Darwinism & the Rise of German Eugenics
by Richard Weikart
Darwinism was a matter of life and death, and no one understood this better than Darwin. Immediately after explaining that each organism “has to struggle for life, and to suffer great destruction,” he closed his chapter on “The Struggle for Existence” in On the Origin of Species on a more comforting note: “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”
This put a rather positive spin on the struggle for existence, the law, as he put it, “leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” Even while overtly denying any purpose or goal for evolution, Darwin could not resist the mid-Victorian cult of progress.
One of the alluring features of Darwinism, it seems to me, is that it offers a secular answer to the problem of evil and death. Indeed, it was more than an answer—it gave Darwinists hope and inspiration that suffering and death would ultimately spawn progress. Darwin clearly viewed death and destruction as an engine of evolutionary progress, as we see in the penultimate sentence of On the Origin of Species: “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.”
The Darwinian idea of death as a natural engine of evolutionary progress represented a radical shift from the Christian conception of death as an unnatural, evil foe to be conquered. This shift would bring in its train a whole complex of ideas that would alter ways of thinking about killing and the “right to life.”
Darwin’s jubilation at the power of natural selection to wrest victory from the jaws of death is reminiscent of the biblical promise, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” In one respect, then, his theory of natural selection was a secular answer to Judeo-Christian theodicy (the justification of belief in a benevolent God in a world of evil), since it provided an explanation for the existence of evil and promised that evil would ultimately fulfill a good purpose.
In a speech in 1909 honoring Darwin’s hundredth birthday, a famous professor at the University of Munich expressed exactly this point. Max von Gruber opened his speech by countering the common misconception that nature is peaceful, harmonious, and idyllic. Rather, it is “filled with pitiless, gruesome struggle, with torment and death.” Darwin, he exulted, had discovered a rationale behind all this seemingly meaningless misery:
Suffering and death, then, fulfilled a higher purpose: the preservation and advancement of all living beings. Even though Gruber thought human reason and pity could and should mollify the struggle among humans, Darwinism helped him find purpose and meaning in the mass destruction of other organisms.
Before Darwinism burst onto the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the idea of the sanctity of human life dominated European thought and law (though it was not always followed in practice). Judeo-Christian ethics proscribed the killing of innocent human life, and the Christian churches explicitly forbade murder, infanticide, abortion, and even suicide. The sanctity of human life became enshrined in classical liberal human rights ideology as “the right to life,” which according to John Locke and the Declaration of Independence was one of the supreme rights of every individual. This was reflected in European legal codes, which strictly forbade the acts the churches had forbidden.
Only in the late nineteenth and especially the early twentieth century did significant debate erupt over issues relating to the sanctity of human life, especially infanticide, abortion, suicide, and now euthanasia. Darwinism played an important role in this debate, for it altered many people’s conceptions of the importance and value of human life, as well as the significance of death.
A New Conception
Darwinism transformed Western thinking about the value of human life by altering many influential people’s conceptions of the human position in the cosmos and in the organic world. First, the general idea of evolution reduced or eliminated the idea of a distinctive place or value for humanity in the cosmos.
In his 1904 book, The Wonders of Life, the influential German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel remarked that “the value of our human life appears to us today, on the firm foundation of evolutionary theory, in an entirely different light than it did fifty years ago.” He did not think human life particularly valuable in itself, nor did he think that all people had the same value. This point he had already expressed quite clearly in 1864 to his devout Christian father:
Haeckel and many other German Darwinists fought incessantly against all dualistic views of humans—the view that they have not only a body but also a mind—which endued human life with much greater value than that of animals. For Haeckel and most German Darwinists, humans were not much different from animals, and they often criticized Christians and other dualists for insisting on significant qualitative distinctions between humans and animals.
In rejecting mind-body dualism Haeckel explicitly denied the existence of an incorporeal human soul. He contended that all the activities traditionally ascribed to the human soul were nothing more than material processes originating in the central nervous system.
Despite his slippery use of religious terminology, Haeckel was clearly a reductionist who denied free will and insisted on mechanistic explanations for everything, including the human soul. Though Darwin was never as explicit as Haeckel in denying mind-body dualism (at least in his published works), he did nonetheless embrace reductionism by providing natural explanations for all human characteristics, including those traditionally considered unique aspects of the human soul or spirit, such as rationality, emotions, conscience, morality, and even religion.
The Species Continues
Haeckel was by no means alone in his sentiments. In 1880, the zoologist Robby Kossmann, who later became a professor of medicine, explained the implications of Darwinism for the significance of human life to a popular audience in his article, “The Significance of the Life of an Individual in the Darwinian World View.” Like Haeckel, Kossmann argued that Darwinism should revolutionize one’s entire worldview.
Evolution, he wrote, “tore down the boundaries between the animal and human world.” The Darwinian worldview subordinated the individual to the community, since all individuals necessarily perish—indeed myriads die before reproducing—but the species continues. This means that the value of an individual’s life can only be measured by its contribution to the welfare of the community. Kossmann pursued this logic relentlessly, explaining,
Although far more humane in his ethical views than Haeckel or Kossmann, another leading Darwinist, Arnold Dodel, a professor of biology at the University of Zurich, also believed that Darwinism stripped humanity of the special status that religion had accorded it. Like Darwin and most early Darwinists, Dodel recognized that in order to persuade his contemporaries that humans had evolved from animals, he would have to reduce the distance between the two.
Humans (especially “primitive” people) had to become more animal-like, and animals more human-like. After examining the similarities of humans and animals in anatomy, embryology, and other fields, Dodel posed the question, “Is the human something special?” The answer, “founded on the scientific results of the last couple of decades,” he assured his readers, was “decisively: No!”
Many Darwinists agreed with Haeckel and Kossmann that humans could be reduced to animals, and quite a few reduced animals to their physical and chemical components. This kind of Darwinian reductionism was strongest among scientists and physicians, to be sure, but it had severe consequences for the value of human life when applied to human affairs. Eugenicists, for example, often compared the selective breeding of animals, which they saw as rational and scientific, with human reproduction, which seemed irrational and arbitrary.
The clear implication was that humans would be better off if they would treat each other the way they treat animals, at least in the area of reproduction. Sex was thus reduced to a mere biological function. The jurist and eugenicist Hans von Hentig, for example, stated, “The idea, though today it disgusts us, that one could breed humans, like we have bred other animals for the sake of certain useful characteristics, will become important, familiar, and fruitful.” Humans are, after all, the most useful creatures around, so why not act “scientifically” and breed them for desired characteristics?
Otto Ammon, a freelance anthropologist and early eugenics proponent, compared humans to animals with even more ominous overtones. He explained that “in every herd there are badly developed individuals.” After noting that animal breeders kill these individuals to keep their herd strong and healthy, he wrote in a passage dripping with irony:
The irony is even more apparent in the original German, where the words for “chase” and “pursued” were words used commonly for hunting game. In this passage and elsewhere in his writings, Ammon portrayed humanitarianism as misguided and even cruel, a position not at all uncommon among social Darwinists and eugenicists.
Not only did the general idea of biological evolution affect the way people thought about the value of human life, but Darwin’s particular theory of evolution by natural selection contributed to a devaluing of human life, too. This was the second way Darwinism altered many influential people’s conceptions of the human position in the cosmos and in the organic world.
Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection after reading Thomas Robert Malthus’s famous Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus observed that most organisms produce far more progeny than can possibly survive and argued that like other organisms, the human population tends to increase faster than the food supply, unless checked by other restraints (disease, war, etc.). Because of this imbalance between reproduction rates and food supply, Malthus believed that the vast majority of people must die without reproducing.
Death—indeed mass death—was thus central to the Malthusian vision that Darwin appropriated and then propagated. T. H. Huxley’s biographer Adrian Desmond is not exaggerating when he claims that, according to Darwin’s theory, “only from death on a genocidal scale could the few progress.” To be sure, the struggle between organisms for existence is more often peaceful competition than bloody combat, but Darwin recognized that killing—even within species—is also a normal part of the struggle:
Many German Darwinists, including Kossmann, argued that the mass destruction of organisms, including humans, showed that individual human lives were not really so important. In his 1878 Darwinian diatribe against socialist egalitarianism, Haeckel—basing his arguments forthrightly on the Malthusian element in Darwinian theory—argued that most humans necessarily perish in the struggle for existence. The more fit ones survive and reproduce, while the less fit die. Haeckel recognized that this vision of struggle might upset some people, but he affirmed it nonetheless:
Haeckel underscored his equanimity about the plight of unfit organisms, including the vast majority of humans, by ironically quoting the Bible. “Many are called,” he quipped, “but few are chosen!” Haeckel’s vision of evolutionary progress (just like Darwin’s) required incredible sacrifice—including multitudes of human sacrifices—since the survival of the chosen few means the “destruction of the majority.”
The Human’s Greatest Enemy
The physiologist Wilhelm Preyer, a colleague of Haeckel at the University of Jena, argued forcefully for the application of the Darwinian struggle for existence to human society. The Malthusian element of Darwin’s theory underlay his analysis of “Competition in Nature,” an article published in a popular journal in 1879. Because of scarcity, “the human’s greatest enemy is another human,” and “one part of humanity was, is, and always will be poor and sick, another part rich and healthy.”
Most of this article, as well as an earlier one on “The Struggle for Existence,” exuded optimism about the progress produced by competition. He admitted that competition was “life-destroying,” but found comfort in the thought that it was also “life-bringing.” Predictably, Preyer emphasized the beneficial aspects of competition much more than the death and destruction it wrought. Death, poverty, and misery were perhaps regrettable, but they had a purpose, for ultimately they produced progress.
Ludwig Büchner agreed with Haeckel that Darwinism had delivered the deathblow to the “anthropocentric fable,” that is, the notion that humans are the centerpiece of the cosmos. Büchner, one of the most prominent popularizers of Darwinism in Germany, contended that the vast expanses of time involved in evolution reduced the significance of the individual. “The individual is nothing in relation to the course [of time],” he wrote in 1882, “the species is everything; and history as well as nature mark every step forward, even the smallest, with innumerable piles of corpses.” In his vision of Darwinian evolution, multitudes die, and an individual’s death only has significance inasmuch as it promotes progress for the species.
Like Haeckel, Preyer, and Büchner, the Darwinian ethnologist Friedrich Hellwald applied the struggle for existence to humans. In his influential book, The History of Culture (1875), he saw the human struggle for existence as “the motive principle of evolution and perfection, in that the weak are worn down and must give place to the strong; so in world history the extermination of weaker nations by the stronger is a postulate of progress.” He evinced little sympathy for the downtrodden losers of the Darwinian struggle, for death is a fact of nature. Progress will come as the victors in the human struggle “stride across the corpses of the vanquished; that is natural law.”
Thus, for Hellwald and many other Darwinists, death was no longer an enemy, as Christianity portrayed it, but a force for progress. In the words of another Darwinist, death is “nothing but the inexhaustible source of continuous rejuvenation.” Not only did death foster progress, but, according to many Darwinists, the more death, the better.
Some Darwinists only implied this, but others, like Haeckel, clearly explained the Darwinian logic behind it. Natural selection can only function if there are variations, and the more individuals that are produced, the more variations there are likely to be. Also, more individuals competing among themselves tend to heighten the selective pressure. Thus, high reproduction rates should bring about more rapid evolutionary progress. But the greater the population pressure, the more individuals will necessarily perish before reproducing.
By this logic, death is beneficial, since more deaths mean more progress. This mentality led many Darwinists and eugenicists to promote population expansion. Just before World War I, as German population growth was decelerating (the population was still increasing, but not as rapidly), leading eugenicists led a chorus of worried voices calling for measures to fight the declining reproduction rates.
The idea that the individual is far less important than the species was a common theme in the writings of German Darwinists around the turn of the century. It resonated with the growing popularity of collectivism and the decline of liberal individualism. This was an important move in devaluing the life of individuals, for their life was now considered valuable only to the extent that it contributed to the well-being of the entire community, which might mean all of humanity or might mean a particular race, depending on the particular evolutionist applying the principle.
One, in his zeal to synthesize Darwin and Nietzsche, stated the principle this way: “Humans belong to nature, just like plants and animals, and nature knows no pity. It brutally sacrifices the individual, in order to preserve the species.” Another concurred, stating that “the interests of the whole [species] must be placed above the interests of the individual. . . . In many cases the life of a single human is more important than that of several others.”
Another argued that evolution demonstrates “the overriding importance of the lasting community (the species) against the highly transitory individual.” For these Darwinists, individual life thus had no importance in and of itself. The individual’s welfare was subservient to that of the species.
In his book, Moses or Darwin?, Dodel stated that “death is the end of the individual, but it is also the greatest benefactor for the whole. Without death [there is] no progress, and progress is life; so the death of the individual is the condition of life for the whole.” He applied this principle to humans as well as other organisms. He further maintained that a proper understanding and relationship to nature—which he called “our mother”—would help people overcome their fear of death. In an earlier book, he had discussed the need for some animals—including “barbarian” people—to engage in violent competition for mates in order to reproduce. “So nature destroys,” he remarked, “in order to reproduce.”
By the beginning of the twentieth century, these Darwinian ideas about the value of life and death found fertile soil among scientists, physicians, and some social theorists, taking root and springing up as the eugenics movement. As all leading eugenicists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries confessed, the core idea of eugenics derived from Darwinism.
The physician and eugenicist Eduard David, a Social Democratic member of the German parliament, explained succinctly the connections between Darwinism and eugenics:
David’s fear that modern institutions, especially those motivated by compassion or humanitarianism, would produce biological degeneration was a commonplace lament among eugenicists.
Haeckel was one of the earliest German Darwinists to argue that helping the weak, sickly, and unintelligent might have ill effects, favoring them over the strong, healthy, and intelligent. Many Darwinists and eugenicists labeled any such tendencies “contraselective,” since they selected the “wrong” people. (Strictly speaking, the word makes no sense in the light of Darwin’s definition of fitness, since by definition those who survive are more fit.)
In 1870 Haeckel identified several causes of contraselection: modern medicine, clerical celibacy, and modern warfare. All three were artificial institutions either disadvantaging those with “good” biological traits or aiding those with “bad” characteristics. However, he was optimistic about the prospects for evolutionary progress and never lapsed into the gloom-and-doom of the fin-de-siècle prophets of biological degeneration. He believed that natural selection was a strong enough force to overcome these contraselective institutions.
August Weismann, a professor of biology at the University of Freiburg, then and now internationally known as one of the most famous Darwinists of the late nineteenth century, shared Haeckel’s general optimism that natural selection would counteract many of the ill effects of contraselective forces. Nonetheless he wrote an important essay in 1886, “On Regression in Nature,” pointing out that evolution does not always bring progress, since many organisms lose functioning parts and thus regress, as they adapt to different environments.
He explained that when an organism no longer needs a particular organ to survive and reproduce, there is no selective pressure for the organism to retain that organ, so over many generations, it gradually disappears. For example, a species of blind cave fish did not lose its sight from the direct influence of the environment or from disuse, but because its forebears didn’t need eyesight to survive and reproduce. This allowed individual fish with poorer and poorer eyesight to reproduce, ultimately leading to loss of function.
In applying these ideas to humans, Weismann claimed that uncivilized peoples have better senses of hearing, seeing, and smelling than do civilized peoples, who rely more on their mental acuity and technology. For example, wearing glasses encourages nearsightedness and dentistry promotes the development of weak teeth, so, because technology allowed those with poor eyesight and weak teeth to reproduce better than they could if left to their own devices, “in many respects the physical condition of civilized people has been worsened through civilization and will likely be worsened even more.”
Darwinism contributed to new ways of thinking about life and death in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that often led the most avid Darwinists in Germany to devalue human life. This is not to say that everyone who embraced Darwinism denied the value of human life. Ideas about the sanctity of human life, ascendant for centuries in European thought, could not be swept away that easily.
One leading popularizer of Darwinism, Wilhelm Bölsche, even protested against the devaluing of human life that he saw in the writings of some of his fellow Darwinists. However, among leading Darwinists who saw Darwinism as the centerpiece of a new scientific worldview, his views on the value of human life did not predominate.
More Darwinists, in fact, took the opposing view, though few were as extreme as the racial theorist and Nietzsche enthusiast Heinrich Driesmans, who exulted in Darwinism as a Mephistophelean liberation from stultifying nineteenth-century humanitarianism in his book, Demon Selection: From Theoretical to Practical Darwinism (1907). Driesmans called Darwinian selection a “scientific demon,” since it functions “to eliminate gradually and to exterminate those who become weak.”
According to him, Darwinism “brought us knowledge, that if not all, at least much of the human misery that we tried to help, was declining life, determined by nature to be eliminated, in order to make room for the healthier, and that one does a service neither to the latter nor to the former if one prolongs its sickliness.” The lesson Driesmans and others drew from Darwinism was that the healthy should eliminate the unhealthy.
Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s mentor in natural science at the University of Cambridge, had foreseen something like this, and expressed his fear poignantly in a letter to Darwin in 1859, shortly after reading On the Origin of Species. “Passages in your book . . . greatly shocked my moral taste,” he explained.
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