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From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany Paperback – February 16, 2006
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"Richard Weikart's outstanding book shows in sober and convincing detail how Darwinist thinkers in Germany had developed an amoral attitude to human society by the time of the First World War, in which the supposed good of the race was applied as the sole criterion of public policy and 'racial hygiene'. Without over-simplifying the lines that connected this body of thought to Hitler, he demonstrates with chilling clarity how policies such as infanticide, assisted suicide, marriage prohibitions and much else were being proposed for those considered racially or eugenically inferior by a variety of Darwinist writers and scientists, providing Hitler and the Nazis with a scientific justification for the policies they pursued once they came to power."--Richard Evans, University of Cambridge, and author of The Coming of the Third Reich
"This is an impressive piece of intellectual and cultural history--a well-researched, clearly presented argument with good, balanced, fair judgements. Weikart has a thorough knowledge of the relevant historiography in both German and English."--Alfred Kelly, Hamilton College
"Taking a middle ground between scholars on both sides, Richard Weikart has traveled far and wide to bring together a broad range of important programs, institutions, and thinkers who shaped the social and political ramification of Darwinian thought in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany. Many of the voices Weikart conveys appear here in English for the first time."--Kevin Repp, Yale University
From the Inside Flap
-- Ian Dowbiggin, Professor of History at the University of Prince Edward Island and author ofA Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America
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Richard Weikart's "From Darwin to Hitler" adds context to solve this quandary; Germans accepted crackpot race science because it was science. The various presuppositions that added up to race science were the paradigms accepted by scholars, scientists and progressive social organizations.
I found Weikart's book to be exceptionally useful in demonstrating in detail the intellectual development and proliferation of ideas about the place of human beings in nature that Charles Darwin seemed to have established with scientific authority in his 1871 book "The Descent of Man." Darwin's "Origin of Species" and "The Descent of Man" were obviously seminal in shaping an understanding of humanity's place in the world. Weikart seems to suggest that the fight over evolution as such was less important for subsequent political and intellectual history than several underlying ideas that Darwin gave scientific credentials to. Three of those ideas were (a) humans are merely animals, (b) death was "progressive" in that species and populations "progressed" or "adapted" and "evolved" because of the death of less fit or adapted members and (c) human ethical and moral beliefs are based on sentiments, feelings or "impulses. Weikart summarizes the net effect of these ideas as "devaluing human life." p. 10 - 11.)
The idea that human morality was simply a matter of feelings was an essential part of Darwin's thought in that Darwinian evolution presupposed that humans might be different in some ways but, nonetheless, humans shared their basic attributes to a greater or lesser extent with animals. (p. 22 - 23.) Various successors to Darwin followed up on Darwin's ideas to a greater or lesser extent in fashioning the notion that human rights were malleable and human morality was not transcendent but a matter of evolutionary circumstances. (p. 28 - 31.)
Weikart also points out that Darwin's theory was heavily dependent on the ideas of Thomas Malthus. Malthus, of course, postulated that population growth was always outstripping the available resources. Darwin used this idea in order to explain how species could generate diversity and then preserve good variations and eliminate bad variations. Death was the mover of the Darwinian system, which insight could make death a tool in the hands of men of science.
The first idea played out into racist tropes. Darwin himself acknowledged that there were "races" of man that existed along a scale of development. In order to "sell" the notion of evolution, Darwin and his successors overplayed the differences between the races and discounted the differences between humans and other animals:
>>Darwin and most Darwinists, as we have already seen, emphasized biological variations within each species. When explaining human evolution, Darwin needed to respond to those who insisted that human rationality, speech and morality were unique to humans and could not be the product of evolution. To overcome these objections,Darwin tried to show on the one had that animals, especially primates, have primitive reasoning power, speech and morality. On the other hand, he explained that some races have much lower intellectual and moral faculties than Europeans. Emphasizing racial inequality thus served an important function in Darwin's attempt to bridge the chasm between primitives and humans. Even though he opposed slavery and sometimes expressed sympathy for non-European races, nonetheless he believed a wide gap separated the "higher races" from the "lowest savages," as he called them, who were inferior intellectually and morally akin to Europeans. This was not just a peripheral point of Descent, for in the introduction Darwin clearly stated that one of the three goals in his book was to consider "the value of the differences between the so-called races of man." (p. 104 - 105.) <<< Weikart also explains that these ideas also meant that Darwin believed that education and civilization would not improve the lot of the inferior races. "thus, Darwin joined other biological racists in rejecting the influence of education, training, adn the environment on shaping human nature." (p. 105.)
Subsequent Darwinists rolled these ideas into their own approach to Darwinism. Weikart inundates the reader with the names and intellectual positions of German successors to Darwin. Although there was a diversity on various issues, the scientists in this group would not have recognized themselves as "Social Darwinists." They were in their own eyes, and, in fact, Darwinists committed to the idea of evolution by natural selection and the ideas that Darwin had used to explain this position.
Weikart develops the intellectual history of the post-Darwin German Darwinists from the late 19th Century to the early decades of the 20th. Weikart follows the leading German Darwinists and their approaches to various issues, including eugenics, racism, sterilization, militarization and other issues. Interestingly, some Darwinists, including Ernst Haecker were pacifists, which, undoubtedly was the reason that the Nazis subsequently banned his Monist movement.
Neitzsche may have been as important for the development of the particularly brutal and callous form of scientific racism which developed in Germany by expressly rejecting Judeo-Christian values. Alexander Tille, in particular, sought to reverse "much of Christian moral responsibility toward the weak and sick in favor of the strong and healthy. Tille not only rejected love and compassion as moral precepts, but in many cases he considered them immoral." (p 46.) For his part, Nietzsche read Darwin, but was even more radical in drawing moral conclusions from his views on evolution and eugenics. (p. 49.) The rejection of Judeo-Christian values, in fact, seemed to be shared by most of the Darwinists, including Haeckel.(p. 12.)
By the early part of the 20th Century, this devaluation of human life - specifically the life of those who are not us - there was clearly a thread of thought ensconced in German society that was firmly committed to the idea of "too many of you, just enough of us, and maybe there should be more of us." Thus there were eugenics movements that advocated the forced sterilization of vagrants, criminal, stupid people and foreigners. Likewise, while some eugenicists favored war, others were pacifists on the grounds that the wrong kind of people, i.e., the brave and intelligent, were the ones being "weeded out" by war.
Weikart's book explains quite satisfactorily how it was that German were preconditioned to accept Nazi race science as modern and respectable. In fact, it was modern and acceptable. For me, the most surprising bit of information was the genocide of the Herero - a kind of Holocaust before the Holocaust - where the German military in South-West Africa brutally suppressed an uprising by the Herero through genocide and language of evolution and racism. Most chilling was the fact that there was human experimentation by Dr. Eugen Fischer, who became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology. Fischer was a German Darwinist - not a "Social Darwinists." One of Fischer's students was Josef Mengele, who became infamous for his own medical experiments during the Holocaust.
I think Weikart is less successful in linking Hitler to Darwin. The documentary evidence is far less certain, and it may certainly be the case that the ideas of eugenics and race science were simply "in the air." But if they were in the air, they had the authority of science behind them because of the "chain of title" from Darwin to popular culture.
This is undoubtedly a book for those with an interest in the subject. The reader is loaded down with many obscure German names and their various scientific/philosophical ideas. The book is impressive in the sheer wealth of material that it drops on the reader.
I was concerned that the author's Discovery Institute credentials would taint the book, but I did not find any evidence of a "pro-creationist" agenda. All in all, this was a very solid and dependable academic text on an important part of intellectual history.
Charles Darwin wrote to a German child development pioneer in 1868, "The support which I received from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail" (p. 10). And it was Darwin himself who explicitly opened the door to any moral system one might prefer. From page 21:
"Darwin neatly summed up his view of ethics and morality in his Autobiography, stating that one who does not believe in God or an afterlife - as he did not - `can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seemed to him the best one.'"
The Nazis and countless German scientists, physicians and academics of all stripes accepted that invitation (as did Darwin's first cousin, Francis Galton, father of eugenics and discoverer of many statistical methods). All chose the evolutionary process itself as the supreme moral arbiter. Whatever led to the biological improvement of humanity -- as they understood it (intelligence, health) -- was good; whatever hindered biological improvement was bad. Theirs was an evolutionary ethic:
"Darwinism by itself did not produce the Holocaust, but without Darwinism, especially in its social Darwinist and eugenics permutations, neither Hitler nor his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scientific underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the world's greatest atrocities was really morally praiseworthy. Darwinism - or at least some naturalistic interpretation of Darwinism - succeeded in turning morality on its head." (p233)
From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany is scholarship of the highest order.
is this a condemnation of darwin? no. rather, this book should be a case study in what can happen to good ideas when they are in the hands of the wrong men. having said this, no one, not even darwin, understood the danger of removing the ethical foundation of western civilization.
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Certainly a revelation about the extent of Darwinism, government policy and the value of the individual versus the value of the...Read more