From Darwin to Hitler — Book Summary(8/10)

Sud Alogu
7 min readFeb 3


In “From Darwin to Hitler,” Richard Weikart delves into the intersection of Darwinian biology and ethics, exploring the impact of Darwinism on thinking about the value of human life. The book sheds light on the debates surrounding the application of Darwinian theories to ethics, which have continued to be relevant in modern times with the emergence of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. The author highlights the parallels between the views of contemporary philosophers such as Peter Singer and James Rachels and the historical figures who sought to wed Darwinism to ethics. The book also provides a deep insight into the roots of Hitler’s worldview and the reasons behind the educated German elites’ cooperation with the Nazi regime during the Holocaust.

But before discussing Hitler and the Nazis, the author provides a historical overview of the development of new scientific theories about human nature. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now clearly see that Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution had a profound impact on the way people thought about the sanctity of human life.

Darwinism, which claimed that every aspect of the universe, including the human mind, society, and morality, could be explained by natural causes and effects, took hold in 19th-century thought and had a significant impact on the spread of naturalism. The early eugenics movement was heavily influenced by Darwinian naturalism, and many leading Darwinists and eugenicists considered eugenics to be a straightforward application of Darwin’s principles.

Darwinism made philosophical materialism and positivism more widely accepted by providing a non-theistic explanation for the origin of ethics. It also contributed to the rise of ethical relativism by denying the timeless and transcendent character of ethics and explaining ethics as an ever-evolving product of nature. The concept of natural selection and the struggle for existence among humans also impacted people’s views on ethics, viewing the human moral sense as a biological instinct.

Darwinism changed the way people thought about the value of human life by implying that humans had evolved from animals and altering people’s ideas about human nature and the value of human life. Darwin’s theories emphasized variation within species and implied biological inequality, leading to their use to justify social and racial inequality. The natural selection and struggle for existence also implied that death without reproductive success was the norm and was seen as beneficial.

Darwin’s theory intersected with traditional religious doctrines, leading to both accommodation and acrimony. The Descent of Man showed that human traits, including moral behavior, are different in degree but not in kind from other organisms. Morality was explained as a result of natural selection through the struggle for existence, leading to a shift toward biological determinism and undermining rationalism in ethics. Some, including Darwinian biologist Thomas H. Huxley, critiqued evolutionary ethics, while others believed morality was a biological trait and the heritability of moral traits was a popular belief among eugenicists.

Many writers of evolutionary ethics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed that health was moral and illness or ugliness was sin. The principle of honoring parents was replaced with a scientific principle of honoring children to make them fit and successful in life. Both social Darwinism and eugenics were embraced as means to achieve evolutionary progress, with the rejection of compassion and sympathy celebrated as obstacles to progress. The elimination of the worst people was seen as a supreme feature of evolutionary ethics.

Nietzsche expressed eugenic ideas and believed that sympathy for the decadent was the greatest immorality. Some aspects of religious ethics were seen as advantageous for survival, but others, such as loving one’s enemy, remained unfulfilled. Christianity’s ethic of love and compassion was seen as going too far and needing to be balanced with self-preservation and biological improvement. Morality was seen as based on social instincts in a healthy individual and linked with health and morality.

The ideas of Darwinism spread rapidly and were adopted by anti-Semitic publicists who saw morality and ethics as arising from the preservation of the species. The preservation of the health of the race was seen as one of the highest commands, and those who sought to preserve the degenerate were seen as suppressing the life of the community. Darwinism was seen as a secular answer to the problem of evil and death, providing hope and inspiration that suffering and death would ultimately lead to progress.

Before Darwinism, the idea of the sanctity of human life was dominant in European thought and law, with Judeo-Christian ethics prohibiting the killing of innocent human life. However, Darwinism helped to undermine the idea of the sanctity of human life. This idea had previously been a dominant belief in European thought and law, with Judeo-Christian ethics prohibiting the killing of innocent human life. However, Darwinism, through its emphasis on natural selection and the struggle for existence, challenged this concept and viewed death as a natural engine of progress. Max von Gruber, in a speech honoring Darwin’s hundredth birthday, acknowledged this shift, saying that nature was filled with struggle, torment, and death, but that Darwin had discovered a rationale behind it.

Darwinism also impacted the views of some prominent figures in the fields of ethnology and psychiatry, who used it to support their beliefs in racial and intellectual superiority. Oscar Peschel, a German ethnologist, claimed that some races were closer to apes than others, particularly black Africans, whom he deemed to be mentally inferior and more animalistic. Friedrich Ratzel believed in the substantial unity of human races but considered Europeans biologically superior to non-Europeans. Hellwald, another Darwinian ethnologist, displayed overt anti-Semitism in his writings, claiming that the Jewish race was intellectually inferior.

Darwinism’s emphasis on reproduction, sexual instincts, and selection in human evolution had a profound influence on the eugenics movement, which aimed to improve the biological quality of the human population through controlled reproduction. August Forel, a Swiss psychiatrist and eugenicist, called for a radical alteration of sexual mores, supporting polygamy and adultery if it improved the genetic quality of the human race. The rejection of compassion and sympathy was celebrated, as it was seen as an obstacle to evolutionary progress, and the elimination of the “worst” people was considered a supreme feature of evolutionary ethics.

Adolf Hitler’s views on morality and ethics were a central part of his worldview and played a key role in shaping his policies and decisions as the leader of Nazi Germany. Hitler saw himself as a principled politician with a well-defined worldview, and he promised moral improvement to the German people, which helped to boost his popularity.

However, Hitler’s moral views were based on a pernicious ethical framework that rejected traditional Judeo-Christian ethics and the categorical imperative propounded by Immanuel Kant. Instead, Hitler’s morality was rooted in an evolutionary ethic that saw Darwinian fitness and health as the only criteria for moral standards. He believed that the Darwinian struggle for existence, particularly between different races, was the ultimate arbiter of morality.

This led to Hitler’s thoroughly amoral view of morality, in which victory through struggle was the only criterion for what was right. He considered morality to be a purely human construction with no objective, permanent existence. This perspective allowed him to justify his genocidal policies and the extermination of those he deemed inferior, including Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and people with disabilities.

Hitler viewed Germans as the highest race, both physically and intellectually, and believed that they were morally superior to all other races. He saw the preservation of culture and culture-producing races as essential for the survival and evolution of the human species. Hitler proclaimed that the right of victory of the best and strongest was tied to the preservation of culture and culture-producing races.

In contrast to his vision of altruistic Germans, Hitler saw Jews as the epitome of immorality, and his anti-Semitic policies were a key part of his strategy to promote evolutionary progress and preserve and improve the human species.

Throughout the book, Weikart shows the impact of Darwinism on the views of the sanctity of human life and the evolution of ethics. The theories of Darwinism challenged traditional religious beliefs, contributed to the rise of ethical relativism and the eugenics movement, and influenced the beliefs of some prominent figures in ethnology and psychiatry, who used it to support their racist and anti-Semitic ideologies. It is important to understand this history in order to critically examine and challenge harmful and misguided beliefs that have arisen from a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theories.

Hitler’s views on morality and ethics played a crucial role in shaping his policies and decisions as the leader of Nazi Germany. His rejection of traditional Judeo-Christian ethics and Kant’s categorical imperative, combined with his belief in the Darwinian struggle for existence as the arbiter of morality, led to his thoroughly amoral and genocidal policies. Hitler’s views on morality and ethics were pernicious, immoral, and reprehensible, and they stand as a warning of the dangers of unchecked ethical relativism.

Today, the debates between Darwinism and ethics continue with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology making similar claims, despite the previous attempts to link Darwinism with ethics. Bioethicists today, such as Peter Singer and James Rachels, argue that Darwinism has challenged the sanctity of human life, making involuntary euthanasia acceptable in certain circumstances. This study also sheds light on Hitler’s worldview and the reason behind educated Germans participating in the Holocaust. These ideas, although not mainstream in German society, were mainstream in scholarly circles, particularly among medical and scientific elites, and contributed to Hitler’s embrace of eugenics, involuntary euthanasia, and racial extermination.



Sud Alogu

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