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Doing Justice to the Classics

When History Meets Race Pseudo-Science

“Human Biodiversity” is a euphemism that racists use to lend respectability to their pseudo-scientific claim that white superiority has a genetic or evolutionary basis. Many white supremacist ideas derive from this claim: if white superiority is “natural” and immutable, the argument goes, there is no point in attempting to help non-white people whose inferiority is similarly “natural.” Racist science also suggests that it is impossible for white people to live in harmony with non-white people, that society should (continue to) be organized to give white people more power than other people, and that any demographic change that reduces the percentage of white people in a nation can only be detrimental to that nation’s prosperity. The term “Human Biodiversity,” often abbreviated “HBD,” was coined by Jonathan Marks, a prominent critic of racist science, but quickly became popular with the same racists whose ideas Marks intended to reject. Many of the leading “researchers” in HBD receive funding from white supremacist organizations like The Pioneer Fund and publish their findings in white supremacist journals like Mankind Quarterly, which there is a decent chance your university library subscribes to. HBD embodies the evolution of racist pseudo-science from the measurement of visible features like skulls or noses to the study of genetics as a way of inventing racial differences between human beings. As such it may seem like an area of white supremacy where we would be unlikely to find Greco-Roman Antiquity being invoked. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Who is Peter Frost?

Peter Frost (not the National Geographic writer) holds a PhD in Anthropology and describes himself on his personal blog as a specialist in “the evolutionary origin of European eye and skin colors.” On that blog one can find articles with titles like “Polygyny makes men bigger, tougher…and meaner” (making an evolutionary argument that people of African descent are “meaner”) and “No, blacks aren’t all alike. Who said they were?” (arguing for evolutionary explanations for differences in the already racist area of “academic achievement”). But Frost, like any self-respecting PhD, is not content with writing only for his own site (and the white supremacist aggregator that republishes his posts) and has published several pieces in peer-reviewed journals, including one on the topic of the evolutionary origins of white skin in the prestigious American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The various scholars that, according to Web of Science, have cited Frost’s article may not be aware that the journal also published a rebuttal of Frost’s paper in the same issue in which it appeared. That rebuttal pointed out, for example, that Frost’s only citation in support of a key portion of his argument was his own book on “The Forgotten Roots of Color Prejudice,” which is published by a wildlife photographer.

A screenshot of the article "How Did Whites Get Their Appearance" on the American Renaissance website, featuring an image of a white woman with red hair and blue eyes.

None of this troubled the white supremacist website American Renaissance, however, which in 2020 featured a long interview with Frost where he summarized his theory of why white people are white: in the last ice age in Northern Europe, he says, there were “few polygynous men” (because in a resource-scarce environment they couldn’t support multiple women and children) and “fewer men in general” (because of high male mortality in a hunting society), meaning that “women were in a tough market.” He argues that because “even slight improvements in attractiveness could make a big difference” in such an environment, men chose lighter-skinned women because their unusual (for the time) skin-color made them more attractive, and over time the population became whiter. Such arguments are music to white supremacists’ ears since they already believe that white people are more beautiful than non-white people: an American Renaissance review of a book on the history of blonde hair argued that “the book makes clear that in female beauty there is a hierarchy of races, in which Nordics stand at the top.” Genetic explanations like this have a further benefit to white supremacists of “proving” that the association of white (or lighter) skin with beauty is “natural,” and not the result of centuries of racist conditioning.

Lest anyone conclude that Frost is simply a dupe of his racist interviewer, he explains why white women marry Black men with reference to the racist stereotype of Black men as sexual predators: “Black men tend to be more willing to try, try, and try again.” He shifts the blame for the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade away from European greed onto Africans themselves, arguing that “from the outset, Africans were complicit in the slave trade” because their “polygynous society” meant they needed to find a way to reduce the number of men. And he shows his (more than anthropological?) familiarity with the lingo of contemporary misogynists when he says that modern men have a hard time finding wives because so many “will ride the cock carousel as long as they can and with as many men as they can.” He also offers a xenophobic explanation for why men (supposedly) can’t find wives: “immigration” especially that of “young single men, like the ones in Angela Merkel’s million man march,” which is a racist swipe at the German chancellor’s decision to admit Syrian refugees to Germany.

In this interview and elsewhere Frost cites Classical authors as evidence that corroborates his evolutionary theories

Frost concludes the interview by darkly predicting “we are going through difficult times, and the worst may be yet to come.”  He doesn’t elaborate what he means, because his white supremacist interviewer and the readers of the site on which the interview appears don’t need him to spell out that he fears the disappearance of white skin as a result of immigration and falling birth rates among whites, and with it the white “race” itself. And actually, he does spell it out in a blog post expressing support for white nationalist politicians in Europe, complete with a quotation of Renaud Camus’ “Great Replacement,” which Pharos documented for its use of a Platonic dialogue to justify xenophobia. That post was republished (as many of his posts are) in an influential far-right “news” aggregator and on the same website that reprints the writings of white supremacist William L. Pierce.

Frost’s Use of Greco-Roman Antiquity

So Frost is fully conversant with the white supremacist worldview, but what does any of this have to do with Greco-Roman antiquity? In this interview and elsewhere Frost cites Classical authors as evidence that corroborates his evolutionary theories. For example, many white supremacists argue that, genetically, white Europeans are, as Frost puts it in the second part of his interview at American Renaissance, “more individualistic, less loyal to kin, and more trusting of strangers.” This is why, the argument goes, white populations are particularly susceptible to replacement by non-white people who, they claim, possess higher degrees of genetic ethnocentrism. Frost cites passages from Tacitus and Julius Caesar describing the custom of late marriage, which supposedly indicates greater individuality and low kinship-loyalty, among Germanic peoples as evidence that this was true of the early northern Europeans, whom white supremacists hold up as models of racial purity. And when Frost’s interviewer asks him to “make sense of the Golden Age of Greece” which “was characterized by high levels of mean intelligence and exceptional intelligence,” Frost refers him to the genetic research of Michael Woodley, a participant in and defender of the notorious “London Conference on Intelligence” who has co-authored work with another American Renaissance interviewee who likes to talk about antiquity, Edward Dutton, the editor in chief of the premier HBD jounral Mankind Quarterly.

Few historically inclined white supremacists have found success in respected media but Frost and other race pseudo-scientists often place their research in academic journals

Frost frequently brings up ancient history on his personal blog as well. For example in a post entitled “Are empires bad for your health?” he examines an analysis of skeletal remains from the Roman Empire to argue that “although the Roman Empire brought about an increase in economic wealth, much of this increase seems to have been either siphoned off by the elite or consumed by the large standing army.” It’s probably hard to generalize about the whole Empire from the findings in Roman Dorchester, but Frost, whose other cited sources include and the “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities” published in 1875, is not really interested in a full study of the topic. He just wants to create a scientific basis for the common white supremacist argument that anything that weakens racial purity, such as a multi-ethnic society like the Roman Empire, is dangerous because, in a crisis, “any atomized individuals with no kinship networks to fall back on” are “le[ft] out in the cold.” “Atomized,” in case you were wondering, is one of the keywords in white supremacist complaints about the supposed decadence of the contemporary world. Some examples:

  • The average Westerner today is not much more than an atomized and entitled pleasure-blob…having no deep ties with past or future generations. Spiritual suicide…was a necessary condition for our demographic suicide.”
  • The enemies of our civilization [sc. Jewish people] promote constant dysgenics and social chaos through race-mixing, and…encourage white Europeans to spend time alone — atomized, deracinated, and childless.”
  • White women are now in a state of decline…sacrificing their most sacred roles as mothers and wives in exchange for a chance to climb the social ladder alone and atomized.”

Few of the historically inclined white supremacists that Pharos documents have found success in respected media (although some wrote for mainstream publications within living memory). But Frost and other race pseudo-scientists often place their research in academic journals. Frost’s piece in the American Journal of Phyiscal Anthropology described above is just his highest-profile publication. His other peer-reviewed publications even include treatments of Roman history.

From Blog Posts to Peer-Reviewed Journals…

In 2010 Frost published an article in Evolutionary Psychology entitled “The Roman State and Genetic Pacification.” There Frost builds on research demonstrating “the moderate to high heritability of male aggressiveness” to argue that “the Roman state[‘s]…long-term effort to pacify the general population” resulted in “a behavioral change that would over time alter the mix of genotypes” through the process of Baldwinian selection. Frost claims that this evolutionary argument can explain the collapse of Roman power in late antiquity: the Romans had become, not only culturally but genetically, “passive and submissive,” and were simply no match for the “Barbarian” forces that had maintained their inherited aggressiveness.

A screenshot of the abstract for the article "The Roman State and Genetic Pacification" in the jounral "Evolutionary Psychology."

The abstract reads: "Over the last 10,000 years, the human genome has changed at an accelerating rate. The change seems to reflect adaptations to new social environments, including the rise of the State and its monopoly on violence. State societies punish young men who act violently on their own initiative. In contrast, non-State societies usually reward such behavior with success, including reproductive success. Thus, given the moderate to high heritability of male aggressiveness, the State tends to remove violent predispositions from the gene pool while favoring tendencies toward peacefulness and submission. This perspective is applied here to the Roman state, specifically its long-term effort to pacify the general population. By imperial times, this effort had succeeded so well that the Romans saw themselves as being inherently less violent than the “barbarians” beyond their borders. By creating a pacified and submissive population, the empire also became conducive to the spread of Christianity—a religion of peace and submission. In sum, the Roman state imposed a behavioral change that would over time alter the mix of genotypes, thus facilitating a subsequent ideological change."

It would be difficult for a Classical scholar to evaluate the application of evolutionary theories to Roman history. But any reader may note that Frost depends on the discredited theories of the book The 10,000 Year Explosion, which was written by Henry Harpending, a white supremacist with whom Frost has collaborated. Also foundational for Frost is the work of economist Gregory Clark on the industrial revolution, which Frost cites as a parallel to his argument, although Frost misleadingly implies that Clark argues for a genetic explanation for why industrialization began in England. In fact, Clark’s published, peer-reviewed, work makes a cultural argument — which itself has been criticized for reproducing Galton-esque eugenics — and it is only in an unpublished paper that has not been subjected to peer-review that Clark promotes a genetic explanation for England’s economic growth. The same unpublished paper is also cited in Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, another racist and pseudo-scientific book written for broad audiences.

What a Classical scholar can do is note that much of the scholarship on Roman history that Frost uses is either outdated or misleadingly summarized. To show that the Roman state’s “monopoly on violence…remov[ed] violent presdispositions from the gene pool,” Frost depends on Brent Shaw’s article on “Bandits in the Roman Empire.” Shaw does demonstrate, as Frost says, that state power treated latrones, “bandits,” as “non-persons without the rights of other lawbreakers,” including the right to marry and so produce legitimate children. This is an important link in Frost’s argument that Roman state policy bred aggressiveness out of the Roman gene pool. But Shaw also demonstrates that the “feeble instruments of central power” in Rome (43) had little ability to police the territories of the empire, such that protection of citizens against these “bandits” fell either to the army (in provinces with a military presence), or to “vigilantes and semi-professional killers already in the employ of local landowners in the region” (18), who were empowered by the same laws Frost cites to use any means necessary to stop brigandage, including murder without fear of prosecution (19). Frost sees these laws as proof that the state kept its citizens from engaging in violence. In fact, Shaw shows that the state depended on violent citizens to maintain order (even as that same state trained and maintained a massive and, needless to say, violent, army).

Frost merely reproduces the prejudice of the ancient sources

Actually there is a need to say that the Roman army was violent, because central to Frost’s argument is the claim that the pacifism of early Christianity weakened the genetic aggressiveness of the Romans, including those in the army. For this he relies on an article by Theodor E. Mommsen (the grandson of the Nobel laureate) published almost seventy years ago, in 1951. This once-common view of the relationship between the Roman military and Christianity has been superseded by the analysis of John F. Shean and, according to this review of Shean’s work, by Hanns Christof Brennecke. These scholars demonstrate that expressions of pacifism in early Christian thinkers do not represent a widespread orthodoxy and that in any case the spread of Christianity in the army did not decrease its penchant for violence of effectiveness but made it, as David Colling writes in a review of Shean’s book, “an instrument of war for religion.”

The other side of Frost’s argument, that “differing selection pressures” made the “Barbarians” more violent than Romans, is similarly flawed. As evidence of the violent natures of non-Romans, Frost cites Mathisen’s collection of descriptions of “Barbarian violence” by Roman writers. Frost treats these descriptions as proof that non-Romans really were more violent than Romans, but Mathisen makes clear that these descriptions — all of them written by Romans about non-Romans — were “a powerful propaganda resource” for the Roman government to “excuse its own violent acts against barbarians and perhaps even its own oppression of the Roman population, by arguing a need to prevent barbarians from perpetrating violent acts against Romans” (34). Even after the “disappearance of Roman authority in the West,” Mathisen argues, Romans exaggerated the violent nature of non-Romans as a “conceptual and ideological way to deal with barbarian military superiority by magnifying and glorifying Roman cultural superiority” (35). Frost merely reproduces the prejudice of the ancient sources.

A blog post allows Frost to state openly what he left implicit in his peer-reviewed article, namely that immigration, in his view, should be treated as a violent threat to civilization

Frost admits that for there to be a genetic difference between Romans and non-Romans there would have to be “a barrier to the flow of individuals.” The evidence he cites to support the existence of such a barrier is again suspect. He bases his claim that only a small percentage of the empire’s population was “of external barbarian origin” on an article from History Today, a respectable but not peer-reviwed source, that actually argues that the “barbarian” presence within the empire was significant; his claim that slaves came from within the empire is based on scholarship from 1924 that helpfully refuted the racist claims of Tenney Frank but has long since been superseded by the work of Walter Scheidel, who shows that “large numbers of slaves were purchased from beyond the Roman frontiers.” And the pages Frost cites from Michael Whitby’s discussion of the role of “Barbarians” in the Roman army are those in which Whitby reviews the outdated arguments, some of them dating back almost eighty years, that his article then debunks. Most tellingly, Frost doesn’t say anything about the factor that might seem to have the biggest impact on genetic arguments, namely the rate of intermarriage between “barbarians” and Romans. Ralph Mathiesen, the same scholar whose views on descriptions of barbarians Frost misrepresented, has argued that Romans and “Barbarians” intermarried quite a lot, making Frost’s idea of a genetic difference between Romans and non-Romans that much harder to believe.

…and Back to the Blog

Faced with so much out-of-date and misrepresented scholarship, a reader might well wonder whether this is a result of Frost’s working in a field in which neither he nor, presumably his reviewers at Evolutionary Psychology, have any specialized expertise, or, less charitably, if Frost has simply cherry-picked and distorted scholarship that confirms the argument he wants to make. Well, wonder no more, because Frost has published a blog post on the same topic where he makes clear that the purpose of his research is to use ancient history to validate xenophobic racism against immigrants.

A screenshot from Peter Frost’s blog of a post titled "Deja vu?" It features an image of the painting "Goths transversant un riviere" by Evariste-Vital Luminais, depicting two armed men on horses crossing a river behind a wagon. The visible text of the blog reads "The Goths came en masse and unopposed, as immigrants. They discovered that Roman civilians would not defend themselves and had not done so for a long time."

A blog post allows Frost to state openly what he left implicit in his peer-reviewed article, namely that immigration, in his view, should be treated as a violent threat to civilization. Writing at the height of the European migrant crisis, he states that “A breach has opened up in the defense of Europe, and large numbers of people are pouring through.” Frost spends most of the post evaluating comparisons of contemporary immigration to Roman history that Pharos has documented on a prominent xenophobic site, concluding that “the current crisis may actually be the worse one.” Along the way he cites the work of many scholars, including Elizabeth Rawson, Walter Pohl, Peter Wells, Walter Goffart, and William Harris. The discussion of his peer-reviewed articles above should give readers a sense of how Frost engages with scholarship. Here it is enough to point out two ways that Frost either misrepresents previous scholarship or relies on outdated arguments. Goffart, who Frost implies shares his view of the “barbarian” threat to Rome, has devoted his whole career to denying the existence in Late Antiquity of a distinct “Germanic” identity, let alone a genetic type as Frost’s arguments require. And Frost repeats old arguments about the supposed demographic contraction of the late Roman Empire that have been shown simply to reproduce uncritically the prejudices of ancient writers who, after all, had no ability to measure population size accurately, let alone to measure long-term trends.

The easy part is to look at Frost’s work and say "that’s not real history" or "that’s not real science." The more uncomfortable part is to consider why Frost considered these forms of knowledge congenial to his politics in the first place

When it comes time to offer his own explanation for the collapse of Roman state power, Frost can, of course, cite his own “research” on the “pacification” of the Roman people, again taking advantage of the lack of editorial oversight to state his conclusions more explicitly: Rome fell because “there was no longer any barrier between the barbaric outer world and the pacified Roman world, which was home to millions of people who didn’t know how to defend themselves and who had not done so for generations.” It’s transparently the familiar white supremacist narrative of immigration as an existential threat to white people: weak, decadent Westerners who stand no chance against invaders who, unlike the Goths, “don’t see themselves as future Europeans. They see themselves as Africans and Muslims, and that’s not going to change…Whereas Europe was still European when the Dark Ages ended, it may be something else when this is all over.”

White supremacists are interested in Greco-Roman antiquity because it is useful to them in making their ideas respectable. Pseudo-scientists like Frost are engaged in the same rhetorical move: since many people respect scientific arguments, they seek to ratify their hateful worldview in scientific terms. Very often racist historians don’t need to misrepresent the ancient past very much: it is easy, for example, to find examples in the ancient world of violent xenophobia and hierarchical social structures. So it’s ironic that Frost, trying to attach the supposedly objective certainty of scientific inquiry to his ideas, turns out to be that much more of a fraud.

The easy part, however, is to look at Frost’s work and say “that’s not real history” or “that’s not real science.” The more uncomfortable part is to consider why Frost considered these forms of knowledge congenial to his politics in the first place. The history of Classical Studies is one of complicity with white supremacy. Frost didn’t have to invent the idea that “barbarian” outsiders pose an existential threat to the “civilized” world, he could find it articulated in Edward Gibbon’s famous but blatantly colonialist Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, reiterated in more recent scholarship on the topic that is promoted for “remind[ing] us of the very real terrors of barbarian occupation,” and repeated again and again as clickbait in the mainstream media.

But what about Frost’s identity as a scientist? The form of knowledge that we call “Science” has its own history of complicity in white supremacy, the continuing effects of which are most obvious in the fact that white people enjoy the benefits of scientific “progress” more than others do. Genetics, the field in which Frost positions himself as an expert, continues to perpetuate damaging racial essentialism. Frost’s research, whether historical or scientific, is patently flawed and motivated by bias. But he is also a product of the traditionally white supremacist practices of both history and science, and his example calls attention to the need for anti-racist action in both.

We have linked above to archived versions of Frost’s blog and the racist site that interviewed him to avoid generating traffic for those sites. His blog itself can be found here and his interview with American Renaissance can be found here and here.

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