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"Was Hitler a Darwinian?" Reviewing Robert Richards

Richard Weikart

9780226058931.jpgApparently my two books, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, caused Robert J. Richards of the University of Chicago to pop a fuse. His fifty-page essay, "Was Hitler a Darwinian?" in his new book of the same name, published by the University of Chicago Press, aims primarily at refuting my works. He also snipes at David Berlinski, Stephen Jay Gould, Larry Arnhart, even Peter Bowler, along with unspecified "members of the Intelligent Design crowd."

Unfortunately his analysis is marred by the following problems:

1) Richards misquotes and/or ignores the context of quotations, sometimes making them say the opposite of what is intended.

2) Richards ignores mountains of evidence, much of which is already contained in my books and articles.

3) Richards caricatures the positions of those he disagrees with (especially me, since I’m the main target of his essay).

4) Richards conflates certain key concepts.

5) In addition to ignoring specific lines of evidence, Richards totally ignores many of the most salient points I set forth in my books about what connects Darwinism and Hitler.

6) At one point Richards even creates a new historical "fact."

I intend to provide sufficient examples to substantiate these points, but it would be impossible for me to discuss all the examples under each of these categories, because I could easily write a book-length refutation of Richards’s essay. In reality, I already have done this in Hitler’s Ethic and elsewhere, but Richards simply ignores much of my evidence, as I will show in this and two subsequent articles.

(I will not be citing my sources in this essay, because I have given most of them in other books and essays. I will provide page numbers for quotations from Robert Richards’ book, Was Hitler a Darwinian? (2013). However, if anyone wants more details on a source I use, please e-mail me and I will provide further information.)

Let’s take each point in turn.

1) Richards misquotes and/or ignores the context of quotations, sometimes making them say the opposite of what is intended.

This is one of the most serious problems in his analysis, and it is especially pernicious, because those who are not conversant in the primary sources will have no idea that Richards is misinterpreting the quotations he proffers. The context that Richards leaves out often contradicts his interpretation.

One of the more egregious examples of this is his misquotation of Konrad Lorenz, followed by a complete misrepresentation of Lorenz’s point. According to Richards, in a 1940 essay Lorenz, "good Darwinian that he was, complained that there were many ‘in the schools of National-Socialistic greater Germany who in fact still reject evolutionary thought and descent theory [Entwicklungsgedanken und Abstammungslehre] as such.’ Lorenz’s complaint strongly implies that Darwinism had no official mandate in the educational system." (p. 236) The material that Richards places within the quotation marks is accurate enough, but I still consider this a misquote, because the word "many" that immediately precedes the quotation is not only not present in Lorenz’s statement, but it runs contrary to the point that Lorenz is making. Lorenz was responding to an earlier article in Der Biologe where Ferdinand Rossner discussed a few — not many — figures who were opposing Darwin and Haeckel (and the two he mentions by name were not even biologists!). The reason Lorenz was astonished was because in his view evolution was not up for discussion. It is obvious from the context that Lorenz was not reacting to "many," but to "few" (though he doesn’t use either word), and this completely changes the spin that Richards puts on this quotation.

Worse yet (for Richards), later in his essay, Lorenz completely contradicts Richards’s claim that Darwinism "had no official mandate" in Nazi Germany. Lorenz claimed it did have official mandate, so he urged teachers to follow the Nazi curriculum. (Lorenz also argued in this essay that the best way to win people to Nazism is to teach them evolutionary biology, a point that undermines Richards’s analysis yet more). Rossner, in the essay Lorenz had read, explained in even greater detail that the Nazi educational curriculum required the teaching of evolution, including human evolution. Richards should have known this, because I discussed both Rossner and Lorenz in an essay that I sent Richards in early 2010 and that we discussed in his seminar at the University of Chicago. I also discussed in that essay the Nazi Education Ministry’s 1938 curriculum handbook and the National Socialist Teachers’ League’s biology curriculum of 1936-37. Both contained large doses of evolution, including the evolution of humans and human races. Why did Richards ignore this information that I provided him over three years before his book came out that completely contradicts his point?

If Richards’s mistaken interpretation of Lorenz were an isolated example in his essay, I wouldn’t have bothered to bring it up. Everyone can make a mistake (and I have certainly made many). One mistake like this wouldn’t torpedo his entire analysis. However, unfortunately this is not an isolated example, but is emblematic of his essay, as I will demonstrate.

For example, Richards claims that the head of the Nazi Party’s Racial Policy Office, Walter Gross, "thought the party ought to remain clear of any commitment to the doctrines of human evolution, ‘which is frequently still pervaded with Haeckelian ways of thinking in its basic ideological ideas . . . and is thus publicly considered a part of materialistic, monist idea.’" (p. 240) This cleverly makes it sound like Gross was an opponent of human evolution altogether, or at least did not want the Nazi Party to embrace it. However, if one examines the context of the quotation that Richards took from Ute Deichmann, Gross was not questioning human evolution at all, nor was he denying that Nazism should be committed to the idea that humans evolved. He was simply saying that the Nazi Party should not take sides in debates about how humans evolved. Richards must have known that Gross believed in human evolution, because on the same page in Deichmann, she mentions that Gross thought the most competent racial anthropologist was the Darwinian anthropologist Hans Weinert, whose work Gross supported. Perhaps Richards forgot that Gross wrote an article in 1943 in which he did take sides in the debate about how human evolution occurred (I say "forgot" here, because in March 2010 I quoted from this article on a PowerPoint slide I showed to Richards and his seminar). In that 1943 article Gross called evolutionary theory (Deszendenzlehre) "one of the best-founded theories of science," and he defended the theory that humans evolved through mutations and natural selection. Thus, whether Gross rejected Haeckel’s monism or not, he certainly was a Darwinian through and through.

Indeed, Richards does some pretty fancy acrobatics with Hitler’s words, too. He claims (incorrectly) that there are only two times that Hitler discussed evolution explicitly, both in Hitler’s Table Talks. In one of these in January 1942 Hitler questioned human evolution, as I have explained in detail in Hitler’s Ethic (pp. 46ff.). However, Richards ignores the fact that in the same passage that Hitler questioned human evolution he indicated that he accepted evolution for other organisms. Nonetheless, I fully admit that this passage is problematic for my interpretation, and if it were not for an abundance of countervailing evidence, my interpretation would be sunk. But there is much countervailing evidence, as I have already shown in my books and will also show in greater detail below.

Richards claims the only other time that Hitler mentioned evolution explicitly was in a passage in the Table Talks from October 1941. However, according to Richards’s interpretation of this monologue, all it proves is that Hitler "was aware of evolutionary theory." Really? This is an odd interpretation, because in this monologue Hitler claimed that evolutionary theory was contradictory to the church, and he then specifically criticized the church for not accepting science. Hitler also clearly indicated his belief in human evolution in this monologue by stating: "There have been humans at the rank at least of a baboon in any case for 300,000 years at least. The ape is distinguished from the lowest human less than such a human is from a thinker like, for example, Schopenhauer." (quote from Hitler, Monologe im Hauptquartier, ed. Jochmann, p. 105) Interestingly, this last sentence also completely contradicts what Hitler stated in January 1942 about the huge gap between humans and apes that caused him to doubt human evolution. This reinforces my claim that his January 1942 doubt was not a long-standing belief, but a fleeting idea (as I back up with abundant evidence in Hitler’s Ethic and will discuss further below).

Richards’s interpretation of Hitler’s writings is also way off the mark. For instance, in Hitler’s posthumously published Second Book, Richards claims that a quotation on the second page of that book is Hegelian, not Darwinian. In his essay Richards actually quotes this passage that is laced with Darwinian evolution (though he avoids using the standard English translation, probably because the English translator actually uses the word "evolution"). In this quotation Hitler states that humans did not exist in early geological history, that as geological history proceeded organic forms appeared and disappeared, and that very late in world history humans appeared. According to Hitler this whole process is driven by "an eternal struggle for survival." Sounds like biological evolution to me, and it sounds like Darwinian evolution, since it is driven by the struggle for existence. However, in a bizarre twist, Richards claims this is not Darwinian at all, but Hegelian. Really? Where did Hitler say that Geist or Reason was driving this historical development?

On the contrary, if one examines the preceding paragraphs, it is patently obvious that Hitler is discussing human evolution. This first chapter of his book is primarily about the "struggle for life" (Lebenskampf), or as the English translator renders it, the "struggle for survival." (Incidentally, Darwin also used the term "struggle for life" as a synonym for the "struggle for existence.") The context is this: Hitler opens this first chapter by arguing that the struggle for life is the driving force in human history and in politics. What is driving this struggle? Not Hegelian Geist, but the "self-preservation instinct" that manifests itself in two motivations: "hunger and love." By love he simply meant reproduction, as he clearly explained. Hitler then stated, "In truth, these two impulses [hunger and love] are the rulers of life." Thus biological instincts, not Hegelian Geist or rationality, drives history forward, in Hitler’s view. In fact, Hitler then stated, "Whatever is made of flesh and blood can never escape the laws that condition its development. As soon as the human intellect believes itself to be above that, that real substance that is the bearer of the spirit is destroyed." This is a direct rejection of Hegelianism. Hitler is founding his view of development on biology, not Geist.

Further, in the paragraph immediately preceding the one Richards quotes, Hitler wrote:

The types of creatures on the earth are countless, and on an individual level their self-preservation instinct as well as the longing for procreation is always unlimited; however, the space in which this entire life process plays itself out is limited. It is the surface area of a precisely measured sphere on which billions and billions of individual beings struggle for life and succession. In the limitation of this living space lies the compulsion for the struggle for survival, and the struggle for survival, in turn, contains that precondition for evolution.

(Lest I be accused of playing a sly translation trick, as Richards blames me elsewhere [see further on in this series], all these quotations are from the standard English translation by Krista Smith that is edited by Gerhard Weinberg.)

I don’t know why Richards thinks the passage he quotes is Hegelian, but I do know why he didn’t quote this paragraph preceding it. Here Hitler argued — just as Darwin did — that reproduction outstrips the available resources, leading to a "struggle for survival" among organisms, including humans.

Richards’s misunderstanding of Hitler’s concept of Lebensraum, which Hitler explained briefly in this passage in the Second Book, also vitiates his discussion of a passage in Mein Kampf. Richards claims that in one of only two (wrong again, there are at least four) passages where Hitler used the term "struggle for existence" in Mein Kampf, his use of the term "makes little sense from a Darwinian perspective." The reason that Hitler’s thinking here is un-Darwinian, according to Richards, is because a Darwinian should supposedly want population expansion to lead to competition within restricted borders, which would allow the fit to triumph over the unfit. According to Richards, expanding into new territory would lessen the struggle, allowing the fit and less fit "to have fairly equal chances." Richards miscalculates here because he leaves out of the equation one of the most important factors in Hitler’s reasoning: the living space (Lebensraum) is to be taken from allegedly inferior races. Thus expanding is part of the Darwinian racial struggle that allows the allegedly fitter Nordic race to outcompete allegedly inferior races. Contra Richards, Hitler’s discussion makes perfect sense in a Darwinian world of races waging a struggle for existence. In fact, the whole idea of Lebensraum (living space) was first formulated by Friedrich Ratzel, a Darwinian biologist who later became a geographer (I discuss this in detail in From Darwin to Hitler).

If one examines the context of this passage in Mein Kampf, it is clear that Hitler was indeed discussing the Darwinian struggle for existence. He claims in this passage that restricting reproduction is a deleterious policy, because nature selects the strong and eliminates the weak. The struggle between biological organisms that Hitler described — here and elsewhere — was a factor causing natural selection (Hitler only occasionally used the term "natural selection," though frequently he simply used the term "selection" — just as many Darwinian biologists in the 1930s used "selection" as shorthand for "natural selection"). In some passages Hitler stressed the role of struggle in preserving the species from degeneration (which was a prominent theme in the discourse of many German eugenicists, such as Alfred Ploetz, Wilhelm Schallmayer, Ludwig Woltmann, Fritz Lenz, and Eugen Fischer, all of whom claimed their eugenics was applied Darwinism). However, in some passages, such as the chapter on "Nation and Race" that Richards also misinterprets, Hitler did allude to the role of struggle in improving biological species, including humans and human races.

I could go on and on here, but I hope you get the point: Richards often misrepresents quotations, often by ignoring the context.

Tomorrow I will continue with:

2) Richards ignores mountains of evidence, much of which is already contained in my books and articles.

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.