Sunday, September 06, 2009

Richard Weikart's New Book--HITLER'S ETHIC

What difference would it make for our view of morality if we rejected the Platonic/theistic cosmology of intelligent design in favor of a Darwinian cosmology of evolutionary order?

In the Platonic dialogues, the Athenian Stranger (especially in book 10 of the Laws) and Timaeus argue that morality requires a moral cosmology of intelligent design. Much of the tradition of biblical theology--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--has adopted a similar position: God the Creator has intelligently designed His universe to conform to His good ends, and He has created human beings in His Image so that they are endowed with a conscience that can grasp God's moral law. Much of the opposition to Darwinian science has come from Platonic philosophers and religious believers who fear that a Darwinian morality is corrupting, because it denies the intelligent-design cosmology necessary for any healthy morality.

Some of these critics of Darwinian morality have pointed to Adolf Hitler's Nazi morality as a terrifying illustration of how dangerous a Darwinian morality can be. Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004) argued that the evils of Nazism showed the consequences of adopting a Darwinian view of morality that rejected the traditional Judaic-Christian morality based on the belief that human beings have equal moral dignity as created in God's Image. If human beings have evolved by a natural process of evolution in which the strong prevail over the weak in the struggle for existence, then, the Nazis concluded, the rule of the biologically stronger races over the weaker races must be a moral imperative rooted in the laws of evolutionary nature as studied by science.

Some of my previous posts on this book can be found here, here, here, and here.

Weikart's new book--Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (2009)--is a sequel to the earlier book. While the earlier book concentrated on the history of Social Darwinism as shaping Nazi ideology, this new book concentrates on Hitler's own writings as showing the fundamental influence of Darwinian ethics.

The evil of Hitler makes it hard for many people to understand how one could speak of "Hitler's ethic." But Weikart argues that Hitler illustrates how the greatest evils are often perpetrated under the appearance of doing good--especially, if the apparent good is a utopian vision that seems to justify any means to the utopian end. I agree with this, because I am persuaded of the Platonic and Aristotelian principle that people tend to act for the good, or at least for what appears good to them. It is unlikely that any influential moral or political movement can prevail if it does not appeal to some moral sense that a great good is being achieved. The problem, however, is that human beings are often mistaken in their moral beliefs, particularly when they are seduced by some utopian conception of radical transformation that requires evil means to apparently good ends.

According to Weikart, the fundamental end for Hitler's ethic was the evolutionary improvement in the human species. Hitler interpreted the Darwinian conception of evolution as dominated by a struggle for existence as teaching that the only moral imperative was the survival and reproduction of the superior races over the inferior races. The Aryan or Nordic race prevalent in the German Volk arose in evolutionary history as the superior race. Promoting the progressive expansion of that race would therefore promote the biological improvement of the human species.

The elements of Nazi ideology seem diverse--racism, German nationalism, anti-Semitism, socialism, militarism, imperialistic expansionism, the "leadership principle," eugenics, and genocide. But Weikart is remarkably persuasive in showing how all of these strands of Nazi ideology are woven together by the final end of Hitler's ethic--the evolutionary improvement of the human species through the triumph of the Aryan race in the struggle for existence.

Proponents of Darwinian ethics--like myself--should be honest in recognizing the impressive evidence that Weikart marshalls from Hitler's writings and speeches to show how Hitler's thought and actions were driven by a coherent view of Darwinian ethics.

But once this is conceded, then we are left with at least three questions. First, was Hitler's Darwinian ethics scientifically correct? Second, was it logically derived from Darwin's science? Third, what alternative view of morality is Weikart offering us?

In response to the first question, Weikart admits that Hitler's evolutionary thinking was scientifically false--often ridiculously so (201-202). But Weikart's point here is that its falsehood was not evident at the time. In Hitler's times, many prominent people--including many prominent scientists--embraced the same crude ideas about the evolution of superior races that run through Hitler's thought.

Weikart's response to the second question seems to be that even if Hitler's ethic did not arise by logical necessity from Darwin's teaching, Darwin's language could easily be interpreted as supporting Hitler. Although I agree with Weikart that some of what Darwin says is open to Hitler's Social Darwinist interpretation, any careful reader of Darwin would have to conclude that Hitler and the Nazis had to distort Darwin's teaching to get the conclusions they wanted.

First of all, it should be noted that, as Weikart indicates, Hitler never uses the term "Darwinism" or refers directly to Darwin. The only evidence that Hitler ever specifically mentioned Darwin comes from a report by Otto Wagener, a Nazi associate of Hitler (36, 41, 185). In any case, it is clear that Hitler had no direct knowledge of Darwin's writings.

And yet Weikart insists that Hitler's writing shows the influence of thinkers who did read Darwin and who did find support for their Nazi thinking in Darwin's writing. Weikart admits that Darwin never recommends violence against "inferior races," and he never says anything to support anti-Semitism. But Darwin does describe the conflict between "the higher civilized races" and the "lower savage races," which was interpreted by Darwinians like Ernst Haeckel as supporting scientific racism.

But here Weikart overstates his case and glosses over weaknesses. For example, he notes that Haeckel taught that the human races were actually separate species (57-58). But he doesn't tell his reader that Darwin denied this, and that affirming the unity of the human species was part of Darwin's life-long argument against slavery and scientific racism. Moreover, while Weikart cites Daniel Gasman's book on the fundamental influence of Haeckel on Hitler's Social Darwinism, Weikart does not mention the fact that Gasman argues that Haeckel's thinking "had little, if anything at all, to do with Charles Darwin" (The Scientific Origins of National Socialism). Here is one of many examples of where Weikart passes over in silence evidence and argument that works against his position.

As Weikart indicates, Hitler was a crude genetic determinist who believed that not only physical traits but even morality and culture were inherited genetically along racial lines, so that moral and cultural evolution depended on genetic evolution. But Weikart doesn't indicate to his readers that Darwin denied this. Although the capacity for human morality requires biologically inherited social instincts and cognitive abilities, the actual progress of morality and civilization depends more on social learning, cultural traditions, religious ideas, and individual reasoning than on biological evolution by natural selection. (See, for example, in the first edition of the Descent of Man, vol. 1, pp. 72, 165-66, 173; vol. 2, pp. 326, 404.)

As our final question for Weikart, we might wonder what exactly he is suggesting as an alternative view of morality that would avoid the horrors of Hitler's Nazism. In his earlier book, he spoke of traditional "Judeo-Christian ethics," particularly as based on the idea of humans with equal dignity from being created by God in His Image. Is this the alternative to Hitler's evolutionary ethics? Well, not exactly. Weikart admits that Hitler often refers to God as Creator and to human beings as created in His Image (38-39, 50-51, 56, 85). Weikart says he wants to write another book showing that Hitler was "neither an atheist nor a Christian" (40). He doesn't explain this except to say that if Hitler was a "theist," he was a "theistic evolutionist"--that is, someone who thought God did His creative work through a natural process of evolution (51). "Hitler saw evolutionary ethics as the expression of the will of God" (40).

So where exactly did Hitler go wrong, according to Weikart? Weikart writes: "In none of the relevant quotations from Mein Kampf does Hitler state that humans were specially created in the recent past by the miraculous intervention of God. On the contrary, Hitler repeatedly insisted that humans are subject to inescapable natural laws and that they are the product of eons of change. He often presented evolution as a universal process encompassing humans as well as other creatures" (51).

So what exactly is Weikart suggesting here? To avoid the evils of Hitler's evolutionary ethics, it seems, it is not enough to believe that God created human beings in His Image. Is Weikart saying that one must be a young-earth special creationist who believes that human beings were created a few thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden? Is he saying that believing that God would use a natural evolutionary process to bring about His creative intentions would necessarily lead to something like Hitler's Nazi ethics?

If Weikart is suggesting that the only reasonable basis for morality is young-earth creationism based on a literal 6-days-of-creation reading of Genesis, then he is in disagreement with the Discovery Institute's promotion of "intelligent design theory" as something distinct from young-earth creationism. If this is Weikart's position, then he is also opposed to those many thoughtful Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have become theistic evolutionists--people like C. S. Lewis, for example.

Unfortunately, this book is grossly overpriced by Palgrave Macmillan. Although it is only 254 pages long with a plastic binding, the publisher's price is $80, and the Amazon price is $54. Instead of buying this book, you should find a library copy and photocopy it.

Writing at the Discovery Institute's blogsite, Weikart has responded to this review of his book.


Colugo said...

I've read enough passages from Hitler (Mein Kampf, Second Book, and being skeptical of Table Talk) and Haeckel to conclude that if Hitler didn't read Haeckel directly, he must have read followers of Haeckel (Woltmann etc.).

Hitler appears to me to be a teleological Deistic/Theistic Evolutionist, not a Darwinist but a certainly a Social Darwinist as the term is used today as well as a social organicist (the belief that groups are organisms).

How these evolutionary notions intersect with Blavatsky- and Steiner-derived Nazi beliefs I do not know, but Hitler himself wasn't big on mysticism like Himmler and others. There was a lot of heterogeneity in Nazi thought even at the elite level.

I wish that such historical research could be carried out and presented by someone who didn't have an ax-grinding anti-evolutionist agenda, like Weikart obviously does.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that even objections like yours and Allen's grant some things about "darwinism" and its influence that are not obvious.

For one thing, the early 20th century has been called "the eclipse of darwinism" because of the general doubt of the efficiency of "random variation and natural selection".

And that is very important, because eugenics is dependent upon the perceived need for purposeful intervention to prevent "deterioration".

And there are some indications that at least some of the precursors and influential contemporaries of Hitler were outspokenly anti-Darwin.

Tom S.

Boo said...

The Nazies used chemistry and physics to slaughter millions on and off the battlefield. Where are the books denouncing the big names in those disciplines?

Anonymous said...

I think you have overlooked the most important point against Weikart's thesis. That is, Hitler's antisemitic ideology was actually based on traditional Christian antisemitism. Christians have been pushing this ideology ever since the early days of their religion. Virtually all the things done to the Jews by the Nazis was advocated by Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism. All of the Nazis were Christians and everyone they targeted were non-Christians. In addition to Jews, the Nazis also targeted atheists for extermination.

Larry Arnhart said...

No, I haven't overlooked Martin Luther and Christian anti-Semitism. I discuss that in my previous posts on Weikart's writing.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget slavery. People believed in superior races before Darwin. Jews had a pretty hard time a couple thousand years ago, too. This is hardly something new.

The only reason to try to connect Darwin to Hitler is from an anti-evolution position.

Not very "ethical" to even try to engage in this argument in the first place...

Anonymous said...

could prof. Arnhart explain the meaning of the expression used by Darwin in the Descent of Man pag. 169 "the weaker and inferior members of society " for which he hopes there would be a refrain from marriage?

Larry Arnhart said...

Darwin recognized that some people were carriers of inherited traits that could produce serious physical and mental birth defects. He hoped that they would refrain from having children.

This is what I have called "good eugenics"--that people should voluntarily refrain from having children when they know the probability of serious birth defects is high. The Ashkenazi Jews do this through genetic counseling to lower the rate of Tay Sachs and other inherited diseases.