On November 12 2016, the alternative medicine website-turned-conspiracy-hub Natural News published a pseudo-scientific rant by editor and founder Mike Adams (aka the “Health Ranger”) arguing and celebrating the fact that liberal millennials (whom he calls “crybully snowflakes”) are not biologically fit and therefore not likely to survive the next “natural selection event”:
Today’s precious snowflake crybully pussified college youth actually represent the least fit (and most likely to fail) members of a vast human gene pool that will be radically cleaned out at the next natural selection event.
For anyone wondering what a “natural selection event” might be, this is what Adams suggested:
What sort of event might that be? A global debt collapse, international war, a grid down terror attack on the power infrastructure, a massive coordinated cyber attack on the banking infrastructure, a domestic civil war, a deadly viral pandemic, a collapse of the global food supply, and so on.
Adams’ piece, titled “TRIGGER WARNING: Why precious college snowflakes will eliminate themselves from the human gene pool at the next natural selection event”, is flawed for myriad reasons, most notably its repeated use of strawman arguments and conspicuous lack of citable evidence. In this article, however, we will dissect the Health Ranger’s argument strictly based on his flawed understanding of natural selection. To begin with, here is how he describes the characteristics of the two populations whose biological fitness he claims to be comparing:
Political conservatives tend to be practical, real-world people, while political leftists tend to be delusional snowflakes living in artificial worlds that run on fragile, psycho-babble constructs that fall apart at the merest touch.
Donald Trump is a competitive, adaptive survivor. So am I, and so are tens of millions of gun owners, police officers, fire fighters, EMTs, paramedics, outdoorsmen, hunters, inventors and business entrepreneurs. These are the kind of people who are fighters and problem solvers. They don’t curl up into pathetic sobbing balls of whimpering slobber when things don’t go their way. Instead, they regroup, rethink the problem and start kicking ass in a new way to overcome and succeed.
Discounting the aggressively broad generalizations of both sides, we’ll turn to the science supposedly expressed here. What follows is Adams’ understanding of natural selection:
Natural selection is a process by which the weaker, more fragile and less adaptive members of any species are killed off or denied reproductive partners. This weeds them out of the gene pool of the species, resulting in a stronger, more adaptive and more successful species that can survive a challenging, competitive world.
In his view of natural selection, which, we will grant, is close to (but falls short of) being accurate, the process results in millennial snowflake liberals who are less fit because they don’t possess the following traits that “are universal across the natural world”:
#1) COMPETITION: In competition, there are winners and losers. Winners get to live and pass their genes to the next generation. Losers die and are removed from the gene pool.
#2) ADAPTATION: Successful organisms in any population show strong adaptive capabilities to handle challenging stresses that require alteration of the organism’s goals or strategies to survive and thrive.
#3) STRONG MALES = SUCCESSFUL OFFSPRING: In mammals and many other types of living organisms, those males which are the strongest at protecting their families and beating out other competing males for reproductive rights are rewarded with genetic influence over the next generation of youth to be born. […]
The issue, though, is that these three traits are far from universal in the natural world. On his first point, we can obviously agree with Adams that competition is a key part of natural selection. But do populations of organisms feature ruthless competition between members? No.
In what could easily be branded as an example of the natural world’s version of the liberal welfare state, skilled vampire bat predators will give nourishment, unreciprocated, to those less able to feed themselves. A 2013 paper published by Proceedings of the Royal Society documented this behavior over a two-year period, finding that donors who offered the food to the recipients without prompting, and that this action occurred independent of kinship. The phenomenon is important, the authors argue, because:
Vampire bat food sharing is potentially a powerful model for understanding the cognitive enforcement of cooperation, because this behaviour is completely natural, energetically costly, [and] occurs between kin and non-kin.
Adams’ second point about the need to be “adaptive” to one’s environment results from a flawed reading of Darwin. When proposing his theory of natural selection, Adams repeatedly suggests:
Successful organisms in any population show strong adaptive capabilities to handle challenging stresses that require alteration of the organism’s goals or strategies to survive and thrive.
Adaptations are, of course, a big part of natural selection, but what Darwin was referring to in this case were genetically determined features of an organism, set at birth, that would give it a reproductive advantage — not the specific characteristic “adaptability” to rapidly changing environments, as Darwin stated in On the Origin of Species:
Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring from their parents—and a cause for each must exist—it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure.
Adams’ third point is a common rallying cry among those who argue that a patriarchal society is the only social structure existing in the natural world. The problem, of course, is that there are myriad animals, including primates, that live in female-dominant social structures all around the natural world. A small selection of those animals are listed in a 2008 study published in the journal Animal Behavior:
Contrary to common conceptions portrayed in the literature, female dominance over males appears to be widespread among mammals and birds showing sexual size monomorphism. Female dominance has been reported for several nonprimate mammals with similar-sized sexes, including the hyrax (Procavia capensis), spotted hyena, rufous elephant shrew (Elephantus rufescens), velvet-furred swamp rat (Rattus lutreolus), brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), and nutria (Myocastor coypus).
Outside of those primary claims, Adams make some even more inflammatory, and equally illogical, scientific claims. For example, he believes that liberal female college students don’t need to be selective in their choice of mates because of their easy access to abortions:
Female college students don’t even have to be selective in their choice of possible sex mates because they always have abortion at the ready to remove any child that might start to form in their wombs. Thus, easy access to abortion services makes females “lazy” in their choice of reproductive partners, resulting in a kind of “backward evolution” force that drives humanity downward rather than forward.
If anything, the opposite is true. Abortion rates and unplanned pregnancies have been declining since the Reagan administration of the 1980s, a fact researchers attribute to contraception, something college students generally have better access to than the population at large. This would put females explicitly in charge of whom they would want to have procreative sex with, making them (from an evolutionary standpoint) more selective.
Another specious notion is the concept of a “natural selection event.” This is not a thing. Natural selection happens all the time, a point explicitly and poetically made by Darwin:
It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.
The final and perhaps most alarming issue with Adams’ conception of natural selection is his omission of the fact that any trait selected for has to be heritable, which means it is controlled by genetics and is able to be passed on through reproduction.
While there there is some evidence from studies that genetic differences can be found between people of different ideological persuasions, these studies are limited in their ability to tell us much about what specific aspects of ideology are hereditary.
A 2012 review article on this topic by Peter K. Hatemi and Rose McDermott published in Trends in Genetics concluded that genetics may account for a significant portion of political persuasion, but that the manner in which genetics controlled specific issues was not consistent (i.e., some issues appeared to be more genetically determined than others) and played a much smaller role in actually determining political party affiliation. The study also pushed back against the simplistic notion that there is a “liberal” gene and a “conservative” gene:
Certainly, there is not a gene for liberalism or any political trait. Rather, whatever genetic influences exist probably operate through those emotional, cognitive, or rational processes that are instigated when individuals are asked particular questions about their attitudes.
Some combination of mutation, genetic drift, assortative mating, recombination, culture, institutions, social learning, experience, and ecological adaptation drives variance on these traits. The manifestation of genetic influence on these preferences appears more complicated because of large scale societies, institutions, and modern social structures, such as states and governments. The labels and meanings of issues, groups, and policies might change across time and cultures.
For Adams’ argument to work, he would have to find evidence that all or most of the traits he ascribes to the snowflakes and the conservatives are hereditary. It is unlikely that he would be able to find studies addressing the genetic basis of qualities like being “pathetic” and “pussified”, “metrosexual”, having an “everybody’s a winner” or “real-world” mentality, or having the desire for “feel good social conformity”.
Arguably, Adams actually delves into the discredited and archaic theory of Lamarckism, which suggests that an organism can pass on characteristics that it has acquired during its lifetime to its offspring when he claims that parents inflicting liberal ideals upon their offspring will doom their genetic line:
Teaching your child liberalism is, then, a form of genetic homicide against future generations, because when your pathetic, loser “snowflake” children are wiped out at the next natural selection event, your family tree gets cut off at the stump.
Sure, Adams’ piece is meant to be political and is potentially even a poorly-executed attempt at satire (though his followers probably don’t see it that way), but it was published on a site that bills itself as “a science-based natural health advocacy organization,” and it is riddled with scientific errors in an effort to make a largely inflammatory (if not incoherent) point.
The larger fallacy that Adams is committing is the serious problem: abusing scientific information to convince people that the natural world supports your version of humanity and that people who don’t fit that view are, as Adams put it, “little more than aberrations of nature.”