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Following the Science, Doctors Joined the Nazis “In Droves”

Photo: Dr. Josef Mengele (center) at Auschwitz, by Bernhard Walther or Ernst Hofmann or Karl-Friedrich Höcker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m still reeling at the stupidity of whoever at Scientific American decided to give a green light to publishing an article, “Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy,” by Allison Hopper. The absurdity of tarring critics of Darwinism with racism boggles the mind — given how Darwin’s own legacy, down to today’s Alt-Right, is so tied up with racial pseudo-science, viciously denigrating Africans, African-Americans, and others. See, “On Evolution and Racism, Scientific American Goes to War Against the Truth.”

As a reminder of that historical reality, Evolution News has been republishing some of our past ample coverage on the theme. However, this had escaped me when it was first published: an essay at Tablet by Ohio State bioethicist Ashley K. Fernandes asking, “Why Did So Many Doctors Become Nazis?” Perhaps more so today than ever, there is a tendency to sanctify the medical profession, with the white coat serving as an icon of wisdom, compassion, and morality. But history offers a warning. 

A Rich Source

German physicians (nurses, too) were a rich source of recruits to the Nazi cause — professionally speaking, the richest:

It is worthy of emphasis that although many professions (including law) were “taken in” by Nazi philosophy, doctors and nurses had a peculiarly strong attraction to it. Robert N. Proctor (1988) notes that physicians joined the Nazi party in droves (nearly 50% by 1945), much higher than any other profession. Physicians were seven times more likely to join the SS than other employed German males. Nurses were also major collaborators….

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis established a “biocracy,” which ultimately murdered millions of innocent persons. [Emphasis added.]

That word, “biocracy,” is a keeper — a more specific form of scientocracy. Now, where did that come from?

In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. This scientific theory elucidated the theory of evolution in a pre-genetic era but made no broad claims about philosophical anthropology. Darwin’s work was decidedly descriptive, not prescriptive. Later, Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” in his work Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), and the application of “evolution” on a societal level was born. Social Darwinists such as Charles B. Davenport in the USA and Karl Pearson in England, for example, made the case, in different ways and utilizing the “language of science,” that the genes of the “fit” should be promoted, and the genes of the “unfit” discouraged. Daniel J. Kevles (1995) traces the origins of the eugenics movement through Europe and the United States, and the powerful influence on social policy in the prewar era, including resistance to it, notably from the Catholic Church and its intellectuals (such as G.K. Chesterton), as well as a minority of brilliant secular scientists.

Still, German eugenicists took “discouragement of the unfit” further, cooperating eagerly with the Nazi party — as they were willing to support forced sterilization of the “unfit.” More than a decade before the Nazis, Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding (1920) published their influential book, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (The Authorization of the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life). The book had spoken of the “incurable feebleminded” who should be killed — but for now, sterilization was a good start.

Most know how the tragic story unfolded from here…

Following the “Good Science”

Yes, we do. The Nazi physicians, the notorious Dr. Mengele among them, were simply following the science of the time, the “good science,” as Fernandes ironically puts it. She notes, “Physicians, dressed in white coats, gave the imprimatur that indeed, those that were to be gassed were not human persons at all.” Read the rest of her fascinating essay here.

That still doesn’t tell us what got into the heads of those editors at Scientific American that drove them to give their own imprimatur to Allison Hopper’s article. Reflecting on that the other day, our colleague Bruce Chapman pointed to the idea of a “social pandemic.” It does seem that Covid unleashed a sort of madness across the culture. The past year and a half, almost, have seen unprecedented distortions in social thinking: about science, doctors, government, race, and much more. That the country’s leading popular science journal would agree to such insanity — slandering those who question evolutionary orthodoxy as “white supremacists” — could well be attributed to the social pandemic.

For a primer on evolutionary thinking and scientific racism, watch John West’s documentary Human Zoos: