Expelled, the Holocaust and Herder

One of the aspects of Ben Stein’s documentary, Expelled, which has been particularly controversial is the film’s examination of the connection between Darwinism and the Holocaust.  Of course the film as a whole has attracted bitter criticism for its critical stance towards the scientific establishment’s absolute rejection of any criticism of the theory of Natural Selection, and its persecution of those scientists who claim that the theory is wrong. However, Stein and the movie’s producers have been particularly attacked for stating the link between Darwinism and the Holocaust. The film’s many critics have declared that Nazism was not based on Darwin’s theories, and that evolutionary scientists today absolutely condemn biological racism and the genocide perpetrated by the Third Reich.

Evolutionary Theory and the Development of Fascist Racial Ideology

Now historians of fascism have pointed to the strong influence Natural Selection had on the development of Fascist ideology. The historian Roger Eatwell has noted that

‘Arguably the most important nineteenth-century scientific development in its impact on political ideology was Darwinism. Charles Darwin published The Origins of Species in 1859. Others quickly realized that some of the key ideas, especially “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection,” could be adapted for political ends-though there were diagrements over what the implications were. In one version, Darwinism seemed to point to the need for minimal state intervention in order to allow free competition. In another, Darwinism was taken as highlighting the need for the state to take on the role fo selection to ensure survival-especially in the battle with the less developed but virile and martial races. The strong appeal of the latter position needs understanding against a more general background of scientific-racial-thought. In particular, further impetus toward statist-racism came in the form of eugenics, which was pioneered by leading scientists such as the German Ernst Haeckel. The eugenicists were worried about the way that moral laws prevented the working of natural selection, for example in taboos on euthansia. A critical theme of theirs was the need to regenerate national or European racial stock.’ 1

Social Darwinist views similarly developed in Britain, where ‘the development of the understanding of the principle of heredity and the laws of genetics led to frighteningly utopian ideas of scientific breeding and pure racial types achieved through eugenic experiments.’ 2 The principle of survival of the fittest, when applied to humanity, was interpreted to mean that the most technologically advanced groups and races were the fittest, and thus superior to other ethnic groups. 3 In fact it’s moot how much of the scientific racism and eugenic policies of the Nazis goes back to Darwin himself. The British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, attempted to support his racist views using quotations from Darwin, Huxley and contemporary evolutionary scientists. 4 However, Darwinism was not the only theory of evolution to influence British scientific racist theorising. Neo-Lamarckian biologists, such as Benjamin Kidd, had proposed a theory of ‘social heredity’ in which human groups or races could inherit characteristics acquired through learning. This was later used by Fascists to suggest that changes in the leadership of the state would produce rapid changes in society over a short period. In fact, Lamarckianism was disproved by Galton’s Stirp theory and Weissmann’s experiments, which seemed to show that there was no link between reproductive cells and those of the rest of the body. Racial characteristics were not acquired, but were the products of genetic inheritance. 19th and early 20th century scientific racists also viewed racial mixing as an unsuitable ‘outcrossing’, which would weaken the parent gene pool. Most Fascists, however, ignored the fact that evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics did not imply this conclusion.

The difference between the Darwinian and Lamarckian views of evolution held by the various British Fascist groups did not result in the mutual contradiction of their respective racist ideas, but merely a difference in emphasis, though expressed in vehement ideological debates over whether culture created race, or whether race determined culture. 5 Lamarckianism, however, had anti-racist implications through its suggestion that races could acquire new values and psychological perspectives through learning and culture. In fact, however, 19th century racial theorists declared that such Lamarckian evolution only operated within the more advanced races, as those who were considered inferior were declared to have come to the end of their evolution and were no longer able to respond to environmental challenges. 6

As for Mosley, before the Second World War his racial theories were Neo-Lamarckian in origin, deriving his views on race from the heroic vitalism of Thomas Carlyle, Nietzsche, Spengler and Wagner, and particularly George Bernard Shaw’s critique of Darwinism in Back to the Methuselah, which stated that humanity had the mind and will power to evolve to a higher type, rather than being simply the product of Natural Selection. However, Shaw considered that the creation of this superior humanity would partly be the product of eugenic breeding. 7

In Germany Social Darwinism was promoted in the 19th and early 20th centuries through Ernst Haeckel’s pantheistic Monistenbund or Monist League. Haeckel’s view of evolution differed so radically from Darwin’s that it effectively replaced Darwinism. 8 In particular, it was Haeckel’s follower, Wilhelm Ostwald, who became president of the Monistic League in 1911, who founded a ‘Monistic Cloister’ devoted to advocating Social Darwinist policies in economics, eugenics and euthanasia. 9 Hitler himself seems to have taken his views of a racial struggle between aryans and their racial inferiors from racist, Neo-pagan magazines such as Lanz Von liebenfels’ Ostara, which he had read as a destitute drifter in Vienna. As early as 1930 August M. Knoll of the university of Vienna ridiculed the Nazis in front of his students by pointing out the similarity of the Fuhrer’s ideas and those of the notorious Neo-pagan magazine. 10 Hitler does not cite Darwin in either Mein Kampf or his Table Talk. Undoubtedly he picked up his ideas on evolution second or third-hand. Nevertheless, the conception of evolution as the struggle between the fittest, conceived as the most brutal or predatory, was a strong component of Hitler’s entire world-view. ‘The earth continues to go round, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.’ 11 Unfortunately, just because Hitler took his view of race and the ‘survival of the fittest’ from low, fringe magazines does not mean that the ideas themselves were at all disreputable. They weren’t. Although race was debated at the popular level in cafes throughout Europe, and racial ideas publicised in cheap pamphlets in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, the belief that race was ‘the key to the achievement recorded in a nation’s history’ was general. 12 Such racist theorising extended throughout society, from the lower to the ruling classes. The British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, stated that ‘no man will treat with indifference the principle of race. It is the key to history.’ 13 There was little that was new in the Nazis’ racial and eugenics policies. In 1895 Ernst Hasse, supporting the 1891demands of the Pan-German League, had advocated the deportation of Jews and Slavs and the annexation of Poland, Ruthenia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania and the Baltic States with the statement ‘We want territory even if it belongs to aliens, so that we may fashion the future according to our own needs’. 14 It was the Nazi demands for lebensraum in all but name. As for the Nazi eugenics programme, every aspect of it ‘had been anticipated by the spokesmen of various schools of social Darwinism; and even though they had not demanded the extermination of whole nationalities, their ideas were in line with the inhuman projects which showed such a basic contempt for human life.’ 15 Tragically and horrifically, radical racialism and eugenics was not simply the province of a few marginal, fringe ideologues, but was was acceptable and influenced a considerable part of the European and American political and scientific establishment. Now Darwin certainly was not responsible for scientific racism. That was the product of racial theorists such as Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in France and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who became Wagner’s son-in-law, in Germany. 16 However, Darwin certainly considered that there were racial differences, and his theory of evolution offered further scientific justification for already existing theories that viewed human progress as the product of struggle.

Fascism as Partial Product of 18th Century Enlightenment Political Theory

Obviously much of the criticism of Stein’s suggestion in Expelled that there was a direct link between Darwin’s ideas and the Holocaust comes from supporters of Darwinism who believe that this misrepresents and maligns both Darwin’s theory and Darwin himself, if not the whole of contemporary biology, following Theodosius Dobzhansky’s comment that ‘nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution’. Yet the suggested link between Darwinism and the Holocaust goes beyond questioning the morality of a specific scientific theory, but by implication renders the assumed relationship between rational knowledge and morality itself extremely questionable. Since Plato it’s been assumed that rational knowledge and the usse of reason in understanding the world leads to moral progress. During the Enlightenment, rational knowledge and the search for truth through reason became associated with the sciences, and it was through science that ignorance, superstition and barbarism could be combatted.

Thus, in the view of the Enlightenment philosophes, ‘a logically connected structure of rules, laws, generalisations, susceptible of demonstration or, at least in practice, of a high degree of confirmation (and, where required, of application appropriate to differing circumstances) could, at least in principle, be constructed, and could replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance, laziness, guesswork, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and above all, what Helvetius called ‘interested error”, which enabled the cunning and the strong to dominate and exploit the stupid, ignorant and weak, and had throughout human history been largely responsible for the vices, follies, and miseries of mankind. Only knowledge, that is, the growth of the sciences, could rescue mankind from these largely self-induced evils.’ 17 However, this assumption that science leads to freedom, wisdom and moral progress, in short, enlightenment in the fullest sense of the word, becomes extremely problematic with the connection between the genocidal tyranny of the Nazi regime and the basis of their policies in evolutionary biology. After all, in their brutality, intolerance, militarism and absolute rejection of democracy in favour of a fanatical personal cult of the leader, the Nazis represent the complete opposite of Enlightenment values and civilisation. Indeed, some historians have suggested that Fascism ‘was a negation of the Enlightenment, part of a counterrevolution that rejected the basic assumptions of “modernity”.’ 18 For historians such as Ernst Nolte, Fascism was not part of the great political projects of Liberalism and Marxism, and so could only be explained as the product of the reactionary traditions following, and attempting to counteract, the French Revolution. 19 Yet in many respects Fascism was also a product of Enlightenment political theories. The idea of politics as an activist campaign against evil, in which the individual should surrender to the general will, is found in Rousseau. 20 Similarly, the French Revolution in its attempts to establish who possessed legitimate power, created the distinction within democracy, considered as popular sovereignty, between those who were held to be the true, proper possessors of political power and their opponents, who should be excluded from it, even exterminated. Thus, one French revolutionary declared that only those of his species were truly human. The aristocracy weren’t members of his species, and so he shot them. 21 Thus the French Fascist, Robert Brasillach, enthusiastically remarked on how little the French Revolution had to do with individual liberty and international peace, declaring that with the Revolution ‘a lost bell rang out beginning a long night of turmoil sleeplessness. Everywhere peoples could be heard singing, each in in their own way, “Nation, Awake! Arise!”.’22 Similarly, the concern of Enlightenment political theorists, such as Rousseau, with an inner freedom corresponding to modern notions of self-realization, and the identification of the citizen’s real self with the general will, produced a collectivist ideal of freedom that did not necessarily correspond to any constitutional state. Indeed, Rousseau considered that true freedom might involve absolute submission to a sole legislator, who was the only person able to express the general will of the people, a concept almost identical to the Fascist notion that true freedom consisted in the absolute submission of the people to their leader. The scholar J. Hallowell, remarking on the similarity between Rousseau’s and the Fascist idea of the leader expressing the people’s general will, stated that in that sense Fascism had not murdered Liberalism, but that Liberalism had committed suicide. 23 Fascism characteristically viewed life as struggle. Mussolini, in his The Doctrine of Fascism, declared that Fascist ethics viewed life as ‘duty, ascent, conquest’, an attitude not very different from Kant’s statement in The Dispute of the Faculties that ‘the being endowed with freedom is not content to enjoy a pleasant life.’ 24 Thus, although Hitler and the other leading Nazis propounded an ideology of struggle using the terminology of Social Darwinism, it was not based in the details of Darwinism but in Haeckel’s use of Darwinian theory to express Kant’s ethics of activism. 25 Even the view of warfare as inherently beneficial to be actively pursued for itself by the state was not entirely unique to Fascism. Turgot, in his 1750 On the Successive Advances of the Human Mind stated that ‘it is only through turmoil and destruction that nations expand and civilisations and governments are in the long run perfected.’ 26 Long before Fascism, and its concept of violence as a central part of political life arose, the Enlightenment political theorists had created a new, activist style of politics that established a strong connection between freedom, virtue and terror. In the view of some scholars, this activist tradition in modern politics generally, beyond the Fascist fringe, makes the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime entirely explicable.  ‘Once this is appreciated, it is not very difficult to understand such aspects of twentieth-century activism as the organized destruction of the Jews by Nazism. Destruction and fanaticism, after all, had become morally respectable parts of the western tradition as soon as the new activist style had won general acceptance.’ 27 Fascism is therefore a paradox that it is both a product of the Enlightenment and a reaction to it. 28 Thus, however immoral the Nazi regime was, and how much it appears to conflict with the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, nevertheless it was also a product of particular Enlightenment political attitudes and claimed the same basis in science, no matter how spurious this appeared in practice.

Opposition to Scientific Racism through Cultural Relativism of Franz Boas

The scientific racism and eugenics policies promoted by the Nazis in Germany, and by other organisations and scientists across Europe and America was challenged by a number of other, leading scientists and scholars. One of the foremost opponents of scientific racism was Franz Boas, who became Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A German Jew, he condemned such the racist interpretation of history and eugenics as ‘irremediably dangerous’, vehemently opposed anti-semitism and the Nazi regime in Germany, aiding refugees from their tyranny in New York. His work, The Mind of Primitive Man, aided the civil rights campaign in America by stating that Black Americans would be just as capable of performing their duties as citizens as Whites if they were given the opportunities to do so. It’s been stated that Boas did more than anyone else in the 20th century to combat racism. 29

Boas based his rejection of ideas of racial superiority on cultural diversity and relativism. He declared that ‘culture is … the result of innumberalbe interacting factors and there is no evidence that the differences between human races, particularly not between the members of the white race have any directive influence upon the course of development of culture.’ 30 Boas considered that each culture should be viewed as an entity in its own right, as the product of its own history. All cultures were produced and formed by history, and each culture, or indeed custom, could only be understood only through attempting to construct their cultural history. 31

Similarity between Anthropological Views of Boas and 18th Century Views of History, Nationality and Culture by Vico

Boas’ view that each culture is unique and can only be understood on its own terms, through its own history is very similar to those of the 18th century philosophers Giambattista Vico and Gottfried Herder. Reacting against Cartesian rationalism and the rejection of Humanism in favour of mathematics and science, Vico instead argued in his La Scienza Nuova of 1725 that mathematics was not a system of laws that governed reality, but merely a set of rules that allowed one to analyse and predict the behaviour of objects in space. 32 However, the applicability of mathematics to the study of nature was limited, as while mathematics was the product of the human mind, nature was not, and so the conclusions offered by natural science were necessarily less sure. The only sure knowledge could be of what humanity had made itself. Thus Vico advocated history as offering a surer knowledge than that of the natural sciences. 33 While contemporary philosophers believed that there was a timeless criteria for assessing art and culture, Vico claimed that each stage of human civilisation produced its own art, based on its own particular aesthetic ideas. The artistic expressions of these cultures were neither better nor worse than those which preceeded or followed them, but had to be judged on their own criteria.  34 Unlike Boas, Vico was not a cultural relativist. He did not advocate a historical relativism, but was trying to create a science that was true, because it rested on the principles by which culture and language, and hence knowledge itself, were historically produced. 35 In his own time, Vico was an obscure writer in his own time, and discussion of his ideas has, with the exception of Jules Michelet and Benedetto Croce, largely began in the 1960s. Contemporary philosophers and historians are interested in Vico because he provided a precedent for the view that the knowledge of humanity was different from that of nature, historical relativism and that it is possible to know with certainty what it is to be human regardless of the findings of modern science because of people’s common humanity. 36

Herder’s View of the Plurality of societies in Human Cultural History also Similar to Boas and Vico 

This belief that human cultures were unique and should be judged on their own terms was shared by Herder, who became general superintendent in of the Lutheran clergy in the German state of Saxe-Weimar in 1776. In his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit – ‘Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity’, published between 1784 and 1791, he articulated a similar view of the uniqueness of individual human cultures. Contemporary French philosophes such as Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach and Voltaire believed that there was only a single, universal civilisation, of which one culture, then another, constituted its greatest expression in a particular epoch, and judged all cultures, previous and contemporary, by a single set of criteria which were held to have universal validity. Herder, on the other hand, considered that all civilisations had their own schwerpunkt – their own centres of gravity – and it was only through an appreciation of each culture’s individual centre of gravity that their character and value could be understood. Societies produced their arts, customs, religion, ethical codes, and indeed their entire national life through an integrated communal life developed through immemorial tradition. 37 There was not one, single human civilisation, but a plurality of civilisations, and the need to belong to a particular community through common language, history, feeling, habit and tradition was a human need as basic as eating or drinking. 38 For Herder there was nothing more barbarous than the destruction of another’s cultural heritage, and condemned the Romans for destroying the cultures of the peoples they conquered, and, despite his position as a Lutheran clergyman, the Church for forcibly baptising the Balts and British missionaries for spreading Christianity in India and elsewhere in Asia, where it was an alien element, whose imposition, and the social systems and forms of education also introduced by the British would destroy and distort their natural cultural development. 39 An early pioneer of folklore, he was interested in mythology as the expression of the way in which a particular people viewed nature. A people could only be not through politics or conquest, but through their language and shared symbols, the inward consciousness and outward culture that united a people. He was therefore strongly interested in folklore, including myths, fairy tales and folk songs. 40 He considered the mechanical model of human society, influenced by the natural sciences, produced by the French philosophes dangerous simplistic. In Herder’s view, these considered society as the product of mechanical, causal factors or the arbitrary desires of individual monarchs, legislators and military generals. However, the forces that affected and informed cultures and their history differed from society to society and age to age and so were impossible to reduce to simple formulas. 41People could only be creative and prosper in their native countries. While the unconscious, spontaneous influence of one culture on another was acceptable, conscious imitation of other cultures and countries led only to artificiality, and lower standards in life and art. 42 Herder was not a nationalist, and saw all the cultures of humanity as flourishing peacefully together. 43 Nevertheless, he inspired cultural nationalism in the subject nations of the Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Russian empires, and political nationalism in Austria and Germany although he deeply detested it. 44 Some historians have found the origins of the Nazi idea of the German people’s unique mystical identity in Herder’s conception of the unique history and characteristics of each nation and ethnic group. 45 Herder’s vision of humanity and society was far more pluralistic. As a Lutheran pastor, he believed that God acted in history, as humanity was also part of nature, which was God’s creation. Humanity thus, to Herder, in their ‘wildest extravagances and passions must obey laws, not less beautiful and excellent than those, by which all the celestial bodies move.’ God implanted into humanity the quest for its own fulfilment, and humanity’s purpose was the achievement of their full humanity. Although the main theme of his book was the origins of European society in ancient Greece and the beginning of the modern age in the Renaissance, he viewed the progress of human culture as the product of different peoples and their values. 46 He was certainly not an advocated of the domination and destruction of one nation or culture by another.

Conclusion: Scientific Racism Attacked and Partly Refuted through Non-Mechanistic, Pluralist Views of Humanity Articulated by Boas, Vico and Herder

Now Rousseau, Kant and Turgot clearly weren’t Fascists. Rousseau and Kant were ardent opponents of despotism, with Rousseau in particular a key figure in the development of modern liberal political theory. Nevertheless, the revolutionary, activist style of politics created by the French Revolution and its attempt to apply Rousseau’s theory of the general will to an entire nation of millions, rather than the individual Swiss cantons on whose direct democracy Rousseau based his theories, were developed in an authoritarian direction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the emergence of European Fascism. These movements drew upon Darwinism, as well as Lamarckianism and Vitalism, to support their intolerant views of race and nation. These evolutionary views, however, were interpreted according to the pre-existing view of the world, developed from the authoritarian interpretations political activism after the French Revolution, stressing struggle and the existence of an authentic nation or political class threatened by a terrible, oppressive and subversive outgroup.

The scientific racism and eugenics theories partly developed from the application of evolutionary theory to humanity was challenged and eventually refuted partly through a pluralistic view of humanity, which was developed in opposition to the Enlightenment view that there were universal rules that could be applied to humanity as whole, through which the qualities of nations and peoples could be objectively judged and valued. Now there are indeed severe problems with the cultural relativism propounded by Boas, and to a much lesser extent by Vico and Herder. There are objective moral values, which, it can be argued, transcend race and culture, so that tyranny and brutality is the same no matter which culture or ethnic group perpetrates it. Unfortunately, cultural relativism can also lead to the justification of attitudes, customs and regimes amongst particular ethnic groups which would be strongly condemned as oppressive and immoral in western society. Herder’s concept of Volk as the source of culture and civilisation was also developed by nationalistic cultural theorists to produce the vehemently racist idea of German ethnicist stressed by the Nazis, despite Herder’s own strongly anti-racist views. Nevertheless, the deeply immoral eugenics policies and the scientific racism that supported much of it was refuted not just on scientific grounds, but through counter-Enlightenment views that stress human cultural complexity and pluralism, rather than a simply mechanical reduction of the human sciences modelled on those of the natural world.  


1. R. Eastwell, Fascism: A History (London, Pimlico 2003), pp. 8-9.

2. R. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918-1985 (Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1987), pp. 16-7.

3. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.

4. See O. Mosley, Mosley – Right or Wrong? (London, Lion Books 1963), pp. 117-124.

5. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.

6. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-8.

7. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-19.

8. R. Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London, Fontana Press 1996), pp.47-8.

9. Noll, The Jung Cult, p. 50.

10. N. Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology (London, I.B. Tauris 1992), p. 194.

11. H. Trevor-Roper, ed., Hitler’s Table-Talk: Hitler’s Conversations recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1988), p. 38.

12. ‘Race’, in J. Taylor and W. Shaw, A Dictionary of the Third Reich (London, Grafton Books 1987), p. 283.

13. Cited in P. Vansittart, Voices 1870-1914 (New York, Franklin Watts 1985), p. 81.

14. Vansittart, Voices, p. XV.  

15. J.C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (London, Penguin Books 1970), n. 4, p. 500.

16. J. Noakes and G. Pridham, ‘Introduction’, in J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919-1945 – 1: The Rise to Power 1919-1934 (Exeter, Exeter Studies in History 1983), p. 3.

17. I. Berlin, ed. H. Hardy, Against the Current: Essay in the History of Ideas (Oxford, OUP 1981), pp. 163-4.

18. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.

19. N. Sullivan, Fascism, (London, J.M. Dent and Sons 1983), p. 13.  

20. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 43.

21. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 49.

22. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 48.

23. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 64.  

24. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 65.

25. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 66.

26. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 71.

27. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 68.

28. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.

29. C. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions (London, Cassell 1996), pp. 70-2.

30. F. Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York, the Free Press 1963), p. 71, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 71.

31. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 70.

32. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 94.

33. Berlin, Against the Current, pp. 94-5.

34. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 103.  

35. R. Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 342.

36. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 345.

37. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

38. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

39. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

40. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 348.

41. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

42. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 13.

43. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

44. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

45. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 350.  

46. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 351.

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23 Responses to “Expelled, the Holocaust and Herder”

  1. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Interesting as always.

    I’ve tried myself to explain to some people that the “linkage” of ill-begotten philosophy to the so-called “hard realities” of science is not a given, but that however one can see how the ALLOWANCE of human ugliness is seeded quite easily by certain strains of thought. Thus for example I got my head removed for making the very easy connection of athiesm’s reliance on darwinian theory when the proprietors of the Panda’s thumb insist there is no automatic connection. And yet the athiests were the one’s who basically all but confirmed this in follow up commentary to assure me there very well is a connection. Lately Weikert’s book about the rise of Nazism being the spawn of materialistic philosphy which in turn gets its push from darwinian ideas is causing screams of rage per one reviewer of, for example, Expelled. But whatever the scientific merits of the film (which I have NOT seen), elsewhere the case is made quite well. There are some trends. Once in a blue moon when all the stars are lined up one CAN–if lucky–find politically conservative people who are free market types and socially “family oriented” and all the rest and yet remain committed darwinists. Most often the darwinists hail from the left and remain PC on almost the full monty of whatever issue queried them.
    On the social issues they’ll tell you this is the mark of “nuanced thought” and “progess” and being “socially aware” but this is belied by the facts and the nuance and shades of grey are lost when we ACTUALLY DO look deeper into the political reasons behind PCism and multiculturalism, not to mention the negative and usually unintended consequences of socialist and “progressive” ideology. A number of authors, from D”Souza to Charles Colson, have offered interpretations that go from influences on germanic philosophy. Much is mentioned about Social Darwinism which is the far Right (so alleged) lending to more of a radical free market notion or version of darwinism letting things of power and powerlessness fall where they may. The left wing version of this promotes government authority as the change agent helping all of society to ‘evolve’ in some other direction. Granted this can be seen at odds with ideas of what comes about through “natural” evolution, which has no force or at least no preconception about the products of development and no notions of “the good” one way or another.

    There is a rather odd book you might note too, Beast, called the Ominous Paralells, by Leonard Peikoff, which claims to read from germanic philosophers a very different take (with some support from historian Hanna Arnedt) that traces back to Platonism and Statism as the “real” reasons for the development of the Nazis more so than evolutionary ideas.

    Whatever the case, surely it is more complex than saying that one philosophy or set of philosophies like Nazism or a political terror is the grandchild of one particular scientific theory. Now, some have, as with Expelled, mocked the idea of ANY influence coming about whatsoever or say that only idiots like Spencer would concoct an entire social philosophy like Social Darwinism based on “hard facts” of nature any more than we could make a philosophy out of, say, plate tectonics or the carbon cycle.
    True to an extent, but then unlike other ideas, darwinism is not just a statement about Ultimate Origins. Many, including the most prominent names we know like Ruse and Sagan, Gould and Provine, and the beloved Dawkins, not to mention entire departments of major universites and before these writers, Desmond Morris, have been tempted to popularize what “we” should do as a species based on the uncomfortable “meaning” of evolution. It is not just about methodology for cleaning up toxins and helping the poor, etc. Rather, some very innovative approaches to education and the removal of religion, in fact, are advocated by some. Daniel Dennet comes to mind. And goes on to say that even “notions” like bravery, loyalty, mind, soul, spirit, love, honor and dignity, are words that need to be in quotes as they are mental fictions. Indeed, the mind is fiction in his “thinking.” Since no such beast exists any more than the unicorn or elf now that the mind is reduced to various impulses shaped by material and not thought. More than a few writers have reflected on the “exhilerating” liberation from the stodgy ideas and hangups of the elders regarding what evolution means to the human species. Jeremy Rifkin, futurist piddler and critic of modern industrial society, says that now WE are the “power and glory forever and amen.”

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Wakefield, thanks for the comment and the appreciation. I absolutely agree with you that some philosophies don’t necessarily lead to human brutality and evil, but can make their emergence easier. Interestingly, while reading a debate between Weikert and Ruse that they linked to over at Uncommon Descent what struck me was how much they were in agreement on certain issues. Ruse denied that there was any connection between Darwinism and the Holocaust, while Weikert declared that there was indeed a connection, but that Darwinism was merely one element amongst a number that would have led to the rise of Nazism and the horror of the Shoah anyway.

  3. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks also for recommending the book, Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peikoff. I hadn’t heard of it before, but the argument has been advanced by a number of philosophers and historians. Karl Popper in his book, The Open Society and its enemies, stated that line of totalitarian ideology that culminated in Nazism and Soviet Communism began with Plato. Now the Fascists certainly did appeal to Plato as a respectable predecessor. Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, declared that if he was a Fascist, then so was Plato. Plato’s perfect society, as described in The Republic and The Laws certainly was totalitarian. There is even a chapter in The Laws on ‘correct procreation’.

  4. beastrabban Says:

    Nevertheless, the idea that Nazism began with Plato and Hegel has been challenged by other historians, such as Noel Sullivan. It’s been suggested that Hegel was an influence on totalitarianism because of his worship of the state as the expression of human consciousness, but it’s been pointed out that Hegel’s conception of the state also included private businesses and concerns, as well as the official administrative machinery of the state. I got the impression that Hegel’s conception of the state better corresponds to ‘national society’ or ‘national life’ rather than a strict description of the administrative state.

    I’ve also come across the argument that the direct influence on the rise of the totalitarian, centrally directed states of Nazism and Soviet Russia was the creation of state central economic planning in Germany during the First World War, which convinced the Communists and then the Nazis that such macro-economic direction by the state was practical and possible.

    As for Social Darwinism, I got the impression that it took left and right forms. Certainly it was used in America to block progressive legislation in favour of employees, such as safety regulations. However, it most strongly influenced the liberal left. The early Fabians like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells are a case in point, though I doubt that this is widely known or appreciated in Europe, where there is a general assumption that eugenics was the sole concern of the Right. I can remember being extremely surprised when I found out how much the Fabians were into eugenics, though a friend of mine from elsewhere in the country was taught about it in history in his old school. My guess is that eugenics appealed to the liberal left because it appeared to be a natural part of societal advance and improvement through rational planning and the application of science. Human society could be made more rational, egalitarian and efficient, and the human mind and body could also be improved by rationally directing reproduction, rather than leaving it to the chaotic, natural process.

    As for the connection between Darwinism and atheism, my guess is that there is no necessary connection between the two, but because of the character of Darwinian evolution as a rational, non-miraculous process it nevertheless appears to support atheism. Now Michael Ruse is certainly very vehement in his belief that atheism and Darwinism should not be confused to the point where he has criticised Dawkins and Dennett. Stephen Jay Gould stated that evolution didn’t disprove or prove the existence of God, but merely gave him the suspicion that God didn’t exist. My feeling is that it could be possible to argue for the existence of God from evolution from an Aristotelian perspective. Certainly there are a number of Roman Catholic theologians who have reconciled evolution and the existence of God from a Neo-Scholastic stance. However, the most prominent advocates of evolution, such as Dawkins, Gould, Provine, and Crick are atheists, and they included their atheist, or atheistic views of evolution in their popular science books on it. Of course Darwin himself became an atheist, largely because of the death of his daughter, but also through his own theory of Natural Selection undermining, in his view, the idea of a God who was actively present and involved in the process of creation and the problem of suffering in nature. However, a very large part of the perception that evolution necessarily entailed atheism or agnosticism seems to have been the result of T.H. Huxley and his bitter hatred of the clergy and religion. The story of the remark by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce during the debate between him and Huxley, in which he asked whether Huxley was descended from an ape on his mother’s or his father’s side, is actually false. The accounts of the debate by the students who were present at the time don’t mention it. Indeed, Wilberforce opened the debate by stating that however uncomfortable Natural Selection may be from a theological perspective, nevertheless it needed to be impartially examined and would have to be accepted if true. His criticisms of the theory came from a scientific perspective, and Darwin himself had accepted that his criticism of the theory which he had earlier published in a review of The Origin of Species were accurate. However, Natural Selection did pose a problem for Christian theology in that it appeared to rule out God’s active intervention in the creation of new species, reinforcing the purely materialist conception of the cosmos and society adopted by radical atheists such as the Marxists, for example.

  5. beastrabban Says:

    I also agree with you that Darwinism is now far more than merely a theory about how species arise, but an entire ideology – at least for some – about the fundamental nature and meaning of the cosmos. I hadn’t come across the quote from Rifkin, but he’s not alone. The British poet, Swinburne, also an atheist, said something very similar in the 19th century ‘Glory be to man in the highest’, a comment repeated by one of the major Humanist ideologues in the US in the 1940s.

  6. beastrabban Says:

    Regarding Darwinism and politics, I seem to recall that last year there was a debate within the Republicans over whether or not to embrace Darwinism because of its apparent support of competition. It’s certainly been remarked that much sociobiology is argues that competition, selfishness and traditional sex roles have their origins in evolution, though this does not necessarily mean that those making these arguments believe that such values should form the basis of society. Dawkins certainly argues against selfishness and for altruism in The Selfish Gene , though it has been noted that he is faced with a problem of supporting his morality from a purely naturalistic perspective if he considers humans to be essentially selfish. That said, scepticism towards evolution seems to be particularly associated in America with the political Right.

  7. beastrabban Says:

    In Europe, on the other hand, evolution has been accepted right across the political spectrum, and it’s largely been the case that in Britain Creationism has been held by a very small part of the population.

  8. JOR Says:

    On Darwinism and politics, it can lead to serious errors if one tries and pin ‘right’ and ‘left’ variations of it down, because the meaning of ‘right’ and ‘left’ is constantly shifting. In the 19th Century the pro-market types, and anarchists, would have been on the ‘left’, opposed by various authoritarians of the ‘right’, with race-imperialists maybe being the ‘vital center’ of the time. As the mass left adopted more ‘right-wing’ means to certain ends they became more and more what we today might recognize as ‘progressive’, which in broader historical terms is just re-hashed centralism. The pro-market types, at least (if not the anarchists) for the most part jumped ship and, later on (at least in America and England), started identifying with the conservatives, who for various reasons had become identified (even synonymous) with ‘The Right’.

    Fascism, eugenics, and the like aren’t really ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’. Even conservatism isn’t really a thing of the Right, historically. These are all essentially centralist ideologies and programs.

  9. JOR Says:

    AFAIK Dawkins doesn’t consider humans to be essentially selfish, he considers genes to be selfish, at least analogically speaking. I don’t know how well he makes the distinction but I think he’d recognize the danger of transposing analysis of genetic behavior over analysis of conscious human behavior.

    And there are problems with supporting ‘altruism’ from a naturalistic perspective but that’s nothing unique about altruism. There are problems supporting anything at all from a naturalistic perspective. After all, it’s at least allowed by nature that there are altruistic acts and people that don’t result in genetic extinction. So ruthless Social Darwinists are in as big of trouble there as anyone, since they must ultimately argue that the poor, or whoever, ought to be killed off (or allowed to die, or whatever).

  10. JOR Says:

    Just to highlight the ambiguity of ‘right’ and ‘left’, today the left is associated with multiculturalism and relativism and the right with white racism and authoritarianism crypto-eugenicism – but the early 20th Century Progressives from whom the modern left are descended were themselves, for the most part, white racists, authoritarians, and eugenicists.

    Much of this is probably due to the theoretical similarity between, and thus ease of movement between, ethical authoritarianism and moral relativism on the one hand, and between racism and New Left-style identity politics on the other.

  11. JOR Says:

    To clarify Re: Dawkins, when I say he’d recognize the danger of transposing genetic behavior over human behavior, what I mean is that he would recognize the error of expecting people to behave like genes do, when really their job (from a biological perspective) is to behave as vehicles for genes, which can (and often does) involve behaving in ways very unlike genes themselves behave.

  12. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Hi beast–thanks for the insights.

    Of particuloar note: It’s certainly been remarked that much sociobiology is argues that competition, selfishness and traditional sex roles have their origins in evolution, though this does not necessarily mean that those making these arguments believe that such values should form the basis of society.


    ..and this is causing some annoyances to certain otherwise erstwhile sympathetic ideologies. The radical feminists liked it when what they termed the traditional role for the family from the “Genesis thumpers” was dissed by evolution. When it came time for them to get slammed on their notions of matriarchy and gender roles, evolution similarly has no good news. Mother nature is neither kind nor compassionate nor soft nor a feminist, to be blunt. And gender roles seem more or less set with humans as with crocodiles. So the response was naturally “biology is NOT destiny–you male pigs!”

    Oh–but is it not? That’s what we get told elsewhere when it comes to giving nature the “right of way” as being more important than development and new shopping malls and burning more fossil fuels!

    And so unlike the claim that industrialism and capitalism alone can abuse or alter nature in unkind ways, and what the proteges of Ayn Rand might say about altering nature being positive and the goal only for the committed capitalists (and author Leonard Peikoff was one of hers!), it seems all ideologies have those special moments when the “ethics” imputed by mother nature are to be voided or circumvented. Some might claim that evolution has no moral preachments–and to an extent this is true so long as one sticks to the “facts of the matter” on gene flow. But as you pointed out this is not the typical interpretation. Swinburne is but one example, as was Rifkin.

    Funny how things get re-interpreted.

    This is all deliciously funny in a way.

    As to Dawkins, it is true as JOR says that the GENES have the motive–or not. Actually they have no motive but do the heavy lifting of behavior. Per Dawkins’ creative lyrical side when writing, the genes are akin to Chicago gangsters plying their trade through blood and horror and competition yet we don’t see that–and THEY (the genes) have neither foresight nor planning (unlike professional criminals). So the schism between the “is” vs. the “Ought” of life remains, whether human foresight can alter things or not.

    As to the politics of all this, JOR is also correct that the common terms we have with us today are far removed for the most part from what thost terms used to mean. Yesterday’s radical liberal can be in many respects the reactionary today who clings to free trade, free markets, and keeps the old moral notions under check for himself rather than, say, do what other reformers do and say that their are higher social mores that need reforming vs. the private. Conservatives tend to moralize on some things and keep a lid on the social areas. Liberals in the USA tend to say “morals are private issues” on issues like personal interactions and romance, etc, but will certainly make their own moral pronouncements on issues they consider of social importance, like health care and economic activism. Thus belie the idea that “morals are private.”

    It depends on whose ox gets gored, right?

  13. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Follow up to another point:

    As to the rewriting of history–yes, unfortunatley that “was your granddaddy and ape after all” type commentary is all too common in some darwinist liturature, as is the utter myth that the Church used to piddle over angels and pins (also untrue) or that dumbunny used to claim the earth was flat (by the time they even existed the Greeks had long shown the world a sphere and this was not disowned by the middle ages), or that all of europe was primitive in the Dark Ages (also untrue, as historian Rodney Stark points out, the problem was not so much lack of innovation as lack of written records). And then of course the mythology about Copernicus and Galileo, which is somewhat more complex than Daniel Boorstein or Jacob Bronowski likes to mention. Similar disparaging remarks have been made about Martin Luther (though unfortunately his anti semitism IS noted…).

    And so it goes. Jeffrey Burton Russel mentioned some of this Christophobic bash when he pointed out that Washington Irving was the prime source (carried on traditionally by even elite institutions in the USA and then filtering down to grade school level even today) that Christians had to be rebuffed by Columbus on the roundness issue (untrue again, as the shape of the planet was not the issue, but whether old Chris could have made it to India across the Atlantic on his meager provisions–and in this case the Church was in the right. Had he not slammed into South America, he and his men would have starved to death).

    So it goes evermore. No less than in Irving’s time, as you pointed out with the Huxley story, it is worth noting that those with no “agenda” somehow still have the time on their hands to slam and bash Christians. It was the same as you know, with the Scopes trial, which was a mockery and a sales pitch and media circus with a very agreeable “victim” and much input from the ACLU and other change agents needing to create a test case out of pure hooey. One suspects this is not going to change anytime soon. Dawkins and some others seem more than willing to pick up where Huxley and Clarence Darrow and other “activists” have left off from yesteryear’s funny business. Or make that monkey business.

  14. JOR Says:

    By ‘ethical authoritarianism’ I mean something much more technical than something as vague as ‘conservative social mores’, which are usually just a weird conglomoration of the values of yesterday’s liberals/socialists/authoritarians. I mean the meta-ethical theory that morality derives from authority (most often expressed as divine command theory of ethics, and also what used to be divine-right of monarchy has morphed into divine-right of parliament/judges/cops).

  15. JOR Says:

    “So the response was naturally “biology is NOT destiny–you male pigs!””

    Well, there have been feminists all along who believed this. And if biology is destiny then feminists are just doing as their biology determines anyway, and it hasn’t resulted in their extinction so evolution has no problem with it, so there’s no use whining about it.

    But then, when you whine, you’re just doing as your biology determines, and my pointing all this out is just the determination of my biology. So, it’s all good, right?

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  20. beastrabban Says:

    Hi JOR and Wakefield – thanks for your comments. I think you’re both absolutely right with the comments about the ideological basis of the political ‘left’ and ‘right’ having changed over time, particularly in the way that free markets and economic libertarianism was originally a left-wing idea, that then became assimilated to the political right. That was certainly the case in Britain, where free trade was originally promoted by the Liberals, rather than the Conservatives, with the exception of Sir Robert Peel. The Conservatives were most strongly associated with protecting the rights of the landed aristocracy, and originally viewed the rising industrial middle class with distrust because they paid higher wages to their employees, thus luring them away from their due role as tenants of the aristocracy. Furthermore, the middle class were suspected, because of the higher wages they paid to their workers, of encouraging a dangerous independence of mind and socially subversive attitude in their workers. It’s also true that some paternalistic Liberal industrialists in the 1880s were quite left-wing. One not only built an entire housing estate for his workers, but he also encouraged them to form a trade union. However, the rise of organised labour and the challenge it posed to the traditional social hierarchies meant that many industrialists identified their interests with the aristocracy against the challenge to their status and the rejection of free trade posed by working class politics.

    As for social Darwinism and eugenics, yeah, I take your point in that it is difficult to discern a left and right-wing in it, in that both the Right and the Left promoted it, based on authoritarian views of society that saw it as requiring to be directed and controlled, either by a party in the interests of the people, or a more traditional elite.

    And you’re right, also, about a strict Darwinism posing a problem for anyone who tries to use it as the basis for a social or political ideology. And I take your point, JOR, that Dawkins believes that genes, but not necessarily humans, are selfish. Nevertheless, there’s a real problem in ascribing all of human behaviour to genes, as you pointed out. As for the divine right of kings having morphed into the divine right of parliament & the cops, I haven’t heard it articulated quite like that before, but certainly amongst some parts of the government and civil service there is a very strong conception of the privileges of authority as something permanently mandated and unquestionable.

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