Thursday, March 24, 2005


Darwin or Social Darwinism?: The Roots Of Nazi Ideology, A Debate With Richard Weikart

Red State Rabble is posting a new round in an ongoing discussion with Dr. Richard Weikart, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, over whether Darwin's theory of evolution or Herbert Spencer's distortion of it -- social Darwinism -- is at the roots of Nazi ideology. Readers can find Red State Rabble's initial post here, and Dr. Weikart's first reply along with RSR's comments here.

Dr. Richard Weikart responds:

Pat, Thanks for your reply. First of all, I think it’s premature for you to say that you find my thesis unpersuasive, when you apparently haven’t read my book. It’s convenient to (publicly) criticize my lecture (and by implication, book) without giving it a hearing.

Second, note my terminology carefully—“played a key role.” Nowhere do I claim--and in the introduction of my book I specifically deny—that Darwinism is the sole cause or sole factor behind Nazi ideology. I specifically mention in my book that Darwinism had nothing to do with the origins of Nazi antisemitism (though antisemitic ideologists before Hitler intertwined social Darwinism and antisemitism, and I explain how they did this). So, I agree, the roots of Nazism are more complex, and my book specifically says so.

You will be happy to know that I also specifically deny that Darwinism leads inevitably to Nazism, so I am not as unable as you think to account for differences between various countries (though I don’t do a lot of transnational comparisons). You claim that I only mention a few historians. This is because I didn’t have time to list dozens more. It is completely uncontroversial among historians (though apparently not among bloggers who know little about the historiography) that Hitler was a social Darwinist and that social Darwinism was an integral part of Hitler’s ideology.

Stern never denied that in his quote, though he focused on a different dimension of Nazism that is much more controversial. Though some historians disagree, most historians still (rightly) see Hitler as more anti-Christian than Christian.

All historians writing on eugenics and euthanasia under Nazism have mentioned social Darwinism as a fundamental underpinning of those programs.

I don’t know who you define as “the Christian right,” but Phelps most certainly has been criticized by evangelical Christians and the vast majority of evangelicals do not endorse his views. One example among many is Christianity Today’s article, “Called to Hate? How antihomosexual crusader Fred Phelps discredits the church” by Jody Veenker.

To “accuse” Discovery Institute of not speaking out against Phelps is silly—they don’t issue statements pro or con about any issues of that sort. Has the NAS or the NCSE or the AAAS issued statements opposing Phelps? I invite you to read my book and look at the evidence.

Best regards,
Richard Weikart
Department of History
California State Univ., Stanislaus

Red State Rabble replies:

Dear Dr. Weikart,

You and I are in agreement about the evils of social Darwinism. If you had limited yourself to a criticism of social Darwinism, we would not find ourselves in disagreement now.

It is my opinion, however, that you play somewhat too fast and loose with the distinctions between Darwin and evolution on the one hand, and the distortion of his theory by proponents of social Darwinism, such as Herbert Spencer, on the other.

In your first letter you write, "many historians… have discussed the role of social Darwinism in the formulation of Nazi ideology." In you second letter you write, "Hitler was a social Darwinist and that social Darwinism was an integral part of Hitler's ideology."

Your book and lecture, however, are titled "From Darwin to Hitler…" If your intention was to write a critical history only of social Darwinism, you might more accurately have titled them "From Spencer to Hitler…"

The fact is, the thesis of your book, and your upcoming lecture (here, I rely on the promotional material posted on the Discovery Institute website) is that there exists a direct causal link between Darwin's theory of evolution and the rise of Nazi ideology, and here you drop the qualifying word "social" from Darwinism.

Despite what you write, social Darwinism is not a product of evolutionary theory. It is a distortion of it. Social Darwinism is a tragic example of the misapplication of a theory – applicable only to the biological sciences – that was hijacked for the purpose of social engineering. These distortions are not implicit in evolutionary theory, rather, they flow from underlying cultural assumptions about race and ethnicity that were once widespread, and perhaps still are, but which science has now proven are without merit or basis in fact.

Over time, many charlatans have tried to appropriate science for their own very different ends, or bask in the reflected glow of its achievements. We have experienced scientific socialism, Lysenkoism, even Christian Science. Today, some in the arts and social sciences have proposed that the uncertainties of the micro world of quantum mechanics also apply to the macro world of human relations.

Neither science nor Darwin can or should be held responsible for the misapplication of their ideas or methods by others.

Christians and Nazis

Your beef with evolution is that evolutionary theory marks "a radical departure from traditional ways of grounding morality" which you believe undermines the "Judeo-Christian conception of body-soul dualism, which endued humans with greater moral and spiritual significance…" (Weikart: Does Darwinism Devalue Human Life?)

Evolution, you write, by asserting that humans descended from simian ancestors denies that man is created in the image of God. This blurs the distinctions between humans and animals, in your opinion, and leads to the barbaric crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.

The obvious difficulty with your position – and the one you studiously avoid addressing in your reply to me – is how so many Christians, grounded as they were in "traditional" moral values could act as such willing participants in Hitler's crimes.

Was Hitler Anti-Christian?

It has been widely observed that ideology and religion often blind their followers to reality. This ideological or religious blindness finds a reflection in your own work when you write, "Hitler's world view was diametrically opposed to Christianity, for which (he) had nothing but contempt." (Weikart: Roots of Hitler's Evil)

Was Hitler a nonbeliever as you assert, or, as Fritz Stern observes, "a brilliant populist manipulator who insisted and probably believed that Providence had chosen him as Germany's savior"? Whether Hitler believed or not, the great mass of his followers were believers, and they were attracted to his movement not by some vague attachment to social Darwinism, but by the many overt appeals to Christianity embodied in his speeches and writing. To take but one example from many hundreds available:

"My feelings as a Christian point me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter," said Adolph Hitler, in a speech given April 12, 1922. "It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders…"

The reality is that traditional moral values, or religious belief, did not act as a barrier for people who wanted to become Hitler's willing executioners. In fact, the religious movements of the day may have provided one of the most fertile recruiting grounds for the Nazis.

For those of us who truly want to understand the roots of Nazi ideology in order to prevent its reoccurrence that means we have to dig deeper than you have. We have to learn how the underlying cultural assumptions about race and ethnicity were developed and maintained. We need to know how ordinary people were manipulated and mobilized to commit genocide. We are faced with the urgent task of developing human institutions to prevent those horrors from happening again.

Side Issues:

Let's clear up a number of smaller issues that you raise in your latest reply:

Early on you ask me to note your terminology carefully: "Nowhere do I claim," you write, "… that Darwinism is the sole cause or sole factor behind Nazi ideology."

Before writing your reply, you might first have taken note my terminology. I do not claim that you say it is the sole cause, in fact, I accurately paraphrase your argument in the first paragraph of my post:

"I find your thesis – that Darwinism played a key role in the rise of eugenics, euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial experimentation, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis – unpersuasive."

I remain unpersuaded.

You also write that I claim you only mention a few historians to support your position, explaining that you "didn't have time to list dozens more."

Once again, you have missed the point. In my post, I write: "Your letter consists primarily of appeals to the authority of a small group of writers and historians… there are other points of view."

My point is not the size of your list, but the fact that you employ a logical fallacy – an appeal to authority – to make your case. In order to argue from authority, there must be an adequate degree of agreement among other experts. If, as is the case here, there is a significant amount of dispute among experts, the argument must be deemed fallacious.

Fred Phelps:

In closing, I'd like to say I'm pleased that you provided me with a condemnation of Rev. Phelps from Christianity Today. Should Discovery Institute also take a stand? Perhaps it's a stretch. However, you should be aware that here in Kansas we see articles in the newspaper like this almost every day:

"Emboldened by their success getting a proposal to ban gay marriage before Kansas voters, some clergy leading that fight say they will tackle other issues, including the teaching of evolution in public schools." (John Hanna: AP, Feb. 5, 2005)

I'm aware that gay marriage is a controversial issue, however, these same ministers also supported a ballot initiative in Topeka that would have rescinded civil protections for gays, and, as you can see, they are key activists in the battle against evolution teaching in this state.

The Discovery Institute, of which you are a part, is playing a key role in this and other fights over evolution teaching across the country. If a group of professional scientists or educators were to launch an attack against the civil liberties of a segment of our population, I would speak out immediately, and I would demand that organizations such as the National Center for Science Education speak out as well. So, perhaps, it not so much of a stretch for you to ask your fellows at the Discovery Institute you speak out against the actions of those who are allied with you in Kansas, after all.

Pat Hayes


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