One man — Charles Darwin — says: “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals…”
Another man — Adolf Hitler — says: Let us kill all the Jews of Europe.
Is there a connection?
Yes obviously is the answer of the historical record and common sense.
Published in 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species said nothing of substance about the origin of species. Or anything else, for that matter. It nonetheless persuaded scientists in England, Germany and the United States that human beings were accidents of creation. Where Darwin had seen species struggling for survival, German physicians, biologists, and professors of hygiene saw races.
They drew the obvious conclusion, the one that Darwin had already drawn. In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals. German scientists took the word expense to mean what it meant: The annihilation of less fit races.
The point is made with abysmal clarity in the documentary, Expelled. Visiting the site at which those judged defective were killed — a hospital, of course — the narrator, Ben Stein, asks the curator what most influenced the doctors doing the killing.
“Darwinism,” she replies wanly.
It is perfectly true that prominent Nazis were hardly systematic thinkers. They said whatever came into their heads and since their heads were empty, ideas tended to ricochet. Heinrich Himmler proclaimed himself offended by the idea that he might been descended from the apes.
If Himmler was offended, the apes were appalled.
Nonetheless, even stupid men reach their conclusions because they have been influenced in certain ways. At Hitler’s death in May of 1945, the point was clear enough to the editorial writers of the New York Times. “Long before he had dreamed of achieving power,” they wrote, “[Hitler] had developed the principles that nations were destined to hate, oppose and destroy one another; [and] that the law of history was the struggle for survival between peoples… “
Where, one might ask, had Hitler heard those ideas before? We may strike the Gospels from possible answers to this question. Nonetheless, the thesis that there is a connection between Darwin and Hitler is widely considered a profanation. A professor of theology at Iowa State University, Hector Avalos is persuaded that Martin Luther, of all people, must be considered Adolf Hitler’s spiritual advisor. Luther, after all, liked Jews as little as Hitler did, and both men suffered, apparently, from hemorrhoids. Having matured his opinion by means of an indifference to the facts, Roger Friedman, writing on Fox news, considers the connection between Darwin and Hitler and in an access of analytical insight thinks only to remark, “Urgggh.”
The view that we may consider the sources of Nazi ideology in every context except those most relevant to its formation is rich, fruity, stupid and preposterous. It is for this reason repeated with solemn incomprehension at the website ‘Expelled Exposed’: “Anti-Semitic violence against Jews,” the authors write with a pleased sense of discovery, “can be traced as far back as the middle ages, at least 7 centuries before Darwin.”
Let me impart a secret. It can be traced even further. “Oh that mine head were waters and mine eyes a fountain of tears,” runs the lamentation in Jeremiah 9.1, “that I might weep day and night for the slain daughters of my people.”
And yet if anti-Semitism has been the white noise of European history, to assign it causal powers over the Holocaust is simply to ignore very specific ideas that emerged in the 19th century, and that at once seized the imagination of scientists throughout the world.
What is often called social Darwinism was a malignant force in Germany, England and the United States from the moment that social thinkers forged the obvious connection between what Darwin said and what his ideas implied. Justifying involuntary sterilization, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” He was not, it is understood, appealing to Lutheran ideas. Germany reached a moral abyss before any other state quite understood that the abyss was there to be reached because Germans have always had a congenital weakness for abysses and seem unwilling, when one is in sight, to avoid toppling into it.
These historical connections are so plain that from time to time, those most committed to Darwin’s theory of evolution are moved to acknowledge them. Having dismissed a connection between Darwin and Hitler with florid indignation, the authors of the site ‘Expelled Exposed’ at once proceed to acknowledge it: “The Nazis appropriated language and concepts from evolution,” they write, “as well as from genetics, medicine (especially the germ theory of disease), and anthropology as propaganda tools to promote their perverted ideology of ‘racial purity.'”
Would he care to live in a society shaped by Darwinian principles? The question was asked of Richard Dawkins.
Not at all, he at once responded.
And why not?
Because the result would be fascism.
In this, Richard Dawkins was entirely correct; and it is entirely to his credit that he said so.