Welcome to the year of Charles Darwin. In coming months, the secular world will be celebrating two anniversaries relating to the originator of evolutionary theory. February 12 marks what would have been his 200th birthday and November 24, the 150th year since the publication of his book On the Origin of Species.
The cultural and political battle over evolution in the United States will intensify. Yet I believe many Orthodox Jews feel that it somehow isn’t “our fight.” Darwin argued that a purposeless, unguided process—natural selection operating on random genetic variation—explains the whole history of life’s development. But frum Jews have no doubt that life was purposefully designed by our Creator.
Though I’m a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, the think tank best known for advancing intelligent-design theory, I can appreciate this response. However, permit me to argue that the Darwin wars are very much our fight, as Jews, or should be.
Begin with the fact that Hitlerism was no less than an exercise in applied Darwinism. To whip up his fellow citizens in the service of a race war against the Jews, Hitler relied on the language of Darwinian biology.
In the coming year’s celebrations, you can bet that the nastier parts of Darwin’s writing will be safely ignored. As a young man, during his adventures as a naturalist aboard the Beagle exploring the coasts of South America, Darwin had his eyes opened to the good points associated, as he came to see it, with genocide.
In 1833 he made the acquaintance of General Juan Manual de Rosas, who was busy liquidating the Indian population of southern Argentina. “This war of extermination,” Darwin wrote in a cheerful letter home, “although carried on with the most shocking barbarity, will certainly produce great benefits; it will at once throw open four or 500 miles in length of fine country for the produce of cattle.” The “extermination” (a favorite word of Darwin in his writings) of failed races, whether animal or human, is a great theme in his books and a key feature in the advance of the evolutionary process as he conceived it.
In The Descent of Man (1871), 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.”
Evolutionary theory was embraced and championed in Germany faster even than in England, Darwin’s native country. Hitler felt its influence, as the important biographers of him agree. In Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock writes: “The basis of Hitler’s political beliefs was a crude Darwinism.” Joachim C. Fest, in Hitler, describes how the Nazi tyrant “extract[ed] the elements of his world view” from various influences including “popular treatments of Darwinism.”
The key chapter in Mein Kampf is Chapter 9, “Nation and Race,” where he discusses the obligation to defend the Aryan race from the Jewish menace. His argument is couched from the start in Darwinian terms. He writes: “In the struggle for daily bread all those who are weak and sickly or less determined succumb, while the struggle of the males for the female grants the right of opportunity to propagate only to the healthiest. And struggle is always a mean for improving a species’ health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of higher development.” He praises “the iron logic of Nature” with its “right to victory of the best and stronger in this world.”
But what if the strong (Aryans) choose not to dominate and exterminate the weak (Jews)? “Eternal Nature,” he writes, “inexorably avenges the infringement of her commands.” He means those iron laws of Nature, Darwin’s laws.
Hitler calculated that an appeal to the Germans against the Jews would be most likely to succeed if framed in scientific-sounding evolutionary terms. Mein Kampf was hugely popular and influential, selling six million copies by 1940.
Nazi propaganda hardly sought to hide the Darwin connection. 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.” Between 1939 and 1941, German physicians empowered by the state under the Action T4 plan murdered 70,273 children and adults who had been observed to suffer from debilitating mental or physical conditions.
It should not have been surprising that Hitler under Darwin’s influence would follow up by seeking to destroy the Jews. Not because Darwin was an anti-Semite (he wasn’t), but because his worldview is all about explaining life and its mysteries in purely natural, material terms, leaving no room for God. In Mein Kampf, when his use of Darwinist rhetoric is most pronounced, Hitler decries the Jews for their “effrontery”: “Millions thoughtlessly parrot this Jewish nonsense and end up by really imagining that they themselves represent a kind of conqueror of Nature.” In Darwinism, Nature sweeps all before her.
Judaism says just the opposite. Torah is marked by the call to defy Nature, to do the hard work of bending our personal natures to God’s will. It is almost as if Hitler, following the logic of Darwinism, sensed that Torah and thus the Jews who uphold it must be his ultimate, eternal foes.
Today, the skinhead and Neo-Nazi subculture is full of Darwinian chatter. Whether on aggressively Hitlerian web sites like Stormfront.com or in the writings of the racist and anti-Semitic Louisiana politician David Duke, discussions of evolution as a proof of white supremacy are common.
Darwinian science has otherwise mostly lost its anti-Semitic edge, but its leading contemporary spokesman, Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins, can’t be matched for his hatred of the God of Israel and for his attack on the intelligent design of life. His latest bestselling book, The God Delusion, rails blasphemously at the Creator that he denies.
But it’s not our fight, as Torah-believing Jews? Historically our rabbis have certainly indicated that it is. Long before Charles Darwin was born in 1809, similar debates were being fought in Europe over scientific challenges to the belief that God created and designed the world. In medieval Spain, the science of the day was carried on by Aristotelian philosophers who denied that the universe had a beginning. So there could be no Creator in any sense recognizable to a Torah Jew.
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, among other Jewish philosophers, knew it was necessary to directly address the challenge of this scientific doctrine. In the story he tells in the Kuzari, the religiously searching Khazar king stages a debate between a rabbi and an Aristotelian scientist-philosopher. (A Christian and a Muslim also participate briefly.) The philosopher denies that God intentionally created the world but instead argues that a series of natural causes explains the existence of everything. That is Darwinism in a nutshell. Yehudah HaLevi saw it as totally normal and desirable that a rabbi should engage in an extended and very well informed disputation over such issues.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived to see Darwin’s influence spread rapidly across Europe after the Origin of Species appeared in 1859. In his Torah commentary, Rav Hirsch was scathing on the morally disastrous effects of Darwinian thought. Ideas, he knew, have consequences for the way we all live. Commenting on the idol Baal Peor, worshipped in the most grotesquely animalistic fashion, Hirsch wrote that it illustrates precisely “the kind of Darwinism that revels in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of its divine nobility, learning to consider itself just a ‘higher’ class of animal” (Numbers 25:3).
Western culture has since become widely convinced that human beings, just like animals, lack moral choice and responsibility. Applied Darwinism results in the widespread, easily observable failure to distinguish between people and animals, a moral disease we may call animalism.
Both the elite and mass media are rife with it. So the rights of animals become a sacred cause, justifying even violence in their defense, while ascribing a unique dignity or worth to men and women is increasingly suspect. If human beings lack such a dignity unique to them and transcending whatever condition their body may be in at a given moment—fetus, child, or adult, sick or well, conscious or “vegetative”—then extinguishing a human life when it seems convenient to us becomes very easy to justify.
The social consequences range from animal-liberation terrorism to modern eugenics, right-to-die initiatives, euthanasia, abortion and more. In the state where I live, Washington, voters just this past November overwhelmingly approved an assisted-suicide law, the second in the nation (after Oregon). It permits doctors to help patients identified as “terminally ill” to take their own lives.
And this is not our fight? The Darwin-Hitler connection would be enough reason to acknowledge the evolution debate as one in which religious Jews have a profound stake. The moral and hashkafic aspects of the fight make it, without any doubt at all, ours, perhaps more than it is anyone else’s.