Was Charles Darwin Responsible for Adolf Hitler’s Ethic?

Obviously not personally, no. Darwin would probably have been appalled at the use that Hitler put his ideas to. But I nevertheless think that it is reasonable to connect the dots of evolutionary theory to Adolf Hitler’s ideology, yes. I do not mean that evolution leads, of necessity, to fascism; I mean that in one historical instance—Nazi Germany—evolutionary science’s sheen of respectability morphed into a noxious ideology, and in its use by Hitler was turned in Germany into a form of scientism. 

I also think it is obvious that Hitler’s ethic is derived from his reading of German eugenicists, probably most earnestly Ernst Haeckel. Hitler was a syncretist, no doubt. There were lots of creepy disconnected sugar plumbs dancing in his head, but the chief of those was struggle, survival of the fittest. He read out of the theory of evolution by struggle “the law of Nature.” Please recall that Hitler called his manifesto, Mein Kampf—not Turn the Other Cheek. And Hitler may not have mentioned Darwin in his book, but he does use the word evolution. He thought his goal was “preserving the best humanity, to create the possibility of a nobler evolution of these beings.” I didn’t, by the way, scan Mein Kampf to find that quote. It is in the historian Richard Weikart’s new—and very good—book on Hitler titled Hitler’s Ethic (Palgrave Macmillan 2009, p. 6). Evolution as absorbed by Hitler in its simplest form (survival of the fittest by an eternal and universal law of constant struggle) gave him the opportunity not just to be a fascist, but an intellectually fulfilled fascist. The “law of evolution” gave his ideas the superficial appearance of being “scientific” and therefore, to his mind, inevitable.

Hitler’s fascism was thus a form of scientism. It added a metaphysical component to evolutionary science. Of course, this is what Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have done as well, overlaying evolution with their own big leap of faith—their own metaphysical conclusion. That great leap is a strict materialist metaphysic—atheism. They have then declared evolution the engine of their atheism and “a universal acid” (in the same way that Hitler declared “the iron law of struggle” to be universal and the engine for the inevitability of his own ideas). This is not to say that Dawkins and Dennett’s form of atheist humanism is anything like as noxious an idea as Hitler’s fascism. But in their hands it is a form of scientism, and not science. It is the governing (and, I would argue, overly simplistic) formula for their thought. It is applied everywhere. Nothing escapes it. Not even free will.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Was Charles Darwin Responsible for Adolf Hitler’s Ethic?

  1. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    This is a really interesting post! And I agree with you–I like the way you carefully assess the topic, because when this issue comes up, it tends to generate extreme positions on both sides.

    Have you seen Ben Stein’s movie Expelled? This notion of the evolutionary inspiration of nazi eugenics is explored in the finale. Stein makes some good points but certainly goes too far. And I remember when reading reviews of them film, I was also frustrated by how dismissive critics and secularists were of Stein’s eugenics argument–as if there wasn’t even some hint of truth behind the over-the-top presentation that Stein makes.

    I’m glad to see someone like yourself actually separating fact from fiction. Good post!

  2. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    I don’t recall Stein’s depiction of eugenics in his film as being over the top. And I think eugenics will return with a vengence in the mid-21st century (if not sooner). I think that chapter in human history is really just beginning.

    —Santi

  3. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    I meant that Stein goes a bit too far in pinning these Nazi atrocities on Darwin’s theory of evolution–as a natural, if virtually guaranteed, outcome to widespread belief in evolution. I definitely don’t think one can go too far in depicting the sheer horror of eugenics. I meant that Stein points to the Nazis and says “this IS what happens when you believe in evolution.” Obviously, it certainly can be what happens, and we can certainly see the connection–but I don’t see the inevitability of eugenics from Darwin like Stein does.

    But maybe you understood my point and maybe you still think that the film is right. Fair enough.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    Sorry for the length of this response. I’ll probably just make it a new post, but I would say that Stein exaggerated, but not by a lot. There is a hidden gnosis unveiled by evolution that constitutes a temptation to the human species. Once we have a mechanism for the improvement of a species—once we know how nature does it (by a process of selection)—do we start directing the selection, or not?

    It’s really not Darwin’s fault that we are confronted with this temptation. It is the twisting DNA tree in the garden of our body’s Eden. It’s God’s fault. God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there. Geneticists, as we speak, are boring into that tree, and the processes whereby God (if God exists) made organisms better, prettier, faster, smarter, stronger.

    Obviously, any school child can look at the theory of evolution and say, “Nature does not operate by the laws of love and nonviolence. Nature selects out the fittest by a process of elimination. Why aren’t we?”

    Why aren’t we? What, but religious taboo, is powerful enough to arrest the temptation? Why not eliminate the pains “that flesh is heir to”? And when religion goes away, what philosophical or ethical argument will have enough “oomph” to prevent people from rushing full steam ahead into eugenic selection?

    I disagree with Stein to this extent: Stein treats evolution by natural selection as a philosophical position that one can take or leave. And so he blames intellectuals for the catastrophe. By contrast, I treat evolution by natural selection as a scientific fact that cannot be swept under the rug. The tools of selection (sexual and natural) that Darwin discovered will actually work if applied to human beings artificially. Geneticists will, over the next 100 years, be able to use eugenic techniques to make Nietzschean “super-humans” (or degenerate dumb clones as frontline fodder in war). They’ll be able to blend the genes of humans and animals. In embryos, they’ll be able to add or delete a menu of human traits (small at the start, but much larger, say, 300 years from now). That’s not Darwin’s fault, or the fault of philosophical Darwinists, or the fault of decadent intellectuals. That temptation is a fact read out painstakingly by scientists from the Book of Nature. It comes from God. Natural selection is how biological diversity really came to be, and humans are rapidly figuring out how to artificially accelerate the process.

    Philosophical Darwinists might well give the eugenic temptation intellectual support, and cheer it on, but it is the gnosis that scientists have unveiled that constitutes the temptation. You have hippies who, by analogy, cheer on free love, but you don’t need the cheerleaders of free love to recognize and feel the temptation. It is the genetic apple on the tree of our bodies that will give us the power to be as gods—to direct our own evolution—if we decide to take upon ourselves this knowledge of good and evil. Nazi doctors were the crude Darwinian alchemists of the 20th century, but the 21st and 22nd centuries will have real alchemy: geneticists able to turn our crude human mud into transhuman gold.

    Will we eat that golden apple? Should we?

    Blaming this dilemma on Darwin, or on philosophically enthusiastic Darwinists, or on godless intellectuals, is to shoot the messengers. The tree and its fruit comes from the King himself. God (if God exists) is the creator of natural selection, and he is also the chief taboo for not tinkering with it to improve the human species.

    So long live the King?

    Obviously, the King’s ongoing reign is in our hands. But the day that we choose (and that day stands before us, in our very near future) to take over our own evolution, the King dies. It will be a completely different world, run by the children. And our great grandchildren will not be human. They will be transhuman.

    Now choose.

    —Santi

  5. Jared K says:

    Interesting. Thanks for clearing up your thoughts.

    I find myself changing the subject a bit, but in response to placing the blame (for evil, or evolution, or anything wrong with the universe) on the King (God, if God exists), why does it seem as though the blame dissipates the moment there is no God? That is, I feel, with respect to evil, that I will have a certain bitterness either way. If God allows evil, I want to angrily ask God “why are you letting this happen?” If God does not exist, I am no less angry, just not at a person/deity. I don’t suddenly find peace with the world, knowing that it is mindless. Instead, I find myself angry at a godless world, and feeling at least as much despair (for me personally, even more despair without an eschatological hope, but leave that aside).

    It is something I never understand about secularists. Somehow, they seem to find it easy to only get angry about the horrors of the world if there is a God to project anger on. Without God, “oh, these things just happen. Nothing to get worked up over.” I do not understand this. If I try to think of a world without God, I find myself getting very pissed off at the world itself for its horrors–regardless of whether the world has a mind behind it. It still sucks in many ways, and I still live in it.

    Does that make me irrational I wonder?

    Okay, sorry to change the subject almost entirely. No need to respond if this too far out there.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Jared,

    Are you angry at the sea? The reason that I ask is because God is (or was, in numerous passages of the Hebrew Bible). Scholars tend to trace those passages to Mesopotamian and Canaanite mythology, and the hangovers of once personified elements (Tiamat for the sea goddess etc.). My point is that personification is a way that humans find a source for their love, interest, and resentment. If you discovered that a book was written by the accidental pelting of hail upon a typewriter, and it was a book attacking something you love, you probably would not react as strongly to it as if it had a conscious author behind it, right?

    Nevertheless, your point is taken. When you suffer, the anger doesn’t go away. You want to know why you suffer. And if you discover it’s a blind event then perhaps the right response is Camus’s response (an annoyance with absurdity).

    Thomas Hardy wrote a good poem that reflects on the problem of boxing with an absent God. Here’s a link to my post on that:

    https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/03/10/an-atheist-writes-a-poem-thomas-hardys-hap/

    I wish I had a better thought or answer to the question, Whence atheist anger—why be mad at a supposedly absent God? You raise a good question. I’ve thought about it, but haven’t made much progress. Another simple answer might be: Atheists are mad at their fathers, and male Apollonian order breaking down generally. They are the non-feminist bride left at the altar. Disappointment is certainly what drives a lot of atheist rhetoric (emotionally), no doubt. But then, when you look at the world, who can blame them? At least they are passionate about something. They’re pissed at the king.

    One more thought: people on the left tend to think structurally; people on the right conspiratorially. Bad structures v. bad fathers. What—who?—is to blame?

    —Santi

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