It is an open question whether civilization will survive Darwinism, whose inspiration for Nazism, militarism, racism, wars of extermination, eugenics, abortion, and euthanasia is amply documented in Richard Weikart’s excellent new book. In precise and careful detail Weikart narrates an indispensable chapter of cultural and intellectual history that had tragic consequences: the growing ascendancy in Germany in the period 1860-1933 of Social Darwinist ideas that fostered a ruthless, amoral view of the human person and of the relations between individuals, groups, nations, and races. Though in this period all “advanced” Western nations (and Japan) were affected by the Darwinian bacillus, whose revival in new and seductive forms we see today, for complex reasons Germany was the land in which it grew strongest and had the most tragic consequences. Bismarck’s success in unifying Germany through warfare and Germany’s growing industrial power in competition with Britain and France gave prominence and prestige to “blood and iron” and ideas of ruthless realpolitik, which a century earlier had been articulated by the Machiavellian Frederick “the Great.” Like distinguished earlier scholars such as Carlton J. H. Hayes and his student Jacques Barzun, Weikart has no doubt that “Darwinism undermined traditional morality and the value of human life.”
The key figures in German “Darwinismus” were Ernest Haeckel and Nietzsche, but Weikart’s book is also largely concerned with a host of less well-known German biologists, medical doctors, and social scientists who promoted Darwinism to great effect. Much valuable documentation appears here in English for the first time. Darwin himself was very pleased at the growing influence of his thinking in Germany. In 1868 he wrote to a German scholar: “The support which I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail.” Haeckel, his most important German disciple, praised Darwin in a letter a decade later for having “shown man his true place in nature . . . thereby overthrowing the anthropocentric fable.” The “anthropocentric fable” is the belief in the special character of human life, the sacredness of the human person, and the absolute warrant of conscience and Christian or Kantian ethics. Many contemporary Darwinists, such as Peter Singer and James Rachels, are exhilarated by the Darwinian liberation from ethics, conveniently forgetting the 1914-1945 chapter of modern moral history that had so much to do with the “liberated” cynicism, fury, and cruelty of Social Darwinism.
On the first page of his book Weikart quotes from the same critical 1859 letter to Darwin from his Cambridge mentor, Adam Sedgwick, that Jacques Barzun quoted from in his magisterial 1941 book, Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage: “There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly.” To break the link between the material and the moral, Sedgwick went on, would “damage” and “brutalize” humanity and “sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.” The hysterical, obscene strife, carnage, and cruelty of the period 1914-1945 are here foreshadowed with prophetic power.
In fact Weikart’s book raises without treating — as being beyond his task — one of the most painful dilemmas of contemporary civilization, a dilemma of which most common citizens are often dimly aware but which many scientists, caught in the grip of curiosity (libido sciendi), the will to power (libido dominandi), and dangerously vague utilitarian idealism, resolutely wish to ignore or deny: the destructive threat an omnicompetent science poses to ethics. Even liberal commentators such as Richard Hofstadter and, more recently, Stephen Jay Gould (in Rocks of Ages) have found themselves defending parts of William Jennings Bryan’s ethical critique of Darwinism, which was the product not only of Bryan’s Christian religious beliefs and democratic political loyalties but also of his revulsion at the German Social Darwinism and militarism that he believed had been a major cause of World War I. Though Bryan was no intellectual, Weikart, Hofstadter, and Gould credit him with powerful insight on this point. (Along the same lines, Albert Alschuler has recently documented — in his book Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes — the American Social Darwinist nihilism of the “mature” Oliver Wendell Holmes.)
One book on the widespread participation of German medical doctors in Nazi human experimentation, sterilization, euthanasia, and genocide is titled Murderous Science. Weikart’s book itself draws on Detlev J. K. Peukert’s important essay on the Holocaust with the haunting title, “The Genesis of the ‘Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science.” It was the lonely “knight of faith” Kierkegaard who, like his English Christian contemporary Adam Sedgwick, warned in the 19th century that “in the end, all corruption will come about as a consequence of the natural sciences.” The uses of the words “nature” and “natural” in contemporary moral and educational discourse are utterly ambiguous, promiscuous, and obscurantist.
Weikart’s book displays in detail how “the survival of the fittest,” the purposeful extermination of the weak and vulnerable and of “racial enemies,” came to seem the obvious dictates of “natural law” and science to thousands of apparently well-educated German intellectuals in the period 1860-1933, a period in which the German university system was the envy of the world and the model for other nations (such as America). He notes that by and large only Catholics and some Socialists resisted the ascendant Darwinian picture and the political, social, and moral ideas that came with it. Yet they were easily and widely mocked as retrograde, superstitious, and sentimental “humanitarians,” a term connoting weakness and timidity.
Weikart notes Nietzsche’s role in promoting an alluring, amoral, post-Darwinian philosophy throughout Germany and the educated world, helping create what Carlton J. H. Hayes called “a generation of materialism.” Nietzsche’s brilliant rhetoric promoted “the higher breeding of humanity, including the unsparing destruction of all degenerates and parasites” (Ecce Homo). We are not far from Darwin and his eugenic cousin Galton here, or from the influential racist Gobineau, much admired in Germany, whom Tocqueville rebuked on Christian grounds. We are also not far from Hitler.
In conclusion, Weikart treats Hitler not as an anarchic criminal and madman, but as a charismatic but principled Social Darwinist with a racist, utilitarian worldview that was the fruit of the 70 years of Darwinist thinking in Germany that Weikart has documented. Hitler’s idolatry of the Germans as the “culture-bearing” people reminds us of the seductive temptation, not only in Germany or in the past, to replace traditional Christian religion and ethics with “culture” (often so much more exciting, bold, and novel) and science (apparently so much more certain). He also suggests that celebratory contemporary Darwinists such as Singer and Rachels — and all who believe in the omnicompetence of natural science — have learned nothing from the tragic 20th century.
Mr. Aeschliman is a professor of education at Boston University, professor of English at the University of Italian Switzerland, and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.