77 years ago (on July 14, 1933) a sterilization law was passed in Nazi Germany, known as Gesetz zur Verhutung erbkranken Nachwuchses (Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring). Any German was a target if they were found to be suffering from a range of perceived hereditary ailments, such as congenital mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic-depressive insanity, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, blindness, deafness, any severe hereditary deformity, or even alcoholism. The law ultimately led to an estimated 400,000 people being involuntarily sterilized in pursuit of this national goal of "racial hygiene," to eliminate handicapped descendants.
Creationists are fond of laying the blame for Nazi eugenics on Charles Darwin. They insist that his materialist argument that humans evolved from animals and his conception of natural selection inspired the Nazis to implement a widespread policy of artificial selection within the Fatherland. However, these claims are as baseless as was the so-called "science" that the Nazis employed.
The latest example of this ignorance disguised as revelation was recently published on The Huffington Post by a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, David Klinghoffer. The Discovery Institute is a self-avowed propaganda vehicle whose stated goal is to "teach the controversy" of intelligent design creationism. This approach was determined to be "a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory" in US federal court despite the Discovery Institute's strong advocacy. Even the Templeton Foundation, the largest proponent seeking a connection between religion and science, has disavowed intelligent design as little more than "a political movement."
In his post, Klinghoffer claims the following:
Darwin elaborated a picture of how the world works, how creatures war with each other for survival thus selecting out the fittest specimens and advancing the species. In this portrait of animal life, man is no exception. Any animal that strives to preserve the weak, as man does, is committing racial suicide. "Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind," Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, a policy "highly injurious to the race of man."
Hitler did nothing more than translate the competition of species into obsessively racial terms.
This is not the first time creationists have attempted this line of attack. Another Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, William Dembski, claimed in 2008:
The Nazi emphasis on proper breeding, racial purity, and weeding out defectives come from taking Darwin's theory seriously and applying it at the level of society. Yes, Darwin himself did not take these such steps, but Galton and Haeckel, his contemporaries, saw where this was going and did.
Jonathan Wells, devotee of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon, writes:
Darwinism's connection with eugenics, abortion and racism is a matter of historical record. And the record is not pretty.
Islamic creationist Harun Yahya similarly insists:
The eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilization, concentration camps, racial purity and gas chambers of the mid-20th century emerged as a result of the Darwin-Haeckel-Hitler coalition, representing the worst and most ruthless cruelty in the history of humanity.
Taken together this would be a damning indictment, if there were actually any truth to their claims. The main connections that all these authors make between Darwinism and eugenics is that Francis Galton, an early proponent of eugenics, was Darwin's cousin and that Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist who championed evolution and maintained a long correspondence with the English naturalist, was a primary source for Nazi eugenic policies.
The strength of their arguments quickly fall apart, however, once they are given a few moments thought. The Galton connection is quite obviously baseless, for surely no one can be held responsible for something their cousin promotes (especially since Galton didn't even invent the term eugenics until a year after Darwin's death and Darwin specifically condemned any policy that would "neglect the weak and helpless"). Furthermore, not that it matters, but Galton was merely Darwin's half-cousin since they shared the same grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, but had different grandmothers.
The second claim, about Haeckel's foundation for Nazi race biology, is simply wrong. According to University of Chicago historian Robert J. Richards, in a recent anthology:
This charge, which attempts to link Haekel's convictions with the Nazi's particular brand of racism, suffers from the inconvenience of having absolutely no foundation.
This idea was initially drawn from Daniel Gasman whose 1971 book Scientific Origins of National Socialism placed Haeckel at the center of the philosophical foundation of Nazi ideology. Richards has excoriated this research (see, for example, his paper Ernst Haeckel's Alleged Anti-Semitism and Contributions to Nazi Biology, pdf here, in the journal Biological Theory). In his research Richards has demonstrated that Haeckel was not a proponent of a pre-Nazi racist biology and, even if he had been, the Nazi's rejected his work totally.
The reality is that, while one German academic named Heinz Brucher did argue that Haeckel's Darwinism meshed with Hitler's racial attitudes, this view was immediately quashed by the guardians of party doctrine. Gunther Hecht, official representative for the National Socialist Party's Department of Race-Politics (Rassenpolitischen Amt der NSDAP), insisted in the Reich's official scientific journal:
The party and its representatives must not only reject a part of the Haeckelian conception--other parts of it have occasionally been advanced--but, more generally, every internal party dispute that involves the particulars of research and the teachings of Haeckel must cease.
The reason for this rejection may have been the fact that Haeckel stood out among his contemporaries for his expression of Judenfreundschaft (friendliness toward Jews) or because of his criticisms of the military during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. A more important reason is probably the fact that Nazi racial views had no connection with specific evolutionary concepts like transmutation of species or the animal origins of human beings. As Richards concludes:
The perceived materialism of Darwinian biology and Haeckelian monism deterred those who cultivated the mystical ideal of a transcendence of will. Pseudoscientific justifications for racism would be ubiquitous in the early twentieth century, and Hitler's own mad anti-Semitism hardly needed support from evolutionary theorists of the previous century.
There was no connection between Darwin and Hitler, even when attempting to make the link indirectly. As for American eugenics, I would encourage Klinghoffer to peruse Christine Rosen's book Preaching Eugenics, in which she points out that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries "the Bible became the most popular cultural reference point" for promoting the eugenics movement. But I suspect that this history doesn't fit with the Discovery Institute's political agenda.
The Nazi policies enacted three-quarters of a century ago this month were certainly bad enough, we don't need to spread the blame onto those who had no connection with them. Creationists do a poor service to the memory of Holocaust victims by using their deaths in a politically motivated attack against science. David Klinghoffer, his fellow creationists, and those who give them a platform should be ashamed of themselves for pushing and allowing a tactic rejected by a US federal court judge as "breathtaking inanity" should be strongly criticized.
This article has been adapted from an earlier piece published at The Primate Diaries.