Does Darwinism Devalue Human Life?
For more information on this topic, see my book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
[Note: This article first appeared in The Human Life Review 30, 2 (Spring 2004): 29-37.]
A number of years ago two intelligent students surprised me in a class discussion by defending the proposition that Hitler was neither good nor evil. Though I kept my composure, I was horrified. One of the worst mass murderers in history wasn't evil? How could they believe this? How could they justify such a view?
They did it by appealing to Darwinism. Their pronouncement on Hitler occurred while we were discussing James Rachels' book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 1990). Darwinism, these students informed us, undermined all morality. This was not the first time I had heard such a view. In fact, at that time I was in the beginning phases of a research project on the history of evolutionary ethics, and I had already reviewed the work of some scientists and social scientists who believed that Darwinism undermined human rights and equality.
Before reading Rachels' book, however, I hadn't thought much about whether or not Darwinism devalued human life itself. Rachels, a philosopher at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, best known for his contributions to the euthanasia debate, argues that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of human life. The title of his book comes from an observation Darwin makes in his 1838 notebooks, "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and, I believe, true to consider him created from animals." Rachels assumes the truth of Darwinism and uses it as a springboard to justify euthanasia, infanticide (for disabled babies), abortion, and animal rights. Stimulated by his book, I continued my research on evolutionary ethics, but now with two new questions in mind: Does Darwinism undermine the Judeo-Christian understanding of the sanctity of human life? Does it weaken traditional proscriptions against killing the sick and the weak?
As I read more about the development of evolutionary ethics, I discovered that many scientists, social thinkers, and especially physicians in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany did indeed use Darwinian arguments to devalue human life. In the second edition of his popular book, The Natural History of Creation (1870), Ernst Haeckel, the leading Darwinist in Germany, became the first German scholar to seriously propose that disabled infants be killed at birth. Darwinists were in the forefront of the eugenics movement, which often taught that disabled people and non-Europeans were inferior to healthy Europeans. They argued that Darwinism implied human inequality, since biological variation has to occur to drive the process of evolution. Haeckel even suggested that Darwinism was an "aristocratic" process, favoring an aristocracy of talent (not the traditional landed aristocracy, for which Haeckel had no sympathy). Since Darwinism provided a naturalistic explanation for the origin of ethics, many of its adherents dismissed human rights as a chimera.
Darwin expressed incredulity when critics assailed him for undermining morality. In his Autobiography, however, Darwin rejected the idea of objective moral standards, stating that one "can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones." (1) Friedrich Hellwald, an influential ethnologist, promoted a Darwinian view of social evolution in his major work, The History of Culture (1875). Hellwald was quite radical in exalting the Darwinian process of the struggle for existence above all moral considerations. "The right of the stronger," he insisted, "is a natural law." (2) He clarified this idea further:
In nature only One Right rules, which is no right, the right of the stronger, or violence. But violence is also in fact the highest source of right, in that without it no legislation is thinkable. I will in the course of my portrayal easily prove that even in human history the right of the stronger has fundamentally retained its validity at all times. (3)
This Darwinian undermining of human rights would be fateful for the Judeo-Christian vision of the sanctity of human life.
Besides stressing human inequality, Haeckel and many of his fellow Darwinists devalued human life by criticizing Judeo-Christian conceptions of humanity as "anthropocentric." Rather than being created in the image of God, they argued, humans were descended from simian ancestors. They blurred the distinctions between humans and animals, alleging that characteristics that had been traditionally considered uniquely human--rationality, morality, religion, etc.--were also present in animals to some degree. In Darwin's own words, the difference between humans and animals is quantitative, not qualitative.
Darwin's explanation that all human characteristics that previously had been associated with the human soul were not qualitatively distinct from animals also undermined the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of body-soul dualism, which endued humans with greater moral and spiritual significance than other organisms. (4) Many Darwinists understood the implications of this, including Haeckel, who founded the Monist League in 1906 specifically to combat all dualistic religions and philosophies, especially Christianity (but also Kantianism). One prominent member of the Monist League, August Forel, a world famous psychiatrist at the University of Zurich, described his initial encounter with Darwinism as a kind of conversion experience. He explained that Darwinism had convinced him that body-soul dualism was no longer tenable and that humans have no free will. Based on his view that heredity accounts for almost all character traits (and most mental illness), Forel became one of the most influential figures in the German eugenics movement, preaching the need to eliminate "inferior" races and handicapped infants, and recruiting Alfred Ploetz, who founded the world's first eugenics organization and journal.
Another element of Darwinism that contributed to the devaluing of human life was its stress on the struggle for existence. Based on the Malthusian population principle, Darwin pointed out that offspring are produced at much higher levels than can survive. Therefore multitudes necessarily perish in the struggle for existence. While Malthus saw this tendency toward overpopulation as the cause of misery and poverty, Darwin explained that it was really beneficial. In the conclusion of The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote, "Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows." (5) For Darwin death--even mass death--was not only inevitable, necessary. As Adrian Desmond explained in his biography of T. H. Huxley (the foremost Darwinian biologist in late nineteenth-century Britain, who earned the nickname, "Darwin's bulldog"), "only from death on a genocidal scale could the few progress." (6) Hellwald expressed the same idea in The History of Culture, claiming that evolutionary progress would occur as the "fitter" humans "stride across the corpses of the vanquished; that is natural law." (7)
Indeed, many leading Darwinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claimed that in order to foster evolutionary progress, the less valuable elements of humanity, generally defined as the disabled and those of non-European races, had to be eliminated. They feared that Judeo-Christian and humanitarian ethics, together with the advances of modern civilization--especially medicine and hygiene--would produce biological degeneration, since the weak and sick would be allowed to reproduce. Though many focused on methods to restrict reproduction, a surprising number of leading Darwinists--and not only Haeckel and Forel--actually promoted killing the "unfit" as a means to bring biological progress. Racial extermination and infanticide were integral components of their Darwinian program for biological rejuvenation.
In retrospect, the connection between these Darwinian ideas and Hitler's ideology are obvious. Interestingly, however, when I began my research on evolutionary ethics, Hitler was not even on my radar screen. I was wary of connecting Darwin and Hitler because of Daniel Gasman's failed attempt to draw a direct line from Haeckel to Hitler in The Scientific Origins of National Socialism, a book with which most historians rightly find fault. However, the title of my book--From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)--indicates that I made the connection nonetheless, though in quite a different manner from Gasman. Indeed, the more I studied books and articles on evolutionary ethics by German scientists, physicians, and social thinkers, the more I discovered that I could not avoid the parallels between German Darwinist discourse and Hitler's ideology. This should not come as a complete surprise, however, since just about all of Hitler's biographers have noted the strong social Darwinist elements in his ideology, as Ian Kershaw does recently in his magisterial two-volume biography.
Hitler was strongly influenced by the Darwinian ideology of the eugenics movement, and his writings and speeches clearly reflect it. In Mein Kampf Hitler asserted that his philosophy
by no means believes in the equality of races, but recognizes along with their differences their higher or lower value, and through this knowledge feels obliged, according to the eternal will that rules this universe, to promote the victory of the better, the stronger, and to demand the submission of the worse and weaker. It embraces thereby in principle the aristocratic law of nature and believes in the validity of this law down to the last individual being. It recognizes not only the different value of races, but also the different value of individuals. . . . But by no means can it approve of the right of an ethical idea existing, if this idea is a danger for the racial life of the bearer of a higher ethic. (8)
Thus Hitler justified his racial views by appealing to Darwinian science. Because Hitler's racial views were so obviously flawed, some scholars call Hitler's views pseudo-scientific or a "vulgar" form of Darwinism. However, this is to judge Hitler by later standards of scientific thought. Many leading scientists and physicians embraced eugenics and scientific racism in Hitler's day, and indeed Fritz Lenz, the first professor of eugenics at a German university, crowed in 1933 that he had formulated the essentials of Nazi ideology even before Hitler began his political career.
Hitler's genocidal program was not the only adverse consequence of Darwinism's devaluing of human life, and Germany was not the only country impacted. Much work on the history of the eugenics movement in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere suggests that scientific and medical elites in many parts of the world imbibed the Darwinian devaluing of human life. Though it did not lead to genocide in these countries, it did lead to other injustices, such as the compulsory sterilization of thousands of people classified as "less fit," based on their hereditary condition (sometimes based on very tenuous evidence, leading to many cases of misdiagnosis). Social Darwinist and eugenics ideology also played an important role in the budding movement to legalize abortion in the early twentieth century.
Further, recent confirmation of my findings about the Darwinian devaluing of human life have come from Ian Dowbiggin's and Nick Kemp's important new studies on the history of the euthanasia movements in the United States and Britain, respectively. Both emphasize the role of Darwinism in paving the way ideologically for euthanasia. According to Dowbiggin, "The most pivotal turning point in the early history of the euthanasia movement was the coming of Darwinism to America." (9) This held true in Britain, as well, for Kemp informs us: "While we should be wary of depicting Darwin as the man responsible for ushering in a secular age we should be similarly cautious of underestimating the importance of evolutionary thought in relation to the questioning of the sanctity of human life." (10) The worldview of most early euthanasia advocates was saturated with Darwinian ideology, and they forthrightly used Darwinian ideas to combat the Judeo-Christian concept of the sanctity of human life.
Thus, historical evidence from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries overwhelmingly supports the thesis that Darwinism devalued human life. Whatever one thinks philosophically about this issue--and, of course, some Darwinists are embarrassed by the link and try to deny it--historically Darwinism has contributed to a devaluing of human life, thereby providing impetus for euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion.
The question now emerges: Is this all just of historical interest? Haven't we learned a lesson from Nazism not to use social Darwinism to devalue humans? Haven't we abandoned biological racism and rabid anti-Semitism, integral components of Nazi ideology?
Yes, indeed, we have learned much from the Nazi past, and I don't think it is fair to compare our present situation with Nazi Germany, as though they are completely the same. We don't live in a murderous dictatorship, and racism is on the defensive, at least in academic circles. For this we can be thankful. Still, in some respects, I wonder if we have learned enough, especially when I see big-name Darwinists, evolutionary psychologists, and bioethicists using Darwinism today to undermine the sanctity of human life. Whether Darwinism does actually devalue human life or not, there are certainly many people who think it does, and they are not intellectual featherweights.
First of all, the position that Rachels stakes out on issues of life and death are strikingly similar to that of the Australian bioethicist, Peter Singer, whose appointment a few years ago to a chair in bioethics at Princeton University stirred up vigorous controversy. Singer is renowned--or notorious, depending on one's point of view--for promoting the legitimacy of infanticide for handicapped babies and voluntary euthanasia, as well as for defending animal rights. Darwinism plays a key role in Singer's philosophy, underpinning his views on life and death. Singer claims that Darwin "undermined the foundations of the entire Western way of thinking on the place of our species in the universe." It stripped humanity of the special status that Judeo-Christian thought had conferred upon it. Singer complains that even though Darwin "gave what ought to have been its final blow" to the "human-centred view of the universe," the view that humans are special and sacred has not yet vanished. Singer is now laboring to give the sanctity-of-life ethic its deathblow. (11)
Singer and Rachels are not the only prominent philosophers arguing that Darwinism undermines the sanctity of human life. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that Darwinism functions like a "universal acid," destroying traditional forms of religion and morality. In confronting the issue of biomedical ethics, Dennett asks, "At what 'point' does a human life begin or end? The Darwinian perspective lets us see with unmistakable clarity why there is no hope at all of discovering a telltale mark, a saltation in life's processes, that 'counts.'" Because of this, Dennett argues, there are "gradations of value in the ending of human lives," implying that some human lives have more value than others. After using his Darwinian acid to dissolve the sanctity-of-life ethic, Dennett wonders, "Which is worse, taking 'heroic' measures to keep alive a severely deformed infant, or taking the equally 'heroic' (if unsung) step of seeing to it that such an infant dies as quickly and painlessly as possible?" Darwin's Dangerous Idea is apparently especially toxic to disabled infants. (12)
The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, also draws connections between Darwinism and infanticide. After some high-profile cases of infanticide occurred in 1997, Pinker wrote an article purporting to explain its evolutionary origins. Since Pinker believes "that nurturing an offspring that carries our genes is the whole point of our existence," of course he tries to explain infanticide as a behavior that somehow confers reproductive advantage. He argues that a "new mother will first coolly assess the infant and her current situation and only in the next few days begin to see it as a unique and wonderful individual." (This is outrageously speculative; no new mother I have ever met has "coolly assessed" her infant, and it seems to me that those who commit infanticide are not "coolly assessing" the survival prospects for their infant, either--more likely they are desperate). According to Pinker, the mother's love for her infant will grow in relation to the "increasing biological value of a child (the chance that it will live to produce grandchildren)." Pinker specifically denies that infants have a "right to life," so, even though he doesn't completely condone infanticide, he thinks we should not be too harsh on mothers killing their children. (13) Pinker's view of infanticide is by no means unusual among evolutionary psychologists. In a leading textbook on evolutionary psychology, Evolution and Human Behavior: Darwinian Perspectives on Human Nature (2000), John Cartwright provides basically the same Darwinian explanation for infanticide as Pinker's.
What do Darwinian biologists have to say about all this? Some think Singer and company are on the right track. In 2001 Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous Darwinian biologist in the world today, made an impassioned plea for using genetic engineering to create an Australopithecine (whose fossil remains are allegedly an ancestor to the human species). Producing such a "missing link" would, according to Dawkins, provide "positive ethical benefits," since it would demolish the "double standard" of those guilty of "speciesism." Dawkins specifically claims that producing such an organism would demonstrate the poverty of the pro-life position, because it would show that humans are not different from animals. In the midst of this acerbic attack on the sanctity of human life, Dawkins expresses the hope that he will be euthanized if he is ever "past it," whatever that means (some people already think that Dawkins is "past it," but fortunately for Dawkins, I suspect that most of them still uphold the sanctity-of-life ethic that Dawkins rejects). (14)
Edward O. Wilson, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning pioneer of sociobiology and Harvard professor whose entire view of human nature revolves around Darwinism, also exemplifies this devaluing of human life, though he is more subtle about it. In his book Consilience (1998) he argues that his empiricist world view "has destroyed the giddying theory that we are special beings placed by a deity in the center of the universe in order to serve as the summit of Creation for the glory of the gods." In one passage in his autobiography he compares humans to ants, informing us that we humans are too numerous on the globe, while ants are in a proper population balance. "If we were to vanish today," Wilson explains, "the land environment would return to the fertile balance that existed before the human population explosion." But if ants were to disappear, thousands of species would perish as a result. The implication seems to be: ants are more valuable than humans, and biodiversity takes precedence over human life.
Many biologists, of course, disagree with Singer and Dawkins. From the late nineteenth century to today they have assured us that Darwinism has no implications for morality. They allege that those trying to apply Darwinism to morality are committing the "naturalistic fallacy" by deriving "ought" from "is." Darwin's friend and defender, Thomas Henry Huxley, vigorously opposed the attempts of his contemporaries to seek ethical guidance in natural evolutionary processes. More recently, Steven Jay Gould often butted heads with evolutionary psychologists, arguing that morality was a separate realm from biology. In his view Darwinism has nothing to say about how humans should act.
Gould, However, did not really divorce science and morality as much as he claimed. While vociferously arguing that Darwinian science on the one hand and religion and morality on the other are "non-overlapping magisteria," separated as far as the east is from the west, he persisted in drawing conclusions from his Darwinian science that are suspiciously laden with religious and moral implications. In Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), the whole point of his book is to use the Burgess Shale--a fossil-laden outcropping of rock in Canada teeming with many extinct, ancient forms of life--as an example of the contingency of history, to demonstrate that there is no real purpose to human existence. "Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay." His view of the contingency of human creation in the evolutionary process clearly affects the way he views the nature and status of humanity, for he informs us that "biology shifted our status from a simulacrum of God to a naked, upright ape." The closing words of this book are remarkable for someone who claims to keep science and religion in non-overlapping compartments:
And so, if you wish to ask the question of the ages-why do humans exist?-a major part of the answer, touching those aspects of the issue that science can treat at all, must be: because Pikaia [a Burgess shale chordate] survived the Burgess decimation. This response does not cite a single law of nature; it embodies no statement about predictable evolutionary pathways, no calculation of probabilities based on general rules of anatomy or ecology. The survival of Pikaia was a contingency of 'just history.' I do not think that any 'higher' answer can be given, and I cannot imagine that any resolution could be more fascinating. We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes-one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way. (15)
Does Gould really think this conclusion has no religious or moral implications? Does he really believe that his claim that biology demotes humans from the image of God to a naked ape is a purely scientific statement that has no bearing on moral issues, such as abortion and euthanasia?
In light of all this, does Darwinism really devalue human life? I think I have shown conclusively that historically Darwinism has indeed devalued human life, leading to ideologies that promote the destruction of human lives deemed inferior to others. Those on the forefront in promoting abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and racial extermination often overtly based their views on Darwinism. Also, as I have shown in this essay, those favoring a Darwinian dismantling of the sanctity-of-life ethic have a good deal of intellectual firepower, and the idea is becoming rather widespread in academic circles today. There are, of course, various religious and philosophical moves that one can make to evade these conclusions, and some Darwinists have in the past and will continue in the future vigorously to oppose such developments (for this we can be thankful), construing them as faulty extrapolations by overzealous Darwinian materialists. However, it seems to me that there is an inherent logic in the move by Darwinists to undermine the sanctity-of-life ethic, which makes it so alluring that I doubt it will ever disappear as long as Darwinism is ascendant. In any case, it is certainly safe to say that in modern society Darwinism has contributed mightily to the erosion of the sanctity-of-life ethic. Darwinism really is a matter of life and death.
1. Charles Darwin, Autobiography (NY: Norton, 1969), 94.
2. Friedrich Hellwald, Culturgeschichte in ihrer naturlichen Entwicklung bis zur Gegenwart (Augsburg, 1875), quote at 27, see also 278, 569.
3. Ibid, 44-45.
4. On the connection between dualism and bioethics, see J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL, 2000).
5. Darwin, The Origin of Species, (London: Penguin, 1968), 459.
6. Adrian Desmond, Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest (Reading, MA, 1997), 271.
7. Hellwald, Culturgeschichte in ihrer naturlichen Entwicklung, 58, 27; "Der Kampf ums Dasein im Menschen- und Volkerleben," Das Ausland 45 (1872): 105.
8. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 2 vols. in 1 (Munich, 1943), 420-1. Emphasis is mine.
9. Ian Dowbiggin, A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America (Oxford, 2003), 8.
10. N. D. A. Kemp, 'Merciful Release': The History of the British Euthanasia Movement (Manchester, 2002), 19. For more information on Dowbiggin's and Kemp's works, see my review essay, "Killing Them Kindly: Lessons from the Euthanasia Movement," in Books and Culture: A Christian Review (Jan./Feb. 2004), 30-31.
11. Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life (New York, 2000), 77-78, 220-21.
12. Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (NY, 1995), ch. 18.
13. Steven Pinker, "Why They Kill Their Newborns," The New York Times Sunday Magazine (November 2, 1997).
14. Richard Dawkins, "The Word Made Flesh," The Guardian (December 27, 2001).
15. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (NY, 1989), quotes at 14, 323; for his views on the compartmentalization of science and religion, see "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22.
Updated: June 28, 2022