On this day 76 years ago (July 14, 1933) a sterilization law was passed in Nazi Germany, known as Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses (Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring). Any German was a target if they were found to be suffering from a range of perceived hereditary ailments, such as congenital mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic-depressive insanity, epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, blindness, deafness, any severe hereditary deformity or even severe alcoholism. Official pronouncements insisted that these individuals were a drain on the German people, both biologically and financially (see right). The law passed on this day ultimately led to an estimated 400,000 people being involuntarily sterilized in pursuit of this national goal of “racial hygiene,” to eliminate handicapped descendants.
Creationists are fond of laying the blame for Nazi eugenics on Charles Darwin. They insist that his materialist argument that humans evolved from animals and his conception of natural selection inspired the Nazis to implement a widespread policy of artificial selection within the Fatherland. However, these claims are as baseless as was the so-called “science” that the Nazis employed.
For example, William Dembski, intelligent design creationist and co-author of Moral Darwinism, claims:
Darwin is the founder of the modern eugenics movement in all its later myriad forms, whether it is expressed through a call to weed out the unfit, breed more of the fit, abort the undesirable and deformed or manipulate our nature genetically through technology.
In nearly identical form Jonathan Wells, devotee of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon, writes:
Darwinism’s connection with eugenics, abortion and racism is a matter of historical record. And the record is not pretty.
Islamic creationist Harun Yahya (whom I recently interviewed from his home in Istanbul) similarly insists:
The eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilization, concentration camps, racial purity and gas chambers of the mid-20th century emerged as a result of the Darwin-Haeckel-Hitler coalition, representing the worst and most ruthless cruelty in the history of humanity.
Taken together this would be a damning indictment, if there were actually any truth to their claims. The main connections that all three authors make between Darwinism and eugenics is that Francis Galton, an early proponent of eugenics, was Darwin’s cousin and that Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist who championed evolution and maintained a long correspondence with the English naturalist, was a primary source for Nazi eugenic policies.
The strength of their arguments quickly fall apart, however, once they are given a few moments thought. The Galton connection is quite obviously baseless, for surely no one can be held responsible for something their cousin promotes (especially since Galton didn’t even invent the term eugenics until a year after Darwin’s death). Furthermore, not that it matters, but Galton was merely Darwin’s half-cousin since they shared the same grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, but had different grandmothers. The second claim, about Haeckel’s foundation for Nazi race biology, is simply wrong. However, for this they can only be faulted for shoddy research, since the connection they were exploiting came from a highly regarded scientific source: Stephen Jay Gould.
In Gould’s 1977 book Ontology and Phylogeny the esteemed Harvard paleontologist wrote:
[Haekel’s] evolutionary racism; his call to the German people for racial purity and unflinching devotion to a “just” state; his belief that harsh, inexorable laws of evolution ruled human civilization and nature alike, conferring upon favored races the right to dominate others . . . all contributed to the rise of Nazism.
While, in his book, Gould sought to separate Darwin from his German contemporary, his creationist quote-miners were looking to do the opposite. Unfortunately for both, the connection they were drawing doesn’t actually exist.
According to University of Chicago historian Robert J. Richards, in a recent anthology:
This charge, which attempts to link Haekel’s convictions with the Nazi’s particular brand of racism, suffers from the inconvenience of having absolutely no foundation.
Gould was drawing from the research of Daniel Gasman whose 1971 book Scientific Origins of National Socialism placed Haeckel at the center of the philosophical foundation of Nazi ideology. Richards has excoriated this research (see, for example, his paper Ernst Haeckel’s Alleged Anti-Semitism and Contributions to Nazi Biology in the journal Biological Theory) and demonstrated that, not only was Haeckel not a proponent of a pre-Nazi racist biology, but the Nazi’s rejected his work totally.
The reality is that, while one German academic named Heinz Brücher did argue that Haeckel’s Darwinism meshed with Hitler’s racial attitudes, this view was immediately quashed by the guardians of party doctrine. Günther Hecht, official representative for the National Socialist Party’s Department of Race-Politics (Rassenpolitischen Amt der NSDAP), insisted in the Reich’s official scientific journal:
The party and its representatives must not only reject a part of the Haeckelian conception–other parts of it have occasionally been advanced–but, more generally, every internal party dispute that involves the particulars of research and the teachings of Haeckel must cease.
The reason for this rejection may have been the fact that Haeckel stood out among his contemporaries for his expression of Judenfreundschaft (friendliness toward Jews) or because of his criticisms of the military during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. A more important reason is probably the fact that Nazi racial views had no connection with specific evolutionary concepts like transmutation of species or the animal origins of human beings. As Richards concludes:
The perceived materialism of Darwinian biology and Haeckelian monism deterred those who cultivated the mystical ideal of a transcendence of will. Pseudoscientific justifications for racism would be ubiquitous in the early twentieth century, and Hitler’s own mad anti-Semitism hardly needed support from evolutionary theorists of the previous century.
The Nazi policies enacted three-quarters of a century ago today were certainly bad enough, we don’t need to spread the blame onto those who had no connection with them. Given the long history of creationist scholarship based on principles rather than propaganda, I’m certain we will no longer see attempts to smear Darwin’s legacy with the taint of Nazi ideology once these facts become more generally well-known. But, of course, I’m being sarcastic.
Richards, R. (2007). Ernst Haeckel’s Alleged Anti-Semitism and Contributions to Nazi Biology Biological Theory, 2 (1), 97-103 DOI: 10.1162/biot.2007.2.1.97