Friday, September 29, 2006

Review of Richard Weikart: From Darwin to Hitler (part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6


In a couple of previous posts I have dealt with Richard Weikart and been somewhat confused over his position. So I decided to read his book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. While I am reading the book, I will post commentaries on it, and this post is the first of those commentaries.

In the "Preface" Weikart writes p. ix:

I became fascinated with the topic of evolutionary ethics while doing research for my dissertation, Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein (published in 1999). Little did I suspect the course my study would take. While examining Darwinian discourse in Germany, I found that many darwinists believed that Darwinism had revolutionary implications for ethics and morality, providing a new foundation for ethics and overturning traditional moral codes.

This are the first words in the book, and we have had the word 'Darwinism' introduced, but not defined. And yet, it is implicitly defined by association with the word 'Socialist' and following that with the phrase "revolutionary implications for ethics and morality, providing a new foundation for ethics and overturning traditional moral codes".

Already here we know that this book isn't a scientific book, but a political book, the intended audience being anti-socialist conservatives.

Following that Weikart mentions more about his further readings pulling out things that apparently are chisen (dare I say: intelligently designed?) to shock that audience.

In particular we may notice this piece further down the same page:

Last, but not least, James Rachel's book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford, 1990), stimulated my thinking. Rachel's argument that Darwinism undermines the sanctity of human life and his support for euthanasia seemed remarkably similar to some of the ideas I encountered in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany.

Apparently Weikart is trying to warn us that if we don't do something about Darwinism now, then history will repeat itself. But we still don't even know, what 'Darwinism' is, except it's something that undermines the sanctity of human life (because we are "created" from animals?)

The ever so infamous Wedge Document begins with:

The proposition that human beings beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

This document was written for fund-raising purposes and to some extent works as the strategic plan for the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, of which Weikart is a fellow.

In other words, if you like "representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences", you'd better go with being created in the image of God rather than being created from animals.

Moving on to the "Introduction" we read at p. 2:

The famous bioethicist Peter Singer and his compatriot James Rachels argue that because Darwinism effectively discredits the Judeo-Christian conception of the sanctity of human life, therefore abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide can be morally justified.

First, as far as I have understood, the term 'Judeo-Christian values' was applied by conservative protestants in order to persuade Catholics and Jews to vote for the Republican party.

Second, I don't know anything about James Rachels and I am certainly no expert on Peter Singer; but from what I know about him, he employ a utilitarian ethics, which in the present case means that we should strive to decrease suffering. Does human life have a value in itself, even if you are suffering? And how does martyrdom fit in here? Things are not as simple as Weikart makes it sound. Where Darwinism comes into it for Peter Singer is not in a degrading of human life, but in an upgrading of animal life, effectively discrediting the 'speciesism' that he claims that the biblical creation story represents - with humans specifically created in the image of God separate from animals.

On the following few pages Weikart discusses whether the line from Darwin to Hitler was straight or not, admitting that 'Darwinism' (still not defined) did not necessarily lead to the holocaust, nor was it far from the only influence, but it was an influence on Hitler though mediated through ideas that weren't original to Darwin.

having established taht Darwinism was one, though not the only factor that led to the holocaust, weikart quotes Sheila Faith Weiss at p.6:

Finally, one might add, to categorize people as "valuable" and "valueless," to view people as little more than variables amenable to manipulation for some "higher end" as Schallmayer and all German eugenicists did, was to embrace an outlook that led, after many twists and turns, to the slave-labor and death camps of Auschwitz.

Hey, wait a sec here, will you? Since when wasn't the Judeo-Christian point of view anything else than that human lives are amenable to manipulation (by God) for some "higher end" (God's plan of Salvation and the kingdom of God)? Sin is defined as not accepting that manipulation.

At p. 9, Weikart finally sees fit to grant us a definition of 'Darwinism':

When I use the term Darwinism in this study, I mean the theory of evolution through natural selection as advanced by Darwin in The Origin of Species. In the late nineteenth century century, however, the term Darwinism was often used loosely. Sometimes it meant the idea of biological evolution in general, other times it referred to Darwin's particular theory of natural selection (as I am using it in this work), and elsewhere it meant an entire naturalistic worldview with biological evolution as its centerpiece.

Ok, so now we know. The obvious problem here is that The Origin of Species does not cover humans. Darwin first did this in 1871 in The Descent of Man. Why doesn't Weikart point out that to Darwin in Descent, social insticts such as sympathy counted as a peculiarity of being civilized?

Let's look at a frequently quoted piece from Descent, chapter 5:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

This piece is usually quoted to show that Darwin was against vaccination and suggested that humans should be put under the same rules as domesticated animals. But let's have some of the next paragraph to go with this:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

This completely turns the meaning around, doesn't it? Darwin's point is not that vaccination should be abandoned to let natural selection do its tricks, because that same natural selection has already given us the instinct of sympathy.

Sure, Darwin might not have been correct, sympathy may not be an instinct, but something we learn. Still, Darwin's claim is that there are social instincts, and that they belong to the noblest part of our nature. Why shouldn't this count as 'Darwinism' as well?

It certainly serves to the credit of Weikart that he - unlike some creationists - does not paint a negative picture of Darwin. However, it detracts from that credit that Weikart doesn't make it clear that Darwin's theory of evolution does not necessarily imply any devaluation of human lives.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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