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Recognizing the “Transformative” Impact of Barzun’s Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Eighty Years Later

young Darwin statue
Statue of a young Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury School, by Ailurus~frwiki / CC BY-SA (

The “denial of purpose is Darwin’s distinctive contention.” So wrote historian Jacques Barzun in his book Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, published eighty years ago. A May 18, 1941, New York Times review of the book called the trio “The Men Who Shaped Our Time.” The headline writer could not have known how prophetic that was, coming a month before Nazi Germany would begin implementing the Final Solution with the invasion of the Soviet Union. 

Barzun’s book played an important role in shaping modern critiques of Darwinian theory. Our historian colleague Michael Flannery, for one, has said reading Barzun had a “transformative” impact on his own thinking.

From Barzun to Meyer

Marking the book’s 80th anniversary in an excellent essay for National Review, literary critic M. D. Aeschliman notes the “ominous year” in which it was published. He sketches the intellectual evolution that connects Barzun with later Darwin critics. The latest is Stephen Meyer with his trio of books offering the definitive case for intelligent design against purposeless evolution, most recently Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe. Professor Aeschliman writes:

Barzun’s case against both Darwin and Marx is that both are writers of evasive, convoluted, confused prose that obscures not only truth itself but their own scientistic, mechanistic premises about the meaninglessness of mind, free will, and purpose in human affairs. He himself had started out his own academic career by writing a strongly anti-racialist book in 1937, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, at a time when Darwinian “racial science” was riding high not only in Germany but throughout the West, leading to eugenic laws in several American states even before the Nazi national policy of eliminating “lives unworthy of life.” Four years later, in Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Barzun went on to write: “No doubt the ‘favoured races’ mentioned on the title page of Darwin’s Origin of Species referred to pigeons, but the extension of the term to man was easy to make; indeed it seemed to receive Darwin’s own approval on many a page of [his] Descent of Man, where the struggle of races was a part of evolutionary advance.” In 1999, Terence Kealey, lecturer in clinical biochemistry at Cambridge University, noted that “the only professional group in Germany to register a greater than 50 percent membership of the Nazi Party before 1933, when the careerists joined, was that of academic biologists. Hitler believed in the state planning of society and in eugenics, and so did they.” The English man of letters A. N. Wilson, author of a recent book on Darwin, wrote in 2006: “Darwin, the product of British imperialism, was surely the father, among other things, of European fascism.” And the American historian Richard Weikart has made this argument clearly and in documented detail in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004; see my review, “Murderous Science,” in NR, March 28, 2005).

In the aftermath of Barzun’s own groundbreaking 1941 critique of mechanistic Darwinism and its sociopolitical uses and effects, and clearly influenced by it, two other powerful books were published that lucidly covered the relevant and related issues — Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s exhaustive, detailed Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959). Like Barzun himself, Hofstadter and Himmelfarb are among the great American historians of the last 75 years, both recipients of the highest honors and commendations; yet the books are oddly neglected in our time, when renewed conceptions of “sociobiology” and “evolutionary psychology” are again widely promoted and uncritically taught.

Following on the efforts of historians such as Hofstadter, Himmelfarb, and Weikart, philosophical and scientific accounts of the deficiencies of Darwinism have been made by philosophers such as Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, 2012; see my review, “Rationality vs. Darwinism,” NR, November 12, 2012) and by scientists such as the award-winning English science writer and physician James LeFanu (Why Us?, 2009; see my review, “Science Illuminated,” Modern Age, fall 2011) and the geophysicist and historian of science Stephen C. Meyer in three major books that have attracted great attention: Signature in the Cell (2009), Darwin’s Doubt (2013), and, most recently, Return of the God Hypothesis (2021).

Read the rest here. Aeschliman stands in that tradition himself. His recent book is the reissued and updated The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism, from Discovery Institute Press.