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Edward T. Oakes

Darwin's Graveyards

Yes, he really was a Social Darwinist.

One of the most pernicious and widespread fictions ever foisted on an unsuspecting public claims that Charles Darwin was not a social Darwinist. Not so. For example, in a letter to one William Graham dated July 3, 1881, Darwin wrote:

I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago, of being overwhelmed by the Turk, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.

According to the myths of standard historiography, Darwin confined himself strictly to matters biological—even in The Descent of Man, when he finally came, late in life, to apply his theory to man's place in the evolutionary tree. So whatever damage came to the poor and downtrodden from Darwin's theory is due to others, above all Herbert Spencer. Here, in Spencer, can be found the villain of the piece: that second-rate thinker ruined a perfectly good biological theory by hijacking it for cutthroat capitalism, contempt for the poor, laissez-faire lassitude about social legislation, and so forth. Spencer, the claim goes, was the first to transpose ethics into evolutionary terms, defining as good whatever promoted the "progress" of evolution and as bad whatever hindered it.

Unfortunately for Darwin's own reputation, this thesis does not bear scrutiny. Spencer might well have been the first to coin the phrase "survival of the fittest." But Darwin enthusiastically adopted it in the 6th edition of his Origin of Species as a substitute term for "natural selection." Nor did he ever demur when other advocates of evolution's social application came pleading their case. Karl Marx asked if he might dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, which request Darwin declined only because he did not want to offend the religious sensibilities of his deeply Christian wife.

Nor were Darwin's own musings on the social implications of his theory limited to private correspondence. In one particularly chilling passage in Descent of Man he asserted, "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." Even more ominously, this insouciantly expressed sentiment cannot be regarded as an illegitimate conclusion from the earlier and more reliable Origin of Species. In a passage historians often cite to prove that at the time of the Origin Darwin was still struggling to maintain his belief in God, Darwin actually, if unwittingly, promulgated the charter for all later social Darwinists: "Let the strongest live and the weakest die… . Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows." In effect, this passage turns Christian theodicy on its head and gives St. Paul's line "Death is swallowed up in victory" a total reversal of meaning. Victory now belongs only to the fittest.

As Richard Weikart proves in his magnificently written monograph From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection released a veritable Pandora's box of evil vapors and demonic spirits, which, once unleashed on an eager European public, poisoned discourse on war, race, sex, nationality, diplomacy, colonization, economy, and anthropology—especially, it would seem, in Germany. In a letter he wrote to the German Wilhelm Pryor in 1868, Darwin averred that "the support which I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail," a line that could well serve as the epigraph to Weikart's riveting tale of how Germany led itself (and thereby the rest of the world) into the abyss of internecine war and savagely applied eugenics, naïvely thinking all the while that it was helping to produce Darwin's "higher animal" from his eagerly anticipated "war of nature."

Nietzsche saw that it would be impossible to accept Darwinian theory in any of its guises without falling into the abyss of nihilism.

For Weikart (a historian at California State University, Stanislaus), the two most important steppingstones that led from Darwin to Hitler were the biologist Ernst Haeckel and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. But the real value of this riveting work of intellectual history comes from the minute tracing of the influence exerted on the German public by lesser-known figures who served as conduits for Darwinian ideas in specialized journals, newspapers, various academic and professional congresses, and the like. Relying on a prodigious amount of original research (including the private correspondence of many writers who recognized that some of their thinking was as yet too explosive to be voiced before the public in print), Weikart has provided a signal service not just to historical scholarship but also to the general public during this time when eugenics is being used to justify "therapeutic" abortions, post-natal infanticide and euthanasia.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be drawn from Weikart's narrative is the astonishing metaphysical continuity he limns in the views that started with Darwin and ended up with Hitler. To trace this continuity, one need only compare this passage from Nietzsche's Will to Power with a similar one, immediately following, from Mein Kampf.

From Nietzsche:
The biblical prohibition "Thou shalt not kill" is a piece of naïveté compared with the seriousness of Life's own "Thou shalt not" issued to decadence: "Thou shalt not procreate!" —Life itself recognizes no solidarity, no "equal right," between the healthy and the degenerate parts of an organism… . Sympathy for the decadents, equal rights for the ill-constituted—that would be the profoundest immorality, that would be anti-nature itself as morality!
From Hitler:
A stronger race will supplant the weaker, since the drive for life in its final form will decimate every ridiculous fetter of the so-called "humaneness" of individuals, in order to make place for the true "humaneness of nature," which destroys the weak to make place for the strong.

Apologists for Nietzsche, when confronted with passages from Will to Power that sound so congruent to Mein Kampf, like to claim that this posthumously published work does not represent Nietzsche's true thinking because of the tendentious editing of his pro-Nazi sister. Perhaps so, but other passages from his published works show how consonant the views expressed here are with those he sent out into the public under his own name. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he said: "Far too many keep on living; they hang on their branches much too long. May a storm soon come, which shakes all this rotten and worm-eaten fruit from the tree!" In a section of The Gay Science entitled "Holy Cruelty," a Nietzschean "saint" advises a father to kill his disabled child, rhetorically asking, "Isn't it crueler to allow it to live?" The Twilight of the Idols includes a section entitled "Morality for Physicians" that calls sick people "parasites" who have no right to life and advocates the "most ruthless suppression and pushing aside of degenerate life." And finally in his autobiography Ecce Homo, one of the last books he sent to the publisher before his collapse into insanity, he said: "If we cast a look a century ahead and assume that my assassination of two thousand years of opposition to nature and of dishonoring humans succeeds, then that new party of life [!] will take in hand the greatest of all tasks—the higher breeding of humanity, including the unsparing destruction of all degenerates and parasites." The metaphysical and ethical continuity from these grim passages to Mein Kampf is seamless.

Given his impact on history, Hitler is often taken for a madman; but perhaps the most disturbing result of Weikart's book is the way he shows how Hitler fits so neatly into the wider trends of German intellectual life inherited from the late 19th century. For Weikart, all of Hitler's speeches and texts, Mein Kampf most especially, can best (and most simply) be interpreted as an entirely non-idiosyncratic assemblage of various strands of social-Darwinist thought—strands, moreover, that Hitler drew from large numbers of "respectable" leading figures in the natural and social sciences in Germany from 1860 to 1925. The author does not of course claim any deep reading on Hitler's part, but that is irrelevant: "Even if Hitler imbibed these ideas from crass popularizers," Weikart says, "the popularizers had derived these ideas from reputable scholars. Though not uncontested, they were mainstream ideas of respectable, leading figures in the German academic community." (One weirdly telling indication of this ubiquity of Darwinian boilerplate comes from a figure who is probably the most freakish in the whole book: Ludwig Gumplowicz, a Polish Jew who taught sociology at the German-speaking University of Graz in the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his book Racial Struggle, Gumplowicz argued that the "racial struggle for dominion in all its forms, whether open and violent, or latent and peaceful, is therefore the actual driving principle, the moving force of history.")

Hitler had a second-rate, petit-bourgeois mind, got most of his ideas from journalism and coffeehouses, and wrote turgidly (even the early Nazis, who were obliged to read the thing as part of their induction into the Nazi cult, called his autobiography Mein Krampf ["My Cramp"]). But all that is quite irrelevant: what Hitler added to social Darwinism was merely the ruthlessness to apply on the stage of history what had only been mooted by so many writers and professors in the two generations preceding him. Where they only suggested, he acted.

How that happened is the sad tale told in this book. So pervasive were social-Darwinist presuppositions in German debate that opponents of German militarism and capitalism felt they had to draw on Darwin to justify their own arguments for pacifism and socialism. For example, the Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner justified her pacifism on Darwinian principles, calling for "a gradual extermination [!] of the belligerent tribes by peace-loving nations." (In one of those ironies for which the Nobel committee has subsequently become notorious, this terminally confused woman actually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.) Another Darwinian pacifist, Alfred Fried, addressed the Hague Peace Conference of 1899 and gave the audience what one presumes was the to-them startling suggestion that the way to preserve peace would be to have the conference agree ahead of time how to divide China in order to avoid intra-European friction on the issue. At the Universal Race Congress in 1911, a meeting expressly designed to promote racial harmony across the globe, the first professor of anthropology at the University of Berlin, Felix von Luschan, began by admitting that according to anthropological dogma no race is inferior to another. But he must have unsettled the audience when he immediately proceeded to take from the left hand what his right had given: "The brotherhood of man is a good thing, but the struggle for life is a far better one."

Weikart has dug up any number of such speeches, letters, books, and articles, all of which go to prove how much both pacifists and socialists drew from Darwinian principles and how skin-deep their otherwise laudable humanitarian impulses were. For instance, the premier evolutionary biologist in Germany at the time (and a great admirer of Darwin), Ernst Haeckel, bitterly opposed World War I—but on grounds almost grotesquely Darwinian: he objected to the war because only the wrong kinds of men were being killed. "The stronger, healthier, more normal the young man is, the greater is the prospect for him to be murdered by the needle gun, cannons, and other similar instruments of culture." On the other hand, the weak and sick were not being permitted into the army, thus allowing them to have children and thereby leading the nation into biological decline. Yet Haeckel opposed the German Parliament's attempt to pass a peace resolution in 1917-18 (which called for peace without annexation) and in fact favored the newly formed annexationist Fatherland Party.

Even Haeckel views were not so bizarre as those of Heinrich Fick, a law professor at the University of Zurich, who as early as 1872 suggested such legal reforms as prohibiting those unfit for the draft from marrying, at least until they had reached the age of those being honorably discharged from military service. Not to be outdone, Alfred Ploetz, the founder of the German Society for Race Hygiene (the first of its kind in the world) and the editor of one of the first journals devoted to eugenics, suggested drafting all young men into the army; then "during the campaign it would be good to bring the specially assembled bad elements to the place where one primarily needs cannon fodder."

Socialists, too, one discovers from Weikart's research—or at least some of them—looked on economic inequality as an artificial inhibitor of the "better" elements. (This was why Karl Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin; Marx regarded the robber-baron capitalists as representatives of the epicene class that would soon wither in the face of a united, and much brawnier, working class.) The socialists cited by Weikart clearly wanted socialism to lessen friction within German society, the better to prepare it for success in the struggle with other collectivities, which surely explains the readiness of the Socialist Party in Germany to support the German war effort at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 (as did most Protestant theologians, much to the disgust of Karl Barth). Emil Reich, a professor at the University of Vienna, wrote in one socialist journal: "From an evolutionary standpoint equality is not to be understood as a principle of the equal value of individuals, but only as the equal right of each individual to be allowed to develop his abilities."

In the face of these wan attempts to hold to vaguely humanitarian policies by using Darwinian arguments, it is little wonder that these writers were left defenseless before more concerted advocates of war and inegalitarianism. Max Nordau, in a book called Conventional Lies (which became a bestseller in Germany upon its publication in 1909), called the idea of human equality a "fable," a "delusion of ivory-tower scholars and dreamers," and said that the "least perfect individuals will be destroyed in the struggle for first place and will disappear… . Inequality is therefore a natural law."

The warmongers were worse, much worse. A sociologist by the name of Sebald Steinmetz, in a book published in 1907 called The Philosophy of War, saw war as a "world court" determining "the entire value of a people." Darwinism requires by the very nature of its theory that different peoples, nations and races be unequal in value, an inequality that can be sorted out and "adjudicated" by the only final verdict known to Darwin: survival of the fittest. And war is that final adjudicator, that grimmest of grim reapers: Steinmetz admits that such wars will bring "the extermination of the most worthless ones."

Because condemning Hitler and Nazism is now about as easy as falling off a barrel, liberal utilitarianism has deluded itself into thinking it has escaped the clutches of social Darwinism while it continues to embrace Darwin's explanation for evolution. A careful reading of Weikart's work will disabuse the reader of such delusions. For one thing, socialism still entices the left-wing mind with its siren call, which owes far more to social Darwinism than it cares to admit, as Weikart showed in his earlier book, Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein (1999).

Then there is the matter of eugenics. Once the fundamental ethical distinction became one of fit versus unfit, the way was opened to every abuse imaginable:

In their zeal to rid the world of "unfit" or "inferior people," some eugenicists were not content with half measures. Darwinism proclaimed the ultimate doom of the "unfit" anyway, who would inevitably perish in the struggle for existence. Some thought natural selection could be helped along, not only through sexual or marriage reforms, but also by killing those deemed "inferior," "unfit," "worthless," or "of negative value." Since many Darwinists and most early eugenicists were critical of the Christian virtues of compassion and pity for the weak and sick, they led the attack on Judeo-Christian prohibitions against killing innocent human life.

Given the devastation that followed in the wake of Nazi ideology, contemporary advocates of "therapeutic" abortion, physician-assisted suicide, infanticide of babies with birth defects, and so forth, are far more circumspect in their rhetoric (with the possible exception of Peter Singer). But Weikart has caught them out: past and present eugenicists differ only in rhetoric, not in the deep structure of their commonly held philosophical presuppositions, which are shared by eugenicists across the board.

Ethical naturalism: this, above all, is the "red thread" that connects almost all discussion by professors and intellectuals in Germany in the two or three generations leading up to Hitler, a view that lives on up to our own day. As Weikart summarizes the results of his research in the opening pages: "When we turn the spotlight away from political ideology and focus on ethics, the value of human life, and racial ideology, we often find that Darwinists who were poles apart politically had more in common than we may have suspected at first glance." And what they had in common, simply enough, was materialistic naturalism: "In explaining the evolution of human mental and moral traits from animals, Darwin and most Darwinians denied the existence of an immaterial and immortal soul, a central tenet of the Judeo-Christian worldview that undergirded the sanctity of human life."

Alasdair MacIntyre famously said in After Virtue that every debate about moral issues in contemporary society can be boiled down to a debate between Nietzsche and Aristotle. Perhaps another way of phrasing that same insight would be to say that every contemporary ethical dispute is really a debate between Charles Darwin and Pope John Paul II, especially in his encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. One either regards man as a complicated bag of cells wrapped in skin, whose only law is the biological imperative of vitality, self-preservation, and procreation; or one sees man as created in the image and likeness of God, whose innate and divinely bestowed dignity absolutely forbids any metaphysically significant division in human society between fit and unfit, strong and weak, white and black, Aryan and Semite, Greek and Jew, adult and fetus, those new born and those near death.

It was of course no part of Weikart's brief to establish this philosophical connection between past and present forms of eugenic Darwinism, for what he has written is a spare and sobering account of intellectual history, the finest I have read since Steven Aschheim's The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany: 1890-1990 (which covers much the same ground). Given the industry of Weikart's research and the intense relevance of his results, I am reluctant to cavil; but a biographical glossary at the end of the book might have helped the non-specialist reader (of whom I hope there will be many) to sort out the dates and timelines of all these now-obscure figures. Nor have I any right to lament the specific focus of the book, which deals solely with the Darwinists and only rarely with their opponents. For it was not part of the author's brief to discuss how much opposition was elicited by the discourse of social Darwinism in Germany in these years from 1860 to 1930. But readers will also want to know, from other sources if not from Weikart's next book, how effective any counterattacks on Darwinism were during these years. He does mention in passing the relatively weak response of the Catholic Church as being due to the legacy of Bismarck's Kulturkampf against the Church in the last half of the 19th century, which left Catholics rather hobbled during the rise of fascism (parallels with attempts to limit Catholic participation in ethical debates about abortion and euthanasia in the United States on First Amendment pretexts readily suggest themselves).

Perhaps more damaging to his efforts, Weikart's single-minded focus on the advocates of social Darwinism has, I believe, somewhat distorted his interpretation of Nietzsche. That Nietzsche was an essential steppingstone from Darwin to Hitler I do not dispute, and one could quote far more passages from Nietzsche's writings than Weikart has done to prove that point, from his lucubrations on the "Blond Beast" to his advocacy of eugenics (his Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil are monuments to social Darwinist thought). The odd thing, however, is that Nietzsche's references to Darwin are almost uniformly denunciatory, a fact which Weikart notes but does not sufficiently thematize.

Faced with this oddity, one could well argue that those figures whom Nietzsche most violently denounces (Socrates, Jesus, and Darwin primarily) are just those persons who most deeply influenced him and whom he could not otherwise exorcize from his thought. After all, as is well known, Nietzsche signed his letters "the Crucified One" after his mental breakdown; and one occasionally comes across passages in his books that seem like bolts of lightning from the Platonic and Christian skies, as in this remark from The Gay Science: "Even we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith thousands of years old, the Christian faith, which was also the faith of Plato: that God is the truth, that truth is divine."

These concessions to Plato and Christianity, however, are mere fragments, whereas Darwin forms the warp and woof of Nietzsche's ethics. So why the denunciations? Because, in my opinion, he saw that it would be impossible to accept Darwinian theory in any of its guises without falling into the abyss of nihilism. And because he had imbibed too deeply from the fetid waters of Darwin's well, he could only stave off its implications by positing his myth of the eternal recurrence of all things: only by embracing and affirming the idea that all this pointless suffering would be repeated endlessly could he face the nihilistic implications of Darwinian man, that bag of fleshly straw wired for sound. Hence his contempt for all programs of social amelioration based on Darwinian principles. Hence his denunciation of anti-Semites, who he said should be shot (an oddly Darwinian solution to the problem, but there it is). Hence his condemnation of German culture (he sneered that Germans had brains made of beer and called the first line of the German national anthem, Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles, the stupidest line ever written). Hence, too, his desire to be buried in Poland, a wish his sister countermanded.

I mention all this not to exonerate Nietzsche, whose responsibility in Weikart's harrowing tale is clear, but to highlight the real lesson we can still draw from Nietzsche's personal tragedy: any attempt to draw ethical implications from the biological facts of man, either in his origins or in his present constitution, will inevitably lead to nihilism, to violence, to C. S. Lewis's "abolition of man." As R. J. Hollingdale says in his fine biography, Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy, "Nineteenth-century rationalism was characterized by insight into the difficulty in accepting revealed religion, and obtuseness regarding the consequences of rejecting it." As Nietzsche said so well of these foolish rationalists in his Twilight of the Idols:

They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency… . With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief, one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. Whoever tries to peel off this fundamental idea—belief in God—from Christian morality will only be taking a hammer to the whole thing, shattering it to pieces.

Perhaps this why Nietzsche said in Ecce Homo, "the most serious Christians have always been well disposed toward me." Certainly, no Christian would ever want to follow him down his path of the "transvaluation of all values" (a program metaphysically and ethically indistinguishable from Darwinism or Nazism). In essence, Nietzsche was trying with this program to find naturalistic analogues to basic Christian beliefs: instead of God, the superman; instead of divine grace, the will to power; and instead of eternal life, the eternal recurrence. But one can reverse the direction of Nietzsche's argument here and show that belief in God, grace and eternal life means the refutation of the ideas of the superman, will to power and eternal recurrence. More to the point, it means showing how ethics cannot in any way be derived from biology. This, I presume, is what St. Paul meant when he said:

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the things of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh are hostile to God… . So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. (Rom. 8:5–8, 12–13)

As the Bible teaches, the world does not live by this law, which must surely explain why it so eagerly embraced Darwinian biology and ethics—and so rapidly fell into the abyss by doing so. Nor was Nietzsche the only one to see this incompatibility. What one learns from Weikart's monograph is that some of the most vicious Darwinian apologists were quite willing to declare war on Christianity precisely because of its total incompatibility with Darwinism.

Among the most egregious of these anti-Christians was Alexander Tille, who taught German language and literature at the University of Glasgow until 1900 but regarded his work on evolutionary ethics as his real calling. One must at least credit Tille for seeing the real issue in all its starkness: "From the doctrine that all men are children of God and equal before him," he said, "the ideal of humanitarianism and socialism has grown, that all humans have the same right to exist, the same value, and this ideal has greatly influenced behavior in the last two centuries. This ideal is irreconcilable with the theory of evolution … [, which] recognizes only fit and unfit, healthy and sick, genius and atavist" (emphasis in the original).

Christians are bound to agree that this "conflict of interpretations" can never be overcome. In fact, it seems that one of Darwin's own friends and colleagues was the first to see this fundamental incompatibility, the famous geologist Adam Sedgwick, who was Darwin's mentor at Cambridge before his journey on the Beagle. Although no six-day creationist (he was the first to identify the Cambrian age), he saw immediately the catastrophe that the Origin of Species would mean to the human race if it were ever accepted. In a letter he wrote to Darwin on November 24, 1859 (shortly after the Origin's publication), he warned Darwin in these words (this should be the sticker affixed to every biology textbook in the nation):

Passages in your book … greatly shocked my moral sense. There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. 'Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does, thro' final causes, link material to moral… . You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which, thank God, it is not) to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.

In other words, William Jennings Bryan was right all along when he said that Darwinism helped "lay the foundation for the bloodiest war in history." He was obviously speaking of World War I, having no idea how much his words would be trumped by an even bloodier war between two camps of Darwinians, the Nazis and the Communists (one cannot stress enough that the word "Nazi" is a syncopation for "National Socialist Workers Party," which indicates Nazism's clear affinities with collectivist Bolshevism as well as anything). Imagine! That poor, maligned, "fundamentalist" lawyer, who argued for the state of Tennessee and against evolution in the Scopes trial—he was the real prophet. And what can we say of his opposite number, Clarence Darrow, the lawyer for the pro-evolution biology teacher John Thomas Scopes and the spokesman for the sneering classes so beloved of H. L. Mencken? Not much except that he would have made a marvelous figure for Nietzsche's scorn. As Peter Berger says of him in A Rumor of Angels, Darrow was "an admirable man in many ways, but one dense enough sincerely to believe that a Darwinian view of man could serve as a basis of his opposition to capital punishment."

And so it continues today. All those baffled by "what's wrong with Kansas," that is, with why a constituency that would otherwise be so drawn to progressive politics continues to eschew it, have only to look to Weikart's history—and to Bryan's foresight against Darrow's insipid progress-happiness—to find their answer. If one were to draw any one single lesson from this woeful tale for contemporary politics it would be this: the stakes in the culture wars could not be higher.

Edward T. Oakes, sj, teaches theology at St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. He is coeditor, with David Moss, of The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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