Darwin’s Holocaust? (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part 1.

As early as 1939, philosopher Judah Rumney wrote about Darwin’s influence on both Hitler and Mussolini. In an article called “Biology and War,” which Rumney wrote shortly before Germany’s September 1939 invasion of Poland (and the start of World War II), he noted that the German and Italian dictators were both influenced by the philosophy of social Darwinism:

Both Mussolini and Hitler avow their adherence to this philosophy of war. Hitler in Mein Kampf argues that the world must be ruled according to the natural law of the survival of the fittest: “In constant war mankind has become great — in eternal peace it must perish.”12

Rumney added that Hitler saw war, first, as a “biological necessity,” part of a Darwinian “struggle for existence,” and second, as a means of natural selection, in which the weak and inferior would perish and the strong and superior would be selected for survival. Rumney went on to say that Darwin’s biological theories “are mistakenly applied to social phenomena [by Hitler and other social Darwinists], and animal evolution is equated with social evolution. This dubious procedure is sustained furthermore … by false assumptions and misrepresentations of Darwin’s ideas.”13

One such misrepresentation of Darwin’s ideas is the Hitlerian interpretation of natural selection as a struggle for existence by eliminating all neighbors, competitors, and “inferiors” — the essence of the Nazi “final solution.” Even before the Holocaust began, Rumney saw where Hitler’s misapplication of Darwinian evolution was headed. He wrote:

In biology [natural selection] refers to a struggle for life between organisms consequent on a change in the environment, or a too rapid increase in their numbers which impels each organism to strive forward at the expense of its neighbors. To Darwin this struggle was primarily a process of adaptation which may or may not involve elimination. The term struggle he used in a metaphorical sense, but to the biologists of war [i.e., Hitler and other militant social Darwinists], the struggle for life is a struggle against life; it means elimination, fighting, bloodshed. They ignore the fact that animals do not generally eat or attack those of their own species.14

One evolutionary scientist, Sir Arthur Keith (1866-1955), was horrified to see Hitler pervert Darwin’s theory into a weapon of mass destruction. Shortly after the end of World War II, Keith wrote, “The German Führer, as I have consistently maintained, is an evolutionist; he has consciously sought to make the practice of Germany conform to the theory of evolution.” Hitler failed, Keith concluded, not because the theory of evolution is false, but because Hitler misunderstood evolutionary theory and misapplied it in the realm of power and politics.15

Hannah Arendt agreed that a perversion of Darwinism was at the heart of Hitler’s crimes against humanity. She wrote, “Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings.”16

The most convincing evidence of the influence of social Darwinism in Nazi Germany comes from the Wannsee Conference, a meeting of senior Nazi officials in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee in January 1942. The meeting was called to inform top Nazi officials of how the “final solution to the Jewish question” would be carried out. Minutes of the meeting were taken by Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust. That document, which became known as “Eichmann’s Protocol,” includes this statement (note the phrase I’ve italicized):

In pursuance of the final solution, special administrative and executive measures will apply to the conscription of Jews for labor in the eastern territories. Large labor gangs of those fit to work will be formed, with the sexes separated, which will be directed to those areas for road construction and undoubtedly a large part of them will fall out through natural elimination. Those who remain alive — and they will certainly be those with the greatest powers of endurance — will be treated accordingly. If released they would, being a natural selection of the fittest, form a new cell from which the Jewish race could again develop.17

Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) recalled his dismay when he read that statement and discovered that the essential mechanism of Darwinian evolution had been twisted into a rationale for Nazi genocide. Gould wrote:

I can rattle off lists of such misuses [of evolutionary theory], collectively called “social Darwinism.” … But until the fiftieth anniversary of the Wannsee Conference piqued my curiosity and led me to read Eichmann’s Protocol for the first time, I had not known about the absolute ultimate in all conceivable misappropriation — and the discovery hit me as a sudden, visceral haymaker, especially since I had steeled myself to supposed unshockability before reading the document. Natürliche Auslese is the standard German translation of Darwin’s “natural selection.” To think that the key phrase of my professional world lies so perversely violated in the very heart of the chief operative paragraph of the most evil document ever written!18

It’s clear that Hitler and the Nazis viewed war, conquest, and genocide as a biological necessity, as a means of evolutionary struggle and natural selection. Hitler absorbed biological Darwinism at the very least from his early education, and also through such secondary sources as German Darwinian biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). As Stephen Jay Gould wrote:

Haeckel’s greatest influence was, ultimately, in another tragic direction — National Socialism. His evolutionary racism; his call to the German people for racial purity and unflinching devotion to a “just” state; his belief that harsh, inexorable laws of evolution ruled human civilization and nature alike, conferring upon favored races the right to dominate others; the irrational mysticism that had always stood in strange communion with his grave words about objective science — all contributed to the rise of Nazism. The Monist League that [Haeckel] founded and led … made a comfortable transition to active support for Hitler.19

Hitler also absorbed the social Darwinist militarism of Prussian General Friedrich von Bernhardi (1849-1930). In Germany and the Next War (1911), Bernhardi advocates ruthless German aggression and expansionism, while rationalizing slaughter and conquest in the name of “natural law” and “the law of struggle.” As anthropologist Ashley Montagu notes, Bernhardi invokes “such Darwinian notions as ‘the struggle for existence,’ ‘natural selection,’ and ‘survival of the fittest.'”20 Bernhardi adapted Darwinian natural selection to the realm of conflict between nations, claiming that “struggle is a creator” (that is, a creative force) because “it eliminates” nations and cultures that are weak and inferior. Bernhardi wrote:

Struggle is, therefore, a universal law of Nature, and the instinct of self-preservation which leads to struggle is acknowledged to be a natural condition of existence.

Strong, healthy, and flourishing nations increase in numbers. … They require a continual expansion of their frontiers, they require new territory for the accommodation of their surplus population. … The right of conquest is universally acknowledged. … The instinct of self-preservation leads inevitably to war, and the conquest of foreign soil. It is not the possessor, but the victor, who then has the right.21

These words, drenched in social Darwinism, helped to propel the German Wehrmacht into Poland, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

I can understand Professor Richards’ eagerness to delink Darwin from Hitler and the Holocaust, but the good professor has arrived at the wrong answer. We have to follow the evidence where it leads. Hitler was without question a social and biological Darwinian who rationalized Naziism on grounds of natural selection and biological necessity.

We also have to acknowledge that Darwin himself was a racist. The full title of his 1859 book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In his 1882 follow-up, The Descent of Man, Darwin predicted, “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.”22 Candidly, I consider some of Darwin’s opinions of certain races to be unprintable.

At the same time, I want to make clear that while Darwin predicted the extermination of “the savage races,” he didn’t advocate their extermination. Darwin was a racist who divided humanity into “higher” and “lower” races, and he believed that natural selection would eliminate the “lower” races.

Darwin was not himself a social Darwinist and didn’t advocate applying his biological theories to social, political, and economic settings. He opposed slavery, and was appalled that some people misapplied his theories, using them as a rationale for social injustice. In The Descent of Man, he wrote that it is our “instinct of sympathy” that truly elevates us as human beings, and if we lose our ability to sympathize with the weak, the helpless, and the suffering, the result will be a “deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”23

But Darwin’s views were used by others as a rationale for war and mass murder. Does this mean that Darwin bears moral responsibility for the crimes of Hitler? Does Hitler’s genocidal misapplication of a biological theory undermine the validity of that theory? Absolutely not.

As a scientific theory, evolution has been highly successful and well-verified — just as the reality of the Cosmic Designer is well-verified by the anthropic principle. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rises or falls on its own scientific merits, regardless of how it was later twisted and misused by the social Darwinists, by Hitler and the Nazis, by Karl Marx and the Communists, or by the Columbine killers.

And the same principle applies to religion.

To be concluded in Part 3. 


This is an excerpt from God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof by Jim Denney, copyright 2012, available as an ebook at Amazon.com. For permission to quote from this excerpt, contact the author in care of this blogsite.

12. Judah Rumney, “Biology and War,” Journal of Social Philosophy, Volume 4, Number 4, 1939, 329.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., emphasis added.

15. Arthur Keith, Evolution and Ethics (New York: G.. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1947), 230.

16. Arendt, 161.

17. Helmut Krausnick and Martin Broszat, Anatomy of the SS State (London: Paladin, 1970), 101; emphasis added.

18. Stephen Jay Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Harmony, 1996), 315.

19. Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 78.

20. Ashley Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945), 157.

21. Friedrich Von Bernhardi, translated by Allen H. Powles, Germany And The Next War (Deutschland und der Nächste Krieg, Berlin: J. G. Cotta, 1912), http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11352/pg11352.html.

22. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd edition (London: John Murray, 1882), 156.

23. Darwin, 134.

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  1. Darwin’s Holocaust? (Part 1 of 3) « The Truth Will Make You Mad
  2. Darwin’s Holocaust? (Part 3 of 3) « The Truth Will Make You Mad

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