Sometimes people wonder why I am so concerned about the connections between Darwinism and Nazism. What difference does it make, anyway?
To start off, I am a historian specializing in German intellectual history. I am paid to try to understand historical connections between ideologies and political movements. I teach classes on Nazism, European intellectual history, and the history of science. Trying to understand the connections between Darwinism and Nazism is a normal pursuit for a historian, just as it would be to investigate the influence of Schopenhauer or Wagner on Hitler.
Perhaps it would be helpful to explain how I became interested in this topic. I have been interested in the history of Darwinism since high school, when I read many books about Darwinism–both pro and con. When I went to study for a doctorate in modern European intellectual history at the University of Iowa in 1989, I had no clue that I was going to be doing research relating to the history of Darwinism. However, the professor I wanted to study under, Allan Megill, who has written on existentialism and postmodernism, was considering taking a position at the University of Virginia, which he did a year later. He suggested I continue my studies under the historian of science, Mitchell Ash, who specialized in German science (especially psychology). In casting about for a dissertation topic, I became aware that the history of Darwinism in Germany was under-studied, and I found Alfred Kelly’s book on the popularization of Darwinism in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany fascinating. I ultimately decided to do my dissertation on the reception of Darwinism by German socialists.
While doing dissertation research on the history of Darwinism in late nineteenth-century Germany, I noticed that quite a few German Darwinists (both biologists and non-biologists) were trying to replace Judeo-Christian ethics with evolutionary ethics. I became interested in this topic, and after finishing my dissertation, I began doing research on evolutionary ethics in Germany before 1914. As I studied evolutionary ethics, I discovered two things that directed my research in lines that I hadn’t even considered when I started.
First, I found out that many eugenicists were writing about evolutionary ethics in the period 1890-1914. Second, I read the American philosopher James Rachels’ book, _Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism_, which argued that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic, thus making abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia permissible. This caught my attention, because I already had seen similar ideas in nineteenth-century German writers, and because Ernst Haeckel, the leading German Darwinist, was the first German to publicly advocate infanticide for the disabled.
The more I investigated evolutionary ethics in Germany, the more obvious it became to me that these ideas were similar to Hitler’s own ideology, which I had already studied extensively in graduate school. I began investigating Hitler’s writings and speeches in greater depth, and the influence of evolutionary ethics on Hitler’s ideology could not be denied.
Thus, I wrote my book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004). Because the Hitler connection caused some controversy, I followed that up with a book examining the role of evolutionary ethics on Hitler’s ideology: Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (2009).
Why is this topic relevant today? Many evolutionists today believe that morality is a trait produced by mindless evolutionary processes. Many also are devaluing human life on the basis of evolutionary theory, recycling the same arguments that were used by Darwinists in the late nineteenth century and that influenced Nazism. Hitler and the Nazis were heavily influenced by the eugenics and euthanasia movements, and the mentality behind these movements is reemerging today. Oxford University held a conference this past summer on “The Evolution of
Morality and the Morality of Evolution.” I presented a paper to that conference showing that many Darwinists, including Darwin himself, have argued that Darwinism undermines objective morality. Michael Ruse, one of the keynote speakers at that conference, has famously stated that
“morality is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”
Richard Weikart is a professor in the Department of History at California State, Stanislaus.
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