Darwin and Hitler: a not-very-intelligent link

Darwin and Hitler: a not-very-intelligent link
Michael Ruse - Tallahassee.com - 2/6/2008 - original
The state of Florida is revising its science standards for teaching in high schools, and this means that, as always in America, we are right in the middle of a battle about the teaching of evolution.

The anti-evolution evangelicals and their modern-day supporters, the so-called intelligent design theorists, have not been having a very good time recently. A couple of years ago, in the city of Dover, Pa., a George W. Bush-appointed federal judge said some very rude things about intelligent design, as he threw out its supporters' case that it is cutting-edge science rather than fundamentalist religion. But this has not stopped anyone from coming back with new arguments and objections.

The latest creationist tack is to claim that teaching evolution sets the nation's school children on the road to national socialism. Supposedly there is a virtual straight line from Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species (1859), to Adolf Hitler, author of Mein Kampf (1925). In the fair city of St. Petersburg, for instance, a former city councilor who is rumored to have designs on the mayoral seat is campaigning against evolution in the schools, claiming that the vile doctrine is the first step to a reincarnation of the Third Reich, and that already we see the moral rot in America. The killers at Columbine, for instance, were fanatical Darwinians.

As is often the case, there is some fire to make the smoke. Before the First World War, a sometime member of the German military high staff, General Friedrich von Bernhardi, wrote a book arguing that war was a Darwinian necessity, a real obligation facing Germany in its struggle with Britain. Hitler did write: "He who wants to live must fight, and he who does not want to fight in this world where eternal struggle is the law of life has no right to exist." A Columbine killer did leave a note about natural selection eliminating the world's weak.

But, before you draw the tight links that the creationists would have us draw, think about the following three facts:

First, the message of Jesus has been used to draw contradictory inferences because of their faith, some Christians (starting with George Bush and Tony Blair) think the move into Iraq was morally justified, whereas others (Quakers, for a start) oppose the war bitterly because of their reading of the Christian Gospels. Likewise, Darwinism has been used to draw contradictory inferences. Bernhardi was in favor of war in Darwin's name. Herbert Spencer in the cause of evolution thought militarism was atavistic, and bad for trade. Prince Peter Kropotkin believed in a principle of mutual aid and was an anarchist. The American biologist and peace activist Vernon Kellogg hated war and thought in bad morally and bad biologically. A case could be made for saying that, by teaching Darwinism, we are teaching the virtues of free trade and small government, and encouraging our best young people to marry and have families!

Second, it is always dicey to specify exactly the influences on Hitler and to claim that this cause and no other was uniquely responsible for his vile philosophy and actions. To put it euphemistically, Hitler was not (for all he thought otherwise) a deeply educated or properly read man. He picked up bits and pieces of folk philosophy from all over in the doss houses of Vienna before the war, in the trenches from his mates, and from pamphlets and like organs after the defeat. He did not engage in a detailed study of Darwin and his works and influences. Hitler certainly owed as much to the general anti-Semitism of the Austria in which he was raised, together with an (one is inclined to say) almost pathetic enthusiasm for the German Volkish movement and the daft but dangerous views that that embraced. It would be too crude to say that Wagner rather than Darwin was responsible for Hitler, but a stronger case could be made. Hitler certainly spent more time listening to heldentenors than to learned disquisitions on the links between embryology and paleontology a favorite hobby horse of German evolutionists.

Third, whatever the initial approval, the Nazi ideologists quickly realized how completely antithetical the whole evolution idea was to their own ideology. Not only are we first cousins to the monkeys but, even worse, the Aryans are brothers and sisters with the Jews, the Slavs, the gypsies, and the rest of the world's riffraff and degenerates. The greatest German evolutionist of the 19th century was Ernst Haeckel a man whose solution to the Jewish problem was to interbreed with them so they would no longer exist as a definite group. There was not much celebration of this man and his ideas in the upper levels of the Nazi hierarchy.

So, as always, be careful not to be seduced by the ideas and claims of the anti-evolutionists. They are not scientists and, to be perfectly honest, they are not very good historians either.

Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. Contact him at mruse@mailer.fsu.edu.