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Monday, January 22, 2007

John West and Larry Arnhart debate Darwin-to-Hitler issue

John West, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, wrote,

Political science professor Larry Arnhart, author of the book Darwinian Conservatism, is probably the most thoughtful and articulate proponent of Darwinism as a support for conservatism. My recent book Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest is largely framed as a response to Arnhart's arguments. I appreciate how seriously Arnhart takes the debate over the implications of Darwin’s theory, and also how committed he is to a civil discussion.

In A Further Response to Larry Arnhart, pt. 4: Darwinism, Capitalism, and Limited Government, West wrote,

Arnhart argues that Darwinism provides support for limited government, and he attempts to disassociate Darwin’s theory from the utopian crusades of “Social Darwinism” such as eugenics. Indeed, he argues that Charles Darwin is unfairly blamed for eugenics and that “much of what has been identified as social Darwinism... is a distortion of Darwinian science.” However, in my book I show how Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory. In his response, Arnhart continues to insist that eugenists and other Social Darwinists “were not really acting out of a clear and accurate understanding of Darwinian science” and contends that blaming Darwinism for Social Darwinism is tantamount to claiming that “Christianity was responsible for Hitler’s anti-Semitism because Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism was often cited by the Nazis.” The Luther comparison is inapt. Martin Luther was not the founder of Christianity, and so any claims he may have made are not necessarily authoritative interpretations of the Christian tradition. But Charles Darwin was most certainly the founder of his own theory. So if Darwin himself provided a logical rationale for eugenics in his writings, it is hard to see how others can be accused of “distorting” his teachings in their embrace of negative eugenics. Moreover, the fact that virtually all leading evolutionary biologists in the first part of the twentieth century embraced eugenics on Darwinian grounds should make one think twice about claiming that eugenics was simply a distortion of Darwin’s theory. (emphasis added)

For starters, I think that West's statement, "Martin Luther was not the founder of Christianity, and so any claims he may have made are not necessarily authoritative interpretations of the Christian tradition," is nitpicking. Luther was not the founder of Christianity, but he was certainly the founder of Lutheranism, a denomination of Christianity. And Arnhart is wrong, too -- Europe's long history of anti-Semitism was partly based on Christianity.

Columbus has been blamed for Custer, which is a lot more far-fetched than blaming Darwin for Hitler. A link between Darwin and Nazism is indisputable, however tenuous that link may be. At least three books -- described here, here, and here -- have been written linking two or more of the following: Darwinism, Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Nazism. Also, a recent TV program linked Darwin to Hitler. Either these books and the TV show are just full of lies or there is some link between Darwinism and Nazism. The founders of Social Darwinism -- e.g., Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton (considered to be the founder of eugenics), Thomas Huxley, and Ernst Haeckel -- were influenced by Darwin. The Nazis were influenced by American eugenics programs. The Carnegie Institution's Department of Genetics was formed in 1920 by the merger of the Eugenics Record Office and the oddly titled "Station for Experimental Evolution." It is believed that William Jennings Bryan's anti-Darwinist activism was based on his opposition to Social Darwinism. Of course, none of this means that Darwinism itself is bad.

Arnhart's statement that "these 'social Darwinists' were not really acting out of a clear and accurate understanding of Darwinian science," even if true, would not sever the link between Darwin and Hitler. To claim that there is no link between Darwin and Hitler is simply disingenuous.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Jim Sherwood said...

Here's what Darwinist evolutionary biologist Michael R. Rose wrote about Darwinist influence on Nazism in his book Darwin's Spectre: Evolutionary Biology in the Modern World (1998):

"The 1937 edition of the Hitler Youth handbook was full of Darwinian theory and genetics, and such science was taken as warrant for the extermination of Jews. This is not to deny the long-standing racist elements in German culture. Darwinism did not bring them into being. But it was fuel for that particular demonic fire.Nor would it be true to say that all Nazis were reflective evolutionary biologists. Many of them were just thugs."(p. 143)

Rose, who was born in Germany in 1955, has apparently studied the origins of Nazism. As a Darwinist biologist, he's prominent enough to be mentioned twice in the Encyclopedia Britannica Online article on Evolution (on p.67 and p.71, if I recall correctly.)

On p.210 Rose laments:

"Through eugenics, Darwinism was a bad influence on Nazism, one of the greatest killers in world history. Darwinism probably contributed to the upsurge in racism in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and thus it helped to foment twentieth-century racism generally. Darwinism was also used to exacerbate the neglect of the poor in the nineteenth century. All things considered, Darwinism has had many regrettable, and sometimes actually vicious, effects on the social climate of the modern world."

Hitler and other Nazi leaders didn't hold consistently to Darwinist views. Darwinism was simply one important influence on their thinking, as historians have rather clearly established.

A.N.Wilson, the British Darwinist-materialist-atheist intellectual, concluded after reading The Descent of Man that "Darwin was surely the father, among other things, of European fascism." (That's from his column in The Independent.) Wilson embraces Darwinism, but thinks that Darwin's racism influenced his thinking in unfortunate ways.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 12:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Jim Sherwood said...

I made a minor error in quoting A.N. Wilson from memory. The exact quote, which is easily Googled, is:"Darwin, the product of British imperialism, was surely the father, among other things, of European fascism."

And Wilson's column is in The Daily Telegraph, not The Independent.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 2:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Jim Sherwood said...

I would like to add that Darwin hated all cruelty, and would have abhorred Nazis and other fascists, had they emerged in his lifetime. He was a very rich Liberal, with moral views typical of his set and era.

But Darwinist ideas were a powerful influence in the rise of fascism and Nazism, since they provided an allegedly "scientific" justification for some fascist and Nazi principles.

Thursday, January 25, 2007 4:13:00 PM  

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