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From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany
Palgrave MacMillan, (paperback)
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In this compelling and painstakingly researched work of intellectual history, Richard Weikart explains the revolutionary impact Darwinism had on ethics and morality. He demonstrates that many leading Darwinian biologists and social thinkers in Germany believed that Darwinism overturned traditional Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment ethics, especially those pertaining to the sacredness of human life. Many of these thinkers supported moral relativism, yet simultaneously exalted evolutionary "fitness" (especially in terms of intelligence and health) as the highest arbiter of morality. Weikart concludes that Darwinism played a key role not only in the rise of eugenics, but also in euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis.
In this compelling and painstakingly researched work of intellectual history, Richard Weikart explains the revolutionary impact Darwinism had on ethics and morality. He demonstrates that many leading Darwinian biologists and social thinkers in Germany believed that Darwinism overturned traditional Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment ethics, especially those pertaining to the sacredness of human life. Many of these thinkers supported moral relativism, yet simultaneously exalted evolutionary "fitness" (especially in terms of intelligence and health) as the highest arbiter of morality. Weikart concludes that Darwinism played a key role not only in the rise of eugenics, but also in euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis. He convincingly makes the disturbing argument that Hitler built his view of ethics on Darwinian principles rather than nihilistic ones. From Darwin to Hitler is a provocative yet balanced work that should encourage a rethinking of the historical impact that Darwinism had on the course of events in the twentieth century.
Richard Weikart's outstanding book shows in sober and convincing detail how Darwinist thinkers in Germany had developed an amoral attitude to human society by the time of the First World War, in which the supposed good of the race was applied as the sole criterion of public policy and 'racial hygiene'. Without over-simplifying the lines that connected this body of thought to Hitler, he demonstrates with chilling clarity how policies such as infanticide, assisted suicide, marriage prohibitions and much else were being proposed for those considered racially or eugenically inferior by a variety of Darwinist writers and scientists, providing Hitler and the Nazis with a scientific justification for the policies they pursued once they came to power.
-- Dr. Richard Evans, Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge, and author of The Coming of the Third Reich
This is one of the finest examples of intellectual history I have seen in a long while. It is insightful, thoughtful, informative, and highly readable. Rather than simply connecting the dots, so to speak, the author provides a sophisticated and nuanced examination of numerous German thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were influenced to one degree or another by Darwinist naturalism and their ideas, subtly drawing both distinctions and similarities and in the process telling a rich and colorful story.
-- Ian Dowbiggin, Professor of History at the University of Prince Edward Island and author of A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America
This is an impressive piece of intellectual and cultural history--a well-researched, clearly presented argument with good, balanced, fair judgments. Weikart has a thorough knowledge of the relevant historiography in both German and English."
-- Alfred Kelly, Edgar B. Graves Professor of History, Hamilton College, and author of The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwinism in Germany, 1860-1914
This is truly a well-crafted work of intellectual history, and one directly relevant to some of the most consequential ethical discussions of our present time. Christians and all people of good will would do well to ponder these arguments, recognizing how easily the best and brightest can commit the worst and darkest under the progressive banner of biological "health and fitness." The book should provoke much debate and discussion, not only among historians but among ethicists and scientists too.
--Thomas Albert Howard, Associate Professor of History, Gordon College, author of Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (forthcoming)
The philosophy that fueled German militarism and Hitlerism is taught as fact in every American public school, with no disagreement allowed. Every parent ought to know this story, which Weikart persuasively explains.
--Phillip Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Law, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance
If you think moral issues like infanticide, assisted suicide, and tampering with human genes are new, read this book. It draws a clear and chilling picture of the way Darwinian naturalism led German thinkers to treat human life as raw materials to be manipulated in order to advance the course of evolution. The ethics of Hitler's Germany were not reactionary; they were very much "cutting edge" and in line with the scientific understanding of the day. Weikart's implicit warning is that as long as the same assumption of Darwinian naturalism reigns in educated circles in our own day, it may well lead to similar practices.
--Nancy Pearcey, co-author of The Soul of Science and How Now Shall We Live
Richard Weikart's masterful work offers a compelling case that the eugenics movement, and all the political and social consequences that have flowed from it, would have been unlikely if not for the cultural elite's enthusiastic embracing of the Darwinian account of life, morality, and social institutions. Professor Weikart reminds us, with careful scholarship and circumspect argument, that the truth uttered by Richard Weaver decades ago is indeed a fixed axiom of human institutions: "ideas have consequences."
--Francis J. Beckwith, Associate Director, J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, and Associate Professor of Church-State Studies, Baylor University
About the Author
Richard Weikart is an associate professor of modern European history at California State University, Stanislaus. He has lived in Germany over five years, including one year on a Fulbright Fellowship. He has published two previous books, including Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein (1999), as well as articles in German Studies Review, Journal of the History of Ideas, Isis, European Legacy, and History of European Ideas.
Table of Contents
1. Laying New Foundations for Ethics
1 The Origin of Ethics and the Rise of Moral Relativism
2 Evolutionary Progress as the Highest Good
3 Organizing Evolutionary Ethics
2. Devaluing Human Life
4 The Value of Life and the Value of Death
5 The Specter of Inferiority: Devaluing the Disabled and "Unproductive"
6 The Science of Racial Inequality
3. Eliminating the "Inferior Ones"
7 Controlling Reproduction: Overturning Traditional Sexual Morality
8 Killing the "Unfit"
9 War and Peace
10 Racial Struggle and Extermination
11 Hitler's Ethics