Review of Weikart book

From: Keith Miller <kbmill@ksu.edu>
Date: Mon Sep 27 2004 - 23:22:08 EDT

To all:

Weikart's book was discussed a little while ago on this forum, so I
thought that some would be interested in this review.

Keith

http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=lx&list=H-
German&user=&pw=&month=0409

Published by H-German@h-net.msu.edu (September 2004)

Richard Weikart. _From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics,
and
Racism in Germany_. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xi + 312 pp.
Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN
1-403-96502-1.

Reviewed for H-German by Sander Gliboff, Department of History and
Philosophy of Science, Indiana University

Darwin on Trial Again

The American creationist movement has been waging war against Darwin and
modern science for decades, but their strategy is evolving. Instead of
pitting only the Bible against the biology, they are cultivating their
credentials in a variety of academic disciplines and attacking from many
new directions. On the history front, Richard Weikart's book
appropriates
the Holocaust and indeed the entire course of Western civilization for
the
creationist side, as it traces a decline in Western morals from the
_Origin
of Species_ to the origin of National Socialism. It is being sold at a
big
discount by the Discovery Institute, one of several organs of the
religious
right that is touting it as an argument against teaching evolution. It
may
also prove instrumental in making a case against reforming marriage and
legalizing abortion or assisted suicide, because it includes comparable
proposals among the links between Darwin and Hitler.

According to Weikart, all of these evils have stemmed from Darwinian
"naturalism." Naturalism is the principle that marks the modern boundary
between science and theology or metaphysics. It limits scientific
investigation to the natural realm and disallows supernatural agencies
and
divine intervention in scientific explanations. For example, it might
very
well please the Creator to make an object fall with a force that is
inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the center of
the
earth, but under naturalism, physicists leave that Creator out of the
equations that describe and explain gravitation. Similarly, biologists
do
not invoke the Creator in their work, either.

Among modern creationists, Phillip Johnson first made an issue of
biologists' naturalism in _Darwin on Trial_ (1991), where he raised
legalistic and philosophical objections to the way it banishes God from
the
sciences. Here Weikart builds upon Johnson's work with historical and
ethical objections. In particular, he objects to the fact that Darwin
included humanity as part of Nature and treated the human mind and the
moral sense as subjects for biological research. Rather than investigate
Man's immortal soul or the divine foundations of ethics, Darwin's
naturalistic approach took ethics to be a human creation, a product of
the
brain and of cultural and biological evolution. That, says Weikart,
undermined traditional Christian values and constituted the first link
in a
chain of ideas leading to National Socialism and the Holocaust.

The book is very well crafted to maintain a scholarly stance and avoid
any
blatant evangelizing or explicit political advocacy. It never cites
Johnson
or other creationists and it does not identify the author as a fellow of
the Discovery Institute. Skillfully, it deploys the bugbear of
naturalism to
draw attention away from anti-Semitism, with its inconvenient Christian
connections, as well as from any other intellectual, political, social,
cultural, economic, diplomatic, military or technological components of
Nazism or factors in Hitler's success. The result, by scholarly
standards,
is an overly narrow and selective history, which makes only cursory use
of
the extensive secondary literature on the origins of National Socialism
and
the history of Darwinism.[1]

In the first part of the book, titled "Laying new foundations for
ethics,"
Weikart anchors the Darwinian end of his chain of ideas. He has Darwin
and
early Darwinians developing evolutionary systems of ethics. These
systems
varied among themselves or allowed for historical change in ethical
norms,
hence were relativistic in comparison to Christianity, which was
absolute.
Part two, "Devaluing human life," ascribes to Darwinians the view that
individual human lives are not sacred, not equal, and may be sacrificed
selectively for the sake of evolutionary progress or other perceived
good.
Here the chain branches and links up with eugenics on the one hand and
with
scientific theories of racial inequality on the other. Part three,
"Eliminating the 'inferior ones,'" connects the theories to practical
proposals. On the eugenics branch: promoting population fitness through
marriage reform, birth control, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.
On
the side of scientific racism: promoting international and inter-racial
struggle, imperialism, and militarism. Part four, "Impacts," completes
the
chain to Hitler, who, Weikart argues, was influenced by both the
practical
proposals and the theories of ethics, which he needed for winning
converts
to his cause. Hitler and his followers are depicted not as amoral, but
as
having embraced the wrong sort of morality, the naturalistic sort,
instead
of the one that was engraved in stone. And that, so to speak, is the
moral
of Weikart's story: there is no workable form of morality that is not
God-given and absolute. All else leads to Hitler.

Methodologically, the book is the kind of history of ideas that connects
thinkers and texts by means of conceptual or linguistic resemblances.
There
are indeed some thought-provoking connections to be made here, for as is
well known, National Socialism incorporated ideas about biology, race,
struggle and survival. Less well known may be the particular scientists
and
social thinkers in Weikart's study, whose writings conveyed Darwinian
ideas
to the twentieth-century German audience. They developed various
naturalistic systems of ethics and various proposals for racial
advancement, some of which were reprehensible by any reasonable
standard,
and some of which bore resemblances to later Nazi ideas.

The method becomes problematic, however, when one tries to argue from
these
kinds of resemblances to causal relationships. Is the scientific
_causing_
the political? _Influencing_ it? _Converging_ with it? Being
_appropriated_
and misrepresented by it? Maybe the influences go the other way, and
Science is responding to political trends and pressures. Maybe science
and
politics are both responding to something else in the historical
context. A
good historian of science will have an eye out for various patterns of
give
and take among biologists, physicians, social philosophers, politicians,
even theologians, interested segments of the public, and eventually
Hitler.
With Weikart, it is a foregone conclusion that the connections are
causes
and influences, always emanating from Darwin.

Weikart goes so far as to assert that "in philosophical terms, Darwinism
was a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause for Nazi ideology" (p. 9).
As
the book portrays it, Darwinism's causal role lay in undermining
Christian
ethics, which would otherwise have held as the last bastion against
Nazism,
no matter how many other causes were working in Hitler's favor. I
suppose
this is also the rationalization for leaving all those other causes out
of
the book. There is of course no way to investigate what would have
happened
without Darwinism, or even to imagine the modern world without any
challenges to pre-modern Christian doctrines. Perhaps Nazism could have
been avoided, as Weikart asserts. Perhaps it would only have had to
appropriate less biological rhetoric and more of some other sort.

Weikart tries to argue that no ideology as coherent and destructive as
Nazism could ever have developed as long as ethics stood on unquestioned
Christian foundations, which upheld the sanctity of every individual
life.
He seems at times to picture a halcyon pre-Darwinian past, when the
absolute theoretical foundations of ethics made a real difference in
practice. However, as Weikart does acknowledge, there were many ethical
lapses before Darwin, too. One might reasonably doubt whether Western
civilization was significantly more corrupt after its intellectuals
took the
naturalistic turn, but Weikart does not. He argues--incredibly, for
someone
who likes his morals absolute--that things like racism and slavery were
less
bad before Darwin, because Europeans still had Christian values and were
moved to send missionaries to Africa as well as slave traders (pp. 103 &
185).

It is dismaying to see such opinions being passed off as results of
scholarly research. The book's few merits only deepen the dismay because
they suggest that Weikart knows better. His book is rich in primary
material, thoroughly documented, and clearly and concisely written. It
features an intriguing and diverse cast of characters, including
biologists
like Ernst Haeckel, philosophers like Christian Ehrenfels, the
eugenicists
Alfred Ploetz and Wilhelm Schallmayer, the psychologist August Forel,
and
the feminist Helene Stoecker. Unfortunately, Weikart only repeats their
most outrageous stances on ethics and human evolution and omits their
criticisms of the still-Christian (despite Darwin) societies in which
they
lived. In short, he does not strive for a contextual understanding of
the
selected writers any more than for an explanation of Hitler. They are
only
characters in a contrived, cautionary tale against religious apostasy,
Darwinism, and free inquiry into the foundations of ethics.

Note

[1]. Relevant works on the roles of science, medicine and eugenics in
the
history of National Socialism include, e.g.: Henry Friedlander, _The
Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution_ (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Robert N. Proctor,
_Racial
Hygiene. Medicine under the Nazis_ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1988). On important discontinuities between Weimar eugenics and
Nazi
extermination: Atina Grossmann, _Reforming Sex. The German Movement for
Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950_ (New York & Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1995). For an overview of the history of Darwinism,
including discussion of religion and morals, see Peter J. Bowler,
_Evolution: The History of an Idea_ (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2003). For a more detailed historical treatment of Darwinian
ethics:
Robert J. Richards, _Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories
of
Mind and Behavior_ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

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Received on Mon Sep 27 23:50:54 2004

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