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[Nettime-ro] \\ From Darwinism to Hitler


_http://darwiniana.com/2009/05/19/from-weikarts-book-from-darwin-to- hitler/#
(http://darwiniana.com/2009/05/19/from-weikarts-book-from-darwin-to- hitler/#more-25173)

Yesterday we had a discussion of Weikart’s book: _Rereading Weikart’s From
Darwinism to Hitler_
(http://darwiniana.com/2009/05/18/rereading-weikarts-from-darwin-to- hitler/) . I think anyone who wants to discuss Darwinism needs to read this book and not let the loudmouths defendiing the Paradigm scare them away. First: the brouhaha a while back from Darwin defenders was obviously generated by many who had barely read the book. They must have misread the title and opened fire. The endless vituperative denunciations of Weikart for blaming Darwin for Hitler were uttered by people who clearly hadn’t read the book. Weikart
was very careful in  what he said.
The title is, From Darwin to Hitler, and the discussion follows the title: a history of social darwinist thought from Darwin to Hitler,with one short
chapter on Hitler, and his eugenic thinking. And it is a sobering  tale.
Clearly the Darwin establishment is afraid of people reading this book,
not because it has much about Hitler, but because it shows how so many
intellectuals and academics were rank eugenicists and social Darwinists. And it brings out the confusions of theory, the inability to get straight the issues of ethics, and much else, including the obvious influence of Darwinism on
the  racial extermination policies of many colonialists. There is no
escaping that  charge, given the subtitle of Darwin’s book.
We need to be wary of those who,  with liberal good intentions, wish to
sanitize Darwinism, and make us forget how  the theory was taken in the
generations after Darwin.
Here is a short scanned passage from Weikart’s book. It gives the flavor
of the book, with a few remarks  about Hitler tacked on at the end.
Those Darwinists who made the evolutionary process the new criteria for
morality radically altered the way that people thought about morality. Since they generally affirmed that good health and intelligence were key factors in the upward march of evolution, improving physical vitality and mental prowess–especially of future generations-became the highest moral virtue. The greatest sin was ro contribute in some way to the decline of physical life or intellectual ability. This kind of evolutionary ethics flew in the face of Christian morality, in which one’s health, vitality, and mental faculty
play no role in determining moral or  immoral behavior. While Christian
morality demands a relationship of love toward God and one’s neighbor, which involves self-sacrifice, evolutionary ethics focussed on breeding better humans, even if it meant sacrificing other people in the process. In some places the old and new morality might intersect, and indeed many proponents of evolutionary ethics carried a lot of baggage from traditional ethics into their “new morality.” However, the foundations had shifted. This new stress on evolutionary progress and health as the norm for behavior spawned the eugenics movement around the turn of the twentieth century, which was overtly
founded on Darwinian  principles.
Darwinism also contributed co a rethinking of the value of human life in the late nineteenth century. In order to make human evolution plausi¬ble, prominent Darwinists argued chat humans were not qualitatively different from
animals. Also. the significance of the individual life did not  seem all
that great considering the mass death brought on by the Darwinian struggle for existence. Multitudes necessarily died before repro¬ducing, and this was
the key ro evolutionary progress. Death was no longer a foe, as
Christianity caught, bur a beneficent force. Also, Darwinism stressed biological inequality, since evolution could not occur without significant variation. Humans were no exception, argued many Darwinists, so egalitarianism must be
These views on human inequality, the primacy of evolutionary progress, and the beneficence of death in furthering that process produced a world¬view
that devalued human life. Many used Darwinian arguments  to assign some
humans to the category of “inferior” or degenerate. Generally they considered two main categories of people “inferior”: the handicapped and non- European races. Since they were “inferior,” and since the death of the less fit in the struggle for existence will result in biological improvement, why not
help evolution along by getting rid of the “inferior”?
To be sure,  some Darwinists and eugenicists retained enough moral
influence from their upbringing to resist the move to kill the “inferior.” Instead, they often promoted a variety of measures of reproductive control to achieve their ends. Eugenicists could not agree on the best concrete reforms co
improve the  biological health of future generations, but they generally
agreed that  Christian sexual morality must be abandoned. Some proposed
marriage reforms, others preferred free sex, while a few even supported polygamy. They agreed, however, that sexual morality must be subservient to the goal
of increasing  biological health and thus promoting evolution.
Following the lead of Haeckel, a number of Darwinists and eugenicists cook
these ideas in even mote  radical directions. They forthrightly promoted
the killing of the handicapped and those of “lower” races. They rejected the
dominant Christian attitude that  placed value on the lives of the weak,
the sick, and the handicapped. They  denied that “lower” races could be
elevated to the status of civilized people. Rather than allowing such people to drain the precious, limited resources of the earth, it would be better co
kill them to make space for the healthy,  vigorous, and intelligent co
Many Darwinists also believed that moral characteristics were heredi¬tary. They thought normal Europeans were not only physically and mentally, but also morally, superior to the handicapped and non-Europeans. Thus ridding
the world of these “inferior” people would  actually result in the
advancement of morality. Of course, they failed to notice that Darwinism offered no criteria by which morality could be judged, but they nonetheless affirmed the superiority of European morality (while ironically rejecting the very
basis of that morality).
Some might object  that Darwinism was not the sole factor producing this
change of attitudes about morality and the value of human life. To this I heartily agree. Indeed, it is difficult to know what contributed most to the
devaluing of human  life-the naturalistic world view in general or
biolog¬ical evolution and Darwinism in particular. One could make a persuasive argument that it was philosophical materialism and monism that devalued human
life rather than  Darwinism. After all, the eighteenth-century French
materialist Julien de La Mettrie called man a machine long before Darwin arrived on
the  scene.
However, why do we need ro choose between Darwinism and  philosophical
naturalism to explain the devaluing of human life? Surely both’  were
influential. The thinkers we have examined in this work saw Darwinism as an integral-indeed often as the foundational-aspect of their entire worldview. Certainly their view of the human condition relied heavily on their Darwinian
understanding. Further, Darwinism played an integral role in the rise of
materialism and positivism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This study is important, not only because it shows the  intersection of
Darwinian biology and ethics in the past, especially the way that Darwinism influenced thinking about the value of human life, but also because these debates are still with us today. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first
centuries sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are making  similar
claims about the implications of Darwinism for ethics and morality. Often these scientists and philosophers seem oblivious to the many earlier attempts to
wed Darwinism to ethics. Also, many bioethicists today are  articulating
positions quite similar to the views of the figures in this study. Peter Singer and James Rachels, for example, are contemporary philosophers who argue that Darwinism has effectively undermined the Judeo¬-Christian doctrine of
the sanctity of human life, thereby making  involuntary euthanasia
permissible in some circumstances, such as in the case of a severely handicapped
Another reason this study is so important  is because it gives further
insight into the roots of Hitler’s worldview and his genocidal mentality. It also helps explain why so many educated Germans would cooperate with the Nazis and participate in the Holocaust, including many medical personnel. When
he embraced eugenics, involuntary euthanasia for  the handicapped, and
racial extermination, Hitler was drawing on ideas that were circulating widely among the educated elites. Klaus Fischer has rightly stated, “Adolf Hitler’ s racial image of the world was not simply the product of his own delusion but the result of the findings of ‘respectable’ science in Germany and in other parts of the world, including the United States.”] These ideas were not dominant in German society, but they were reputable and mainstream in
scholarly circles, especially among the medical and scientific  elites.
It would be foolish to blame Darwinism for the Holocaust, as though
Darwinism leads logically to the Holocaust. No, Darwinism by itself did not produce Hitler’s worldview, and many Darwinists drew quite different conclusions from Darwinism for ethics and social thought than did Hitler. Eugenics and
scientific racism were prominent in scholarly circles in many  European
countries and also in the United States, but obviously in none of them did Darwinism lead to the Holocaust. It did lead, however, to the compulsory sterilization of hundreds of thousands in the United States, Sweden, and other countries in the mid-twentieth century. As a result of the resurgence of eugenics in the late twentieth century, China passed the Maternal and Infant Health Law, which required premarital health exams and strongly encouraged sterilization for those deemed unfit to reproduce (while the sterilization measure was theoretically voluntary, Dikotter points out that in practice the Chinese government usually gets its way).2 Darwinism also spawned debate on euthanasia and infanticide, and even though these are still illegal in
most countries (the biggest exception is the Netherlands), they are
practiced more widely than many suspect.3
To deny the influence of  Darwinism on Hitler would also be foolish,
however, especially since almost all scholars of Nazism acknowledge it. Richard J. Evans highlights the importance of social Darwinist discourse not only
for Hitler, but also for  those cooperating with
Hitler took .u~ this rhetoric and used his own version of the language of
social Darwinism as a central element in the  discursive practice of
extermination …. The language of social Darwinism in its Nazi variant had come to
be a means of legitimizing terror and  extermination against deviants,
opponents of the regime, and indeed anyone who  did not appear to be
wholeheartedly devoted to the war effort. The language of social Darwinism helped to
remove all restraint from those who directed the  terroristic and
exterminatory policies of the regime, and it legitimized these policies in the
minds of
those. who practiced them by persuading them that what they were doing was
Justified by history. science. and  nature.4
Darwinism by itself did not produce the Holocaust, but without Darwinism,
especially in its social Darwinist and eugenics permutations,  whether
Hitler or his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scien¬tific
underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the.
greatest atrocities was really morally praiseworthy. Darwinism-or at least some naturalistic interpretations of Darwinism¬succeeded in turning _______________________________________________
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