The Corner

Darwin-Hitler Email

Some interesting email, I probably should have waited until morning before I started typing last evening:

Dear Mr. Goldberg,

You have the Spencer/Darwin connection reversed. Darwin stated in “On the Origin of…” that he owes the comprehensive and systematic theory of natural selection to Herbert Spencer whose essay on the subject appeared in 1957, two years before Darwin’s book. Until then, he wrote, evolutionary biologists had all been searching for some comprehensive theory and fallen short. But all of the academic historians reverse the order, and try to claim that “social Darwinism” is a later imposition of Spencer’s theories onto Darwinism.

Also, in “On the Origin of…” Darwin is quite explicit as to the driving force of his theory — that it will bring about a revolution in psychology and lead to the eventual perfection of mankind. Hence, it’s an example of progressivist ideology masquerading as objective science. Voegelin has a very good treatment of Darwinism in “Race and State” published in 1933, and available in English in “The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin.” Voegelin characterizes Darwinian evolution as 19th Century British liberal economic theory.

And:

How could you say such a thing when virtually all of the hard sciences were founded by creationist Christians? Newton ridiculed Darwin and his silly theory. Darwin and not Newton, Pasteur, Keppler and the like represent the rise of modern science? Darwin’s book title had something about survival of the preferred races in it, right? The analogy to Einstein and relativity-to-nukes is disingenuous at best. His idea had nothing to do with death but was used for that purpose later. Darwin’s idea had everything to do with death, the fit surviving at the expense of the unfit. And with no God to answer to there is nothing inherit in Darwin’s idea to stop Hitler or Stalin from doing what they did.

There is no rational, direct connection between relativity and building a bomb that kills. There is a very direct connection between evolution and Hitler. He believed the human race would benefit from eliminating the Jew, Negro, etc. as inferior races precisely because of what Darwin wrote. Nobody, upon reading Einstein the first time said “Hey, let’s build a bomb!” Loved the LF, but not so sure about you anymore.

And:

Jonah, I really admire your work, but I think you’ve succumbed to some form of political correctness in your remarks on Klinghoffer’s article. Klinghoffer’s claim is relatively narrow – he calls it an “unintended contribution to Nazi racial theories.” And he doesn’t just pull his ideas out of a hat – he supports them with very specific scholarly evidence, quoting Hannah Arendt, John Toland, and Ian Kershaw in support of his point. Neither you nor Derbyshire even begin to address this evidence. You simply ignore it, like a lawyer ignoring a body of case law cited against him. You also ignore Klinghoffer’s central point, Darwin’s statement in The Descent of Man that “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.” Did Klinghoffer misquote Darwin? Did he misquote or mislead in his quotations of Arendt, Toland and Kershaw? What are we supposed to make of Darwin’s astonishing prophecy that “the civilized races” will “exterminate and replace… the savage races”? I have some familiarity with Malthus, but am not aware that he ever said anything even remotely along these broadly racialist lines. Is this not the seed of the eugenics practiced in the teens and twenties (advocated, as you have noted, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the liberal saint of the Supreme Court”), which in turn is a significant taproot of Nazi ideology? Show me, if you can, an earlier precedent for scientific racism. Or rebut the conclusion Klinghoffer draws from his evidence in a more detailed and persuasive way. And if you cannot do either of these things, remain silent.

And:

Hi Jonah,

Don’t you think Locke and liberalism generally were big parts of modernity? Do the Nazi’s owe a debt to Locke?

Me: In rough order: The first reader (a longtime one and very smart guy) is right. I should have said Spencer’s drew his conclusions about evolution rather than Darwinism.

As for the second reader, I’m not all that persuaded by the effort to make Newton a “creationist.” Yes, he and the vast majority of the heroes of science were devout Christians, but I think it’s a bit whiggish to apply the term “creationist” to such men retroactively.

There may be no rational direct connection between relativity and using a bomb with evil intent. But there is a fairly solid connection between the effect of the concept of relativity on the widespread rationalization of evil.

As for the second to last reader. Many fair points. I think I was unfair to the narrow claims in Klinghoffer’s piece. And yes, I do think there was serious eugenic content to Darwin’s own writings and I did give short shrift to the extent he legitimized exterminationist eugenics.

I am not in the slightest amused or persuaded by the “or remain silent” formulation at the end of his email. But readers can make of it what they will.

But I do think there’s a bit of a bait and switch going on here. Let’s concede that there was a racial and exterminationist current running through Darwin’s thought and writings that feeds straight into Francis Galton and eugenics. Let’s concede that Darwin’s political or economic conclusions from his scientific research had negative or evil consequences. I’m pretty willing to do both of those things — and apologize for the oversight of not mentioning them yesterday. But how, exactly, does that prove Darwinian evolutionary theory incorrect? The Nazis pioneered work on x-rays, that doesn’t make the technology or the science behind it flawed in any way does it?

Last, the final reader asks if Locke deserves some blame since he’s part of modernity. I know the reader’s being cute. But yeah, sure. My point was that fascism, like communism, was a response to modernity and so in some ways blame is pretty universal. The downside of modern liberal democracy and capitalism is that it arouses in people the desire to live in a more “natural” un-modern way. That desire will never go away because human nature is eternal.

Update: Zoiks, I should just move away from the keyboard. In my exuberance upon returning from my daughter’s soccer game (I made a bundle) and in my haste to deal with all of the email, I overlooked a pretty obvious point. I’ll let this reader make it since I’m so off my feed: 

Jonah,   Could I ask how (in the mind of the creationist reader you posted) Isaac Newton could ridicule Charles Darwin… given that Darwin was born about 80 years after Newton died?   I hadn’t realized Newton also invented the flux capacitor.

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