As Richard Weikart proves in his magnificently written monograph From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection released a veritable Pandora’s box of evil vapors and demonic spirits, which, once unleashed on an eager European public, poisoned discourse on war, race, sex, nationality, diplomacy, colonization, economy, and anthropology–especially, it would seem, in Germany.
In a letter he wrote to the German Wilhelm Pryor in 1868, Darwin averred that “the support which I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail,” a line that could well serve as the epigraph to Weikart’s riveting tale of how Germany led itself (and thereby the rest of the world) into the abyss of internecine war and savagely applied eugenics, naïvely thinking all the while that it was helping to produce Darwin’s “higher animal” from his eagerly anticipated “war of nature.”
It’s a long review, but well worth the read. In reading the review and the book, what is striking, ultimately, isn’t that evil has been done in the name of Darwinism. Every influential paradigm in history has been co-opted for evil purposes. What is striking is how reasonably and logically many of the horrors documented in Weikart’s book follow from Darwinian principles–e.g., the survival of the fittest populations (genocide), the great good that supposedly comes from natural selection eliminating the weak and defective (eugenics and forced sterilizations), the notion that humans are merely smart animals (moral pragmatism, which in turns underwrites not only genocide and eugenics but also even the cruelest kinds of human experimentation, provided they can further medical research).
The fact that Darwin’s theory has resulted in violence does not, of course, make that theory wrong. But it certainly provides a healthy motivation for considering with an open mind the growing body of scientific evidence against the theory.
[Update: The subtitle of the original version of this post was “A Straightforward Path to Horror.” I have dropped the word “straightforward” from the subtitle and the text because it may have left a misleading impression about Weikart’s book. While Weikart documents the pervasive influence of Darwinism on the development of Nazi ideology, he also makes clear that history is often not straightforward and that Darwinism did not “inevitably” lead to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, “without Darwinism, especially in its social Darwinist and eugenics permutations, neither Hitler nor his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scientific underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the world’s greatest atrocities was really morally praiseworthy.” (From Darwin to Hitler, p. 233) ]