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Was It Immoral for “Expelled” to Connect Darwinism and Nazi Racism?

Arthur Caplan recently blasted the movie “Expelled” as immoral, ridiculously calling the Jewish celebrity Ben Stein a Holocaust denier. Scientific American called “Expelled” shameful. Why such ire? Stein in his movie had the temerity to suggest that there was a historical connection between Darwinism and Nazi atrocities. Stein did not state — as some of his detractors claim — that Darwinism leads inevitably to the Holocaust.

Is Caplan right that Stein has “subvert[ed] the key reason why the Holocaust took place — racism — to serve his own ideological end”? It is remarkable that a scholar of Caplan’s stature should be unaware that for the Nazis racism and Darwinism were intertwined.

The relationship between Charles Darwin and racism has been hotly contested by scholars. Some deny that he was a racist, but many acknowledge it freely. Historian Janet Browne (Harvard University), in her two-volume biography of Darwin, states that Darwin’s “naturalism explicitly cast the notion of race into evolutionary and biological terms, reinforcing contemporary ideas of a racial hierarchy that replicated the ranking of animals.” Adrian Desmond and James Moore are even more explicit: “‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start—’Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.”

Whether one considers Darwin a racist or not, he certainly believed that human races were engaging in a struggle for existence. He stated in The Descent of Man: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”

German Darwinists, taking their cue from Ernst Haeckel, were even more racist than Darwin. To make human evolution seem more plausible, Haeckel claimed that the lowest human races were closer to apes than to higher human races. Some German anthropologists even argued that different human races had evolved from different simian species.

By the time Hitler imbibed racism in early twentieth-century Austria and Germany, most racial thinkers were thoroughly Darwinian in their interpretation of racism. Lower races had supposedly not evolved as far from the apes as the higher races had.

The Darwinian underpinnings of Nazi racial ideology are patently obvious. Hitler’s chapter on “Nation and Race” in Mein Kampf discusses the racial struggle for existence in clear Darwinian terms. Hitler stated therein, “The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he after all is only a weak and limited man; for if this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher evolution [Entwicklung] of organic living beings would be unthinkable.”

Hitler often spoke about the inevitability and even beneficence of the struggle for existence. In 1942 — after the Holocaust was in full swing and the full significance of this deathly philosophy was more evident — he stated, “We are all beings of nature, which — inasmuch as we can see it — only know one harsh law, the law that gives the right of life to the stronger and takes the life of the weaker. We humans cannot exempt ourselves from this law. . . . On this earth we observe the unswerving struggle of living organisms with each other. One animal lives, in that it kills the other.”

Nazi racial propaganda often overtly linked racism with Darwinian themes. For instance, an SS pamphlet, Rassenpolitik (Racial Policy) that was approved by both Hitler and Himmler, stated, “The preservation and propagation, the evolution and elevating of life occurs through the struggle for existence, to which every plant, every animal, every species and every genus is subjected. Even humans and the human races are subject to this struggle; it decides their value and their right to exist.” Another Nazi propaganda pamphlet that Hitler personally approved, Wofür kämpfen wir? (Why Are We Fighting?), stated, “Our racial idea is only the ‘expression of a worldview’ that recognizes in the higher evolution of humans a divine command.”

Many historians have discussed the Darwinian elements in Nazism. One of the leading historians of Nazi Germany, Richard J. Evans (Cambridge University), for instance, states in an essay on social Darwinism in Germany, “Hitler took up this rhetoric [of social Darwinism] and used his own version of the language of social Darwinism as a central element in the discursive practice of extermination.” He makes a similar point in the first two volumes of his three-volume work on Nazi Germany.

Christopher Hutton in his recent book, Race and the Third Reich, closes the book with the following words: “All the key elements of this [Nazi] world-view had been constructed and repeatedly reaffirmed by linguists, racial anthropologists, evolutionary scientists and geneticists. Ludwig Plate [a biologist] observed that ‘progress in evolution goes forward over millions of dead bodies’ (Plate 1932:vii). For Nazism, survival in evolution required the genocide of the Jews.”

Historians may differ over how to draw the intellectual connections between Darwinism and Nazism, but denying such connections is absurd.

Richard Weikart

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Richard Weikart is Professor of History at California State University, Stanislaus. He completed his Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of Iowa in 1994, receiving the biennial prize of the Forum for History of Human Sciences for the best dissertation in that field. His revised dissertation, Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein, was published in 1999.