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Re-examining the Darwin-Hitler Link

Editor’s Note: This special post comes to us courtesy of CSC Fellow Dr. Richard Weikart, author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.

In the heated struggle over the teaching of evolution in the state of Florida, some have suggested that Darwinism is dangerous. They claim it has produced odious ideologies, most prominently, Nazism. Michael Ruse has castigated those trying to connect Darwinism and Nazism in his op-ed piece for the Tallahassee Democrat, “Darwin and Hitler: A Not-Very-Intelligent Link” (February 6).

Ruse, a philosopher by profession, claims that the anti-evolutionists are “not very good historians.” However, he commits some serious historical gaffes himself, undermining his claim to be setting the record straight.

First of all, since Ruse is a philosopher, not a historian, I would like to address what seems to me to be a philosophical mistake in his brief essay: the straw-man fallacy. Ruse challenges two key ideas that I have not seen anyone advance in this debate: 1) that Hitler’s ideology was based solely on Darwinism; and 2) that Darwinism leads inevitably to Nazism. Now it could be that some anti-evolutionist somewhere might actually hold these positions, but Ruse ignores the much stronger historical position that I advance in my book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

I agree with Ruse that Hitler’s ideology was not built solely on Darwinism. Nonetheless, Ruse does not seem to realize that Darwinism was a central, guiding principle of Nazi ideology, especially of Hitler’s own world view. Richard Evans, historian at Cambridge University, has explained, “The real core of Nazi beliefs lay in the faith Hitler proclaimed in his speech of September 1938 in science–a Nazi view of science–as the basis for action. Science demanded the furtherance of the interests not of God but of the human race, and above all the German race and its future in a world ruled by ineluctable laws of Darwinian competition between races and between individuals.” This is not a controversial claim by anti-evolutionists, but it is commonly recognized by scholars who study Nazism.

Contra Ruse’s claim, Nazis did not abandon Darwinism because of its racial egalitarian implications. In fact, the vast majority of Darwinists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries argued that Darwinism proved racial inequality. Darwin claimed in chapter two of The Descent of Man that there were great differences in moral disposition and intellect between the “highest races” and the “lowest savages.” Later in Descent he declared, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” Racial inegalitarianism was built into Darwin’s analysis from the start.

Haeckel, whom Ruse correctly cites as the most prominent German Darwinist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even claimed that humanity should be divided into twelve distinct species in four separate genera. He declared repeatedly that the distance between the highest and lowest humans was wider than the distance between humans and apes.

This Darwinian-based racial inegalitarianism was a mainstream view among early twentieth-century German scientists and scholars. Before and during the Nazi period, the leading anthropologists and eugenicists–Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, Otmar von Verschuer, Hans F. K. Guenther, and many others–were all avid Darwinists and all believed that Darwinism implied racial inequality. Ruse’s claim that “Nazi ideologists quickly realized how completely antithetical the whole evolution idea was to their own ideology” is about as far from the mark as you can get.

Also, I should mention that Haeckel was also the first person in German history to advance the idea that disabled people should be killed, a program the Nazis carried out. Most of the eugenicists and physicians who promoted “euthanasia” for the disabled–and most of those who carried it out under Nazism–used overtly Darwinian justifications for it.
Now, Ruse is right that Darwinism has been used by many people to advance a variety of positions, some of which are antithetical. I am not saying that Darwinism leads inevitably to Nazism. However, as I point out in my article “Does Darwinism Devalue Human Life,” many Darwinists have admitted that Darwinism does have philosophical implications that impinge on the value of human life.

Peter Singer, the bioethicist at Princeton University who supports infanticide and euthanasia for the disabled, for instance, admits that Darwinism underpins his dismissal of the sanctity of human life. Richard Dawkins likewise claims Darwinian support for euthanasia.

Ruse’s attempts to whitewash the historical connection between Darwinism and Nazism may make him feel better about Darwinism, but it does not correspond to historical reality.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.