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