“Coming Apart” Revisited: Life History Theory and the Crisis of the White Working Class

One of the best-selling nonfiction books of 2012 was Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.[1] It was widely reviewed, including an informative essay by Roger Devlin in this publication.[2] As stated in the subtitle, Murray focused on White Americans, and he saw a growing class divide among this demographic. Paradoxically, by making his study explicitly racial he tried to eliminate race as a factor in his analysis. He wanted to explore “the ways in which America is coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but class.”[3] He sought to describe this phenomenon but not its causes. “I focus on what happened, not why.”[4]

According to Murray, America has a new upper class (NUC) consisting of the top 5 percent, although in some of his analysis he includes the top 20 percent. He says he is not writing about the super-rich one percent, or one tenth of one percent. The NUC has benefited economically and socially from technological advances and globalism. It differs from the old upper class which had more in common culturally with the middle and working classes. Murray believes that “the old rich had a different cultural style, but not different cultural content” than the working class,[5] providing this example: “Theodore Roosevelt, scion of an elite New York family, schooled by private tutors, had been raised on the same textbooks [such as the McGuffey Readers] as the children of Ohio famers, Chicago tradesmen, and New England fishermen.”[6] This common culture was made possible, in part, by a common European-American ethnic identity.

On the other end of the spectrum, Murray sees a new lower class (NLC) consists of a segment of the White working class, perhaps 20–25 percent of the total, that has declined socially and economically since the 1960s. This decline is characterized by a large increase in non-marital births, crime, and drug use, and decreasing industriousness, honesty, and religiosity. The weakening of the family structure has been a huge factor because marriage is needed to socialize the next generation.

No one can read Murray’s book without being struck by the profound cultural revolution that began in America in the 1960s, a revolution that is continuing today. This revolution has affected all classes, but its negative impact has been disproportionately on the White working class. Murray believes that starting in the 60s higher education acted as a great sorting machine, selecting and separating high-IQ individuals from the general population. The high-tech economy rewards these individuals with affluence, and they tend to live in the same neighborhoods, work at the same types of jobs, socialize and marry, and usually produce high-IQ children.

This all may seem meritocratic, and beneficial to society, but it is neither wholly meritocratic nor beneficial.  SAT scores are often used as a rough measure of intelligence, and students with certain family backgrounds (Murray uses Asians as an example, but Jews would be included also), and students living in the Northeast, are more likely to attend elite institutions than White students living in flyover country with the same SAT scores. This also does not take into account affirmative action admissions of non-Whites or elite foreign youths attending American universities. While Murray implies that the NUC is a product of merit, he admits in an aside that it is not entirely the case.

As a conventional conservative Murray is more comfortable discussing issues of class and culture than race.  He reiterates the above quote later in the book. “Our nation is coming apart at the seams — not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.”[7] And again, “We are one nation, indivisible, in terms of whites and people of color. Differences in the fortunes of different ethnic groups persist, but white America is not headed in one direction and nonwhite America in another. We are divisible in terms of class.”[8]  Yet Murray agrees with Edward O. Wilson that “the social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology — specifically, the findings of neuroscientists and geneticists.”[9] And he acknowledges that there will be group differences in outcomes because “they differ genetically in their cognitive, psychological, and physiological profiles.”[10] Unfortunately, Murray’s useful study on an important topic does not put the fate of America’s White working class into a wider racial context, and by his own admission does not deal much with causation. 

Five years after the publication of Coming Apart, psychologist Steven Hertler tackles causation in a book titled Life History Evolution and Sociology: The Biological Backstory of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010.[11] According to Hertler, his work “supplies the evolutionary and genetic framework” for Murray’s book, and that framework is life history evolution theory.[12]

Life history theory explains the different evolutionary strategies that organisms have adopted to survive and reproduce. Life history operates along a continuum from r (relatively fast) to K (relatively slow). On the r side we find fruit flies and at the K side elephants. The r-strategy organisms are small at birth, grow rapidly, mature quickly, produce large numbers of offspring, have little parental investment, and die early. These traits are interconnected. The K organisms employ the opposite strategies. Life history theory was first articulated many decades ago, and was not controversial until J. Philippe Rushton extended the theory to human racial groups.[13]  Rushton used life history to “explain variation among human populations, not only on the core biological variables, but also on psychological and social variables.”[14] Hertler believes that although “life history evolution hides behind every line of [Murray’s] Coming Apart, it remains unmentioned”.[15] It should be noted that Murray does mention life history theory in his co-authored The Bell Curve,[16] noting that, despite the controversies, “human life history variation . . . presses ever closer towards consensus, if not confirmation.”[17]

Compared to other organisms, all humans are K strategists, but some groups more K than others. Hertler’s thesis is that America’s White working class is pursuing an increasingly r strategy. “If a particular culture does not offer an obvious path to long-term status and success, the people in it will choose shorter investment strategies.”[18] Over the past half century the trend among the White working class has been away from well-paying union jobs in construction and production to low status, low-wage service jobs. This encourages short-term strategies that bring immediate but transient rewards such as casual sex, drug use, and escapist entertainment.

So one factor that created the NLC is diminished economic prospects for the White working class.  Another important factor, mentioned by both Murray and Hertler, is the physical separation and cultural alienation of the NUC from working-class Whites. The traditional White elite has abdicated their leadership responsibility to their people, for they no longer consider themselves part of a people, the European-American ethny. A third factor, emphasized by Kevin MacDonald, is that the countercultural revolution of the 1960s removed traditional social supports for K-style parenting: people on the lower end of the IQ distribution (the White working class and Blacks generally) benefit more from strong social supports—in particular, support for marriage and for mores against out-of-wedlock births which were traditionally embedded within a religious framework: “beginning in the 1960s [i.e., prior to the economic stagnation of the working class which began in the 1970s], there have been dramatic increases in out-of-wedlock births and divorce, resulting in many more children being raised without fathers.”[19]

Hertler describes how leadership should work: Community leaders, the K selected, “solve collective action problems and provide the institutional superstructure in which the r selected can participate. The K selected then actively coerce participation within that superstructure.”[20] So in a healthy society, K strategists create and enforce social norms, an activity that involves both costs and benefits for them.

Murray and Hertler note that, although the NUC is largely on the political Left, their lifestyles are fairly conservative as indicated by family stability, industriousness, low crime rates, etc. Of course, these elites have been influenced by the cultural revolution, but less so than the working classes. The big change is that the leadership class is no longer willing to impose their norms on the rest of society. They have lost their cultural authority, or perhaps they are simply indifferent to the fate of their lesser kinsmen. As Murray puts it, they are no longer “willing to preach what they practice.” [21]

Here is where the racial dynamic — a dynamic addressed by neither Murray nor Hertler explicitly — has explanatory power. With racial integration of the 1960s White America was no longer a cohesive people with a recognizable elite. The influence of the Black subculture on the larger society increased tremendously. Because the leadership class was not willing or able to impose White middle-class norms on Black people, they could no longer expect Whites to conform to these standard either. By 2010 the NLC Whites had adopted many of the cultural characteristics in family structure and work history that Blacks had exhibited fifty years earlier. And some social commentators believe that racial integration has also hurt lower class Blacks by isolating them from the beneficial influence of the Black bourgeois.

The old Anglo elite, which often had a feeling of noblesse oblige toward the common man, has been replaced by a cosmopolitan Anglo-Jewish-Asian elite that has nothing but scorn for traditional America and the White working class that once was the nation’s backbone. Though non-elite Whites have greatly diminished cultural influence, they are still numerous enough to have some political influence. Unfortunately, the Republican Party has been largely able to coopt their discontent into the neoconservative agenda of plutocratic tax cuts, corporate deregulation, and military adventures. Again, the lack of leadership is telling.

Murray and especially Hertler believe the increasing vicissitude of post-modern America, particularly the new economy, has turned a significant portion of the White working class into a precariat — a proletariat in a precarious economic situation. No doubt globalization, which brought massive imports of cheap labor and massive offshoring of production, has had a huge impact, but there have been other social and political forces at work as well. There was great economic uncertainty during the 1930s that did not result large increases in crime and non-martial births.[22]   Rather, the recent economic changes were accompanied by the Left’s assault on the traditional family, the influence of the Black lifestyle, and the extension of the social safety net that facilitated that lifestyle. These factors have all combined to increase social dysfunction.

Hertler’s objective, scientific approach sees social problems, such as non-martial births, “recast as adaptations,” because “evolution eschews the language of good and bad in favor of adaptive and maladaptive.”[23] With this in mind, he uses insights from life history theory  to explain the origins of the different reproductive strategies employed by sub-Sahara African and traditional European societies.  Sources of mortality can explain a lot. Diseases, especially malaria, were, and still are, the major cause of childhood deaths in Africa. Given the circumstances, “it is difficult to imagine how assiduous parental effort could meaningfully reduce vector-borne pathogens like malaria.” This favored an r strategy of “early reproduction that engenders large, diverse broods” sired by different mates.[24] An uncertain future selects for a faster life history.

On the other hand, Hertler suggests that in pre-industrial Europe the main threats to children were exposure and starvation during the long winter months. The evolutionary response was delayed marriage and childbirth. Because European mortality was due less to extrinsic, uncontrollable causes like pathogens and more likely to be affected positively by a reproductive style emphasizing high-investment parenting, “delayed reproduction, stable martial unions, small brood size, future-oriented laboring, and other markers of the slow life history.”[25]  The different African and European reproductive strategies could be a case of gene-culture co-evolution. In addition to different physical environments, “there is a substantial genetic component to life history upon which evolution acts.”[26] Thus even when Blacks relocate to a First-World environment they retain a genetic propensity toward an African reproductive strategy.

In the past, the r strategists in Western societies were held in check by the K-selected middle and upper-middle classes that “were interspersed more evenly across the general population.”[27] The physical separation and cultural alienation between the NUC and NLC noted by both Murray and Hertler has been very detrimental. It appears that as the country integrated racially it became more segregated by class, and the two phenomena are related. Without the K-selected component of the community to enforce rules and punish or deter those who violated social norms, the more r-inclined segment of the White community adopted the r strategies of the Black subculture. Murray mentions, “The problems of the white new lower class sound just like the much more widely publicized problems of the black and Latino lower classes.”[28]

Hertler suggests that social stability maybe eugenic in that it favors K strategists who tend to be more intelligent and conscientiousness. The r strategy might be better suited for turbulent times because, “the r strategists practice negative assorted mating . . . to create brood diversity. Brood diversity is desirable in that it is a beneficial hedge against unpredictable stressors.”[29] On the other hand, “the K strategists practice positive assortative mating,” producing fewer offspring more similar to one another, and best suited to “a stable, predictable, and controllable environment.”[30]  The so-called creative chaos of global capitalism along with the continuous revolution of cultural Marxism has probably contributed to the falling birthrate of K strategists, even as this group maintains its economic and social status. Unfortunately, the conservative strategy of social stability is no longer an option for the West. At this point only radical change can wrench Western civilization out of its downward trajectory.

It is interesting to consider the causation that Hertler supplies to the problems that Murray enumerates. Why have elites abdicated their social responsibility? Hertler believes that “elite extremes of cultural tolerance and political correctness arose with isolation. Once isolated elites could indulge in postmodern egalitarianism.”[31] This is certainly one factor, and it could be tied to affluent Whites seeking to insulate themselves from the harsher aspects of racial integration. But there is more at work here.

Consider the fate of Tipper Gore’s efforts to call attention to some of the more objectionable lyrics in rap and rock music. Gore, then wife of Senator Al Gore, was a left-leaning member of the NUC. Murray asks, “why was she so roundly scolded by so many of her social and political peers?”[32]  Why indeed? As a middle-aged mother of girls, she had the temerity to publicly criticize a genre identified with Black culture and youth rebellion. She may have been “scolded” by her peers, as Murray writes, but segments of the news and entertainment media heaped scorn and ridiculed on her as an object lesson to others who might consider taking up her cause.

Hertler reminds us that, “K strategists, like all other people and organisms, are inherently self-interested.”[33] If publicly supporting healthy social norms is met with derision, persons will confine their efforts to the private sphere. If explicitly advocating for White interests is met with opprobrium, then only implicit support will be offered. The Alternative Right is trying to persuade Whites that it is in their long-term self-interest to think and act in explicitly racial terms. Probably most Americans and Europeans dislike the demographic transformation taking place in their countries, but they keep silent for fear of “rocking the boat,” a fear the left is skilled at exploiting.

What is the solution? Within the context of their concerns, both Murray and especially Hertler see the possibility of science changing social policies, though even this can be a tough sell. Hertler believes life history theory can explain much of human behavior variation, but notes that 150 years after Darwin, “objections are still raised against evolution, especially when applied to humans, and most especially when applied to human behavior.”[34] What is particularly difficult is that biological explanations of human behavior are opposed by large segments of both the right and the left. Fundamentalist Christians and cultural Marxists alike resist the findings of evolutionary psychology. For thirty years after World War II, biological based variations for human behavior were largely written off as pseudo-science. A breakthrough came with E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: A New Synthesis.[35] Wilson, a Harvard entomologist, devoted the last chapter of his book to human nature. His work gave a boost to the fields of evolutionary psychology and human ecology.

The reaction from the left to Wilson was immediate. Jewish Leftists such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould established “the Sociobiology Study Group, an academic organization originated solely to nip Wilson’s sociobiological theory in the bud.”[36] Hertler believes the formation of this group “testifies to the emotional resistance that can overwhelm rational discourse when evolutionarily explaining human behavior.”[37] While such resistance may be expressed in emotional terms, it is also based on coolly calculated ethnic and ideological interests.[38] Fortunately, the opposition has been only partially successful. The work of Wilson and others in the field have withstood the test of time. Yet findings from evolutionary science have not significantly informed social programs and policies.

Hertler thinks that psychologists will continue to be “much more comfortable with social scientific data as opposed to natural science data,” because “fluid environmental explanations” are more in line with Western values than “fixed biological ones.”[39] Probably a larger factor is the intense political and social pressure favoring environmental explanations.

Murray, leaning towards paleoconservative libertarianism, is focused on cultural rather than biological explanations. But as noted above, he also sees an increasing role for life science in forming social policy. “There are genetic reasons rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to norms of behavior.”[40]  While Murray hopes that “science will undermine the moral underpinning of the welfare state,” he sees the real solution to our social problems in “a civic Great Awakening among the new upper class.”[41]

I believe such a development is very unlikely in the foreseeable future. Some of the reasons have already been noted. The NUC no longer identifies with the historical American nation. They are no longer connected to the White working class by culture or ethnicity. They are estranged from a class they no longer relate to or care about. They embrace not a common culture, but a global multi-culture. Murray is correct that findings from economies and biology are not enough, and ultimately what is needed is a spiritual revival. But the previous Great Awakenings were religiously inspired, and Murray writes of a “civic Great Awakening.” What would be the impetus for such a movement?

What is required, but difficult to achieve, is a new revolutionary White elite that can use past achievements and future aspirations to inspire and lead our people. White America Awake!

[1] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, (New York: Crown Forum, 2012).

[2] F. Roger Devlin, “Elite and Underclass: Review Essay on Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. The Occidental Quarterly 12, no.1 (Spring 2012) 31-50

[3] Murray, Coming Apart, 12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 30

[6] Ibid., 141.

[7] Ibid., 269.

[8] Ibid., 276.

[9] Ibid., 299

[10] Ibid., 300

[11] Steven C. Hertler, Life History, Evolution and Sociology: The Biological Backstory of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Hertler was also a co-author of The Rhythm of the West: A Biohistory of the Modern Era, AD 1600 to the Present (2017), reviewed by Nelson Rosit in “Understanding Western Decline,” The Occidental Quarterly 18 no.2 (Summer 2018) 97-102.

[12] Hertler, Biological Backstory, vii.

[13] John Philippe Rushton, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995).

[14] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 9.

[15] Ibid., 5

[16] Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

[17] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 6.

[18] Ibid., 8.

[19] Kevin MacDonald, “Opioids and the Crisis of the White Working Class, The Occidental Quarterly 18 (Spring, 2018): 41–55, 43.

[20] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 17.

[21] Murray, Coming Apart, 295.

[22] According to the late political scientist James Q. Wilson, despite the activities of some famous gangsters, the 1930s did not see a general increase in crime. And through wars and depressions non-martial births in America remained low until the 1970s.


[23] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 36.

[24] Ibid., 32.

[25] Ibid., 32-33.

[26] Ibid., 33.

[27] Ibid., 39.

[28] Murray, Coming Apart, 223.

[29] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 38.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 40.

[32] Murray, Coming Apart, 286,

[33] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 46.

[34] Ibid., 47.

[35] Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

[36] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 48.

[37] Ibid., 49.

[38] Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique (Bloomington, IN: Firstbooks, 2002; orig. published: Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998), Ch. 2.

[39] Hertler, Biological Backstory, 50.

[40] Murray, Coming Apart, 299.

[41] Ibid., 295, 305.

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