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From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, written by Richard Weikart, is a coherent attempt to understand how Darwinism, loosely identified with the notion of natural selection, was used to offer a 'justification' to the theoretical architecture of Fascism and Nazism and their well-known nefarious implementations. In doing so, the author seeks to uncover the history of the exploitation of Darwinism as a theoretical construct based on scientific evidence by German Darwinists, eugenicists, and militarists.
In no way does Weikart's narrative suggest that a political/social regime's endorsement of Darwinism led inevitably to the extermination of a multitude of innocent beings. His careful historical work mostly unveils the exploitation of the tenet of natural selection, against established ethical standards, for the purpose of instituting and preserving a regime intended to promote one ethnic/racial group (Aryans) over all others and protecting it against the purported 'degeneration' and 'contamination' of such groups. The exploitation of scientific knowledge for political purposes tends to be an uncomfortable subject for those who indulge a view of scientific theories as above the fray of political ideologies and largely unfitted to sustain direct partisan scrutiny and implementation. The fact that a sound theory or, more correctly, one of its main tenets, can become the main pillar of a political ideology that has cost the lives of countless innocent victims is unsettling. Yet, all products of human thought, even the most superb, can lend themselves to either ethical or unethical applications, depending on the 'user'. For this very reason, understanding the path that German Darwinists, eugenicists, and militarists walked to make Darwinism, and its tenet of natural selection, an integral element of a nefarious ideology and its related regime is important. Weikart does simply that while focusing on biomedical ethics, including eugenics, racial theory, and euthanasia, rather than mere political ideology.
The author argues that the exploitation of Darwinism was not an isolated German phenomenon. Albeit he admits that its despicable consequences remained largely unmatched in other parts of the world, he warns the reader that exploitation of Darwinism for social/political ends was more of a widespread phenomenon than the general public likes to think, supporting, for instance, compulsory sterilization campaigns in the United States and Scandinavia. Weikart also argues that the influence of Darwinism on German biologists and social scientists was so substantial that they became known collectively as 'social Darwinists'. Indeed, the permutation of Darwinism into social Darwinism becomes the critical point of Weikart's analysis and his alleged real culprit.
Weikart explores the symbiotic relation between Darwinism and Materialism, including the widespread Darwinists' rejection of mind-body dualism, and their embrace of determinism. The main assumptions underlying this symbiotic relation and its consequences are not surprising. Namely, all human events can be explained by identifying causes and linking them to discernible effects due to the applicability of the scientific method to both natural and social/human phenomena. The scientific method becomes the main reference point for knowledge in the natural and social/human worlds, leading to attempts to develop a 'scientific ethics'. Weikart also argues that Darwinian emphasis on variation within species, which implies that biological differences exist as natural phenomena, was interpreted by some intellectual and political figures as 'evidence' that natural selection applies to all organisms, including human beings. Yet, instead of recognizing diversity within species and appreciating its benefits and its potential to stir innovation, diversity was conceptualized as inequality, which then justified policies targeting fellow human beings and intended explicitly to eliminate those considered 'less fit'. Of course, 'less fit' individuals were merely those who neither matched nor surpassed the social/ethnic standards that were alleged to be the 'natural norm'. The isomorphism between the social/human domain and natural world allowed the notion of 'fitness' to go largely unchallenged and produced organized actions for which the label 'evil' remains an understatement.
Important to recognize is that the author does not limit his narrative to the dominant Darwinism. On the contrary, he dutifully explores opposing viewpoints, such as that embodied by scholars who recognized the influence of Darwinism on biology, but not on social/human sciences and ethics. Regretfully, their attempt to separate natural and social/human sciences led to unseemly viewpoints such as the untenable stance that the application of the scientific method is limited to the natural sciences.
The author argues that embracing Darwinism led many scholars to replace religion with science, negating the existence of the supernatural world, the immortal soul, and other unscientific constructs. This argument, however, seems to be tangential. The value judgment applied to diversity and not one's embrace of a scientific framework for natural and human phenomena may lead to catastrophic events such as the explicit extermination of individuals who purportedly did not fit the stereotypical expectations of a ruling class. Similarly, the value judgment given to scientific evidence and not scientific evidence itself can lead to such catastrophic events. Indeed, if 'human diversity' is appreciated for its potential to lead not only to a deeper understanding of human nature, but also to innovation of stale social systems, integration would be the public policy's response of a social system that seeks to accommodate (not to assimilate) the variability of human nature. The judgment of diversity as potentially threatening to the ruling majority makes variability within the human species an enemy to whom likely responses are suppression and annihilation.
Several other observations I feel tempted to articulate in response to Weikart's narrative, but they would merely be redundant to his carefully chosen words. Thus, I will conclude by saying that his narrative is engaging, informative, and detail-oriented. Undoubtedly, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany is a good read for those who are interested in public policy applications of scientific constructs and findings. Weikart's narrative is a history lesson that humanity will want to remember to avoid repeating it. Of course, his writing may not satisfy all penchants. For instance, the text may not please readers who are interested in uncovering the economic roots of the relationship between Darwinism and its nefarious ideological applications in Germany and other countries. Most importantly, readers may interpret his argument that social Darwinism served as a 'scientific justification' for perpetrated atrocities as an unfair indictment of Darwinism. Yet, one must (or should) recognize that when a scientific theory, such as Darwinism, offers a description and explanation of a phenomenon, such as human diversity, it does so without attributing moral/ethical value to its different forms. Sound ethical principles are by no means in conflict with Darwinism if human diversity is appreciated for its potential to introduce change in a social system, (at times) as a challenge to overcome and as an opportunity to expand one's knowledge of human nature in all of its possible realizations.
© 2012 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University