Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Darwin and Hitler

We've talked a bit in class about how social Darwinism is a misinterpretation of what the theory of evolution actually says. A common claim by anti-Darwinists is that Hitler was motivated by the theory of evolution by natural selection. Here's an example:
"If everything is a product of chance - purposeless - which is widespread in biology textbooks . . . then I don't think you have any grounds to criticize Hitler." - Historian Richard Weikart
At her blog, Planet of the Apes, science journalist Faye Flam has collected a nice series of scientist responses to this claim. What do you think? Do you think that Darwin could have motivated Hitler? Do you think it matters if he did? Do you think that the theory of evolution encourages racism or immorality?


  1. I believe that Darwinism could have laid the ground work for many other biologists to believe that Hitler was influenced. Although I may be persuaded one way because I am christian and happened to come across a christian link talking about this type of topic specifically (
    We do have many similarities to other species but talking about the type of immorality and distruction Hitler did to persuade a nation to believe their race needed to be the highest power could not just happen from an idea, he had to have been influenced and educated with some type of morals to have a genocide!
    Hitler may have been influenced by Darwin yes, but how would he educate the nation about it or his followers to spread this idea? And what other countries have done this, not in a way to kill of other races but to keep their own strong?

  2. ct3290, you cite a link that is based off the work and claims of Richard Weikart. This the same author that all three of the rebuttals at the Planet of the Apes blog I posted are specifically arguing against. How do you respond to their responses? I'm not sure I understand for sure what you're arguing, but how do the responses of these scientists to Weikart's claims jive with your feelings on the matter?

  3. Even if Hitler was inspired by evolution by natural selection, this is not an argument against the theory. This is a common, guilt by association, fallacy. For instance, Hitler may also have been a Christian; this does not discredit the entire religion of Christianity. Of course, however, we know that Hitler was misusing the idea of evolution by natural selection.
    Fitness in evolution by natural selection is specific to a given environment. By forcing an unnatural selective force upon the Jewish people, Hitler was changing the “environment” and therefore the ideas of Darwin were being used incorrectly. It is clear that Hitler’s “version” of evolution by natural selection was an incorrect one, and that even if Hitler was inspired by Darwin, this does not discredit the theory in any logical sense; but did Hitler even truly try to understand the theory? Or was he simply using it to give some sort of scientific credit to the Nazi idea? I think this is a very probable situation.

  4. I believe that Darwin could have motivated Hitler, but that in all likelihood Hitler took Darwin’s ideas and “transformed” them in a way that would coincide with his own beliefs. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is defined as “A difference, on average, between the survival or fecundity of individuals with certain phenotypes compared with individuals with other phenotypes.” I think that Hitler may have taken this definition a bit too seriously and thought that his “race” had the advantageous phenotype, aka “the fittest,” and therefore all other phenotypes should be exterminated. Hitler may have also been thinking at the same time that only his “acceptable” phenotype should be able to survive and reproduce in future generations.

    I know there could be many other possible reasons why Hitler thought the way he did, and in no way am I suggesting that Darwin is entirely responsible for Hitler’s actions. I am just responding to the possibility that the works of Darwin might of increased a hypothetical “list of reasons why…” for Hitler’s already firm-held beliefs. It is on this thought that I believe it didn’t matter whether or not Darwin influenced Hitler, because Hitler was more than likely going to act on his own beliefs whether or not he had read Darwin’s works.

    The theory of evolution shouldn’t encourage racism or immorality; however, I believe that people who don’t understand the entirety of evolution may find certain aspects of it racist and/or immoral. One shouldn’t become overly personal with the theory of evolution, especially when it comes to the notion of “survival of the fittest.” Evolution and its accompanying postulates and theories should be applied in scientific experiments and study in order to come to a conclusion, and shouldn’t be taken in the way Hitler may have taken it, to the extreme point of “that race of people is underdeveloped, so we must not let them reproduce,” for example. Overall, I believe that if one has a well-formed understanding of what the theory of evolution really is, how it was intended to be used, and what it was intending to actually show/demonstrate, it shouldn’t seem to encourage racism or immorality in their mind, but instead show them a theory that can be used to explain the many scientific questions we have today.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Hitler could have very easily been motivated by Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Without a proper understanding of what the theory states and how it operates, it could provide justification for genocide. Clearly, if Hitler was motivated by the Theory of Evolution, he did not understand it.

    You cannot create your own selection pressures and call it evolution. You cannot regulate "fitness" and call it evolution. Simply by arguing survival of the fittest would expose someone's ignorance of the theory.

    I don't think it matters if Hitler was motivated by Darwin's theory or not. The most likely group to argue that he was motivated by the theory is the same group that is most uneducated on the theory, the Christian church. They would likely use the argument to "prove" that evolution is wrong/incorrect.

    Tangent: Being a christian myself, it is frustrating that so many in the church refuse to even take the first steps in understanding this theory because they believe it is in contradiction to what they believe, and they feel it threatens their belief system; which it does not.

    Back to the point. If someone understands the theory and how it operates, then it simply doesn't matter if Hitler was motivated by it because what he did isn't evolution. Bottom line: if you understand the theory, it is obvious that evolution cannot justify genocide.

    Additionally, the theory most likely does encourage racism because people don't understand it. If you are ignorant enough to hate someone because they are different than you, then you probably aren't educated on the Theory of Evolution.

  7. I believe that the problem with saying that Darwin's theory of evolution encouraged racism (Holocaust) is that many of the most important aspects of Hitler's program have nothing at all to do with Darwin (like the idea of German superiority, evilness associated with the Jewish people, etc.).

    The ideas that are attributed to Darwin were actually not advocated but rejected by Darwin and his colleagues. Because of this, clearly the atrocities of Nazism cannot be inevitable outcomes or even logical expansions of the Darwinian theory.

    So, I believe that Darwinism did not lead to Hitler. Instead, the road to the Holocaust was paved by something else - but I do believe that Darwinism provided some of the gas needed to get there. In short, Darwinism may have inspired the idea of the Holocaust, and Darwin was not the most suitable motivator, but was definitely a necessary one.

    Sidenote: For one thing, there have been many instances of racial extermination - before and after Darwin - that made no suggestion to evolution. So the idea of Darwinism isn’t necessary to such evils.

    Among the aspects of Darwinism that became applied to Social Science are basic concepts such as "survival of the fittest" and ''evolution from simple to complex." Even though it is more benign when applied to animals and such, when applied to human societies, it is a more complex phenomenon, and Darwinism soon evolved into its evil form. To make it clear, racism - the idea that some races are superior to others precedes Darwinism. What Social Darwinism provided was pretty much a scientifically formulated vehicle for racial bigots to use in running over less developed divisions of the human population.

  8. Hitler was a creationist; he was a Christian and did not believe in macroevolution. It is hard to attribute much of his beliefs to Darwin's theories as Hitler never mentioned Darwin in any of his writings.

    Instead, Hitler believed that people were created with many differences and that these differences were the basis of what made someone 'inferior' or 'superior.' He was fueled by an inner psychopathic nature that shaped his extreme racism. It is hard to trace the source of his anti-semitism but historians often set the defining event as the death of his mother from breast cancer who was cared for by a Jewish physician. Hitler transferred the guilt and blame that he felt to the Jewish physician. This would be further extrapolated and would pave way for his radical beliefs of Jewish inferiority.

    It is true that under Darwin's theories, certain genetic differences will lead to have adaptive charecteristics that enable them to survive and reproduce better than other individuals. However, natural selection is exactly what it sounds like; it is a 'natural' phenomenon, who is Hitler to be able to pick and choose which traits are desirable and which aren't?

    Just for the sake of argument then, we learned in class about the domestication of dogs. Are experiments such as these ethical since we are artificially emulating natural selection and picking and choosing the traits that we want to see in the next generation, while not letting the other 'nondesirable' traits be passed on? Are we playing God/nature by breeding?

  9. Great discussion. A couple points. I think we're right in asking for a distinction between two things:

    Does Darwinism motivate, in practice, some people to be immoral.


    Does being immoral necessarily follow from the philosophy of Darwinism.

    I think I've heard enough anti-Darwinists to also categorize a third point of view, that I think is more common:

    There is no such thing as morality or immorality if you believe in Darwinism (particularly atheistic Darwinism). Anbody who is moral, is simply "stealing" their morality from the objective morality given by god and religion.

    I'll get to what I think about the evolution of morality later in class when we talk about the evolution of social behavior, but you've flushed out some very important distinctions here.

    Elvis, you've laid out a very interesting and difficult question about the distinction between natural and unnatural. What is our role in evolution? We are not the first species to select on other species. That has been happening since the beginning of evolution (competition, predation, parasitism etc.). However, we are the first species that is capable of choosing how we select on another species, and capable of understanding the consequences of that. Is it "moral" to artificially select species? Personally, I would answer yes, and actually, I would tend to argue that we should. As the dominant species on this planet, we are exerting selection (artificial? natural?) on just about every species on this planet whether we plan to or not. Perhaps the more moral thing to do would be to direct the evolution of organisms so that they can cross fitness valleys and find solutions that are sustainable, rather than letting them get caught on sub-optimal local peaks that we push them to.