On Celebrating Darwin

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This year we have an important double anniversary of Charles Darwin: the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the 150th anniversary of his classic work, The Origin of the Species. Already plenty of celebrations and commemorative events are under way. With February 12 being his birthday, even more attention will be drawn to the man. So what is one to make of Darwin? In truth, there is a real mix of opinion in regards to Darwin and his thought. Many applaud his life and work while others find much which is problematic.


Should Darwin be to blame?

Plenty of aspects can be canvassed. I won’t here directly discuss his theory of evolution. Instead I just want to focus on one part of his legacy — the social and political outworking of his views. How did his teachings and beliefs get played out in society?

Of course there is plenty of debate about how much Darwin should be credited — or blamed — for the way in which his theories were translated into social realities. Some argue that any negative outcomes from his work should not be pinned on the man. Others argue that Darwin is indeed to blame for a whole raft of negatives consequences of his theories.

From Richard Weikart

To keep this topic brief, I will here examine two authors who look at the unhelpful outcomes of Darwinism. The first author is historian Richard Weikart. His very important 2004 book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany, is an eye-opening look at how Darwinian thinking fed the flames of racist and dehumanising practices in Germany, including Nazism.

Weikart documents how many Darwinians sought to rework traditional ideas about morality and society. He examines how Darwinian thinking lead to eugenics, theories of racial superiority, and finally the Holocaust. He especially questions how Darwinian thinking affects one’s understanding of the sanctity of human life.

In this carful study he looks at a number of leading German thinkers who embraced and applied the Darwinian worldview to social, cultural and political issues. Consider just one influential German Darwinist, Ernest Haeckel. He keenly took Darwin’s views on natural selection and applied them to the struggle of human existence.

He and other Darwinists argued that “natural processes could account for all aspects of human society and behaviour, including ethics”. Since he viewed natural selection and the struggle for existence as positive features of human society, “he worried that helping the weak, sickly, and unintelligent might have ill effects, favouring them over the strong, healthy, and intelligent”.

He advanced racism, arguing that some races were more primitive than others, and favoured the elimination of the unfit. Thus he readily advocated infanticide and other radical measures to weed out the inferior stock. He was not alone in this type of thinking. Says Weikart, “even though not all Darwinists and eugenicists went along with Haeckel’s program of ‘rational’ extermination of the disabled, it is striking that the vast majority of those who did press for abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were fervent proponents of a naturalistic Darwinian worldview.”

Haeckel felt all this was the logical outcome of the Darwinian worldview. Such caustic thinking in Germany of course nicely fed into the program of the Nazis. Weikart is judicious in his reasoning and conclusions, and does not draw a direct line from Darwin to Hitler. But he does not deny the connection: “In philosophical terms, Darwinism was a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause for Nazi ideology. But however logical or illogical the connections are between Darwinism and Nazism, historically the connections are there and they cannot be wished away.”

He continues, “Darwinism by itself did not produce the Holocaust, but without Darwinism, especially in its social Darwinist and eugenics permutations, neither Hitler nor his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scientific underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the world’s greatest atrocities was really morally praiseworthy.”

And as for Hitler, “Darwinian terminology and rhetoric pervaded Hitler’s writings and speeches, and no one to my knowledge has ever even questioned the common assertion by scholars that Hitler was a social Darwinist. It is too obvious to deny.”

He concludes his important work by arguing that both “the naturalistic worldview in general [and] biological evolution and Darwinism in particular” contributed to the devaluing of human life in Germany, resulting in both the eugenics movement and the Final Solution.

From John West

The second writer I wish to focus on is John West, who has argued in a recent book that the unhelpful social implications of Darwinism are part and parcel of his worldview. His 2007 volume, Darwin Day in America (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) is well worth examining in this regard.

Social Darwinism is a term which refers to the social and political ramifications of biological Darwinism and the materialism which it is imbedded in. Darwin regarded humans as basically higher animals, and as the social sciences became more and more tinged by the Darwinian outlook, humans increasingly began to be treated as mere animals, or machines.

The volume by West looks at how the materialistic worldview of Darwinism has impacted on a wide range of fields. As academics, scientists and politicians apply the Darwinian view of man to various social sciences, some very negative outcomes have ensued. We have steadily become dehumanised and depersonalised as we have taken on board the logical implications of evolutionary materialism.

West offers a far-reaching and profound look at numerous areas clouded by the Darwinist mindset. He examines the fields of law, education, business, economics, sociology and ethics to see how the revolutionary ideas of Darwin have penetrated every aspect of Western culture. Scientific materialism, flowing forth from Darwin and the Neo-Darwinists, today underpins much of public policy in the West.

Consider how extensive scientific materialism has become in public life. The title of this book refers to the move to make February 12 Darwin Day in the US, a date usually associated with the birth of Abraham Lincoln. But so great has the influence and impact of Darwin’s ideas become that he has now risen to the status of a secular saint in many quarters.

West is certainly right to argue just how far and deep the influence of Darwin has been. Consider the issue of crime and punishment. For much of human history crime was about punishment and restitution, based on the belief that humans had free will and were morally responsible for their actions.

But with the advent of Darwin – in part – academics and elites increasingly began to view humans as simply animals who needed treatment, not punishment. After all, if we are simply the products of our biology, how can we be held accountable for our actions? Such thinking flows directly out of Darwin’s materialistic account of evolution.

Thus Clarence Darrow, for example, took materialistic Darwinism to its logical conclusion and argued that criminals are basically programmed by material forces. If men are simply machines, powerfully determined by their heredity and background, then crime and punishment must be radically redefined.

Crime began to be studied not only in terms of one’s biology, but also in psychosocial terms. Crime was seen as a mental illness, not wilful immorality. Criminals came to be seen as victims, and punishment was replaced with rehabilitation and therapy. If crime is just an illness, then cure, not punishment, was required.

West also reminds us that the ugly eugenics movement also flowed very nicely out of the Darwinian worldview. Eugenics was the idea that man could “take control of his own evolution by breeding a better race”. The father of the eugenics movement, Francis Galton, happened to be a cousin of Darwin, and was inspired by The Origin of the Species to “improve” the human race.

Of course the rest of the title of that book reads, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. People like Margaret Sanger – who founded Planned Parenthood – simply took all this to its logical conclusion. Compulsory sterilisation of the “unfit”, lobotomies, electric shock treatments and other coercive measures were all features of the eugenics movement. And it found its fullest and most ghastly expression in the Nazi death camps.

West shows how the materialism of Darwinism leads to the Nazi worldview. Hitler argued that eugenics had a scientific basis, and that race betterment was a result of the biological principles articulated by Darwin. Indeed, the three great genocidal regimes of last century – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China – were all firmly grounded on the principles of scientific materialism.

Mention can also be made of Alfred Kinsey and the radical sex education movement which also finds its roots in the Darwinian view of humanity. West covers this in sordid detail, along with other contentious social issues of the day. For example, some evolutionary psychologists are now arguing that rape and adultery can be fully explained, if not excused, on a biological basis. All sexually deviant behaviour is simply the outworking of our evolutionary adaptation and programming. Kinsey sought to scientifically justify all sexualities, including bestiality and paedophilia.

West makes a solid case for how all such ugly social and cultural radicalism finds solid ideological grounding in the ideas of Darwin. For too long there have been apologists for Darwin who have sought to argue that a large gulf looms between the biological ideas of Darwin and Social Darwinism. West very capably demonstrates that there is in fact very little distance between the two.

Social Darwinism

Of course to make the link between Darwin and social Darwinism is not to ignore other sources for the latter. For example, the man most associated with social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, was an evolutionist before Darwin, and he was the one who actually coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”.

But Darwin certainly was aware of the anthropological implications of his 1859 study of animals and natural selection. Indeed, his 1871 volume, The Descent of Man, looks at how man fits into this evolutionary framework. In it he argues that there are no crucial differences between man and animals. He argued that animals were capable of mental reasoning, imagination, emotions and self-consciousness. He insisted that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties”.

As noted, there is a division of opinion on the question of how much of the thinking of Darwin can be directly attributed to the negatives outcomes mentioned here. West points out that in his revised edition of Descent Darwin tried to play down some of these more distasteful ramifications. But West notes that Darwin’s later, private views seemed to contradict these concerns.

Even if Darwin did not favour all the negative out workings of his theory, as West reminds us, an “idea’s consequences may not be fully anticipated by its proponents”. So that does not mean that he avoids all responsibility for how those ideas panned out. And West shows that the scientific materialism of Darwin and his colleagues led to plenty of destructive consequences, such as technocracy, utopianism, dehumanisation, and relativism.

In truth, ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. West and Weikart superbly make the case that Darwin had plenty of bad ideas, and we are seeing plenty of ugly consequences today as a result. Their two very important books deserve to be widely read and discussed. They clearly inform us that perhaps our Darwinist celebrations this year need to be substantially tempered.


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This article written by Bill Muehlenberg.