs? I do not believe he is. If (Tucker Carlson notwithstanding) there now exists a consensus that no significant differences exist in terms of qualities like intelligence or moral worth between people of different ethnicities, this was not the case to nearly the same extent even a few decades ago. And the idea that people ought to be granted different degrees of rights and privileges based on their ethnic identity, was not one that would be particularly likely to be heard at scientific meetings or conferences. One would be at least as likely to hear it voiced from the pulpit at a religious gathering, or from the hustings during a political campaign. That is to say, it would be more accurate to state that science is not immune to corruption by racism, rather than to claim that it holds any particular responsibility for the existence of racism. Indeed, if one wished to argue that racism was an unavoidable and inherent aspect of religion, this could be done by pointing out how passages from the Old Testament have been used to justify slavery in the US, as just one example. If such an argument is fallacious, it is surely no more so than the one West tries to make.

West goes on to write “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.” Regardless of whether he is correct about evolutionary theory lacking the “moral resources” to counter racist claim, in point of fact it does have the scientific resources to do so. For instance, the killer’s belief that “Whites and Blacks are separated by tens of thousands of years of evolution” is directly contradicted by scientific evidence that shows, for instance, that most recent common ancestor of all human beings now alive most likely lived no more than a few thousand years ago. The idea that the human species is polygenic in it origin is one that has been refuted for some time now. And, in fairness to West, he does acknowledge that “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.”

That seems like a good idea, so it was disappointing to read an article posted only a few days later on Evolution News by David Klinghoffer, also about the Buffalo mass shooting, in which he discusses the writings of another DI fellow, Richard Weikart. Klinghoffer states (as best as I can tell without any irony intended) that the killer believed “he was only following the science — the very best evolutionary science.” You can read the article in vain for any indication that what the killer believed to be “the very best evolutionary science” was in fact a very poor and inaccurate parody of that science.

Curious to find how hard the Discovery Institute has tried to correct the misconception, identified by West, that evolutionary theory supports White Supremacism and other forms or racism, I decided to do a search of the EN archives for the term “Hitler”. And, let me tell you, they talk about Hitler a lot! I received page after page of hits. Isn’t that odd? Why would a website, supposedly devoted to the discussion of evolutionary theory, have so much to say about Hitler? If you were to look at the index of any textbook on evolution, I highly doubt you would even find a single mention of him. Many of the most recent articles are by or about the aforementioned Richard Weikart, who seems to have developed something of a cottage industry writing books that blame Darwin for the rise of the Nazis. In fact, it was through this search that I learned that the ID actually has an entire website devoted to Weikart’s writings, with the catchy title “From Darwin to Hitler”. It’s not too difficult to imagine how an angry and confused young man with an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons in his basement might get the idea from this that Darwinism leads to White Supremacism, is it? And you can search that website in vain for even the slightest indication that such an association would only result from a gross misunderstanding of the facts of evolutionary theory.

And so it goes. As you read through the many articles the DI has produced on evolution and Hitler, you will repeatedly find remarks like this from the DI’s Board Chairman Bruce Chapman: “The intellectual lineage is obvious and irrefutable. No Darwin, no eugenics.” (Which is patent nonsense. Sufficient theoretical grounding for eugenics could be found in the practice of selective breeding, which has been part of agriculture and animal husbandry since pre-history.) I won’t claim to have read every single article the DI has written about Hitler and “Darwinism”. That would be next to impossible. However, I did look thru a good number of them, and other than that single comment by West mentioned earlier, I found no mention of the fact that any attempt to use evolutionary theory to legitimize racism would require a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the theory.

Let’s be serious about this. Any attempt to reduce the causes of a specific mass shooting, or of mass shootings in general, to a single factor is bound to be a gross oversimplification. But it does not appear to me that the DI is even concerned with trying to help efforts to understand, and hopefully prevent, future tragedies. From the moment of its founding, an explicit objective of the Intelligent Design movement has been promote the idea that acceptance of the idea that humans evolved from earlier species thru natural processes leads to moral depravity. One might like to believe the Discovery Institute is above exploiting a tragedy like the Buffalo shooting to promote this agenda. But, no.