Did Darwin’s writings lead to the Nazi genocides?

by Charles Cherry

Charles Darwin. 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in....

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I was setting up the TV/DVD player in our living yesterday, in preparation for our small group meeting. When I turned the TV on, I recognized the voice speaking as Dr. David Berlinski. He was debating Christopher Hitchens (noted atheist author of God is Not Great) on the PBS show “Book Notes.” You can watch the debate online here.

Even though I missed most of the debate, I was able to catch the tail end of it and hear final arguments, rebuttals, and closing remarks. When Belinski made a connection between Atheistic Darwinism and the Nazi Holocaust, Hitchens became unglued.

“Connecting Nazism with Darwinism “is a filthy slander,” Hitchens said. “Darwinism was derided in Germany.”

Mr. Hitchens spent several minutes railing against Berlinski for making the connection, and was personally offended as well:

“To say that there is something fascistic about my beliefs, I won’t hear said, and you shouldn’t believe,” he said to both Berlinski and the audience, many of whom cheered after his short but impassioned speech.

Was there a connection between Darwinism and Nazism? Historical connections like this are notoriously hard to pin down in a definitive manner, but in this case I think the connections are pretty clear-cut.

First of all, it is fairly well-known that racism was a defining characteristic of the Third Reich. It is also fairly well-known that racism was the driving motivation behind the Eugenics programs – first in England (home of Charles Darwin), then in America (home of Margaret Sanger), and finally in Europe, where German scientists and university professors under Hitler’s regime were able to develop the “science” of eugenics to a greater degree than was possible in either England or America.

But what was behind the racism that was foundational to eugenics and eventually to Nazism? What gave Hitler and his top leaders the “scientific” justification for the mass sterilization and eventual extermination of millions of “undesirable” or “lower” races?

There is no simplistic answer to this question, but I think there are some good theories. One theory is that Darwin’s writings gave the Eugenics professors, scientists, financial backers (largely American and European corporations, but also governments) the scientific justification they needed to carry out their schemes. One man who very effectively points out the many connections between Eugenics and Nazism is Edwin Black, in his book Nazi Nexus.

Was the racism fueling the Eugenics programs in any way fueled by Darwinian thought?

In chapter six of his book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin makes the following startling* statement:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

* I say startling, because it is startling to hear such talk in the 21st century; yet in Darwin’s day (the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century) this type of thinking was becoming quite common among the intelligentsia.

David J Tyler, Senior Lecturer in Physics at the Manchester Polytechnic, wrote an article for the 1991 edition of Third Way, in which he reported on a lecture given by Geneticist Dr. Steve Jones on “Race, Science, and Ethics.”

At one point in his lecture, Jones spoke of the German embryologist Ernst Haeckel, a contemporary of Darwin and a strong promoter of Darwin’s ideas. Haeckel, who founded the Monist League, a racist group consisting of thousands of members of German high society prior to WWI, “argued for the application of Darwinism to society; for the survival of some races – supposedly the fittest – at the expense of others.”

Where did he get that idea – that some races were “more fit” to survive than others?

According to Dr. Ray Bohlin,

Darwin’s foremost German disciple, Ernst Haeckel, made even more dramatic statements. According to Haeckel, if you want to draw a sharp boundary between the human races and the apes, “you must draw it between the most highly developed civilized people on the one hand and the crudest primitive people on the other, and unite the latter with the apes.” Elsewhere Haeckel identifies these cruder and primitive races as the Australian aborigines and the South African Bushmen, which he says, still live in herds, climb trees and eat fruit. According to Haeckel, certain more primitive groups of “people” are more ape than human.

Would Charles Darwin have recoiled in horror at the Nazi atrocities? I think he would have. Were his ideas largely, or at least significantly, behind those very atrocities? I think so. Haeckel’s ideas about the “survival of the fittest” were derived directly from Darwin (See Riddle of the Universe, p. 270). The Eugenicists’ ideas were derived from Haeckel (as well as Darwin, Malthus, and others). The Nazi’s extermination program was a larger and more effective continuation of the earlier eugenics programs developed in the late teens and early twenties.

Ideas have consequences, and big ideas (like Darwinism) have big consequences, both for good or evil. Personally I think it is disingenuous for atheists to dismiss the idea that Darwin’s ideas had nothing to do with the Nazi Holocaust. I especially think it is wrong of them to stand up proudly, like Hitchens did during the debate, and strongly denounce people (like Dr. Berlinski) who make the connections.