Thursday, September 3, 2015

Another Expert on Darwin and Hitler: The Reality Is More Nuanced

Another Scientist Weighs on In whether Darwin's theory motivated Hitler to genocide.

Another Expert on Darwin and Hitler: The Reality Is More Nuanced


Monday's column exploring whether Darwin's theory motivated Hitler got a huge response from readers with strong opinions on the matter. I'll post some of their letters soon.

In the meantime, one of the experts I wanted to interview for that column was Keith Thomson, who is a senior research fellow of the American Philosophical Society and a preofessor emeritus at Oxford. I’d reached out to him earlier when writing on questions regarding racism and Darwinism.

We were planning to talk Friday, but he had a computer meltdown and so didn’t reply until the weekend, when the column was already finished. Still, his view is interesting in that he sees both sides as too simplistic. Darwin’s theory, after all, had a reverberating influence on human thought and history throughout the early 20th century. Various people picked up his idea and ran with it, sometimes in nefarious ways:

 Ask half the country and they will tell you that Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw" was inspired by Darwin, when it was actually written a decade before (1844).
Intense competition between races and individuals was popularized by the botanist de Candolle from 1820 on. Nietsche, Haeckel, Galton, Charles Davenport at Cold Spring Harbor labs NY  were the kinds of  people who took Darwin's ideas and transformed them for the twentieth century.

Darwin's Origin was concerned with races of animals and plants.  In Descent of Man he carefully did not assume the superiority of any human race over another and went out of his way to say that, for instance, the Fuegians were inferior only because of cultural experiences.
He stated that some human races would lose out, but not because they were inherently inferior, just that civilization would leave them behind.
At no point did he suggest that evolution should be given an assist through eugenics.
I actually don't know what he thought about Galton's work, but Galton's main book came out in 1883, only five years before CD's death.

Having said all this, the fact remains that Darwin, along with his grandfather, and Lamarck, and Chambers, and even Tennyson, and many many others in progressive, competitive Victorian Europe, set a ball rolling and that at various points others picked it up and ran with it. The German sequence goes through Haeckel and Nitsche. That is indisputable.  The question then becomes:  is there anything in Darwin's writings that suggest or even hint that he approved/would have approved the directions that social Darwinism and National Socialism took?  I think the answer is firmly "no."

Not sure if this helps.  A knee-jerk defense of Darwin is not a good tactic here but no-one seems to want to understand a complex story. 

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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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