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Darwin to Hitler: Weikart, the Discovery Institute, and History

Weikart, the Discovery Institute, and History

A Review of the Book, From Darwin to Hitler : Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany by Richard Weikart

Reviewer: Edward T. Babinski


Dr. Weikart is a senior fellow of The Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Designer think tank funded by a millionaire Evangelical Christian. Dr. Weikart's writings reflect the Discovery Institute's agenda to get "design" and a "Designer" mentioned in school whenever theories of origins are discussed. Since Weikart is a historian rather than a biologist, his contribution to the I.D. movement is a bit beside the point. Because even if his work does succeed in getting more people to think of Hitler whenever Darwin or Darwinism are mentioned, his book does not address the truth or falsity of the scientific theory of evolution (not any more than a book about atrocities committed by Christians addresses the historicity of the Gospels).


Perhaps Dr. Wiekart could have emphasized in his book that the threads of history point in many directions, and that although there are connections between Darwin and Hitler, there are also connections between Martin Luther and Hitler (as pointed out in the online book, Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor). There are also threads in history connecting Christianity with anti-Semitism-racism-slavery-torture-murder-wars-irrational fanaticism. There are also the views of those who are not members of the Discovery Institute, and who accept both God and Darwin's theory of evolution. I am speaking of Christian Darwinists and/or fine-tuners (who believe God set the laws of the universe in motion in the beginning and nature worked things out thereafter). Books by such folks include: Finding Darwin's God; Darwinian Natural Right; Darwinism Defeated? (debate between an I.D.ist and a Christian Darwinistic biologist); Random Designer; Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (a collection of essays by Christian evolutionists); The Tree of Life (forthcoming from Michael Denton, a former Discovery Institute associate who asked his name be removed from their website); and, God and Evolution (the last book being written by Christian population biologist, David L. Wilcox). There is also the journal, Zygon, that has been publishing articles on the connection between religion, ethics and Darwinism, including many articles by Christian theologians, scientists and philosophers.


Points for readers of Weikart's book to ponder:

POINT #1) Weikart makes much of a statement Darwin made 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." Weikart says, "Based on this--and, of course, much, much [sic] more--evidence, I conclude that Darwin contributed to the development of theories of racial extermination that were prominent among leading German biologists and eugenicists in the early twentieth century."
"Darwin contributed to?" A rather vague assertion. You can find a lot of things "contribute" to other things in history. In context however, Darwin was not urging anyone to exterminate anyone else. Darwin was parroting a view that can be traced back 60 years before his Origin of Species was ever published, a view held in common by BOTH creationists and evolutionists from 1800 to the 1930's. Patrick Brantlinger in his book, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930, examines this commonly held view, namely, that all "primitive" or "savage" races around the world were doomed sooner or later to extinction. Humanitarians, according to Brantlinger, saw the problem in the same terms of inevitability (or doom) as did scientists such as Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley as well as propagandists for empire such as Charles Wentworth Dilke and James Anthony Froude. Brantlinger shows that by the 1890s, especially through the influence of the eugenics movement, extinction discourse was even applied to "the great white race" in various apocalyptic formulations. With the rise of fascism and Nazism, and with the gradual renewal of aboriginal populations in some parts of the world, by the 1930s the stereotypic idea of "fatal impact" began to unravel, as did also various more general forms of race-based thinking and of social Darwinism.

"One of the most impressive aspects of Brantlinger's book is its ability to trace the uniformity of extinction discourse across a number of ideological and political contexts. [Not just 'Social Darwinist' ones.]"
-John Kucich, University of Michigan


To give just one example, within two generations of the British colonisation of Tasmania in 1803, the entire full-blood Tasmanian
aboriginal population was dead, and a tribal society that had existed for tens of thousands of years had been destroyed in wars against the colonists and via diseases carried by them. (Some people of mixed Tasmania-Caucasian pedigree survived.) Edward Curr (1798-1850), director of the Van Diemen's Land Company, stated that the conflict between the colonists and the Tasmanians would end "as all such matters have ended in other parts of the world, by the extermination of the weaker race." (Henry Reynolds, An Indelible Stain? pp. 52-53) Curr's statement is an example of the kind of thinking prevalent before Darwin's Origin was ever published. Also, a book titled, Types of Mankind, appeared in 1854 (a mere five years before Darwin's Origin) containing essays by a number of creationist scientists, including Louis Agassiz (who soon would become a vocal critic of Darwin's theory), which argued stenuously in favor of the inferior position of the African race.


POINT #2) Weikart begins the first chapter of his book with these words: Darwin sums up his view of ethics and morality in his Autobiography, stating that one who does not believe in God or an afterlife--as he did not--"can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones."

Unfortunately, Weikart's snippet doesn't do Darwin's view of "instincts" justice. Darwin continued:

"A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives ; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience. [Extracts from Nora Barlow ed. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882: With Original Omissions (by Darwin's family) Restored. New York, W.W. Norton, 1969. pp. 85-96. Available on the web for free.]


Another Darwin quotation that Weikart did not address in his book is this one:

"Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection...Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man."(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man) (One must of course keep in mind that Darwin was not discussing all that could happen to a social animal to make it grow anti-social. Nor was he discussing the many psychological factors that drive fanatical mass movements--be they fascist, communist, or even Christian--see Eric Hoffer's book, The True Believer, for information on that topic. Darwin was addressing the much larger fact, often unnoticed, that among social creatures, positive gregariousness, a liking for each other's company, is the steady, unnoticed background for the conflicts.)


POINT #3) Weikart's low opinion of any morality not based on "supernatural revelation" is evident in his book. But, invoking "supernatural revelation" to explain "morality" is merely to invoke one mystery to "explain" another. Such a method of reasoning does not prove anything to philosophers with different views. (There are also Christian philosophers who find room for both God and Darwinism in their explanations of morality, see above.) The Bible, an alleged "supernatural revelation," exhibits its own cases of "moral relativity," because it never calls polygamy, slavery, or even genocide, "sins." Some "divine" commands in the Bible also appear barbaric by today's moral standards. And though the New Testament emphasizes that the individual believer ought to practice self-sacrificial love even toward enemies, it does not say what laws society as a whole ought to make and exactly how they ought to be enforced. Only the Old Testament contains laws for society as a whole--and as already pointed out, some of those are barbaric by today's standards. The letters of Paul instructed some believers to cast out other types of believers from their midst and label those other believers, "anathema." While a story in the book of Acts involving Peter says that two believers were struck dead by God for not telling the truth about giving "everything" they owned to the church, a supernatural punishment that even C. S. Lewis found a bit extreme (he doubted the historicity of that particular story). Also, the New Testament ends with a picture in the book of Revelation of people being "cast/thrown into a lake of fire," "whose smoke rises up forever in the sight of heaven's inhabitants." Is such an image less hideous or more hideous than herding people into box cars and sending them to concentration camps? Also, the idea of "eternal hell" has often made Christians fear the "heretical" beliefs of other Christians, rather than serve as a goad to making crime in society disappear.


POINT #4) Contra Weikart, notice what the British philosopher, Mary Midgley; the biologist, Frans De Waal, and the physicist/philosopher, Albert Einstein, had to say about Darwinism and/or morality.


First, Dr. Mary Midgley: "Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect":

'Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection...Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.'(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

"That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible. These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt--though of course usually an unsuccessful one--to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most. If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin's idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention." (Mary Midgley, "Wickedness: An Open Debate," The Philosopher's Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001)


Second, Dr. Frans De Waal: "Forgiveness is not, as some people seem to believe, a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to a few millennia of Judeo-Christianity. It did not originate in the minds of people and cannot therefore be appropriated by an ideology or a religion. The fact that monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation behavior (stretching out a hand, smiling, kissing, embracing, and so on) means that it is probably over thirty million years old, preceding the evolutionary divergence of these primates... Reconciliation behavior [is] a shared heritage of the primate order... When social animals are involved... antagonists do more than estimate their chances of winning before they engage in a fight; they also take into account how much they need their opponent. The contested resource often is simply not worth putting a valuable relationship at risk. And if aggression does occur, both parties may hurry to repair the damage. Victory is rarely absolute among interdependent competitors, whether animal or human." (Frans De Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates)


Lastly, Albert Einstein: "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."
I should add that Einstein's theories of relativity evoked savage attacks in the 1920s by the anti-Semitic physicists Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard, men who after 1932 tried to create a so-called Aryan physics in Germany. So the Germans were not only "Aryanizing Darwin" but also "Aryanizing physics" and anything else they could "Aryanize." With the rise of fascism in Germany, Einstein moved to the U.S. (a month before Hitler took power) and abandoned his pacifism. He reluctantly agreed that the new fanatical menace of German fascism had to be put down through force of arms. Evolutionists, creationists, and others in U.S., agreed.


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