Darwinists, Moral Relativism, and Hitler

Original Article

The Darwin celebrations this year have reinforced my concern that Darwinism is not merely a scientific theory. For many Darwinists, it is much more than that. For some it is the basis for a secular worldview that not only rejects theism, but also promotes moral relativism.

Those who doubt this should have gone with me to an academic conference in November at San Diego State University on “150 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Impact on the Humanities and the Social Sciences.” The keynote address at this conference was by the biologist Michael Ghiselin, whose primary point was to adjure biologists to stop using any teleological language. He noted that many biologists regularly use the d-word in their writing (i.e., design). He argued that design does imply a designer, so we must by no means allow that term to be used (nor terms like “body plan,” which also implies a designer).

Ghiselin’s views did not surprise me in the slightest, as they are textbook orthodoxy in biology. However, the presentation made just before Ghiselin’s lecture was a little jarring. A young man was performing rap songs on evolutionary themes that he had been commissioned to write and perform for the Darwin celebrations in Britain. He told us between his songs that in some species, such as praying mantises and black widows, the females kill their mates after procreating. This is an evolutionary adaptation. The rapper then continued by saying that it is only chance—like the flip of a coin, he said—that our own species does not exhibit such a behavior. He then stated that if we did act this way, our moral systems and religions would revolve around females killing their mates. (Take-home lesson: Morality and religion are contingent products of mindless processes).

This view may sound bizarre, but it is actually very similar to a statement Darwin made in Descent of Man, where he mentioned that some species commit infanticide. He then stated that if we as humans had been raised with their instincts, infanticide would then be moral. Darwin’s own moral relativism was even more apparent in Descent of Man, where he argued that sexual morality had evolved over human history. At one point in the human past, he argued, “promiscuous intercourse was once extremely common throughout the world.” Polygamy and monogamy were later evolutionary adaptations, he thought. Similar ideas are commonplace today in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, both influential movements in intellectual circles.

At a dinner at the close of the conference, I spoke with a philosophy graduate student who told me that because empathy and thus morality were traits produced by evolution, he was convinced that morality was relative. When I asked him if he then thought Hitler was not evil, he told me that even though he personally finds Hitler repugnant, that repugnance has no objective validity, so, he stated, “Hitler was OK.” He then told me that he doesn’t want his rational belief in relativistic morality to influence his own moral standards, but he still considered his moral standards evolved traits that are purely subjective. I told him that I thought the reason his “instincts” and rationality about morality were at odds was because morality really is objective, but he didn’t see it that way.

This was not the first time I had heard someone defend moral relativism—even to the point of claiming Hitler was neither right nor wrong, but still I am horrified by this display of moral blindness. However, if one buys into the relevant presuppositions, I’m not sure his position is so philosophically outlandish. Hitler, as I show in my recent book, Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, thought he was driving human evolution forward by his policies favoring the “best” humans and exterminating the “inferior.” If evolution produced morality, as many Darwinists think, what fulcrum could possibly exist to condemn Hitler objectively for pursuing his ideals? Hitler, after all, insisted that his instincts drove him to favor his fellow Aryans at the expense of other peoples.

Of course, not all Darwinists endorse the application of Darwinism to morality, and thankfully, many are horrified by the historical link between Darwinism and Nazism that I sketch out in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. However, I find it remarkable that while many Darwinists are trying to bend over backwards to assure Christians that Darwinism is no threat to their religious views, just as many prominent Darwinists are actively trying to undermine not only theism, but also Christian morality.

Richard Weikart

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Richard Weikart is Emeritus Professor of History, California State University, Stanislaus, and author of seven books, including From Darwin to Hitler, Hitler’s Ethic, The Death of Humanity, and Hitler’s Religion. His most recent book is Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism (2022). His PhD dissertation, Socialist Darwinism, earned the biennial prize of the Forum for History of Human Sciences as best dissertation in that field. He has lectured at many universities and other venues in the US and Europe. He also has been interviewed on dozens of radio shows, podcasts, and TV, and appeared in seven documentaries, including Expelled. Some of his lectures and interviews are available on YouTube.