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Darwin and Mao

David Klinghoffer

A reader of my blog, Paul Burnett taunts me:

Go ahead, David, say it: “Darwin taught Hitler (and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot) how to kill millions of people.”

That is of course a ridiculous parody of what I’ve written on Darwinism and its historical consequences, and I’ve never written a word about Darwin-Mao, but…now that you mention it, Paul, I just so happen to have before me on my desk China and Charles Darwin, by China scholar James Reeve Pusey of Bucknell University, published in 1983 by Harvard University Press. Pusey is a son of the illustrious late Harvard president Nathan Pusey. (They don’t give people names like that anymore, do they? Too bad.) Let’s just look up his conclusion, shall we? Hm, what’s this? He writes:

Mao Tse-tung finally claimed that Marxism-Leninism could all be boiled down to one sentence, tsao fan yu li — “To rebel is justified” — but that standard translation obscures the force of the li (reason or principle) that rebellion was now said to have. That Neo-Confucian word in [its] new context really meant that rebellion was a natural law, and that lesson had been taught to Mao Tse-tung not by Marx but by Sun Yat-sen and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, who had learned it, rightly or wrongly, from Darwin. For the li of revolution, they had said, lay in evolution.

Darwin justified revolution and thereby helped the cultural revolutions of Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, Hu Shih, and Mao Tse-tung (and, of course, so many others), and the political revolutions of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang K’ai-shek, and Mao Tse-tung. As things turned out, therefore, he seemd to help Mao Tse-tung the most, and indeed he did. He helped make the Marxists the fittest.

Darwin created the ideological vacuum [by undermining traditional ideas] that cried out for something like Marxism, and he established criteria for what that something should be. The new fit and fittening ideology had to be based on the Western science of evolutionary progress. It had to identify inevitable, natural stages of human social development. It had to promise historical inevitability and yet at the same time recognize the vital importance of human action. It had to be based on struggle and yet stress mutual aid among members of the ch’un. It had to provide a non-racial enemy to explain China’s inner and outer troubles without damning the Chinese — and it had to give the underdog a chance.

That last stipulation was not Darwin’s by any stretch of the imagination, but every Chinese Darwinist we have seen forced Darwin to give the underdog a chance….


The notion that one can be prescient of evolution’s Way has led some to feel that the prescient have special rights, if not duties, in the struggle they believe that Way requires. And so Darwin has ironically helped produce a new kind of religious know-it-all-ism, and a concomitant new kind of religious self-righteousness and religious intolerance….


Mao Tse-tung in an angry moment (as late as 1964) swore that “all demons shall be annihilated.” He dehumanized his enemies, partly in traditional hyperbole, partly in Social Darwinian “realism.” Like the Anarchists he saw reactionaries as evolutionary throwbacks, who deserved extinction. The people’s enemies were non-people, and they did not deserve to be treated as people.

Pusey writes on the same theme, more briefly, in the November issue of Nature.
Don’t get me wrong. Pusey is full of fair-minded and appropriate scholary qualifications about all this. Darwin had a real impact, yet he was also misunderstood in specifically “Chinese directions.” Of course. Mao comes into his story only at the tail end, anyway.
Yet I’m guessing that this is the first time you’ve heard of the Darwin-Mao connection, as most people don’t know about the Marx-, Lenin-, and Hitler-Darwin connections. Most who’ve heard of it, dismiss it since that’s the prestige attitude to take.
I just wonder why this thread of history is suppressed. I mean, the abuses of religion are well known. The Crusades are part of the Christian legacy, despite the fact the nothing at all in the New Testament would lead you to expect such an abuse. Before 9/11 when bashing Christianity was at the height of its popularity, you rarely heard such qualifications applied to judging that faith’s responsibility for historical atrocities. Now that Islam-bashing is the rage, you rarely hear people say that Arabs or Iranians misunderstand Islam in specifically “Arab” or “Iranian directions.” Or if you do, they are mocked as soft on “Islamo-fascism.”
When it comes to evaluating the relationship between ideas and their consequences, why does Darwinism always get a free pass and a whitewash while religion is held to strict account? This is not a rhetorical question. Please do help me understand.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.