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On the History of Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and Hitler, Is Steven Pinker Objective?

Steven Pinker

Editor’s note: See also, “Is Science Objective? Steven Pinker’s Counterattack Against the ‘War on Science,’” by Professor Weikart.

In his zeal to defend science from the onslaught of those allegedly waging a “war on science” Steven Pinker (in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education taken from his recent book, Enlightenment Now) cries foul against anyone who dares suggest that science (including Darwinian science) has anything to do with racism. Racism, Pinker informs us — as if anyone needed to be informed — is much older than the dastardly scientific racism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Pinker admits that scientific racists deserve our opprobrium, but he rescues science from any taint by assuring us that scientific racism was not really scientific, but merely pseudoscientific. The problem with labelling views such as scientific racism as pseudoscience is that it is anachronistic. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries scientific racism was mainstream in biology and anthropology; it was taught at most major universities and was featured in most textbooks.

Indeed, in the 19th century many scientific racists used some of the exact same arguments as Pinker does to defend their turf: They asserted that their views were scientific and anyone who challenged racism was denying science (the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Konrad Lorenz advanced this argument, as did many others). Scientific racists painted their opponents as uneducated people blinkered by religion or some other form of ideology. Thankfully, Pinker rejects scientific racism, and he is using science to defend different ideals, but his approach is the same: We wear the lab coats, so you must believe us.

The emergence of scientific racism poses yet a deeper problem for Pinker’s view of science. To be sure, Pinker is absolutely correct that science didn’t create racism, which was influential long before scientific racism arose. However, this misses an important point. Scientists, including Charles Darwin, not only believed in racial inequality, but they imported it into their theories of human evolution and anthropology, and then claimed that science proved human inequality. In The Descent of Man Darwin used hard data to “prove” racial inequality: the cranial capacity of Europeans was larger than that of any other human race.

This demonstrates powerfully what Pinker seems loath to recognize: Scientists and their theories are not immune from assumptions, prejudices, and biases that afflict the rest of the human population. This is especially true when we look at the history of the human sciences, including Pinker’s own field of psychology.

In order to rebut the notion that science contributed to the Holocaust, Pinker claims that Hitler rejected the idea of human evolution. Unfortunately for Pinker, in this instance the data is not on his side, because Hitler repeatedly said that he did believe in human evolution. A chapter of my recent book, Hitler’s Religion, is entitled “Was Hitler a Creationist?” and it lays to rest the mistaken notion that Hitler rejected human evolution. I can only provide a few examples here to prove this, but anyone wanting much more evidence can refer to that chapter.

On October 21, 1941, Hitler stated: “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.” In his Second Book (which was unpublished in his lifetime), Hitler began the book explaining that biological organisms evolve through the struggle for existence:

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.

In the surrounding passage, Hitler clearly expressed the belief that evolution applies to humans, too.

Further, Hitler’s personal secretary Christa Schroeder affirmed that Hitler believed the following about human evolution:

Science does not yet clearly know from which root human beings have arisen. We are certainly the highest stage of evolution of any mammal, which evolved from reptiles to mammals, perhaps through apes, to humans. We are a member of creation and children of nature, and the same laws apply to us as to all living organisms. And in nature the law of the struggle rules from the beginning. Everything incapable of living and everything weak will be eliminated.

In the case of the influence of Darwinism on Hitler, Pinker lays aside the empirical evidence and data. Too bad, because Pinker is right that we should formulate our ideas based on evidence, not bias and preconceptions. Quite clearly, scientists — including Pinker himself — are not always able to achieve this ideal.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture; he is author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life and Hitler’s Religion.

Photo: Steven Pinker receives an honorary degree, via Simon Fraser University/Flickr.