From Darwin To Hitler

I just finished the fascinating and somewhat controversial book From Darwin To Hitler by Richard Weikart. The book is controversial because its author is associated with the Discovery Institute, an organization that advocates intelligent design and criticizes naturalistic evolution. From this it has been argued that his book is merely a hit piece on Darwin that argues two things: 1) the Holocaust was the inevitable result of embracing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and 2) Hitler’s worldview and his Nazi agendas were solely derived from evolutionary biology.

After reading the book I am honestly at a loss at how such distorted criticisms could have materialized. Perhaps it is because Weikart appears to believe this in the eyes of his critics because he is part of the Discovery Institute and was featured in Ben Stein’s movie Expelled, which was rather reckless in its guilt by association tactics. Whatever the reason, the critics have it wrong as Weikart diligently and professionally handles a careful argument that merely suggests that Darwinism was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for Hitler’s ethic. The book’s unfortunate title perhaps reduces things a bit too much, but the subtitle evokes a more judicious curiousity, “Evolutionary ethics, eugenics, and racism in Germany.” These, no doubt, are the plot twists in a very grim view of humanity.

Ironically enough, Weikart doesn’t spend a lot of time on Darwin and focuses more attention on Ernst Haeckel , Bartholomäus von Carneri, Christian von Ehrenfels, August Forel, Eugen Fischer, Theodor Fritsch, Friedrich Jodl, Friedrich Hellwald, Fritz Lenz, Alfred Ploetz, Wilhelm Schallmayer, and Helene Stöcker. Here are some sample quotes of a few:

“An ethic consistent with Darwin’s theory knows no natural or innate rights, and can therefore only speak of acquired rights, even in relation to tribes of people. —Carneri

“In nature only One Right Rules, which is no right, the right of the stronger, of violence. But violence is also in fact the highest source of right, in that without it no legislation is thinkable.” —Hellwald

“Morality, too is a product of evolution, and is in a state of continual transformation…” —Jodl.

“The individual with his personal existence appears to me only a temporary member in this large chain, as a rapidly vanishing vapor…Personal individual existence appears to me so horribly miserable, petty, and worthless, that I see it as intended for nothing but for destruction.” —Haeckel

“The state only has an interest in preserving the more excellent life at the expense of the less excellent.” —Kossman.

“Between the most highly developed animal soul and the least developed human soul there exists only a small quantitative, but no qualitative difference, and that this difference is much less, than the difference between the lowest and the highest human souls, or as the difference between the highest and lowest animal souls.” —Haeckel (emphasis mine)

“From the doctrine that all men are children of God and equal before him, the ideal of humanitarianism and socialism has grown, that all humans have the same right to exist and the same value, and this ideal has greatly influenced behavior in the last two centuries. This ideal is irreconcilable with the theory of evolution… it [evolution] recognizes only fit and unfit, healthy and sick, genius and atavist.” —Tille

“The care for individuals who from birth onwards are useless mentally and physically, who for themselves and for their fellow-creatures are a burden merely, persons of negative value, is a function altogether useless to humanity, and indeed positively injurious. —Ribbert

“Through reading the works of Darwin, Haeckel and other biologists already at school, as well as through some novels by Felix Dahn and other glorifiers of German antiquity and medieval times I was permanently enthused for the Germanic race… and determined to make it my life’s task… to help in Germany and other states with German-speaking populations to lead it upward again to purity and the height of the first millennia. —Ploetz

“Just as in nature the struggle for existence is the moving principle of evolution and perfection, in that the weak are worn away and must make room for the strong, so also in world history the destruction of the weaker nations through the stronger is a postulate of progress.” —Hellwald.

One could go on and on furnishing quote after quote from the German intelligentsia showing that they believed it was a scientific fact that humans were no more than animals in competition with one another, and that the humanitarian ethics of Christian morality which compels society to care for the sick and weak out to be thrown off. In their view, there was no such thing as a human soul or human nature. There is no free will since everything is biologically determined. Humanity does not share a common ancestor as evidenced by the vast differences between racial categories. The the distance between the “higher” and “lower” human races is greater than the distance between apes and the “lower” races (!) making the belief that all persons are created equal a liberal fable. The superior are given the right to dominate, if not eliminate, the inferior from within their ranks. The mentally handicapped and the disabled are not only “worthless” to society but actually count as “negative worth” because they sap the strength of the “strong.” It therefore, is a moral duty to the community to segregate the population and sift out the bad elements from the good.

After one reads through the litany of German scientists, eugenicists, ethicists, and political reformers one cannot help but see how morality was turned on its head. Influences on Hitlers thought can be a bit foggy, but he does credit Fritsch and his Handbook on the Jewish Question (which advocated racist eugenics) with helping to “prepare the soil for the Nationalist Socialist anti-Semitic movement.”

The strongest part of Weikart’s book is that he provides an explanation for how German legal theorists, physicians, and scientists could have supported and carried out Hitler’s policies. The mantle of evolutionary progress was so powerfully motivating that it captured the hearts and minds of Germany’s intelligentsia long before Hitler arrived on the scene. In the wake of World War I the fear of biological degeneration (the “best” of German men dead on the battlefield, and the “worst” at home) and the economic oppression Germany experienced made Hitler’s heinous vision one that was morally necessary. To be sure, Darwinism was not the cause of Hitler’s Germany, but it played no small part in re-imagining the human race in the German mind. Without a doubt, it helped prepare the way for some of the most inhumane treatment of humanity in history.


3 thoughts on “From Darwin To Hitler

  1. The reflexive criticism stems from the perception that Darwin is unassailable. Ostensibly, this is so simply because Darwin is a scientist, and thereby empirically distanced from the moral implications of his work.

    But this defense bears little scrutiny, since Darwin himself extrapolates moral expectations from his own research. I had one discussion with an ardent Darwin supporter on the issue of Social Darwinism, and whether or not Darwin was intellectually responsible. Darwin’s defender was left arguing that Darwin’s own conclusions contradicted his research, thereby shielding him from the intellectual fallout. Uh, huh.

    To the degree that Darwin has been established as a false God, Christians should be about the business of discrediting him.

  2. Darwin didn’t form moral expectations that were like the that of the German eugenicists. He was a traditional English liberal who more or less embraced Judeo-Christian ethics. But he has become a kind of secular saint who can’t be subjected to any kind of thoughtful criticism.

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