Last year I read a book by Richard Weikert titled From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany and was very impressed with the evidence Weikert brought to bear on his thesis. He argued cogently that Darwinian assumptions provided the rationale for the early eugenicists who wanted to purify the German race as well as for the Nazis who came along in the twenties and thirties and put the eugenic dream into nightmarish practice. Weikert explicity said in his book that he wasn't arguing that Darwinism leads inevitably to Nazism, only that Nazis found justification for their beliefs in Darwin's work. In other words, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Nazi.
Books like Weikert's are uncomfortable reading for most Darwinians, however, and one philosopher has taken it upon himself to fight back. Michael Ruse has written an article for the Tallahassee Democrat in which he dismisses the connection between Darwin's ideas and those of the later eugenicists and Nazis. Unfortunately, almost everything in Ruse's piece either misrepresents what people like Weikert have said or is otherwise a punch that doesn't land.
Weikert himself replies to Ruse and part of that response can be read here. Here's a highlight:
Contra Ruse's claim, Nazis did not abandon Darwinism because of its racial egalitarian implications. In fact, the vast majority of Darwinists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries argued that Darwinism proved racial inequality. Darwin claimed in chapter two of The Descent of Man that there were great differences in moral disposition and intellect between the "highest races" and the "lowest savages." Later in Descent he declared, "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races." Racial inegalitarianism was built into Darwin's analysis from the start.
Haeckel, whom Ruse correctly cites as the most prominent German Darwinist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even claimed that humanity should be divided into twelve distinct species in four separate genera. He declared repeatedly that the distance between the highest and lowest humans was wider than the distance between humans and apes.
This Darwinian-based racial inegalitarianism was a mainstream view among early twentieth-century German scientists and scholars. Before and during the Nazi period, the leading anthropologists and eugenicists - Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, Otmar von Verschuer, Hans F. K. Guenther, and many others - were all avid Darwinists and all believed that Darwinism implied racial inequality. Ruse's claim that "Nazi ideologists quickly realized how completely antithetical the whole evolution idea was to their own ideology" is about as far from the mark as you can get.
Also, I should mention that Haeckel was also the first person in German history to advance the idea that disabled people should be killed, a program the Nazis carried out. Most of the eugenicists and physicians who promoted "euthanasia" for the disabled - and most of those who carried it out under Nazism - used overtly Darwinian justifications for it.
In his article in the Tallahassee Democrat Ruse seeks to persuade us not to read too much into the fact that many eugenicists were Darwinians:
[T]he message of Jesus has [also]been used to draw contradictory inferences - because of their faith, some Christians (starting with George Bush and Tony Blair) think the move into Iraq was morally justified, whereas others (Quakers, for a start) oppose the war bitterly because of their reading of the Christian Gospels. Likewise, Darwinism has been used to draw contradictory inferences.
Ruse says that just as people draw different conclusions about the morality of war from the teachings of Jesus so, too, can one draw different conclusions about the teaching of Darwin. Ruse is implicitly comparing going to war with eugenics, but there's a confusion in this.
Nothing Jesus said was an explicit justification for war. The controversy among Christians over the morality of war arises because it's not clear that Jesus ever actually prohibited it. In other words, because of the logic of Jesus' words enjoing peace and compassion, war is seen by many Christians as justifiable only as a last resort before surrender or as a necessary tactic for securing the safety of the oppressed and endangered. No Christian sees war as good or desirable, only necessary.
On the other hand, Darwin places no such constraints upon the eugenicist. Much of what Darwin said was clearly a justification for eugenics. The logic of Darwin's own words leads to the conclusion that it's morally permissable, even desirable, to actively cull the weak and infirm from society's midst. Darwin's thought doesn't require one to support eugenics, of course, but the conclusion that eugenics is good or desirable follows like the wagon behind the tractor from his writings.
Consider the quote above from The Descent of Man in the context of this statement from Darwin's Autobiography: "One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life...only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best."
Mix the belief that selection processes are exterminating the savages with the belief that there are no objective moral constraints acting on human beings together and out pops the Final Solution to the race problem in Germany.RLC