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Hitler, Evolution and the Historical Context

Mein_Kampf.jpgIn his post the other day, “Did Hitler Use the Term ‘Evolution’ in Mein Kampf?,” Richard Weikart nailed the case shut on that subject. Of course, the larger and more significant issue isn’t whether Hitler used the word “evolution” in Mein Kampf but whether he and the leadership of the National Socialists embraced Darwinian ideas and translated them into policies drawn from those concepts. Weikart makes a convincing case for that in his books (see From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress).
While the Nazis clearly could have developed their racist and genocidal program without evolution, Darwinian theory allowed a framework and easy fit into which they could cast it as both scientific and even inexorable. For all of Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s claims about Darwin’s anti-slavery stance, even they must admit that it was mediated through an overarching conviction that racial hierarchies were an inherent part of the evolutionary process. In their earlier biography they tellingly confess,

“Social Darwinism” is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start — “Darwinism” was always intended to explain human society.

Desmond and Moore elaborate in Darwin’s Sacred Cause, as Weikart earlier pointed out here at ENV:

About halfway through the book, in chapter six, Desmond and Moore drop a bombshell. They argue that after embracing biological evolution, allegedly because of his desire to stress the unity of the human species, Darwin’s embrace of Malthus in 1838 radically altered his vision of race relations. Darwin came to embrace racial competition and even genocide as natural processes bringing evolutionary progress. This does not mean Darwin was cheering for genocide, of course, but as Desmond and Moore explain, “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.” (p. 149) They then state, “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) A bit later: “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)

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.