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When Scholars Simply Don’t Want To Believe Something Obvious…

… they are very good at developing clever arguments to avoid seeing it

This article was originally published in Salvo 62 (Fall 2022) under the title “The Whitewashing.”

In Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), University of California historian Richard Weikart demonstrated painstakingly that the Nazis had developed an ethic based largely on applying Darwinian evolution principles to government. Scholars have since tried hard to obscure the connection, most likely because they believe in Darwinism and see it as science. Any suggestion that the Nazis were avid Darwinists too is unseemly and must be refuted by any and all means.

With racism very much in current news, Weikart has focusing in Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism (Discovery Institute Press, 2022) on the way that the Nazis understood racism in explicitly Darwinian terms. Briefly, they believed that natural selection, acting on random mutation during the Ice Age, had made northern Europeans fitter for survival than other human groups. (p. 15)

Suppose a PR agency was hired to defend the view that the Nazis were not really Darwinists after all. They could hardly do better than much current scholarship, which attempts to obscure the plain facts of the case. Here are some of the misrepresentations Weikart’s methodical trip through the archives addresses:

Some offer sentimental stuff about Darwin to the public while continuing to admit the truth as scholars. For example, Adrian Desmond and James Moore wrote Darwin’s Sacred Cause (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) playing up Darwin as an abolitionist. Yet, as Weikart notes, they freely admit that he saw genocide as a force for progress in human evolution and thus justified imperialist warfare against aboriginal peoples. (pp. 21-22). Of the people living in Tierra del Fuego, Darwin wrote, “Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world.” (p. 24).

Another tactic focuses on isolated doubt about Darwinism in Germany and makes it the story. For example, one Saxon state library official placed a book by Darwin’s German champion Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) on a banned list (p. 136). But that should be weighed against the general embrace of Darwinism (p. 63).

General embrace?: Hitler’s public orations channeled Darwinism. From his Nuremberg Rally speech in 1933: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.” That’s almost verbatim from Haeckel (p. 46). Nazi education and teacher training explicitly taught Darwinism. (p. 53–54). Schoolchildren were “encouraged to see primates as their evolutionary relatives.” (p. 58) Meanwhile, the Nazi-run biology teachers’ magazine often attacked creationism. (p. 60) Nazi popular media proclaimed evolution as a critical scientific fact, rejecting any skepticism.

Weikart comments, “In the course of my research, I have surveyed quite a few Nazi periodicals, and I have never discovered a single article in them attacking or even calling into question evolutionary theory.” (p. 101–102).

Historians who are uneasy with these facts sometimes either misunderstand or misrepresent occasional controversies. For example, Daniel Gasman argued that because biologist Ernst Haeckel was unpopular among Nazis, the Nazis rejected Darwin. (p. 117) No, they spurned Haeckel’s involvement in socialism, pacifism, feminism, (pp. 62-63) and anti-fascism (p. 117). But by 1939, Haeckel was posthumously showered with honors nonetheless. (p. 121)

Similarly, historians George Mosse and Peter Bowler have argued that, because the Nazis insisted that only heredity (not environment) matters, they rejected evolution. It is unclear how these historians arrived at that view. The Nazis rejected Lamarckian evolution (where environmental influences matter) as a Marxist doctrine (p. 79) because they were strict Darwinian selectionists (p. 67, pp. 114-115).

Other historians have claimed that the Nazis must have rejected evolution because they “would not have wanted to affirm a common ancestor for the various human races, because that would imply human equality.” But Darwin himself argued for common descent in The Descent of Man while explicitly believing that human populations were physically, intellectually, and morally unequal. (p. 80) Neither he nor his Nazi fans noticed any difficulty…

Again, some portray disputes about mechanisms as opposition to the basic idea. Historian Robert Richards, for example, insists in Was Hitler a Darwinian? (University of Chicago Press, 2013) that two Nazi scientists were anti-Darwinian. In reality, Weikart says, they were both “full-fledged evolutionists” arguing about details of mechanisms (pp. 109– 10) — like Stephen Jay Gould vs. Richard Dawkins. In a rare moment of impatience, Weikart calls Richards’ contention “wildly mistaken.” (p. 110)

Another claim is that Darwinism was a mere propaganda tool — even though Hitler and leading Nazis invoked it in private conversation. (p. 114). Some boldly claim that Hitler was a “creationist.” He was in fact a pantheist who scoffed at creationist explanations. (p. 50).

During a single private conversation in January 1942, Hitler expressed doubts about common descent and that has sometimes been conflated into a systematic anti-evolution position (p. 51). Weikart responds, “One expression of doubt about human evolution should not be taken to represent Hitler’s position when he often (both before and after) stated his belief in human evolution and integrated evolutionary ideas into many facets of his worldview.” (p. 52).

These misrepresentations by historians are especially disturbing if one takes racism and white nationalism seriously. Weikart sums up by pointing out the obvious: “Most objections to the historical connection between Darwinism, racism, and Nazi ideology seem to come from those desperate to protect Darwinism from any such unsavory associations. They ignore masses of data while latching onto small tidbits that seem to corroborate the view they like.” (p. 164) He then offers a challenge: “In sum, if Darwinism really is not inherently racist, then it is incumbent on Darwinists to explain why it is not.” (p. 167)

A similar skew clouds the discussion of white nationalism today. Weikart noted recently that in 2021 alone, academic presses published White Evangelical Racism (Anthea Butler, University of North Carolina Press, 2021), Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right (Randall Balmer), and The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy (J. Russell Hawkins).

You’d never guess from all this that typical American white nationalists are profoundly anti-Christian or that Darwin’s Descent of Man clearly underlies their views. Weikart sketches their history, starting with an obscure incendiary book, Might Is Right (1896), by Ragnar Redbeard (pseudonym). Anton LaVey, founder of the Satanic Church, plagiarized part of it for his Satanic Bible in 1969 (p. 140) and it has remained very popular thereafter among white nationalists. (p. 141).

And Christianity? “From the very first pages Redbeard viciously and relentlessly attacked Christianity — calling Jesus ‘the true prince of Evil.’” (p. 141). Leading white power and alt right figures like George Lincoln Rockwell, William Pierce, Revilo P. Oliver, Kevin Alfred Strom, J. Philippe Rushton and Kevin MacDonald (p. 146–52) Richard Spencer (p. 159), Jared Taylor (p. 160), John Derbyshire and Steve Sailer (p. 162) have stressed Darwinian evolution as underpinning their racism.

Weikart’s book is fact-heavy but it addresses a need. The fact-lite (or fact-free) Woke demand a Darwinism purged of its own history. Yet that history is still very much alive. Recently, transhumanist historian Yuval Noah Harari, a key advisor to the World Economic Forum (WEF), was what we should do with all the “useless,” “meaningless,” and “worthless” people alive today.[3]

WEF is hardly an alt right web site; ultra-fashionable political jet setters meet at Davos to reshape our lives. So I asked Dr. Weikart by e-mail, “What, if anything, has changed?”

He replied, “Harari is an Israeli, so he would have been on Hitler’s list of inferior peoples. The difference between the Nazis’ view and the view of many intellectuals today, Harari included, is that they simply have different categories of people that they consider inferior. For the Nazis, it was the Jews and other races. For most progressives today it is those they think have lower levels of rationality, such as preborn children, people with mental disabilities, senile elderly people, etc. In Harari’s case, it apparently includes anyone who will not go along with his transhumanist program to become an ‘enhanced’ human.”

As Darwinian natural selection (survival of the fittest) remains fashionable in pop science (though it is beginning to be questioned in the science literature, due to alternative causes of evolution such as like horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics), we may expect a recurring need to obscure its origins and history.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

When Scholars Simply Don’t Want To Believe Something Obvious…