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Darwinism & the Culture of Death

From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany

By Richard Weikart

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Pages: 312 pages

Price: $59.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

From Darwin to Hitler is a fine work about how Darwin’s notion of morality virtually supplanted Christian morality in Germany between the 1870s and the 1930s. In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin suggested that morality was the result of biological evolution and that it differed only in degree, not in kind, from the social instincts of animals. While admitting that man, due to his cognitive abilities, had evolved further than animals, Darwin insisted that his social instincts, too, had developed by natural selection in the struggle for existence. Richard Weikart shows that Darwin’s materialist account of morality hugely influenced German intellectuals of that era, causing many of them to reject the sanctity of life.

Darwinists such as Bartholomäus von Carneri, Ernst Haeckel, and Georg von Gizycki concluded that evolutionary science had proven free will and man’s soul to be illusions. Gizycki rejoiced that evolution had introduced “a this-worldly moral philosophy to replace the prevalent otherworldly conception,” while Friedrich Jodl argued that, given its origin, morality had to be “in evolutionary flux.” Wilhelm Schallmayer said it plainly: “evolution leads undeniably to the demand for the continued development of ethics in the sense of evolutionary ethics.”

Friedrich Hellwald and Alexander Tille saw evolution as doing away with inherent human rights. Once Darwin made the “biological inequality” of humans a matter of science, some individuals began to be labeled as “less valuable” than others. Rudolph Penzig, an advocate of secularization, declared that “biological evolution undermines any religious foundations for morality.” In other words, Darwinism was already besieging the walls of the City of God. The feminist Helene Stöcker, who synthesized Nietzsche and Darwin, urged the “overthrow” of Christian morality for the sake of a “Darwinian-inspired eugenics program.”

One concludes from reading Weikart that the Culture of Death sprang from evolutionism. For Darwin “viewed death and destruction as an engine of evolutionary progress” and saw the carnage left behind by natural selection as ultimately fulfilling “a good purpose.” Death was key to the vision that Darwin borrowed from Malthus. Thus, Thomas Huxley rightly saw that, according to Darwin, “only from death on a genocidal scale could the few progress.” The individual is “nothing” and the species “everything,” and therefore, Ludwig Büchner concluded, the smallest steps of progress in history or nature are marked “with innumerable piles of corpses.” Carneri called such deaths a source of “rejuvenation,” while Friedrich Hellwald envisioned the victors in the evolutionary struggle striding “across the corpses of the vanquished.” Man was a part of nature, like animals, Tille said, and nature had no qualms about sacrificing the individual to “the species.” In Christianity, however, each person is called to salvation and eternal life. This exaltation of the person had been the cornerstone of Western life for over a millennium by the time Darwinism arrived; even in the 18th century, when Christianity was under attack, the sanctity of human life remained enshrined in classical liberal ideology. But in the following century, the Darwinists would work to change all that, by denying the “unique moral status” of the human being based on “an immaterial soul” and by rejecting the “sacred and inviolable” nature of human life. Darwinist Robby Kossman explained that evolution removed the barrier between man and animal, so it now looked “sentimental” for Christians to “overestimate” the life of an individual, when the progress of the species had to come through “the destruction of the less well-endowed individual.” (Here one can already glimpse therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem-cell research on the horizon.)

Karl Vogt saw the mentally disabled as “closer to apes in their brain function” than to “the lowest normal humans.” He called the “microcephalic” the “missing link between apes and humans.” On this point, Darwin agreed. According to Weikart, contempt for the disabled was rife “in the writings of biologists, psychiatrists, and physicians around the turn of the century.” Ignaz Kaup called them “parasites.” Heinz Potthoff criticized welfare programs for supporting “idiots and cripples.” Theodor Fritsch referred to certain individuals as “half” or “quarter” people, and Alfred Hoche dubbed the mentally disabled the “mentally dead.” These attitudes derived from Darwinism and were thought to serve evolutionary progress. Weikart sees Darwinists as having “replaced God with evolution.”

Between the publication of the Descent of Man and the 1930s, the sanctity of human life came under all-out attack. Infanticide, involuntary euthanasia, abortion, and suicide all became topics of public debate. At that time, Weikart says, Darwinists claimed “they were creating a whole new worldview with new ideas about the meaning and value of life based on Darwinian theory.” The science of evolution suddenly mushroomed into a full-fledged counter-Christian morality. For instance, Haeckel argued that “the developing embryo, just as the newborn child, is completely devoid of consciousness, is a pure ‘reflex machine,’ just like a lower vertebrate.” The preborn child during the first year, he said, crossed all the “evolutionary stages of its ancestors” and at birth reached only the level of “our animal ancestors.” Thus, the newborn possessed “no consciousness and no reason,” and killing such a child was “no different than killing other animals.” In addition, Haeckel defended suicide, assisted suicide, and “the involuntary killing of the mentally ill,” along with the killing of “lepers, cancer patients, and others with incurable illnesses.”

Most of those endorsing the Culture of Death at the time were “fervent proponents of a naturalistic Darwinian worldview,” Weikart says. Others based their thinking on eugenics, which, as Weikart notes, was also derived from “Darwinian principles.” Among the eugenicists was Oda Olberg, who used the term “right to death” to mean sparing individuals and society “useless suffering.” She saw this “right” as “identical” to “the right of society to expel physical or moral sources of infection.” Similarly, the physician Agnes Bluhm urged obstetricians to rethink “their life-saving procedures” when it came to the births of “imbeciles,” and Hoche thought a physician might kill without “crime” when “through the shortening of this one lost life immediate insights could be gained, which would save other better lives.”

Many of the “leading feminists” in Germany supported both eugenics and abortion, for example, Helene Stöcker, who, in one lecture, urged the legalization of abortion and the elimination of “the births of the disabled.” She insisted that “children from parents with infectious diseases, or children of the chronically ill, as well as children of those with heart or mental illnesses should not be permitted to be born.” Most of the abortion advocates in Germany, like Stöcker, Olberg, Adele Schreiber, and Henriette Fürth, were “avid Darwinian materialists.”

For readers who might doubt whether Darwinism was the major cause of the sea-change in morality before World War I, Weikart sums up his argument in four parts: that before embracing evolutionism, Germans agreed on the sacredness of human life; that those who promoted involuntary euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion were “devoted to a Darwinian worldview”; that Haeckel, “the most famous Darwinist in Germany,” reached a large audience by publishing his best-selling books; and that Darwinists and eugenicists explicitly justified the killing of “useless” individuals on the basis of “their naturalistic interpretation of Darwinism.”

Even so, Weikart concedes that these intellectuals who “built their worldview on science” may not have realized that at the foundation of their edifice were certain “philosophical presuppositions” that did not come “from empirical science and about which science could not arbitrate.” In other words, as brilliant as they were, these German scholars and scientists could not quite manage to draw the line between the science of Darwin and Darwinian moral philosophy. (One cannot help but remark here that if these highly educated individuals could not discover that fine line, how could anyone expect American students in public schools to figure it out? Yet these students are fed a steady diet of Darwinism — not just the science of evolution, but evolutionary morality and a Darwinist worldview as well.)

Weikart deserves kudos for providing such strong evidence that Darwinism from the start has involved more than science. Its historic and close connection with the Culture of Death is something rarely mentioned in the media.

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