The Dehumanizing Impact of Modern Thought:
Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Their Followers
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who endured the horrors of Auschwitz, astutely commented on the way that modern European thought had helped prepare the way for Nazi atrocities (and his own misery). He stated, "If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted," Frankl continued, "with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment-or, as the Nazi liked to say, of 'Blood and Soil.' I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers." 
As a Christian undergraduate in the 1970s, I was drawn to the study of modern European intellectual history in part by the realization that much modern thought had debased humanity, as Frankl suggested. My concerns were originally stimulated by reading C. S. Lewis, especially The Abolition of Man, and several of Francis Schaeffer's works, but they were reinforced by courses I took in intellectual history and the history of philosophy. In my own private studies, I was dismayed by the vision of humanity sketched out in B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which it seemed to me would lead to dystopias, such as the fictional ones in 1984 and Brave New World or the real one described by Alexander Solzenitsyn in his novels and in The Gulag Archipelago.
A few modern thinkers specifically criticized the "anthropocentric" view that humans are special, made in the image of God. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the famous German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel, for example, blasted Christianity for advancing an "anthropocentric" and dualistic view of humanity.  Today the famous bioethicist Peter Singer, along with the atheistic Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins, argue that based on the Darwinian understanding of human origins, we need to desanctify human life, divesting ourselves of any notion that humans are created in the image of God and thus uniquely valuable.  An evolutionary ecologist at the University of Texas, Eric Pianka, fights overtly against anthropocentrism, even expressing the wish that 90% of the human population will be extinguished, perhaps by a pandemic. 
Often, however, modern thinkers have masked the dehumanizing impact of their ideas by calling their philosophy "humanism" of one form or another, implying that their views exalt humanity. However, most attempts at exalting humanity have ironically resulted in diminishing humanity, demonstrating the biblical truth: "He who exalts himself will be abased."
After the waning of Romanticism in mid-nineteenth century Europe, many intellectuals embraced science as the sole arbiter of knowledge, including knowledge about humanity and society. The renowned, but quirky, French thinker Auguste Comte, gained many disciples for his philosophy of positivism, which rejected any knowledge not obtained through empirical, scientific investigation (except, of course, this epistemological claim itself is not subject to empirical demonstration, so it seems to me that his epistemology is self-defeating). Comte hoped to initiate the scientific study of society, coining the term sociology for this endeavor. He was optimistic that a scientific study of humanity would lead humans to practice altruism, another term he coined. Though Comte considered all metaphysics, including religion, unknowable, he wanted to create a religion of humanity, which would place humans on the highest pedestal. Most of Comte's disciples, such as John Stuart Mill, embraced his positivist epistemology, but rejected his religion of humanity, especially in the ludicrous form he presented it in his later writings (which involved many specific religious practices, including praying to a female that one admires).
Though not as prominent as positivism in the nineteenth century, materialism also increased in influence in the mid-nineteenth century. Though positivism rejected all metaphysical claims, including materialist ones, it shared many common features with materialism nonetheless. Both materialists and positivists idolized science as the only path to knowledge. By extending scientific investigation to humanity itself, however, they made assumptions about human nature that were not subject to scientific investigation. Effectively they dismissed body-soul dualism, thus reducing humanity to matter in motion. Also, their insistence that the scientific method could provide knowledge about all features of human life led them to embrace determinism. By the late nineteenth century some prominent thinkers were rebelling against reductionism and determinism, but in the nineteenth century, these views gained currency to such as extent that Francis Galton, the cousin of Darwin and the founder of the eugenics movement, coined the phrase, "nature versus nurture" to frame the intellectual debate over humanity. Galton's phrase is still commonly invoked in intellectual discourse about human behavior.
Galton and many of his contemporaries rejected free will, claiming with circular logic that science had disproven this supposedly antiquated religious conception. (This was circular reasoning because they defined science to exclude free will, and then claimed that science disproved free will). Their insistence on determinism effectively ostracized religious or spiritual conceptions of human nature. The new fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, which only became institutionalized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, generally embraced this deterministic view of human behavior. By rejecting free will and embracing determinism, Galton and his contemporaries were left with three main options: humans were either the product of their biological makeup, or they were the product of their environment, or they were the product of some combination of heredity and environment. Either form of determinism (or hybrids thereof) reduces humans to inputs, either from internal or external influences. They deny independent human agency and thus strip humanity of any moral responsibility.
In the mid-nineteenth century environmental determinism was more prominent than biological determinism. The philosopher Maurice Mandelbaum argues that one of the ideas dominating nineteenth-century philosophy was the "malleability of man," i.e., the idea that human nature is shaped largely by external forces, such as culture, education, and training.  The father of John Stuart Mill exemplified this perspective, rigorously educating his son from an early age. Mill became a leading voice in Europe touting the power of education and training in shaping human intellect and behavior. Many mid-nineteenth-century liberals and socialists embraced this vision of environmental determinism.
Karl Marx is a prominent example of a socialist committed to environmental determinism. He called his perspective "scientific socialism," because he believed that his analysis was based on immutable economic and social laws. He was convinced that social institutions and even human nature itself were shaped by economic forces. If economic conditions changed, human nature would change accordingly. In Marx's view private property was the source of all the evils in human society, especially the oppression of the urban workers by the bourgeois capitalists. Private property thus spawned a class struggle in every age. Religion, morality, law, political structures, and other institutions and cultural factors were merely tools of the propertied classes to oppress the unpropertied masses.
Marx's primary motivation was not establishing human equality, though his socialist philosophy did militate toward greater equality. Rather Marx's primary concern was liberating humanity from oppression and tyranny. This is a laudable goal, and anyone who has read Marx's Capital or Friedrich Engels' Condition of the Working Class in 1844 should recognize that Marx had legitimate grounds for complaint. Many factory workers, not to mention the unemployed, lived in squalor and misery. Marx rightly criticized the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless, when we examine the practices of Marxist regimes in the twentieth century, we see incredible oppression and tyranny. The quest for freedom was turned on its head. Why?
I suggest it is largely because of Marx's faulty view of human nature. Neither Lenin nor Stalin nor Mao nor Pol Pot nor Castro nor any other Marxist leader could alter human nature by ridding their society of private property. Changing the economy could not bring about utopia, because human behavior is not determined solely by the economy. Marxist philosophy failed because it denied to humanity its spiritual character, its free will, and also the Christian insistence on original sin. Alexander Solzenitsyn clearly depicted the Soviet problem with altering human nature in his novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In this novel the prisoners in the Soviet labor camp, who are supposedly being reeducated to become good Soviet citizens, continue to act as capitalists in any way they can, even while incarcerated. The protagonist expressed at one point that the Soviet regime simply could not change his nature.
In the late nineteenth century, especially by the 1890s, the pendulum swung away from environmental determinism, and biological determinism increased its influence among European thinkers. Galton was a pivotal figure in this development, publishing his seminal work, Hereditary Genius, in 1869. Galton's influence was profound, especially since he convinced his cousin Charles Darwin that heredity was more important than environmental influences in shaping human intellect and behavior. Many Darwinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came to believe-as Galton and Darwin also did-that many human character traits, such as loyalty, thrift, and diligence (or on the negative side-deceit and laziness), were biologically innate, not malleable moral traits, as most Europeans had previously thought. Darwinists in various fields-especially in biology, medicine, psychiatry, and anthropology-were in the forefront promoting biological determinism. Cesare Lombroso, the famous Italian psychiatrist who founded criminal anthropology, built his ideology on Darwinism. He argued that criminals were atavistic creatures, throwbacks to ancestors in the evolutionary process. He was most famous for promoting the idea that criminality was hereditary, not formed through environmental influence. One of the most prominent popularizers of Darwinism in Germany, the famous materialist Ludwig Buchner, published The Power of Heredity and Its Influence on the Moral and Mental Progress of Humanity in 1882. In the midst of his extended argument for biological determinism of mental and moral traits, Buchner showed where his vision of humanity led. He stated, "In the flow [of time] the individual is nothing, the species is everything; and history, just as nature, marks each of its steps forward, even the smallest, with innumerable piles of corpses." 
By the 1890s and especially in the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement gained popularity, especially in medical circles, in Europe and the United States. Eugenics was driven in part by fears that modern institutions had set aside the beneficial aspects of natural selection. Eugenicists continually played on the specter of weak and sickly humans beings preserved through modern medicine, hygiene, and charitable institutions, while the more intelligent and supposedly better human beings were beginning to voluntarily restrict their reproduction. This was producing biological degeneration, according to many eugenicists. Their solution? Introduce artificial selection by restricting the reproduction of the so-called "inferior" and encouraging the "superior" to procreate. Biological determinism permeated the eugenics movement, which pressed for marriage restrictions, compulsory sterilization, and sometimes even involuntary euthanasia for the disabled, because they were deemed biologically inferior.
Another prominent feature of the biological determinism of the early twentieth century was its stress on racial inequality. In Europe racist ideologies proliferated in the 1890s and early 1900s, partly under the influence of Darwinism and biological determinism. Many biologists, anthropologists, and physicians considered black Africans or American Indians less evolved than Europeans. As Europeans colonized vast stretches of the globe, many scientists proclaimed that non-Europeans were culturally inferior to Europeans. Further, they believed that these cultural differences were manifestations of biological inferiority.
By reducing humanity to their biological makeup, these Darwinian-inspired biological determinists contributed to the dehumanization process. Many nineteenth-century Darwinists emphasized the continuities between humans and animals, with Darwin himself arguing that all the differences between humans and animals were quantitative, not qualitative. Darwin even explained the origin of morality as the product of completely naturalistic evolutionary processes. The idea that humans were "created from animals," to use a famous phrase from Darwin, rather than created in the image of God, gained greater currency in the nineteenth century.
Just as one form of environmental determinism-Marxism-produced unfathomable misery for millions of humans, so did biological determinism. Hitler's National Socialism was based on a biological determinist vision of humanity that stressed racial inequality. Nazism endorsed discrimination-and ultimately even death-for those with allegedly inferior biological traits. On the other hand, it hoped to promote evolutionary advance for the human species by fostering higher reproductive levels of those considered superior biologically. Hitler's regime ended up killing about 200,000 disabled Germans, 6 million Jews, and hundreds of thousands of Gypsies in their effort to improve the human race. 
While many modern thinkers, especially scientists, psychologists, and social scientists, have embraced one form of determinism or another, many thinkers have followed the nineteenth-century philologist and philosopher Nietzsche in rebelling against determinism. Nietzsche attempted to rescue humanity from scientific reductionism by positing radical individual freedom. He believed that all knowledge and truth are created by humans, not imposed on us by some external reality. We cannot blame the environment, nor biology, nor God for our character and behavior. Nietzsche rejected the idea that humans have fixed natures or essences. Rather, the choices we make as individuals shape our destiny. Many subsequent existentialists and post-modern thinkers have exulted in Nietzsche's liberation from reductionism and determinism.
While Nietzsche's emphasis on free will might seem to rescue humanity from the degrading philosophies of environmental or biological determinism, it does nothing of the sort. It only elevates a small elite of humanity, whom Nietzsche called the Superman, or more literally, Overman. Nietzsche's freedom was freedom only for these Supermen, the creative geniuses (like himself) who would rise above the hoi polloi. He had nothing but disdain for the masses, whom he thought incapable of exercising true freedom. What Nietzsche contemptuously called the herd instinct of the masses fitted them for nothing other than submission to the domination of the Superman.
Despite its stress on freedom, then, Nietzsche's philosophy is really a philosophy that aims at enslavement. Power ultimately decides, not only who rules politically, but also what counts as truth. Nietzsche rejected any form of fixed truth or morality, thus undermining the very notion of humanity and human rights. Nietzsche despised weakness, compassion, and humanitarianism, preferring strength and domination. He was especially vehement in his rejection of Christian ethics, because it catered to the weak and downtrodden. His aristocratic morality aimed at justifying and benefitting the strong and powerful.
In the twentieth century many existentialist philosophers, such as Heidegger and Sartre, embraced the general contours of Nietzsche's philosophy, denying that humans have any fixed essence and stressing radical free will in human decisions. Later in the twentieth century, however, many postmodern thinkers, though heavily influenced by Nietzsche, have reduced the element of individual agency still important to Nietzsche. Many literary scholars emphasized the written text over the author, who disappeared from consideration. Human intent became irrelevant in interpreting human documents. Dehumanization thus spiraled even further downward, as all human values were construed as socially constructed.
Now that I have sketched out in broad strokes some of the dehumanizing influences of modern European thought and culture, I would like to suggest why this should be important to us. Not all environmental determinism leads to Marxism, nor does all biological determinism lead to the Holocaust. Not all existentialism or postmodernism leads to immoral behavior, either. However, false conceptions of humanity can lead to destructive behavior and harmful policies, both by societies and by individuals. It can and does affect the way we treat other human beings. Human rights are meaningless is a world of determinism or social (or individual) constructivism.
The underlying vision of human nature in any society shapes the political and social institutions, the laws, and the entire culture in far-reaching ways. The converse is also true-the political, social, and legal developments in a society influence its view of human nature and the dignity of human life. People who believe that humans are created in the image of God will have different values, ideals, practices, and institutions than those who view humans as merely the sum total of environmental and biological inputs, or those who believe that humans can create whatever truths they desire.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), xxvii.
2. Ernst Haeckel, Die Weltrathsel: Gemeinverstandliche Studien uber Monistische Philosophie (Bonn: Emil Strauss, 1903), 11.
3. Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life (New York, 2000), 77-78, 220-21; Richard Dawkins, "The Word Made Flesh," The Guardian (December 27, 2001).
4. Eric Pianka, "Biology 301M. Ecology, Evolution, and Society," at www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/bio301; accessed 4-3-06; "Student Evaluations [for Dr. Pianka]-Spring 2004," at www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/bio357/357evaluations.html, accessed 4-3-06; "Excerpts from Student Evaluations [for Dr. Pianka]-Fall 2004," at www.zo.utexas.edu/courses/bio357/357evaluations.html, accessed 4-3-06. I have hard copies of these sources in my files.
5. Maurice Mandelbaum, History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-CenturyThought (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).
6. Ludwig Buchner, Die Macht der Vererbung und ihr Einfluss auf den moralischen und geistigen Fortschritt der Menschheit (Leipzig: Ernst Gunthers Verlag, 1882), 100.
7. See Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and my forthcoming book, Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Updated: July 12, 2023