Response to Robert Richards' lecture,


"The Narrative Structure of Moral Judgments in History: Evolution and Nazi Biology"


Since Robert Richards has posted his lecture criticizing my work to his website, this is my reply:

While I agree with many of the general remarks that Richards makes in this lecture about moral judgments in history, I object to the way that he tries to apply them to my book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). He distorts the arguments in my book by not taking seriously the qualifications I state up-front in my introduction.

Inexplicably, Richards accuses me of making a monocausal argument: "They [Weikart and others] 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 emphasize [sic]. And thus that [sic] they have produced a mono-causal analysis which quite distorts the historical picture."

If by monocausal analysis Richards means that I only discuss one cause of Hitler's world view in my book (and apparently this is the sense in which he uses it, judging from private correspondence with him), then my response is: So what? Historians, including Richards himself, do this all the time. The reason I only discuss one cause of Hitler's ideology in my book is obvious. My book is about evolutionary ethics. It is not an analysis of all the causes of Nazi ideology (and does not purport to be). When I began my research project on evolutionary ethics, I wasn't even intending to discuss Hitler or Nazism at all. Yes, I do focus on one cause of Hitler's ideology, but in the introduction I remind readers that there are many other causes. Thus, I don't see how my presentation distorts anything.

Most historians, however, use monocausal analysis to mean "the attribution of one cause to the existence of a phenomenon." For example, in an exchange in the New York Review of Books, Joseph Joffe (discussing Goldhagen's thesis) states: "Actually, there is nothing wrong per se about a monocausal theory; indeed, such constructs ("X is caused by A, and only by A") are the most elegant of formulations because you can't beat them for parsimony." If this is the meaning of monocausal analysis, then my book is clearly not a monocausal analysis. I specifically confront this issue in my book, stating: "The multivalence of Darwinism and eugenics ideology, especially when applied to ethical, political, and social thought, together with the multiple roots of Nazi ideology, should make us suspicious of monocausal arguments about the origins of the Nazi worldview." (p. 4) I further clarify: "I would also like to make clear from the outset that, while stressing intellectual history in this work, I recognize the influence of political, social, economic, and other factors in the development of ideologies in general and of Nazism in particular-but these topics are outside the scope of this study." (p. 5) In a class I teach at my university on the Nazi era, I discuss many factors shaping Nazi ideology: nationalism, the effects of World War I, economic problems, Christian antisemitism, etc. I do not believe that Nazism has one cause, and since in my book I overtly reject a monocausal explanation, it is bizarre to be accused of producing a monocausal analysis.

Secondly, Richards states: "Weikart, as well as Gasman, Gould, and many other historians have created an historical narrative implicitly following-they couldn't 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." In reality, as I explain in the preface to my book, I did not start with Hitler and trace his ideas backward. Rather, my research project was originally about evolutionary ethics, and Hitler was nowhere on my radar screen. After conducting some research and especially after reading James Rachels' book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, I decided to explore the impact of Darwinism on issues dealing with the value of human life. After discovering that quite a few Darwinists (especially eugenicists) promoted infanticide, euthanasia, and racial extermination, I decided to investigate Hitler's view of ethics and morality, because his views seemed so similar to those of many leading eugenicists (the geneticist Fritz Lenz himself called attention to the similarity of his and Hitler's views).

Richards implies that I make Darwin morally responsible for the Holocaust, but this also ignores many qualifications in my book. I state quite clearly in the introduction: "Obviously, Darwin was no Hitler. The contrast between the personal lives and dispositions of these two men could hardly be greater. Darwin eschewed politics, retreating to his country home in Down for solitude to conduct biological research and to write. Hitler as a demagogue lived and breathed politics, stirring the passions of crowds through frenzied speeches. Politically Darwin was a typical English liberal, supporting laissez-faire economics and opposing slavery. Like most of his contemporaries, Darwin considered non-European races inferior to Europeans, but he never embraced Aryan racism or rabid anti-Semitism, central features of Hitler's political philosophy." (p. 3) I think it's silly to claim that Darwin is personally responsible for the Holocaust, and I overtly reject this position in the conclusion of my book: "It would be foolish to blame Darwinism for the Holocaust, as though Darwinism leads logically to the Holocaust. No, Darwinism by itself did not produce Hitler's worldview, and many Darwinists drew quite different conclusions from Darwinism for ethics and social thought than did Hitler." (p. 232) My arguments are not as simplistic as Richards seems to think

Richards also accuses me of committing a sin of omission: "Weikart, for instance, indicts Darwin for acceding to belief in a racial hierarchy, but neglects to mention that Darwin did not think any action should be taken to reduce the welfare of those lower in the scale." I can only plead guilty here to this omission, but why is this such an issue? Has anyone ever accused Darwin of promoting racial extermination? If so, it wasn't me (however, though he did not promote it, in The Descent of Man he does discuss racial extermination at length, presenting it as an integral part of the evolutionary process). I even explained in my chapter on Darwinian militarism that Darwin was not a militarist (but Richards forgets to give me any credit for that!). I also stated in my book that Darwin was not an antisemite nor an Aryan racist. But, I guess that is not enough. Darwin's name will not be fully cleared until I state publicly: Darwin did not promote policies that would produce racial extermination. There, I said it. Did it demolish my argument? No, the only things tottering after this "admission" are caricatures of my argument.

Speaking of sins of omission, in his discussion of Haeckel's moral culpability in his lecture, Richards discusses only two issues: Haeckel's disputed embryo drawings and his racial views. In my book I do not even discuss the former, since it is not all that relevant to my topic. However, I do discuss another major issue that Richards fails to mention in his lecture: Haeckel's advocacy of infanticide and involuntary euthanasia for the disabled. In light of the Nazi T-4 "euthanasia" program, this would seem to have more relevance than the embryo drawings to Richards' lecture, which is, after all, subtitled, "Evolution and Nazi Biology." And in this case, Richards cannot excuse Haeckel from moral responsibility by saying that Haeckel was just embracing a position widespread in his society. In this case, Haeckel was blazing the path, not following the crowd. And the path did indeed eventually lead to Nazi atrocities.

A final note: My book is not just about Darwin and Haeckel, as one might mistakenly think from reading Richards' lecture. I discuss a wide range of thinkers applying Darwinism to ethics, including Bartholomaus von Carneri, Friedrich Hellwald, Wilhelm Schallmayer, Alfred Ploetz, August Forel, Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, Theodor Fritsch, and many others. My book--despite the title--is not the simplistic Darwin to Hitler story that Richards implies it is. Richards may not like the fact that many leading Darwinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries promoted infanticide, involuntary euthanasia, and racial extermination, but they did. Richards is certainly free to argue that these Darwinists were wrong to apply Darwinism in this way, but then he should be criticizing these Darwinists, not me.

Updated: July 14, 2023