In the second part of this article, I’m going to address the frequently made accusation that Darwinist theories of evolution led directly to the Holocaust. This is an accusation that is levelled by those on the religious fringes who equate Darwinism with atheism, and seek to discredit both with an association with a particularly evil action. In Part 1, I discussed the connections between Darwinist naural selection and the eugenic policies that were popular in several countries in the first half of the 20th century. In Part 3, I will round the article up with a general discussion.
Examples of this claim
“Expelled”, a general release movie with a mission to promote creationism (in its newer clothes of “Intelligent” Design) is reported to feature this claim both directly and by implication. I don’t know if this film has ever received a UK release, but I’ve never had the opportunity to view it (and wouldn’t be happy for any cash from my viewing or purchase to benefit the makers anyway). The Expelled Exposed website, which is maintained by the National Center for Science Education, has quite a detailed description of the many fallacies and misrepresentations in the film, including the claims that there is a direct causal relationship between evolutionary theories and the Holocaust. The Anti-Defamation League issued this press release, including the following statement:
The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.
Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.
The respected (by some) commentator Bryan Appleyard repeated the claim in a recent blog article hosted at The Times:
Almost from its first appearance, the Darwinian idea has been used to justify appalling behaviour. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher, seized on “survival of the fittest” as scientific evidence that there was a moral injunction for the fit to defeat the unfit. From this, many thinkers drew the idea that we could help evolution along by eliminating or allowing the death of “inferior” races or individuals.
This reached its deathly climax, via the work of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in Hitler’s statement of intent, Mein Kampf. From there it was but a short step to the Holocaust, which, among other things, was an attempt to aid evolution.
Appleyard is making a statement here. It’s not a quotation (as far as I can see) which is relevant given his discussion of whether he wrote “commentary” or “opinion”. One is forced to assume this is his opinion (or at least one that he is happy to repeat, albeit with no citation or evidence to back it up). Interestingly, you can see that he thinks that there was a direct lineage of Darwinist thought > Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” > eugenics > Haeckel > Mein Kampf > the Holocaust. Is this a reasonable claim?
Answers in Genesis
This is another loopy religious site that parrots the usual creationist story that Darwinism is in some way evil because it ultimately led to the Holocaust. In passing, I notice they also use the repeated misinterpretation of the subtitle of Origins:
Note that the subtitle of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by means of natural selection was: The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.
Biologists in those days used the term race differently to the way we do now: the usage here is more in the line of strains or varieties. But I guess when your main sources are written texts derived from translated hand-me-downs from ancient times you get used to being fast and loose with linguistic stuff. The page links to an article that plays at being scholarly, with plenty of references to sources such as Haeckel, but I’m not convinced the sources are necessarily making the connections made (this article certainly seems to be making the same Haeckel-Hitler connection as does Appleyard, as quoted above).
The Anti-semitic environment prior to 1933
Hitler’s plans to exterminate the Jews were clearly laid out in Mein Kampf and, indeed publicly stated earlier that that. According to Wikipedia, in 1922 Hitler is recorded as saying:
Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows – at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example – as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.
In Appendix 1 of his excellent book The Unfit – A History of a Bad Idea, Elof Axel Carlson presents several flow charts to present the history of the ideas that shaped (for example) the origins of the Holocaust. I’ve tried to reproduce its essence below (as best I can as text).
Each of the names in the diagrams are linked to the appropriate Wikipedia entry.
Carlson considers modern racism to have roots in Joseph Arthur Gobineau’s racial beliefs – his doctrines were published in 1853, and came up with the modern racist definition of “Aryan”, with a view that Aryans were culturally superior, and promoted the idea of a kind of “league table” of racial value with the Aryans at the top of the heap, and the Oceanians at the bottom. According the the Wikipedia entry, while Gobineau was apparently not overtly anti-semitic, his views on race were modified by Nazis.
Gobineau’s racial views incorporated a variety of stereotypes, such as beliefs in the superiority of white races in just about everything, including culture and beauty. Carlson considers that Gobineau took then-prevalent racial views and formalised them and presented them to the public in a way that had a scholarly air.
Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-semitism”. His views stemmed in part from the works of Gobineau , and were developed in context of social upheavals accompanying the formation of the German state. He was unhappy for “non-German” minorities to be part of the new German state, and while many of his contemporaries accepted that peoples could be assimilated if they were to abandon all signs of ethnic and religious distinctiveness and assimilate completely into German Volk, Marr believed that Jews should not be allowed to assimilate. Marr seems to have had the view that there was a long-sanding conflict with the Jews, and that the Jews were winning, having taken control of German finance and industry. These views are certainly reminiscent of the outpourings of anti-semitic hate by Nazi leaders.
His marital and family history seems more than a little bizarre to me, considering his anti-semitic views (though he is supposed to have recanted these at the end of his life). Wikipedia says:
1852 Marr went abroad, to Costa Rica, where he tried to make a living as a businessman. Lacking success he returned to Hamburg, worked again as a journalist, and in 1854 he married Georgine Johanna Bertha Callenbach, daughter of a Jewish businessman who had renounced his faith. The couple was divorced in 1873. In 1874 Marr remarried the Jewish Helene Sophia Emma Maria Behrend, who died within the same year. In 1875 there was a third marriage, with Jenny Therese Kornick (whose parents lived in a Christian-Jewish mixed marriage), who bore him a son. In 1877 this marriage was divorced, too; Marr’s last wife was Clara Maria Kelch, daughter of a Hamburg working man.
Houston Stewart Chamberlain was British-born, and actually had some biological background - he studied botany at the University of Vienna (his dissertation was on rising sap and concluded that it could only occur by a mysterious “vital force”). For whatever reason, he didn’t graduate. Chamberlain was a great admirer of Richard Wagner (marrying his daughter after his death). In 1899, he published his most popular work, Die Grundlagen des Neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, which became something of a bestseller. In it, he laid out his beliefs that western civilisation was deeply influenced by the Teutons. Building on earlier usage of “Aryan”, Chamberlain used this as something of an umbrella, including all European peoples. At the top of the heap were the Teutonic or Nordic peoples.
Despite being British-born, Chamberlain published several propaganda works against Britain during the Great War, arguing against the British and French parliamentary systems, and espousing the German freedoms and language.
Chamberlain’s writings were widely read across Europe, and particularly in Germany. he was favoured by Kaiser Wilhelm II, and lived long enough to see the beginning of the implementation of his racial theories implemented by Hitler and his henchmen, dying in 1927 as a member of the Nazi party and a correspondent of Hitler – his theories on race were particularly influential on the Nazi party “philosopher” Alfred Rosenberg.
Madison Grant was an American eugenicist. he authored The Passing of the Great Race (1916), an elaborate work of racial hygiene detailing the “racial history” of Europe originating in his concerns about the changing “stock” of America following the great waves of immigration, and favours the “Nordic” races.
Grant strongly advocated eugenic actions, and ghetto-isation of “less desirable” races in a form of ethnic cleansing. Clearly he had a world-view of a hierarchy of racial types – his racial theories reflect his biases, obsessions and stereotypes. Caucasoids were divided into three types: Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean. Widely regarded as a work of “scientific racism”, The Passing of the Great Race sounds (from what I’ve read about it) to be absurdly un-scientific. However, it sold widely (more than 1,600,000 copies in the USA alone), and was cited (unsuccessfully) at the post-war Nuremberg trials by at least one of the defendants. Hitler wrote “The book is my Bible” in correspondence with Grant.
Alfred Hoche was a German psychiatrist who, with Karl Binding, published Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the destruction of life unworthy of living) in 1920, and advocated euthanasia as justifiable if other lives would be saved. According to Wikipedia, after discussing aspects of euthanasia as applied to different categories of mentally disabled individuals:
In worsening terminology and with an increasingly nationalist tone, Hoche criticises the “modern endeavour” that has blocked “our German duty”, which wants to “keep the weakest of all alive” and “has blocked attempts at preventing the mentally dead at least from procreating” and he speaks of “elements of less value”, “weaklings” or “ballast existences”.
Hoche then begins to argue for the killing of the disabled for purely financial reasons. Calculating the “financial and moral burden” on a person’s environment, hospital and on the state, Hoche claimed that those who were “completely mentally dead” at the same time weighed heavily on “our national burden”.
At this point one can get the general drift here – policies informed by these dangerous writings resemble those implemented in Nazi Germany. The quote doesn’t indicate a selectionist strategy as such, rather Hoche appeared to think of the State or nation as analogous to an organism, and that those citizens of undesirable character should be eliminated for the greater good. An astonishingly hard outlook, and one with clear links to the Nazi euthaniasia programs
Karl Binding was a German jurist who was in the camp of retributive justice. With Hoche, co-authored Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the destruction of life unworthy of living) – see above. Binding wrote a series of guidelines about who should be killed, who should decide, and how the decision should be made (see Wikipedia article here).
The Nazi party formed in an environment where racist attitudes, and in particular anti-semitism was endemic. Probably the horros endured during WWI by those active participants in the party hardened them to violent actions. Certainly, the closest any of these beliefs came to an intellectual background can be regarded in my view as complete rubbish, with absolutely no supporting evidence whatsoever. As far as I can see, most of the significant writers in the area are coming from straightforward racist ideologies, and insofar as there’s any link to natural selection, it is only in the context or national or racial survival.
Biology and the Holocaust
From the brief biographical sketches above, it seems to me that direct links between acceptance of evolution by natural selection and implementation of murderous racist policies are few. I was interested, then, to see what Hitler actually said in Mein Kampf.
What biological concepts feature in Mein Kampf?
Though I’m rather reluctant to plough through Hitler’s road map for European destruction, I did download a 1939 translation of Mein Kampf from the Gutenberg project as text, so that I could search it for a variety of biological terms and concepts. First off, the bits of this book that I’ve through seem to be to be bosh, albeit dangerous bosh that ought to have been read by political contemporaries in other countries – had others been really aware of Hitler’s blueprint perhaps the world would have been very different. Anyway, here’s some of the terms I searched for, and the context in which I found them.
Darwin – Not present in the text
Eugenic – not used in the text.
Evolution – once in the sense of “political evolution”; once in the context of an extremely muddled section where “species” cannot interbreed, and this then gets muddled into discussion of higher and lower races. Dodgy, but mostly a statement that the tough guys will eliminate the weak. He seems to be using “evolution” in a way that’s literally correct (i.e. as a gradual change), but does not refer to evolution by natural selection. Further mentions are in the context of cultural and/or political evolution.
Haeckel – Bryan Appleyard refers to Haeckel as a direct link between Darwin and Mein Kampf, so one might have thought he’d merit a mention. But there’s no mention.
Natural Selection - one mention, in connection with membership of revolutionary political parties (the revolutionary nature of the parties is claimed to attract the more vigorous, thrusting individuals).
Natural Struggle – one mention, in connection with racial vigour (this is eugenics-related) – but note that the general thrust seems to be that protecting the weak and disabled is a correction of the Divine Will!:
By leaving the process of procreation unchecked and by submitting the individual to the hardest preparatory tests in life, Nature selects the best from an abundance of single elements and stamps them as fit to live
and carry on the conservation of the species. But man restricts the procreative faculty and strives obstinately to keep alive at any cost whatever has once been born. This correction of the Divine Will seems to him to be wise and humane, and he rejoices at having trumped Nature’s card in one game at least and thus proved that she is not entirely reliable. The dear little ape of an all-mighty father is delighted to see and hear that he has succeeded in effecting a numerical restriction; but he would be very displeased if told that this, his system, brings about a degeneration in personal quality.
For as soon as the procreative faculty is thwarted and the number of births diminished, the natural struggle for existence which allows only healthy and strong individuals to survive is replaced by a sheer craze to ‘save’ feeble and even diseased creatures at any cost. And thus the seeds are sown for a human progeny which will become more and more miserable from one generation to another, as long as Nature’s will is scorned.
In part 1, I concluded that eugenic policies resulted from a combination of poorly understood science and a social environment in which individual rights were less respected than they are in most western societies today. The poorly understood science concerns the real heritability of complex traits – these aren’t as simple as many eugenicists seemed to believe, and nor would the simplistic selection have a significant impact on the traits that concerned them.
In the case of the Holocaust, I conclude that there is little motivation by biological concepts, at least as revealed by Mein Kampf. (I’ll probably update this article with more searches through the text – do feel free to leave pertinant comments). Instead, the prime motivation for the Holocaust would seem to be history of (often rather bizarre) racial doctrines that seemed to find a home in Germany in the 19th century. These doctrines often claimed to have scientific principles, but seemed to rest in large part on ordinary racist attitudes.
In conclusion, I’d say that the often repeated claim that Dawrinism led to the Holocaust cannot really be supported by looking at the evidence.