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Did Darwinism Give Birth to Social Darwinism?

Richard Weikart

darwindeleted.jpgAs Michael Flannery has already pointed out in his comments (here and here), Peter Bowler’s new book, Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin (University of Chicago Press), uses counterfactual history — what if Darwin had died before formulating his theory of natural selection? — to try to undermine two important historical claims: that science and religion are necessarily at odds, and that Darwinism gave birth to social Darwinism. In the course of arguing the second point, Bowler takes aim at my own works, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.

One of the problems with Bowler’s book is that he consistently caricatures the position he is arguing against. I thoroughly agree with his repeated claim (and rhetorical questions driving in the same direction) that Darwinism is not the only causal factor behind major historical developments, such as racism, imperialism, Nazi ideology, the two world wars, and the Holocaust. For instance, Bowler is absolutely correct when he states, “But the blanket assumption that all these injustices and horrors were inspired by Darwinism alone simply cannot be sustained once we realize that his was not the only theory of evolution to emerge in the late nineteenth century.” (27) Later he asks, “Can it [Darwinism] really be the only factor that, if eliminated, would have enabled us to avoid the Great War and the Holocaust?” (272) Of course not. But who ever said that “Darwinism alone” was the “only factor” in these historical developments? Certainly not me, and Bowler never indicates who actually believes this position. I smell a straw man.

The second major problem is that, as in his earlier scholarship, such as The Non-Darwinian Revolution, Bowler uses a very narrow definition of Darwinism to make just about everyone into a non-Darwinian. Ernst Haeckel, the most famous German evolutionary biologist of the late nineteenth century, was, Bowler claims, a non-Darwinian; “[Karl] Lorenz was no Darwinian”; most early geneticists were not Darwinians.

Let’s examine Haeckel briefly to see why Bowler’s analysis just doesn’t make sense. Haeckel came to believe in biological evolution by reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. In his 1868 book Nat�rliche Sch�pfungsgeschichte (Natural History of Creation) Haeckel laid out his view of biological evolution. He explained that the Malthusian population principle caused a struggle for existence between organisms, and this struggle causes natural selection. Sounds Darwinian to me (and Haeckel’s biographer Robert Richards agrees with me on this). Haeckel even insisted — as did Darwin — that the struggle is most intense between individuals of the same species. In the 1870 edition he even made the comment that all of human history is explicable as the struggle for existence and natural selection. Haeckel clearly believed in natural selection and made it a prominent part of his evolutionary theory (not merely rhetorical, as Bowler falsely alleges).

Why, then, does Bowler insist that Haeckel is non-Darwinian? Because Haeckel believed that Lamarckism played a major role in evolution, and his vision of evolution was progressive. What Bowler does not seem to recognize is that in the nineteenth century Darwinism (natural selection) and Lamarckism (inheritance of acquired characteristics) were not antithetical (and most evolutionists, Darwin included, used the language of progress). Some Lamarckians did reject Darwinism, but they didn’t have to. Even Darwin reintroduced Lamarckism into his theory later in life. Does this make Darwin a non-Darwinian?

In Haeckel’s case, Haeckel — and many other evolutionists in the late nineteenth century — firmly believed both Darwinism and Lamarckism, claiming both were important in evolutionary theory. Haeckel recognized that Darwin had not provided an explanation for variation (a point Darwin admitted in Origin), which was a gaping hole in Darwinian theory. Lamarckism, Haeckel thought, could explain variation, and then natural selection would operate on the variations to drive adaptation and speciation. Showing that Haeckel was Lamarckian does not make him “non-Darwinian.” Concerning Haeckel’s progressionist strain, Bowler oddly points to Haeckel’s view that embryological development recapitulated evolutionary history as a point of evidence that Haeckel was a non-Darwinian. Bowler apparently forgot that Darwin himself adopted Haeckel’s position on embryological recapitulation. Darwin apparently did not realize this was non-Darwinian.

In emphasizing the “eclipse of Darwinism” in the late nineteenth century, Bowler ignores the many people who did embrace natural selection. In Germany, August Weismann promoted a theory known as neo-Darwinism that even Bowler should acknowledge was Darwinian. Weismann had many followers in Germany, so Darwin’s theory of natural selection was not as dead as Bowler claimed.

To give just one more example showing the problem with Bowler’s claim about the death of natural selection around 1900, let’s look at the eugenics movement. Bowler argues that the eugenics movement was non-Darwinian. His evidence? “Yet the majority of the early geneticists were not Darwinians.” (269) The founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, was, according to Bowler, not a Darwinian (though he admits that the leading eugenicist Karl Pearson was). Bowler simply ignores the vast amount of evidence I put forward in From Darwin to Hitler demonstrating that most of the leading figures of the German eugenics movement — Alfred Ploetz, Wilhelm Schallmayer, Fritz Lenz, Eugen Fischer, etc. — were committed Darwinists who not only believed in Darwinian natural selection, but claimed explicitly that it was a foundational idea for their own worldview and specifically for their eugenics.

I could produce many, many further examples to expose the fallacy of Bowler’s claim that Darwinian natural selection was moribund around 1900, but fortunately, I’ve already done this in From Darwin to Hitler, so I refer interested readers there for a wealth of details that undermines Bowler’s arguments. I will say more on Bowler tomorrow.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.

Richard Weikart

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Richard Weikart is Emeritus Professor of History, California State University, Stanislaus, and author of seven books, including From Darwin to Hitler, Hitler’s Ethic, The Death of Humanity, and Hitler’s Religion. His most recent book is Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism (2022). His PhD dissertation, Socialist Darwinism, earned the biennial prize of the Forum for History of Human Sciences as best dissertation in that field. He has lectured at many universities and other venues in the US and Europe. He also has been interviewed on dozens of radio shows, podcasts, and TV, and appeared in seven documentaries, including Expelled. Some of his lectures and interviews are available on YouTube.