Monday, July 26, 2010

From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany: A Review

From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) by University of California historian Richard Weikart is a book which raises uncomfortable questions for anyone who wishes to reconcile Darwinism and humanism, let alone Darwinism and Christianity.

Let us set aside for the moment the question of whether and how Darwinian evolution might be compatible with the Genesis account of creation or the historical Christian doctrine of creation as it has developed over the centuries. This book does not deal with that question but it does deal with one that must be addressed before it is even worth discussing the question of whether evolution can be reconciled with the Christian doctrine of creation.

This book takes up the question of the compatibility of Darwinism with a humanistic ethic of respect for human life and compassion for the weak. This ethic of humanistic compassion (as exemplified in the liberal German theologian/physician Albert Schweitzer or in the life of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, for example) is common both to conservative and liberal Christianity and also to the Western humanism inspired by it, as in, for example, the secular organizations Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross and the Save the Children Fund. The issue this book raises is whether or not Darwinism is compatible with any of full-fledged Christianity (eg. Mother Theresa), liberal Christianity (eg. Albert Schweitzer) or secular humanitarianism (eg. the Red Cross). Or are all of these types of humanitarianism undermined and ultimately destroyed by Darwinism.

The book is an intellectual history and it focuses primarily on Germany in the period from the 1870s to the 1920s. The final chapter then discusses what influence the widespread and somewhat diverse interpretations of Darwin's work in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries might have had on Hitler himself. It follows recent Hitler scholarship (such as Ian Kershaw's massive biography) in viewing Hitler not as an amoral monster (which makes him so unlike us that we can use him as a stick with which to beat our debating opponents without ever taking him seriously), but as a man with a consistent ethic that he and many of the people around him had good reason to regard as "scientific" given the science of the time.

But if Hitler was not an amoral, nihilistic monster, but rather a rational, consistent, scientific thinker who implemented an ethic which (1) was legitimately derived from or at least strongly influenced by Darwinism and which (2) was shared by many leading scientists and academics of the day, the consequences are radical and far-reaching. It means that either Darwinism is wrong and, in fact, evil or it means that Darwinism is true and that we must give up humanitarianism as silly sentimentalism that must give way to a truly "scientific" outlook on life.

Of course, at this point, the obvious response will be to distinguish between "Darwinian evolution" on the one hand and "Social Darwinism" on the other and to assert that one can believe in the former without accepting the latter. While it is a fact that many individual thinkers have in fact made this distinction, the question raised by this book is whether or not this distinction is based on anything more solid than wish fulfillment. It is well and fine to accept Darwinism and reject Social Darwinism, but is this anything more than an inconsistent move made by thinkers who refuse to face up to the inherent logic of their position?

The contribution of this book is to show that during the period under consideration the anthropologists, biologists, politicians, activists, etc. who believed that the Christian ethic must be overturned and replaced with Darwinian ideas in order for society to progress did not distinguish between Darwinism and Social Darwinism. This first, logical, naive impulse is likely more honest and more realistic about the long term impact of Darwinism on society.

The second half of the 19th century was characterized by a widespread belief in progress by both Christians and secularists. Science, meaning technological science, was seen as the engine of progress and it was understood that science had emerged out of a Christian, not an Oriental or other worldview. The effect of Darwinism was to break the link between Christianity and science and to associate in the minds of many people science and progress with atheistic materialism. Prior to Darwin, atheism and materialism were pre-Christian errors that Western civilization has progressed beyond - particularly as a result of the union of Greek rationalism with Biblical revelation. The Bible presented the world as a contingent effect of a rational decision of God to create - by His Word - and Greek rationalism offered a disciplined method of rational inquiry that seemed to match up perfectly with the Biblical picture of a God who speaks the world into being by His Word and then upholds its laws by His gracious Providence. This gives us an incentive to explore the contingent creation by means of human reason and makes the idea of progress as a result of discovering nature's laws perfectly reasonable. To the extent that nature's laws depend on nature's God, science and progress are both inextricably linked to (and dependent upon) God. This was the link that Darwinism was perceived as breaking, in particular by means of the theory of natural selection, which explains how nature's laws can exist without nature's God.

Richard Dawkins is one contemporary thinker who stresses the degree to which Chance replaces God in Darwinism. If Chance can be seen to perform the work God used to be required to do, then we can have a scientific universe without God and a perpetually-progressing society without God. In this scenario, man stands supreme at the top of the evolutionary ladder God-like in his understanding and, especially, in his technological mastery of matter that enables him to create new things and eventually the New Man out of the raw material thrown up by evolution. This is why the story of eugenics was so inter-woven with the rise of Darwinian thinking and evolutionary ethics. Creating a New Humanity is the task of the Creator Man who fills the vacuum left by the disappearance of the old Christian God, who has now been rendered superfluous - not proven to not exist, just rendered superfluous as in the famous quip of Laplace "I have no need of that hypothesis."

The value of Weikart's book is its intensely detailed and fair-minded chronicling of the writings of German scientists, ethicists, activists and politicians between Darwin and the period of chaos after World War I in which Darwinism was absorbed into the bloodstream of the German scientific mind. It does not answer or explicitly raise the question of why Darwinism became so popular and persuasive to so many people so quickly, but this is an important question to consider. Was it so persuasive because it had so much explanatory power that the old paradigm did not have? Or was it so persuasive because it reinforced the spirit of the age and offered a Faustian bargain by which modern man could gain the god-like power to destroy and create?

In the case of Hitler, it would seem that we have a man who attempted to seize this god-like power and by so doing unleashed great evil and destruction upon the world. Have we rejected Hitler while accepting Hitler's worldview? And, if so, is our sentimental humanitarianism a vestigal survival of a worldview that has been permanently discredited for us? And, if that is true, how long before the relentless, iron logic of destroying in order to re-create in our own image tempts us into the kind of madness that characterized Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s? Does Western civilization teeter on the precipice of self-destruction because of its acceptance of Darwinism in place of the Christian doctrine of creation?

These are the questions raised by this excellent book. I highly recommend it.


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D. Chambers said...

sorry about that post I copy and paste the wrong thing (there is a lesson to all you multi taskers!)

D. Chambers said...

What I was trying to say is great article Dr. Carter. It is quite devious how evolutionists ignore the racial connotations of evolution that saw Darwin as a racist who thought blacks and aborignals as closer to savages on the evolutionary chain. Evolution makes itself unfalsifiable in that it always finds an evolutionary explanation to explain the good and acceptable characteristics of society (thus replacing the need for religion) while ignoring its negative connotations (devaluing of the sacrednesss of human beings; racial inferiority of minorities; characterizing all morality as evolutionary instinctual behavior for survival). I see evolutionists as apart of the socialist movement which steals the unique contributions of Religion and claims that all can be explained solely by use of evolution when that is not so. Evolutionists undermine all religion by implying that people's beliefs and values do not come from a genuine source of revelation from and connection with God but from naturalistic means.