Don't Doubt It

An important historic sidebar on Hitler and Darwin
David Klinghoffer
National Review Online
April 18, 2008
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Get ready for the great Darwin-Hitler debate. There’s already been a volley of advance attacks on a new film’s suggestion of a link between Darwinism and Nazi ideology. The movie is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opening this weekend, a cheeky documentary that is not primarily about evolutionism in prewar Germany. Reviewers in Time, Scientific American, Variety, Fox News, and elsewhere have denounced the filmmakers for suggesting that Hitlerism without the contribution of Darwinism would be hard to imagine.

This movie is, in fact, about the professional ostracism visited today on American scientists who doubt that undirected natural selection can fully explain life’s development. They are academics at places like the Smithsonian Institution, Iowa State University, and Baylor University. Droll comic-actor Ben Stein stars, interviewing the researchers.

But for about ten minutes, Expelled touches on Darwinism’s historical social costs, notably the unintended contribution to Nazi racial theories. That part packs an emotional wallop. It also happens to be based on impeccable scholarship.

The Darwin-Hitler connection is no recent discovery. In her classic 1951 work The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote: “Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human being.”

The standard biographies of Hitler almost all point to the influence of Darwinism on their subject. In Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock writes: “The basis of Hitler’s political beliefs was a crude Darwinism.” What Hitler found objectionable about Christianity was its rejection of Darwin’s theory: “Its teaching, he declared, was a rebellion against the natural law of selection by struggle and the survival of the fittest.”

John Toland’s Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography says this of Hitler’s Second Book published in 1928: “An essential of Hitler’s conclusions in this book was the conviction drawn from Darwin that might makes right.”

In his biography, Hitler: 1889-1936: Hubris, Ian Kershaw explains that “crude social-Darwinism” gave Hitler “his entire political ‘world-view.’ ” Hitler, like lots of other Europeans and Americans of his day, saw Darwinism as offering a total picture of social reality. This view called “social Darwinism” is a logical extension of Darwinian evolutionary theory and was articulated by Darwin himself.

The key elements in the ideology that produced Auschwitz are moral relativism aligned with a rejection of the sacredness of human life, a belief that violent competition in nature creates greater and lesser races, that the greater will inevitably exterminate the lesser, and finally that the lesser race most in need of extermination is the Jews. All but the last of these ideas may be found in Darwin’s writing.

Like Hitler, Charles Darwin saw natural processes as setting moral standards. It’s all in The Descent of Man, where he explains that, had we evolved differently, we would have different moral ideas. On a particularly delicate moral topic, for example, he wrote: “We may, therefore, reject the belief, lately insisted on by some writers, that the abhorrence of incest is due to our possessing a special God-implanted conscience.”

In the same book, he compared the evolution of people to the breeding of animals and drew a chilling conclusion regarding what he saw as the undesirable consequences of allowing the unfit to breed:

“Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” In this desacralized picture of existence, to speak of life as possessing any kind of holiness is to introduce an alien note.

Most disturbing of all, in The Descent of Man, Darwin prophesied: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”

While it must be very clearly emphasized that the gentle-souled Darwin himself never supported ill treatment of any race or group, his words inspired a movement to “scientific” racism.

“Eugenics,” breeding humans for excellence, is a word coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1865, six years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species. In America itself, between 1907 and 1958, in states including Indiana, California, and Washington, some 60,000 genetically “unfit” persons were legally sterilized against their will. Germany took eugenics to the point of murder, euthanizing 70,000 of the unfit.

You only have to read Mein Kampf to see the indebtedness. A shrewd manipulator of his fellow Germans’ sympathy for scientifically flavored racial theorizing, Hitler gives a Darwinian-style analysis of how the struggle for existence mandates a defense of the Aryan race.

Other Nazi propaganda followed his lead. In a 1937 German propaganda film, Victims of the Past, the audience is shown a retarded person as the narrator intones, “In the last few decades, mankind has sinned terribly against the law of natural selection. We haven’t just maintained life unworthy of life, we have even allowed it to multiply.”

None of which, of course, is an argument against Darwin’s theory, narrowly defined, which could still be true as most but not all biologists believe, despite having deadly implications.

Yet it is surely of interest that, at the very heart of his message, Hitler appealed to Germans primarily as devotees of modern biological science. He could have framed his pitch in any terms he liked. He chose evolutionary terms. No one knows what he believed in his heart, if he had one. But we know what he judged would stir up fellow Nazis and ordinary citizens to commit themselves to his movement. In that, he judged correctly.

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.