Darwin and Hitler, Again?

Image: via PZ Myers

PZ Myers has a new post condemning Discovery Institute ideologue David Klinghoffer's recent post connecting Darwin to the eugenic policies of Hitler. He trots out some of the same points that have been refuted time and again.

Darwin elaborated a picture of how the world works, how creatures war with each other for survival thus selecting out the fittest specimens and advancing the species. In this portrait of animal life, man is no exception. Any animal that strives to preserve the weak, as man does, is committing racial suicide. "Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind," Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, a policy "highly injurious to the race of man."

Hitler did nothing more than translate the competition of species into obsessively racial terms.

What Klinghoffer intentionally hides is the very next paragraph in The Descent of Man where Darwin specifically rejects any policy that would "neglect the weak and helpless":

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. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Klinghoffer then goes on to insist that Darwin's theory was the cause of scientific racism:

Darwinism was itself a major agent of dispelling sympathetic sentiments. Evolutionary thinking inspired modern scientific racism. For Darwin, evolution explained the phenomenon -- so he saw it -- of racial inferiority. Some races were farther up the evolutionary tree than others. Thus, in his view, Africans were just a step above gorillas.

This is demonstrably false. I encourage readers to take a look at the recent book Darwin's Sacred Cause by renowned historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore that has the telling subtitle "How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution." The New York Times published the first chapter in full and, as they quoted in their review, emphasize Darwin's abolitionist roots:

"To this day," Darwin later wrote in his journal, "if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate."

ColorLines Magazine also had this glowing review of the book:

Charles Darwin's family and the related Wedgwood families were important and active abolitionists, and Darwin was a passionate believer in racial equality. Unlike many other abolitionists, Darwin came face to face with slavery in the West Indies and Brazil, and the experiences only deepened his hatred of the institution, according to authors Adrian Desmond and James Moore.

Following his famed five-year, round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin slowly and cautiously developed a convincing theory of natural selection. Unsurprisingly, he had to step around the biblical literalists who ran the Anglican-dominated universities. But the landscape of science was also populated with nonreligious racialists in the service of imperialism and slavery. They believed species popped up in different places independently, which meant that Africans and Europeans were unrelated species.

Darwin's contribution was to adhere to a unitary theory of descent: species, including Homo sapiens, arose by branching off from earlier forms.

Darwin's Sacred Cause is a must-read. Without the work of the separate species naturalists in the 19th century, white supremacy would have had a very different history.

I will be responding to Klinghoffer shortly [the piece has been published here]. His easily refuted polemic simply demonstrates how desperate the Discovery Institute is after their political failures. Like PZ I am extremely disappointed that Huffington Post would provide a platform to a self-avowed propaganda vehicle that was pushing a strategy the US Federal Court determined to be "breathtaking inanity." However, unlike PZ, I intend to take the fight directly to them.


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Good luck. A worthy, but annoying cause. There are some really detailed comments on the HuffPo article too. But the tighter the description what is going on here, the better.