[Editor’s Note: Historian Richard Weikart is featured prominently in the just-released DVD, “What Hath Darwin Wrought?” exploring the painful history of Social Darwinism in Germany and America from the twentieth century to the present. To purchase a copy or find out more information about this documentary, visit www.whathathdarwinwrought.com.]
Earlier this summer, philosopher Michael Ruse wrote an op-ed at Huffington Post, where he claimed that my scholarship is “bad history.” He questioned the historical connections between Darwinism and Nazism that I demonstrated in my book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. He starts by mischaracterizing my position, claiming that I argue for a “direct line” from Darwin to Hitler. If he had read my book carefully–or the response to critics at my website–he would have found the following statements:
“Nazism was not predetermined in Darwinism or eugenics, not even in racist forms of eugenics.” (from the Introduction)
“It would be foolish to blame Darwinism for the Holocaust, as though Darwinism leads logically to the Holocaust. No, Darwinism by itself did not produce Hitler’s worldview, and many Darwinists drew quite different conclusions from Darwinism for ethics and social thought than did Hitler.” (from the Conclusion)
My book contains many other similar comments that make clear that I am not claiming that Darwinism necessarily leads to Nazism, nor that Nazism is exclusively based on Darwinism.
Most of Ruse’s critique fails, then, because he is demolishing a straw man. However, there are also a few other problems embedded in his critique.
After correctly noting that Darwinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced a variety of social and political ideas that they allegedly based on Darwinism, he mentioned Vernon Kellogg’s Darwinian pacifism as an example of someone using Darwinism to draw conclusions completely contrary to Nazi ideology. This example has me scratching my head, wondering again how carefully he read From Darwin to Hitler, since I discuss Kellogg and Darwinian pacifism in considerable detail in chapter 9.
I explain there that many Darwinists, including the most renowned German Darwinist, Ernst Haeckel, embraced pacifism based on their view that the strongest, most virile men were being mowed down in modern warfare, while the “unfit” stayed home to pass on their allegedly defective genes to the next generation. What Kellogg, Haeckel, and other Darwinian pacifists objected to, then, was not that people were getting killed in wars, but rather that the “wrong” people were getting killed. When war actually came in 1914, many Darwinian pacifists abandoned their pacifism. Even Kellogg embraced the war effort for the United States, because he became convinced by speaking with a German military officer who had been a biology professor before the war, that the Germans were dedicated to a militaristic form of social Darwinism. Haeckel abandoned his pacifist position, supported German expansionism, and wrote blistering attacks on the British and French for using colonial troops to kill the allegedly superior Europeans.
None of this makes Kellogg, Haeckel, or other Darwinists proto-Nazis (as I explain clearly in From Darwin to Hitler). However, some of their positions are not as far removed from Nazi ideology as Ruse seems to think. For example, during World War II Hitler expressed concern about the dysgenic effects of the war, since so many of his best and brightest were being killed; and he tried to find eugenics measures to counteract the ill effects this would allegedly have on heredity.
Much of Ruse’s op-ed piece, especially his penultimate paragraph about Hitler, would require a book-length refutation. Wait–I already did that: Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (2009). I hope Ruse will have opportunity to read it, and I look forward to finding out what he thinks about it. (Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 on “Ruse’s Spin on Darwin’s Racism”).
Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State Univ., Stanislaus, a research fellow of Discovery Institute, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.