Culture & Ethics
Richard Weikart on Darwinism and Hitlerism
In his most recent book, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, Discovery Institute fellow Richard Weikart lays out a historian’s case for the proposition that Adolf Hitler’s murderous policies arose from a scientific racism inspired by Charles Darwin’s most famous ideas.
According to Weikart, Hitler wasn’t an amoral monster, but a frighteningly “moral” one — “moral” in the sense of principled, of course. Principles can be directed to evil or to good. Hitler was an autocrat who aimed to bring about what seemed to him to be a praiseworthy end, a biological utopia forged in the fiery struggle for life. In Hitler’s mind, this world-to-come would be the inevitable result of Natural Selection, a blind and unforgiving process he would merely speed along by expansionist warfare, eugenics, and institutional racism. In Hitler’s view, evolutionary progress was so great an end that any means used to achieve it would be moral, even programmatic genocide.
The most ghoulish evils of Nazi foreign and domestic policy were made possible in the first place because Hitler sought to apply Darwinian concepts to the world outside the biology lecture hall. Mere ideas are not to blame for mortal suffering, true, but in light of Hitler’s Ethic, the exportation of Darwinian ideas outside the confines of biological study merits close watch.
Before raising the alarm, Weikart does the painstaking work of any careful historian, drawing narrowly phrased points from well over one hundred bibliographical sources — archival, primary and secondary. Weikart’s 203-page exposition of Hitler’s mind is supported by 681 endnotes apportioned across nine major chapters arranged more in conceptual than chronological order, though Weikart provides a timeline at the start of the book for context.
For those who would like to read more broadly and deeply on the subject, most endnotes include references to other works from related fields. Period illustrations are spread liberally throughout the text to bring critical ideas to life. The index is extensive. Hitler’s Ethic is a scholarly, enjoyable read suitable to multiple readerships, not just devotees of the History Channel, though this group will be most pleased.
One academic reviewer, Professor Larry Arnhart, has questioned the causal connection between the thoughts of Charles Darwin and those of Adolf Hitler. By fixing on a trivial truth, Arnhart misses Weikart’s main point.
As Arnhart rightly points out, the German-reading Hitler probably did not read the original works of the English-writing Charles Darwin. Hitler no doubt learned Darwinian theory through the mediating influences of fellow German-speakers like Ernst Haeckel. But most people who know about Darwinian theory first become acquainted with it through writers or teachers other than Charles Darwin. I know I did. (Thank you, Miller and Levine.) Even Richard Dawkins became a committed Darwinist well before he read Darwin, as he comments today in the New York Times. (See at 2:57 into the video.)
The point is, however and through whomever Hitler imbibed Darwinian notions he clearly applied them outside their proper place to bring about suffering he sincerely viewed as moral by the “light” of those notions. For this, Weikart puts Hitler on trial, leaving Darwin in the dock awaiting prosecution by another.
Even so, in his review of Hitler’s Ethic, Arnhart anxiously defends the person of Charles Darwin. Perhaps that’s because as a Darwinian ethicist and political scientist Arnhart also exports Darwinian ideas to foreign fields.
(In the early 20th century, Justice Holmes helped import Darwin into the law. Years later, we’ve got Living Constitutionalism. You’re welcome, America.)
Yet Arnhart gives ground in the face of Weikart’s advance. When, for example, Arnhart contends that Hitler’s scientific racism should be understood as pseudoscientific racism, Weikart counters that Hitler’s racism was scientific by then-prevailing standards on what-counts-as-science. When Arnhart argues that Charles Darwin personally affirmed all races as human, Weikart rejoins that he also claimed that some races were effectively less human than others, having labeled some as biologically superior, others as biologically inferior.
In their scientific racism, little daylight passes between Hitler and Darwin. It doesn’t matter much that Hitler became a scientific racist via Darwinism rather than by direct contact with Charles Darwin’s texts. What matters is the lesson that Darwinian ideas need to be kept confined to evolutionary biology. As Hitler’s Ethic reminds us, exporting Darwin is a dangerous business.