Re: Review of Weikart book

From: Michael Roberts <>
Date: Tue Sep 28 2004 - 04:22:41 EDT

Sounds like the usual spin from DI and ID on a supposed naturalism.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Keith Miller" <>
To: "ASA Listserver" <>
Sent: Tuesday, September 28, 2004 4:22 AM
Subject: Review of Weikart book

> 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
> German&user=&pw=&month=0409
> Published by (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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> Contact the Reviews editorial staff:
Received on Tue Sep 28 06:20:46 2004

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