Posted by Nick Matzke on June 17, 2006 03:05 PM
Last year, I wrote a post called From Darwin to Hitler, or not? This post discussed the book From Darwin to Hitler by historian Richard Weikart, who just happens to be a Discovery Institute fellow. The thesis of the book is that Darwin and his ideas – common ancestry and natural selection – somehow led to Hitler and Naziism, although the logic connection between the two sets of ideas is extremely murky. Weikart’s book has been used by the Discovery Institute (see e.g. here), ARN (see the description of the new video – also look carefully at the tasteful video cover, posted at left), and other creationist groups to promote exactly this idea, which creationists had already been promoting for decades anyway, just without an official historian behind them.
While it is tempting, and I think legitimate, to dismiss the whole thing as a severe expression of Godwin’s Law, there are more sophisticated criticisms. My major points in my post were that (a) Weikart goes out of his way to bash and dismiss the “Haeckel to Hitler” thesis promoted by an earlier historian (Daniel Gasman), noting among other things that Haeckel was a pacificist, but (b) Haeckel has much more direct links to Naziism than does Darwin – Haeckel was closer in time, location, idealogy, promotion of eugenics, influence on Germany in the early 1900s, etc; therefore (c} Weikart’s Darwin-to-Hitler thesis is even sillier than the Haeckel-to-Hitler thesis that Weikart himself criticizes. But I’m just a blogger.
I previously linked to a news story describing a lecture by a University of Chicago historian of Darwin and eugenics, Robert Richards. The news article did not specifically mention Weikart, but I surmised then that Weikart’s book was the target of Richards’s critique. It looks like I was right, because Richards has now posted the published version of his lecture on his website (pdf). Richards’s conclusion?
The Judgment of “Historical Responsibility”
Brücher’s attribution of moral responsibility to Haeckel is of a type commonly found in history, though the structure of these kinds of judgments usually goes unnoticed, lying as it does in the deep grammar of historiography. For example, historians will often credit, say, Copernicus, in the fifteenth century, with the courage to have broken through the rigidity of Ptolemaic assumption and, thus, by unshackling men’s minds, to have initiated the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This, too, is a moral appraisal of historical responsibility, though, needless to say, Copernicus himself never uttered: “I now intend to free men’s minds and initiate the scientific revolution.” Yet, historians do assign him credit for that – moral credit for giving successors the ability to think differently and productively.
The epistemological and historical justification for this type of judgment is simply that the meaning and value of an idea or set of ideas can be realized only in actions that themselves may take some long time to develop – this signals the ineluctable teleological feature of history. While this type of judgment derives from the moral grammar of history, this doesn’t mean, of course, that every particular judgment of this sort is justified.
The Reaction of Contemporary Historians
How has Haeckel gone down with contemporary historians? Not well. His ideas, mixed with his aggressive and combative personality, have lodged in the arteries feeding the critical faculties of many historians, causing sputtering convulsions. Daniel Gasman has argued that Haeckel’s “social Darwinism became one of the most important formative causes for the rise of the Nazi movement.”  Stephen Jay Gould and many others concur that Haeckel’s biological theories, supported, as Gould contends, by an “irrational mysticism” and a penchant for casting all into inevitable laws, “contributed to the rise of Nazism.”  And most recently, in a book published last summer, entitled From Darwin to Hitler, Richard Weikart traces the metastatic line his title describes, with the mid-center of that line encircling Ernst Haeckel.
Weikart offers his book as a disinterested historical analysis. In the objective fashion that bespeaks the scientific historian, he declares, “I will leave it to the reader to decide how straight or twisted the path is from Darwinism to Hitler after reading my account.”  Well, after reading his account, there can be little doubt not only of the direct causal path from Charles Darwin through Ernst Haeckel to Adolf Hitler but also of Darwin’s and Haeckel’s complicity in the atrocities committed by Hitler and his party. They bear historical responsibility.
It is disingenuous, I believe, for the author to pretend that most readers might come to their own conclusions despite the moral grammar of this history. Weikart, Gasman, Gould, and many other historians have created a historical narrative implicitly following – they could not do otherwise – the principles of narrative grammar: they have conceptualized an end point – Hitler’s behavior regarded here as ethically horrendous – and have traced back causal lines to antecedent sources that might have given rise to those attitudes of Hitler, tainting those sources along the way. It is like a spreading oil slick carried on an indifferent current and polluting everything it touches.
Now one can cavil, which I certainly would, about many deficiencies in the performance of these historians. They have not, for instance, properly weighed the significance of the many other causal lines that led to Hitler’s behavior – the social, political, cultural, and psychological strands that many other historians have, in fact, emphasized. And they thus have produced a mono-causal analysis which quite distorts the historical picture.
While responsibility assigned Darwin and Haeckel might be mitigated by a more realistic weighing of causal trajectories, some culpability might, nonetheless, remain. Yet is there any consideration that might make us sever not the causal chain but the chain of moral responsibility? After all, Haeckel and, of course, Darwin had been dead decades before the rise of the Nazis. And as Monty Python might have put it, they’re still dead.
It can only be a tendentious and dogmatically driven assessment that would condemn Darwin for the crimes of the Nazis. I will confess, though, that I have not yet made up my own mind about the historical responsibility of Haeckel, with whom I have considerable sympathy.
[Robert J. Richards (2005). The 2005 Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture: “The Narrative Structure of Moral Judgments in History: Evolution and Nazi Biology.” Given on April 12, 2005. The University of Chicago Record, May 26, 2005.]
To be fair to Weikart, his webpage lists his replies to historian critics, including Richards (evidently Weikart has another critic who bashed his book in the Journal of Modern History, although I have not yet read the review in the March 2006 issue of the journal).
Weikart’s reply is basically “But I didn’t mean to tar Darwin and evolution with the odious reputation of Hitler and the Nazis, I put some weak disclaimers to this effect at the beginning of my book.” But this is ludicrous. The title of Weikart’s book is From Darwin to Hitler, and he has participated in and endorsed the streams of anti-evolution propaganda put out by the Discovery Institute and related groups – see the links above, and don’t miss www.darwintohitler.com – based explicitly on Weikart’s book (which, if memory serves, the Discovery Institute financed in the first place). At best, Weikart is an innocent academic who is being used by the creationists for their own nefarious ends. But it’s impossible to believe that he is that stupid, especially since he has regularly shown up at ID conferences and events (and in their videos) to advocate his thesis.
Some people think that the fake science of ID is a threat only to biology. But here is another piece of evidence showing that the ID movement is quite willing to twist any academic subject to carry out their mission to take down evolution.