09 December 2006

Adolph Darwin?


E.T. Oakes, S.J. reviews a book tracing the lines between evolutionary and social Darwinism:

. . . In a letter to one William Graham dated July 3, 1881, Darwin wrote:

I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago, of being overwhelmed by the Turk, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.

. . .

Nor were Darwin's own musings on the social implications of his theory limited to private correspondence. In one particularly chilling passage in Descent of Man he asserted, "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races." Even more ominously, this insouciantly expressed sentiment cannot be regarded as an illegitimate conclusion from the earlier and more reliable Origin of Species. In a passage historians often cite to prove that at the time of the Origin Darwin was still struggling to maintain his belief in God, Darwin actually, if unwittingly, promulgated the charter for all later social Darwinists: "Let the strongest live and the weakest die… . Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows." In effect, this passage turns Christian theodicy on its head and gives St. Paul's line "Death is swallowed up in victory" a total reversal of meaning. Victory now belongs only to the fittest.

As Richard Weikart proves in his magnificently written monograph From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection released a veritable Pandora's box of evil vapors and demonic spirits, which, once unleashed on an eager European public, poisoned discourse on war, race, sex, nationality, diplomacy, colonization, economy, and anthropology—especially, it would seem, in Germany. In a letter he wrote to the German Wilhelm Pryor in 1868, Darwin averred that "the support which I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail," a line that could well serve as the epigraph to Weikart's riveting tale of how Germany led itself (and thereby the rest of the world) into the abyss of internecine war and savagely applied eugenics, naïvely thinking all the while that it was helping to produce Darwin's "higher animal" from his eagerly anticipated "war of nature."

. . .

Given his impact on history, Hitler is often taken for a madman; but perhaps the most disturbing result of Weikart's book is the way he shows how Hitler fits so neatly into the wider trends of German intellectual life inherited from the late 19th century. For Weikart, all of Hitler's speeches and texts, Mein Kampf most especially, can best (and most simply) be interpreted as an entirely non-idiosyncratic assemblage of various strands of social-Darwinist thought—strands, moreover, that Hitler drew from large numbers of "respectable" leading figures in the natural and social sciences in Germany from 1860 to 1925. The author does not of course claim any deep reading on Hitler's part, but that is irrelevant: "Even if Hitler imbibed these ideas from crass popularizers," Weikart says, "the popularizers had derived these ideas from reputable scholars. Though not uncontested, they were mainstream ideas of respectable, leading figures in the German academic community." (One weirdly telling indication of this ubiquity of Darwinian boilerplate comes from a figure who is probably the most freakish in the whole book: Ludwig Gumplowicz, a Polish Jew who taught sociology at the German-speaking University of Graz in the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his book Racial Struggle, Gumplowicz argued that the "racial struggle for dominion in all its forms, whether open and violent, or latent and peaceful, is therefore the actual driving principle, the moving force of history.")

 

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