May 11, 2008


Darwin's Dystopia? (Dr. Benjamin Wiker, 5/08/08, To the Source)

One doesn't need to see the film to make that link. Simply read Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Darwin's Descent of Man applies the evolutionary arguments of his more famous Origin of Species to human beings. In it, Darwin argues that those characteristics we might think to be specifically human—physical strength and health, morality, and intelligence—were actually achieved by natural selection. From this, he infers two related eugenic conclusions.

First, if the desirable results of strength, health, morality, and intelligence are caused by natural selection, then we can improve them by artificial selection. We can breed better human beings, even rise above the human to the superhuman. Since human beings have been raised above the other animals by the struggle to survive, they may be raised even higher, transcending human nature to something—who knows?—as much above men as men are now above the apes. This strange hope rests in Darwin's very rejection of the belief that man is defined by God, for "the fact of his having thus risen" by evolution to where he is, "instead of having been aboriginally placed there" by God, "may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future."

Second, if good breeding gives us better results, pushing us up the evolutionary slope, then bad or indiscriminate breeding drags us back down. "If…various checks…do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men," Darwin groaned, "the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule."

Now to Hitler. The first, most important thing to understand is that the link between Darwin and Hitler was not immediate. That is, nobody is making the case that Hitler had Darwin's eugenic masterpiece The Descent of Man in one hand while he penned Mein Kampf in the other. Darwin's eugenic ideas were spread all over Europe and America, until they were common intellectual coin by Hitler's time. That makes the linkage all the stronger, because we are not talking about one crazed man misreading Darwin but at least two generations of leading scientists and intellectuals drawing the same eugenic conclusions from evolutionary theory as Darwin himself drew.

A second point. We misunderstand Hitler's evil if we reduce it to anti-Semitism. Hitler's anti-Semitism had, of course, multiple causes, including his own warped character. That having been said, Nazism was at heart a racial, that is, a biological political program based up evolutionary theory. It was "applied biology," in the words of deputy party leader of the Nazis, Rudolph Hess, and done for the sake of a perceived greater good, racial purity, that is, for the sake of a race purified of physical and mental defects, imperfections, and racial inferiority.

we could say Nazism was Applied OliverWendellHolmesism or Sangerism...

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 11, 2008 8:52 AM
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