Darwin, Marx and Bad Scholarship

i-c35dc0508c2399382b9255e9e2272798-oakes_85[5].jpg Edward T. Oakes may be a good teacher of theology at St. Mary of the Lake, but he is a lousy historian of Darwinism. Witness the following statement from his review of Richard Weikart's work, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany:

Spencer might well have been the first to coin the phrase "survival of the fittest." But Darwin enthusiastically adopted it in the 6th edition of his Origin of Species as a substitute term for "natural selection." Nor did he ever demur when other advocates of evolution's social application came pleading their case. Karl Marx asked if he might dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, which request Darwin declined only because he did not want to offend the religious sensibilities of his deeply Christian wife.

There are a host of problems with this short extract.

Firstly - and most trivially - Darwin adopted the phrase in the fifth edition of 1869 of Origin (not the sixth of 1872).

Secondly, it is debatable whether Darwin "enthusiastically adopted" the phrase 'survival of the fittest' which Spencer had coined in 1864. If anyone, it was Wallace who enthuiastically endorsed the term, persuading Darwin to adopt it due to what Wallace perceived to be the anthropomorphism of natural selection. In fact, Wallace went so far as to strike out all occurances of 'natural selection' and replace them with 'survival of the fittest' in his own copy of Origin (Browne, The Power of Place, p. 312). Darwin recognized the utility of the phrase (when properly understood as survival of the "most suitable") but remained strongly attached to his original phrase. Enthusiastic he was not, particularly because it muddied his analogy between artifical and natural selection.

On to Marx, who remains entwined with Darwin in the minds of many anti-evolutionists. Henry Morris, the founder of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) assures us that "it is well known than not only the early Communists, such as Marx and Engels, were atheistic evolutionists, but also that all the leaders of Communism since have been the same" (The Troubled Waters of Evolution, 1974, p. 42). In his The Long War Against God, Morris claims that "Marxism, socialism, and communism, no less than Nazism are squarely based on evolutionism" (p. 83).  He assures us that "Marx felt his own work to be the exact parallel of Darwin's. He even wished to dedicate a portion of Das Kapital to the author of The Origin of Species" (History of Modern Creationism, 1993, p. 54). The fable has passed on into the common currency of the Creationist movement here in the United States. For example, A Walk Through History, a 1994 video issued by the Institute for Creation Research, features John Rajca (then the curator of the ICR Museum of Creation and Earth History) teaching the following to a group of schoolchildren: "Karl Marx here, [points to picture of Marx] wanted to dedicate his book on communism, Das Kapital, to Darwin because he said this is where he got his ideas for a political system." To many anti-evolutionists, Darwinism is inescapably linked with Marxism, both ideologies supporting each other, and evolutionary thinking making communism possible.

Such connections between Darwin and Marx have been effectively refuted by historians for over thirty years. The myth of the link between the two figures was created after Marx's death by Friedrich Engels' graveside oration to Marx, and supported by later Marxists such as Filippo Turati, Edward Aveling & Ludwig Büchner as putative evidence for the 'scientific' nature of their worldview. In particular, it has been proven that a letter evidently written by Darwin to Marx, apparently asking that Marx not dedicate the second volume of Das Kapital to him, was in fact addressed to (Marx's son-in-law) Aveling asking that his A Student's Darwin (1881) not be so dedicated. Darwin was opposed to Aveling's vehement anti-Christian rhetoric and wished not to have his name associated with such radicalism. (See Ball 1979 J. Political Theory 7:469; Colp 1982 History of Political Economy 14:461; Carroll & Fuer 1976 Annals of Science 33:386).

Eighty-three words. Three errors. Scholarship at its finest. It is therefore no surprise that Oakes sees Weikart's work as a "magnificently written monograph".

In making his case, Oakes also states that

Darwin actually, if unwittingly, promulgated the charter for all later social Darwinists: "Let the strongest live and the weakest die... . Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows."

Astute readers may recognize the latter part of the quote comes from the final paragraph of Origin (Chapter XIV). The earlier part comes from chapter VII ('Instinct'). Yes, folks. Oakes has constructed a quote from two statements seven chapters apart, possibly the longest ellipsis known to scholarship.

Makes you wonder why Christianity Today would have someone so clearly untrained in the history of Darwinism review the book. Oh, nevermind, I can guess.

More like this

Weikart is a professor at the Cal State University campus in Turlock, where some friends of mine are faculty members. I asked one of those friends about his distinguished colleague, now a minor star among the anti-evolutionists. The friend said that Weikart is not that big a figure on campus, keeping mostly to his own department. I guess that Cal State U Stanislaus doesn't see a big benefit in publicizing (even on its own campus) the presence of such a questionable scholar -- who then gets his books reviewed by other questionable scholars.

All that effort to refute a pointless argument. As if any political considerations have anything to do with documented, accepted scientific theory. Well, at least you prove ONCE AGAIN that everything the creationists say is WRONG!

Minutia moment: I got curious about the Marx letter. It's more fully discussed at this credible site (writ only in movable electrified sand like the rest of the web, not so good for scholarship). But to find an academic source I had to turn to my handy copy of Bowler's book Evolution: the History of an Idea. Its index entries for "Marx" led to a discussion of the letter and purported dedication, which cites a 1982 article by Ralph Colp: "The Myth of the Darwin-Marx Letter." History of Political Economy 14:461-482. So far so good.

All religious people are dishonest, and the more religious, the more dishonest.

By truth machine (not verified) on 14 Dec 2006 #permalink

Oakes, in making this ellipsis, has told a lie. As a theologian, he's probably used to doing that. He probably justifies his lies to himself. He maybe doesn't even realize he's lying. What a dork!

By Richard Harris, FCD (not verified) on 14 Dec 2006 #permalink

Over at the Quote Mine Project, our record was a gap between quoted sentences of 104 pages without so much as an ellipsis to let the reader know.


I'm looking into this quote mine for possible inclusion in the QMP. It doesn't seem widespread but there are some indications that it actually was Weikart's doing, which might make it worth an entry. It really depends on whether it misrepresents Darwin's thought rather than merely demonstrate the quoter's lack of scholarship.

Then what did Marx mean when he said of the Origin of Species that "The book contains the basis in natural history for our views." (Marx, Collected Writings, editor McClellan, Oxford, p 582) Tbis had nothing to do with dedicating the book to anyone.

By Christensen (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

One point that is often past on as fact, that is often incorrect, is that all communists and socialists are aethiests. Most communists and socialists (including Nazis and Hitler) believe in God. This misconception that you must be an aethiest to be a communist or socialist has mainly come about because the power held by socialist and communist regimes is threatened by the power of organised religion. Or rather, the sharing of power with the head of any organised religion. The most famous communist, Joseph Stalin, has often been called an aethiest, but in fact he did believe in god and mentioned god in many of his speeches and writings.

This is just a traditional attempt to link evolution with something most people see as evil - and church goers will see as more evil - because of the history of conflict between communist and socialist regimes and organised religion.

Stalin was an atheist Newman, and was a dedicated dialectical materialist. That he may have metioned God to motivate the remaining believers in Russia is irrelevant.

I know of no academic historian or biographer of Stalin who claims he believed in God.

But you are quite right that communism does not have to be atheistic; the early Christians described in the book of acts practiced a form of Communism, and the concept has been around for over 2000 years.

But the form it took in the 20th century was due to the Marxist linking of it to the concept of dialectical materialism, and its utter rejection of all competing traditions, which made it the bloody atheistic system it was.

By Christensen (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

There is a historical relationship between Marxism and Darwinism. The post correctly points out that attributing enthusiasm for Darwin to Marx is incorrect. Engels and Marx's chief German disciple, Karl Kautsky, were enthusiastic about Darwin and attempted to incorporate their perceptions of Darwinian ideas in their interpretations of Marxist doctrine. There is a good discussion of this issue in Kolakowski's magisterial Main Currents of Marxism. Its worth mentioning as well that Kautsky was a vociferous critic of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, predicting correctly that the Soviet Union would become a dictatorship. Because of Bolshevik success, however, its the Leninist strain of Marxism that came to dominate 20th century Marxist thought and this cannot be described as being strongly influenced by Darwin.

By Roger Albin (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

At the height of their power,communists in both soviet union and china is vehemently anti-darwinian. They believed "survival of the fittest" an elitest conception, and that animals pass on learned traits to the next generation. Witness lysenkoism in USSR. (That summer wheat be taught to become winter wheat and other outrageously false ideas.)

It is true that the question remains as to how Marx was (if at all) influenced by Darwin. Morris informs us that Marx "became profoundly committed to Darwinism" and Rajca sees Marx as saying that it was from Darwin that he got his ideas. While he initially described Origin as containing "the natural-historical basis of our outlook," he eventually would view Darwinism as a bourgeois ideology which mirrored the bourgeois competitive struggle in capitalist society. Marx twice mentions Darwin's theory in Das Kapital, both as footnotes, and both in a negative context. These are the only published references of Marx to Darwin. More importantly, Marx chastised a number of his followers, in particular Büchner and Lange for attempting to link his ideas with those of Darwin. Büchner's work was described as "superficial nonsense" and Lange lead Marx to describe the struggle for life as "the Malthusian population fantasy". Clearly, Marx was no Darwinist. As Ball notes,

"Marx clearly admired and agreed with Darwin's having finished off teleology in the natural sciences  ... [In Marx's view] Darwin's theory of natural selection applies, at best, only to prehuman, preconscious natural history; it does not apply to the epoch of human history in which men consciously transform nature and therefore themselves."

In other words, whatever Darwin had to say about natural history he had, in Marx's view, nothing important to say about human history. For Marx, humankind, at least as far as its social development was concerned, lay outside of nature.

I don't particularly understand this attack on Darwin. I mean even is somebody did take his ideas and build an evil death mongering empire, that doesn't prove he was wrong or his ideas are inherently evil. I'd like to know how all the anti-evolutionist's who believe this crap feel about Manifest Destiny?

By P Jenkins (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

The Bible advocates stoning people to death for blasphemy (see Leviticus 24).

If religion freaks are going to demonize Darwin for being a bad influence, they'd better be prepared to chuck their Bibles onto the ash heap as well.

Just to add to the general lack of any integrity in all of this, I would just point out that John Rajca is totally wrong in saying "Karl Marx here, [points to picture of Marx] wanted to dedicate his book on communism, Das Kapital, to Darwin because he said this is where he got his ideas for a political system." If Mr. Rajca had bothered to read Das Kapital -- or, failing that, to simply look at the title of the book -- he would quickly realize that it is not a "book on communism" at all, but rather an incredibly insightful analysis of capitalism. But hey, why bother with actual facts?

I wonder how many people blame the Beatles for Charles Manson.

By Bill Gascoyne (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

How's this for quote mining:

"...Luke... ..I am.your... ..father...".
-Colossians 4:14, Genesis 27:31, Genesis 2:24

John Piriet wrote:

"It really depends on whether it misrepresents Darwin's thought rather than merely demonstrate the quoter's lack of scholarship."

Here's his bio:


"Edward T. Oakes, S.J., Ph.D.is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the Catholic seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) in 1966 and was ordained a priest in 1979. He earned his doctorate in systematic theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1987 and taught six years in the Religious Studies Program at New York University and six years at Regis University in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York: Continuum, 1997), the editor of German Essays on Religion (Continuum, 1994) and the co-editor, with David Moss of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar. He is currently at work on a book on evolutionary theory tentatively titled, Radical Naturalism: An Essay in Darwinian Platonism. Published work on this theme include the essays "The American Aristotle," "Original Sin: A Disputation," and "The Blind Programmer," all of which appeared in the monthly journal of opinion First Things."

Edward T. Oakes : (one cannot stress enough that the word "Nazi" is a syncopation for "National Socialist Workers Party," which indicates Nazism's clear affinities with collectivist Bolshevism as well as anything).

Gee whiz, is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea a democracy or a republic.

Fascism a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and
emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.

Communism a theory or system of social organization based on the holding of all property in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state.

Does this guy even own a dictionary? (Definitions from dictionary.com)

He taught for six years at NYU and he thinks the Nazis were communists.

Ain't they got standards at NYU? Or has he had major head trauma since?


A curriculum vitae is not identical to scholarship. And although I spent 4 years under the tutelage of Jesuits and usually found them to be quite good at academics, it is neither universal in the order nor in the individual. As I said, I think he copied Weikart's use of the quote in that form but he could have checked it so easily at the British Museum's site "The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online":


Copying such a mangled quote without comment is either complicit or slipshod. I chose the least damning alternative.

What is significant about this post by Jonathan Witt is how it contradicts what Weikart himself has said about his book.

Witt's title speaks of "a straightforward path to horror." And he writes: "What is striking is how straightforwardly many of the horrors documented in Weikart's book follow from Darwinian principles."

But when I argued in my book--DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM--that Weikart's book did not show a direct line "from Darwin to Hitler," he responded on his website that I had distorted his book's thesis. He said that my bias led me "to incorrectly allege that I argue a straightforward 'Darwin-to-Hitler' thesis." He insisted that the title of his book--FROM DARWIN TO HITLER--was "ambiguous," and that, in fact, he had stated on page 4 of his book that "Darwinism does not lead inevitably to Nazism."

Now, Weikart should correct Witt that he has misinterpreted his book--that his book does not show a "straightforward path" from Darwin to Hitler--and Discovery Institute should issue a retraction.

There is indeed a connection between Darwin and Marx. But to use that connection to discredit Darwin is absurd.

The connection between Darwin and Marx lies in the fact that Marx had an evolutionary theory of history. He was borrowing from Darwin's (and others) ideas that the nature of society underwent significant change over time. I think that is the source of the Marx-Darwin letter which I always assumed was in fact real (interesting to find out otherwise).

Marx however, did not have a Darwinian theory of social change. If anything his theory of social change was Lamarckian: he thought societies hand an innate drive to become something new. This he of course got out of Hegel.

Darwin's ideas were incredibly influential in the social sciences in the late 19th century. Not everyone who borrowed Darwin's ideas fully understood or correctly applied them. 19th century social evolutionism had its right wing and left wing proponents.

If there was anyone in 19th century social sciences who really understood the full implications of Darwin's theories it was Thorstein Veblen. Notably, Veblen had the good sense to also embrace Morganism and reject Lamarckian inheritance.

By Chip Poirot (not verified) on 16 Dec 2006 #permalink

It's not the longest at all; since there was one that conflated two different documents and two different subjects: the the investigation of evolution and the pressure to publish in an academic setting. I found it on talk.origins, I believe, when someone was discussing how his words had been taken wildly out of context by an ellipsis the size of the Grand Canyon.

"Instinct" is chapter VII, no?


By John Lynch (not verified) on 18 Dec 2006 #permalink

Hi John,
I was just discussing the quality of Christian literature & "scholarly" work with a friend of mine. I used your blog post as an example dissecting a fallacious argument. He rebutted saying you have not cited your sources. For example:

"it is well known than not only the early Communists, such as Marx and Engels, were atheistic evolutionists, but also that all the leaders of Communism since have been the same." -Morris

What is the citation for this quote?



By Chris Pelletier (not verified) on 18 Dec 2006 #permalink


Fair point. I'll add citations where needed.

By John Lynch (not verified) on 18 Dec 2006 #permalink

Thanks for the citations John,


By Chris Pelletier (not verified) on 20 Dec 2006 #permalink

I wrote to editor of Christianity Today and received an interested response, in which he (John Wilson) suggested I submit a letter to be published, up to 500 words. This could cite the blog discussions (here and pharyngula), tho as he pointed out they're of very uneven quality. I'll do this.

He observed that they've reviewed many books "that take Darwinian evolution for granted", and are open to a variety of views. This is not the DI.

John Pieret and others:

The ellipsis is not Weikart's doing. I don't own the book, but exploited Amazon.com's search inside feature, and found:

On p. 73 of Weikart's book the two quotes appear, in separate paragraphs, separated by several lines, and properly footnoted. Oakes appears to have inserted an ellipsis into Weikart's page, not realizing what this ellipsis corresponds to in Darwin's original text.

This is shoddy scholarship by my co-religionist Oakes at best.

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 08 Jan 2007 #permalink

I will note that my original post was about Oakes not Weikart - the former's "scholarship" is inexcusable.

Update 2:23pm 1/9/07: When I originally posted this comment, I erroneously wrote "latter" rather than "former," thus indicting Weikart. I apologize for this confusion. (Not that Weikart's book is without problems ...)

John Lynch: I was only responding to Jon Pieret's remark in the comments above that "there are some indications that it actually was Weikart's doing" (referring to the 7 chapter ellipsis). Whatever faults Weikart may have -- and I haven't read his book, but I'll take you word on it -- this doesn't seem to be one of them.

By Michael Kremer (not verified) on 09 Jan 2007 #permalink