A surprising if indirect affirmation of the Darwin-Hitler connection has been offered by the Darwinist faithful over at Panda’s Thumb. Yes, you read that right.
The argument made by scholars like Richard Weikart and Benjamin Wiker traces an intellectual genealogy from Darwin through Ernst Haeckel to German biology more generally to German popular culture to the Viennese popular press to Hitler. So Panda’s Thumb, representing among the most pious elements of the Darwinian religion, now triumphantly holds up a book review of H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and Origins of German Darwinism, by Sander Gliboff, as proof against the Darwin-Hitler connection. Headline: “Darwin –> Hitler? Naw.”
Except that if you read the post, and the book review it’s based on, disregarding the apologetic bluster, both refine but hardly refute Darwin-Hitler. The book, published by MIT Press and reviewed at PLoS Biology by German biologist Axel Meyer, emphasizes that Haeckel got his Darwinism originally not from the English language translation of On the Origin of Species but from the 1860 German translation by Heinrich Georg Bronn, which introduced Bronn’s own spin on Darwinian theory, even including an additional chapter. Bronn had a view of evolution as a process leading to the perfection of the species, in a subtle contrast to Darwin who wrote of competing “races” as being “favored” rather than “perfected.” Bronn translated Darwin’s “struggle for existence” as a “fight for existence or life,” which apparently Darwin found infelicitous for whatever reason.
It hardly matters. No one arguing for the Darwin-Hitler thesis ever said the Nazis lifted their eugenics program directly and unmediated, like a photocopy, from the pages of the Descent of Man. Nor did anyone sane that I’m aware of ever suggest that confronted with the reality of the Nazi record, Darwin himself would be anything but sickened and appalled. Clearly, there was a process of evolution in ideas going on that transformed Darwinism, enlarging on its implications, at the hands of his German interpreters to the point where Nazi leader Rudolph Hess could declare, “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”
Vastly simplified, the Hitler-Darwin thesis says: “Darwin –> Haeckel –> Hitler.” So let’s say we modify that slightly. The thesis then reads: “Darwin –> Bronn –> Haeckel –> Hitler.” Who could object? Not Panda’s Thumb, apparently, which speaks of this line of transmission “infect[ing] German biology.” Ah ha, so then sick ideas did corrupt German biology, with deadly consequences. That’s an important admission. The only question is the exact path of genealogical descent.
Benjamin Wiker, target of the Panda’s Thumb post, would hardly deny this either. In his excellent new book The Darwin Myth, Wiker has a chapter on “Darwin and Hitler” that lays out a streamlined version of the thesis. It goes like this.
Darwin wrote in the Descent that, “Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would soon sink into indolence, and the more highly gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted.”
In the same book, Darwin famously foresaw the “extermination” of human “savages.” He continued, “The break [between human beings and apes] will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene, between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla” (emphasis added). Darwin saw a ladder of races with Africans and Australians at the bottom and doomed to extermination by “civilized” men. Darwin contemplated this prospect with an attitude not of horror but even, in his own words, with a touch of “hope” for the future.
Haeckel, even if channeling Darwin by way of Bronn, met with approval from Darwin who considered Haeckel “to rank as the first” among those qualified to carry on “our work,” being perhaps even “more capable than myself.” This is the same Haeckel who asked “What good does it do to humanity to maintain artificially and rear the thousands of cripples, deaf-mutes, idiots, etc., who are born every year with an hereditary burden of incurable disease?”
Echoing this monstrous view, Hitler himself said in 1923, “All of nature is a constant struggle between power and weakness, a constant triumph of the strong over the weak.” Did Hitler mix his “applied biology” with other strains of sentiment? Of course he did, as Wiker himself writes: “[He] did it in an arresting way — in part by draping the brutality in religious terms, identifying the brutal laws of natural selection with the laws of God — but the racial and eugenic core of his thought was hardly novel.”
Of course, it was the Darwin-derived element in Hitlerism that translated most readily into eugenic policies, not the pseudo-religious one, with it ambiguous invocations of a deity that Hitler apparently equated, if he ever genuinely stopped to think seriously about it, with the laws of nature. This all becomes apparent in Mein Kampf.
The standard Darwinist defense has been to deny all this, seeing Hitler more as a Christian, if anything, than a Darwinist. It’s refreshing to see even the folks at Panda’s Thumb recognizing something closer to the truth.