Response to Larry Arnhart's Misinterpretation
of From Darwin to Hitler
I should say first that I have met Larry on at least two occasions, and we have had several e-mail exchanges. All our interactions have been amiable, and I hope they will continue to be so (and he even sent me a gratis copy of Darwinian Conservatism). On June 3, 2005, Larry sent me an e-mail, in which he showed me a rough draft of the part of his manuscript pertaining to my book. I responded to him with an e-mail on June 8, in which I pointed out many ways that he had misinterpreted my book. However, he did not make any significant alterations of the manuscript.
Here is my June 8 e-mail to Larry in its entirety, explaining how he misconstrued my arguments:
First of all, you might like to know that when I submitted my book to Palgrave Macmillan, I did not give it
the title, _From Darwin to Hitler_. I had considered several titles earlier, including that one, but I was concerned
that it would be too inflammatory. My editor at Palgrave suggested that we change the title to _From Darwin to
Hitler_. Before deciding if this was a wise move, I explained to several impartial colleagues at my university,
who do not share my ideological bent, my concern about the title being misunderstood. They assured me that the
title, _From Darwin to Hitler_ was sufficiently ambiguous, and surely intelligent scholars would read the introduction
to judge what the thesis really is. Well, apparently they were wrong--you apparently became so outraged by the
title that you assumed you knew the thesis before reading the book, leading you to incorrectly allege that I argue
a straightforward "Darwin-to-Hitler" thesis.
Because of this, you totally misrepresent my argument from the very start. You state that I uphold the position "that Darwinism supports an immoral materialism that leads inevitably to policies like those of the Nazis." On the contrary, I overtly reject such an argument in both the introduction and conclusion of the book. On p. 4 I state that "Darwinism does not lead inevitably to Nazism . . ." On p. 232 I state, "It would be foolish to blame Darwinism for the Holocaust, as though Darwinism leads logically to the Holocaust." You really need to go back and reread the introduction and conclusion, which you apparently did not take seriously. It's very telling that in all your statements allegedly explaining my thesis, you never once produce a telling quotation from my book to show that this is indeed my view. Of course, you won't find such a statement in my book, because the thesis you ascribe to me is not really my thesis, but is rather your own caricature. You are attacking a straw man.
Then you claim that "he argues that there was a clear and direct path from Darwin to Hitler." Once again, this is your own invention. I discuss this issue of a direct vs. a crooked path in the introduction of the book (pp. 3-6), and I never make the claim that the path is "clear and direct." In my discussion of that issue, I even produce good reasons not to accept that view. I recommend that you reread the introduction of my book without the (false) preconceived idea that my book argues for a direct line from Darwin to Hitler. Why do you think I spend so little time discussing Darwin and so much time discussing other German Darwinists?
You then err by continuing: "His reasoning is that Darwinian materialism denied the Judeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of human life as based on the biblical teaching that all human beings were created in God’s image, because Darwinism taught that human beings were nothing more than animals created by the blind, material causes of evolution." No, this is not my reasoning. I do not make a philosophical argument in my book at all. My argument is historical. What I argue is that Darwinists themselves denied the sanctity-of-life ethic. If you disagree with this viewpoint, take it up with the Darwinists I discuss (or with James Rachels or Peter Singer, who also argue for this position).
You then make a slight misstatement: "Consequently, Hitler’s claim that some human beings were “unfit for life” and should be exterminated could be grounded in the scientific materialism of Darwin." Not "could be," but was. Hitler was directly and indirectly influenced by social Darwinist thought, as I show in my book.
You then make a factual error about Discovery Institute, stating, "The Discovery Institute is a conservative think-tank that promotes attacks on Darwinian science as morally corrupting, which is part of their rhetorical strategy for introducing “intelligent design theory” in public school biology classes as an alternative to Darwinian biology." Discovery has never advocated replacing Darwinism with ID in the public schools, nor does DI favor legislation mandating the teaching of ID. Of course, since ID is true and Darwinism is false, they hope that scientists will eventually recognize their error, and obviously this will impact what is taught in schools. However, your statement implies that they are currently pushing for the substitution of Darwinism with ID, and this is a lie.
Next, I challenge you to back up the claim: "The Discovery Institute uses Weikart’s book to claim that teaching Darwinian science in the public schools advances dangerous ideas leading to racism and Nazism." Where has anyone at Discovery claimed that teaching Darwinism in American public schools will lead to racism and Nazism? This is patently ridiculous, and I have never heard anyone in DI make such a claim. Can you please provide documentation for this claim?
Based on your previously discussed misunderstanding, you then say: "Although he generally argues for a direct path “from Darwin to Hitler,” he often has to concede that the path is not direct at all. For example, he writes: “If one concentrates on anti-Semitism, surely an important part of Hitler’s worldview, then there does not seem to be any direct connection between Darwinism and Nazism.” Since, as I explained above, I don't "generally argue for a direct path," the alleged contradiction here evaporates.
Your paragraph on sources of anti-Semitism is rather odd, since I never accused Darwinism of being a source of anti-Semitism, and I specifically denied that it was. I don't discuss the sources of anti-Semitism at all, since this isn't the subject of my book. You state: "But Weikart never mentions Luther, because this would undercut his argument that Christianity promoted the equal moral dignity of all human beings against the degrading materialism of Darwinism." No, the reason I never mention Luther is because my book is about the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I hardly mention any pre-nineteenth century figures, and those I do I only mention briefly. Actually, if you look at the late nineteenth century discourse on social Darwinism and equality in Germany, you find that Haeckel, Hellwald, and many others railed at Christianity precisely because in their view Christianity upheld human equality. Whatever Christianity stood for before the late nineteenth century, the social Darwinists of the nineteenth century forthrightly criticized Christianity for its egalitarianism. Darwinists who opposed the "equal moral dignity of all human beings" were forthrightly critical of Christianity, which they thought did uphold the sanctity of life for all. If you want to argue that Christianity is not egalitarian, fine, do so. But then you are arguing against fellow (nineteenth-century) Darwinists. (Again, you miss the point that I'm discussing history--what actually happened--not whether you or I agree with these positions).
Even more bizarre is your next paragraph, beginning: "A fundamental theme of Weikart’s book is that the “Judeo-Christian worldview” supported the sanctity of life and universal humanitarianism, which was denied by Darwinian materialism. But he never explains how he derives this from the Bible." Of course, I don't. This is a historical work, not a book about my religious views. I will be happy to discuss my biblical views with you sometime, but don't be so absurd as to criticize me for not including a biblical defense of the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic in a historical work. Again, what is interesting is that the Darwinists of the nineteenth century who attacked the sanctity-of-life ethic were convinced that they were attacking a Christian position (whether you agree that it is a Christian position or not).
Concerning your claim that the criticisms I level at Steigmann-Gall could be turned back on me, consider this: Hitler and many other leading Nazis harshly criticized Christianity, especially in private conversations. Though some Christians did support Nazism, many other Christians criticized them for their positions. Now, compare this to the Darwinists I discuss. They all publicly claimed to be Darwinists, published many articles and books defending Darwinism, and were recognized by their contemporaries as Darwinists. Are you saying that any of these Darwinists I discussed privately spoke against Darwinism? Are you suggesting that other Darwinists didn't think they were really Darwinists? Unless you can answer yes and provide some evidence for it, then you need to admit that there really is no parallel between Steigmann-Gall's claims and my own.
In the following paragraph you state: "Weikart says that “the first serious thinker in Germany to systematically relate Darwinism to ethics was Bartholomaus von Carneri.” But then he says that “Carneri forthrightly refused to base his ethical theory on Darwinian theory.” Weikart has to make this kind of admission repeatedly in his book as he acknowledges that those proponents of Darwinian ethics who supposedly influenced the Nazis actually deviated far from Darwin’s account of the natural moral sense." Since I never claimed anywhere in my book that the German Darwinists I discuss were "orthodox" interpreters of Darwin, this criticism once more misrepresents my position. You persist in presenting a caricature of my position, then claiming that my qualifications and nuances are a contradiction of that caricature. Yes, they are a contradiction of your caricature of my argument, but they don't contradict my real argument.
Then, you state: "But we also need to consider whether that immoral interpretation is an accurate account of what Darwin said and of what Darwinian biology necessarily requires." It is fair to raise this question, but unfair to criticize me for not tackling it, especially since I overtly state that Darwinism does not logically entail Nazism.
"Weikart does not even mention the most rigorous elaborations of Darwinian ethics by people like Edward Westermarck, who gave no support to Nazi nihilism." As I told you before in an e-mail, Westermarck was not a German, and all the figures I discuss at length, except Darwin himself (who was quickly translated into German and exerted considerable influence in Germany) were German. I found little evidence that Westermarck was influential in Germany, so what is your beef? If you do not like the way that German Darwinists framed the discourse on evolutionary ethics, take that up with them. I am a historian, explaining what actually happened in German discourse, not trying to find versions of evolutionary ethics that I like and then interject them into the narrative.
Then you state: "But then the question of whether the actual logic of Darwinian science really does support Nazism is dismissed by Weikart as “a philosophical question beyond the scope of this work.” Here you wrench a quotation out of context. The philosophical question I said was beyond the scope of my work on p. 41, where you got the quotation from, was actually "whether or not Darwinism actually implies materialism or determinism," not whether Darwinism supports Nazism. Though you are right that I in general eschew making philosophical arguments (since this is a work of history), I do state several times in my work, especially in the introduction and conclusion, that Darwinism does not lead inevitably, or of logical necessity, to Nazism, and I even explain several aspects of Nazism that do not derive in any way from Darwinian discourse.
"Weikart and other conservatives insist that the connection between Darwin and Hitler shows that a Darwinian ethical naturalism must have immoral consequences." No, I make no such argument. I show that Darwinian ethical naturalism *did* have immoral consequences, and I show what Darwinists themselves said about evolutionary ethics. Apparently you missed this obvious point of my book, but let me spell it out for you: *Darwinists themselves* (not Weikart and Discovery Institute) argued that Darwinism supported moral relativism, infanticide and involuntary euthanasia for the disabled, and racial extermination. I never argued that these were logically necessary deductions from Darwinism, and I forthrightly claimed the contrary. If you oppose those arguments, fine, but then you are arguing with fellow Darwinists, not with Weikart and the Discovery Institute.
"But as I have suggested, this ignores the fact that the Social Darwinism that influenced Hitler’s Nazism had little to do with any correct understanding of Darwin and Darwinian science." Fine, you are free to make this philosophical argument, but it again ignores the pesky historical fact that Hitler's views of Darwinism were pretty similar to those of Fritz Lenz, a leading geneticist (who called attention to those similarities and bragged about it), Eugen Fischer, a leading anthropologist, etc. This doesn’t prove that Hitler's views of Darwinism were valid, but they were in line with the leading Darwinists of his time (so duke it out with these Darwinists, not with me).
Concerning Gasman, you might be interested to know that most historians are contemptuous of his thesis, and with good cause. Your discussion of the relationship between Gasman's and my work is ridiculous and falls apart on the same caricature of my work that you presented earlier. Of course, Haeckel's, not Darwin's, ideas were closer to Hitler's. Gasman is right about that, and anyone reading my book should realize this, as I make it quite clear. My beef with Gasman was not that he called attention to some linkages between Haeckel and Hitler (such as biological racism), but that he overplayed the linkages (absurdly claiming that Haeckel's anti-Semitism was a key influence on Nazi anti-Semitism, for instance) and he presented a completely monocausal account of the rise of Nazism (and in his later book, of fascism in general). He ignored the inconvenient facts that Haeckel considered himself a progressive, supporting pacifism, feminism, and homosexual rights. Gasman's claim that Haeckel's ideas had little to do with Darwinism is simply absurd. Darwin certainly didn't think so, for he praised Haeckel's work. In short, of course Haeckel was a greater influence on Hitler than Darwin was. I never argue the contrary, and I don't argue the kind of straightforward "Darwin-to-Hitler thesis" that you claim. By the way, you might be interested to know that I actually considered entitling my book "From Haeckel to Hitler." I dropped the idea, but only because I figured many people don't know who Haeckel is.
On a more technical point, Bowler is wrong about Haeckel being a "pseudo-Darwinian." Haeckel believed in both Lamarckism (to account for variation) and Darwinian selection (to preserve the most fit variations). He didn't subordinate the one to the other. He often wrote about the struggle for existence, including among humans. Also, just what is it about Lamarckism that would make Haeckel closer to Hitler? You present no evidence, and I don't know of any, that suggests that Hitler had Lamarckian tendencies. I'd be interested in any references you have. Hitler often spoke of the struggle for existence, but I've never seen any references to acquired characteristics in his work. It would seem to be at odds with his biological racism.
Concerning your treatment of Darwin's racism, I state in my book that Haeckel was much more racist than Darwin, so we are in agreement on this point. I think you downplay Darwin's racism a bit, but surely you are right that Haeckel was more racist than Darwin and exerted more influence on German biological racism than Darwin did directly.
You are right that Haeckel was more antisemitic than Darwin. Haeckel, however, was a mild antisemite and not likely a big influence on German antisemitic discourse (the reverse was the case). More influential were Theodor Fritsch and Willibald Hentschel, along with Chamberlain, of course.
You are right that Haeckel was a pantheist by his own admission. However, Haeckel also once admitted that pantheism was a polite form of atheism, and he eschewed all mysticism. He once even gave a speech to a Monist Congress criticizing those who were trying to bring mystical interpretations into the Monist Society. Gasman often misinterprets Haeckel's ideas to make them seem more mystical than they really are.
The bottom line: you misrepresent my book, because you falsely assumed that the title was the thesis (even though the title is not a full statement and is ambiguous). You ignored many statements in the introduction and conclusion, and wrongly claimed that at times I was contradicting my thesis, when in fact I was only contradicting the thesis you falsely attributed to me. Further, you seem intent on criticizing me for not philosophizing, and you wrongly claim that I endorse the logic of the Darwinists I discuss, despite the fact that I explicitly state: "I also need to make clear from the start that this is a historical study. When I draw connections between Darwin, German Darwinists, eugenicists, racial theorists, or militarists, I am not thereby endorsing their logic." (p. 9) However, you keep insisting that I do endorse their logic. Why do you continually ignore my own statements?
I sincerely hope you will correct these misrepresentations before publishing your book, because now that I've explained it to you, you have no excuse for misunderstanding it. If you don't revise it, you will know that you are pummeling a straw man. In my opinion, what you really should do, if you want to defend the honor of Darwinism, is to show that the positions of the Darwinists I discuss were misrepresentations of Darwin's theory. This is a legitimate enterprise and could lead to fruitful discussions. But then, you are not fighting against me, but against other Darwinists.
Finally, if you want to criticize my title, fine. But don't confuse my title with my thesis.
Department of History
California State Univ., Stanislaus
Turlock, CA 95382