Richard Weikart Responds to Larry Arnhart’s Review of Hitler’s Ethic

Richard Weikart

The first review of my book, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, has appeared. Larry Arnhart, professor of Political Science, Northern Illinois University, author of Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature, posted a perceptive review to his blogsite.
He provides a good summary of the book, and then offers the following remarks:

The elements of Nazi ideology seem diverse–racism, German nationalism, anti-Semitism, socialism, militarism, imperialistic expansionism, the ‘leadership principle,’ eugenics, and genocide. But Weikart is remarkably persuasive in showing how all of these strands of Nazi ideology are woven together by the final end of Hitler’s ethic–the evolutionary improvement of the human species through the triumph of the Aryan race in the struggle for existence. Proponents of Darwinian ethics–like myself–should be honest in recognizing the impressive evidence that Weikart marshalls from Hitler’s writings and speeches to show how Hitler’s thought and actions were driven by a coherent view of Darwinian ethics.

After these comments, Arnhart poses three important questions and offers a few criticisms: “First, was Hitler’s Darwinian ethics scientifically correct? Second, was it logically derived from Darwin’s science? Third, what alternative view of morality is Weikart offering us?”
Arnhart and I agree on the first question that Hitler’s Darwinian ethics were not scientifically correct.
On the second question, I do not argue that Nazism is a logical deduction from Darwinism. However, I do point out that Hitler’s ideas about Darwinism and racial struggle were not all that far removed from leading Darwinists of his day, such as the geneticist Fritz Lenz or the anthropologist Eugen Fischer or the psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin. Darwin certainly did not embrace many ideas of the Nazis–such as anti-Semitism–but he did promote some elements of social Darwinism that were adopted and amplified by his successors.
In his review Arnhart is wrong to suggest that just because Darwin affirmed the unity of the human species and opposed slavery, that he somehow also rejected scientific racism. In Descent of Man Darwin claimed that non-European races were sub-species that were inferior intellectually and morally. While believing that black Africans, American Indians, and Australian aborigines were part of the human species, he nonetheless believed they were varieties inferior to Europeans. Even Desmond and Moore in their recent controversial book–which argues that Darwin’s abolitionist sentiments motivated and guided Darwin in formulating his evolutionary theory–admit that Darwin’s adoption of Malthusian principles gave scientific sanction for European colonial genocide. They state:

Malthus’s ‘grand crush of population’ resulted in conflict and conquest, and Darwin began to naturalize the genocide in these terms. He was assuming an inevitability that had to be explained, not a socially sanctioned expansion that had to be questioned.
. . .
Darwin was turning the contingencies of colonial history into a law of natural history. An implicit ranking–with the white man accorded the ‘best’ intellect–ensured the colonist won when cultures clashed. Already Darwin was accepting it as an evolutionary norm. Wedded so early to his evolutionary matrix, this supremacist image would itself be brought to justify later ethnic-cleansing policies, however abhorrent to Darwin’s own humanitarian ideals. (p. 148)

By biologizing colonial eradication, Darwin was making ‘racial’ extinction an inevitable evolutionary consequence. Disappearing natives were put on par with the fossils underfoot: Argentine dynasties had turned to dust before, the megafauna with its giant capybara Toxodon and ground sloth Megatherium, whose fossils he had found. Races and species perishing was the norm of prehistory. The uncivilized races were following suite, except that Darwin’ mechanism here was modern-day massacre. (p. 149)

Imperialist expansion was becoming the very motor of human progress. It is interesting, given the family’s emotional anti-slavery views, that Darwin’s biologizing of genocide should appear to be so dispassionate. (p. 150)

Natural selection was now predicated on the weaker being extinguished. Individuals, races even, had to perish for progress to occur. Thus it was, that ‘Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal’. Europeans were the agents of Evolution.
. . .
Prichard’s warning about aboriginal slaughter was intended to alert the nation, but Darwin was already naturalizing the cause and rationalizing the outcome. (p. 151)

Arnhart takes me to task for not mentioning that Daniel Gasman in his work on The Scientific Origins of National Socialism denies the link between Darwin and Haeckel. I did not do so for two reasons: 1) Gasman is wrong on this point (see Robert J. Richards’ recent biography of Haeckel, where he argues that Darwin’s and Haeckel’s views of evolution were fundamentally compatible); and 2) Most historians do not hold Gasman’s book in very high regard.
Arnhart also criticizes me for not mentioning that Darwin opposed genetic determinism. The reason I didn’t mention it is because in fact Darwin did embrace biological determinism. Already in his 1838 notebooks Darwin stated the position that moral traits were hereditary, stating, “Our descent, then, is the origin of our evil passions!!–The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!” He stated in another passage in his notebooks, “It is not more strange that there should be necessary wickedness than disease.” Thus for Darwin morally bad behavior was not contingent, but subject to causal necessity, produced especially by hereditary traits. He stated further in 1838 that “love is instinctive” and that social instincts were the basis for all (positive) moral traits.
Darwin took essentially that same position in Descent of Man, arguing rather forcefully that many moral traits were heritable. There are many passages that illustrate this, but to see how far Darwin took this biological determinism of moral traits, consider the following quotation from Descent:

If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Now, to broach the final question: What alternative view of morality do I suggest? As a historian I did not attempt an overt answer to this question in my book, and this is the part of the review where Arnhart shows the greatest misunderstanding of my position. He incorrectly claims that I admitted that Hitler believed that human beings were created in the image of God. He misconstrued the following statement from my book: “In one memorable passage Hitler wrote that marriage should be ‘an institution which is called upon to produce images of the Lord and not monstrosities halfway between man and ape.'” Since Hitler was discussing interracial marriages in this passage, it is quite apparent that, even if Hitler did think some humans were created in the image of God (which I am not sure he did), he certainly did not think all humans were created in the image of God. He also clearly did not think that disabled people were created in the image of God.
Thus my antidote for Hitler’s ethic is quite simple: abandon evolutionary ethics and embrace the view that all humans are created in the image of God.

Richard Weikart

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Richard Weikart is Professor of History at California State University, Stanislaus. He completed his Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of Iowa in 1994, receiving the biennial prize of the Forum for History of Human Sciences for the best dissertation in that field. His revised dissertation, Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein, was published in 1999.