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Darwinism and Death: Devaluing Human Life in Germany 1859-1920

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 63, Number 2, April 2002
pp. 323-344 | 10.1353/jhi.2002.0019

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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 323-344

The debate over the significance of Social Darwinism in Germany has special importance, because it serves as background to discussions of Hitler's ideology and of the roots of German imperialism and World War I. There is no doubt that Hitler was a Social Darwinist, viewing history as a struggle for existence among unequal races. All Hitler scholars agree on this point, and it is too obvious to deny when one reads Mein Kampf. Whether Social Darwinism contributed to imperialism and militarism is less clear, though some have argued it did, at least as a justification for them. Some Anglo-American writers during and immediately after World War I blamed Social Darwinism for inflaming German militarism.

This discussion over both Social Darwinism in general and its German form in particular has reached something of an impasse lately. While some scholars insist that Darwinism contributed to or at least reinforced a competitive ethos in European political and social thought, others have stressed the varieties of Social Darwinism. The latter remind us that, although some Darwinian social thinkers stressed competition, socialists were also avid Darwinists and saw it as support for their vision of a more cooperative socialist society. Some scholars focus so much on the cooperative and peaceful thrust of Darwinian thinkers that one might think that Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid had carried the day in the late nineteenth century. For example, Paul Crook argues that Darwinism produced pacifist inclinations more than it did militarism.

Another important debate in Darwin scholarship concerns the compatibility or incompatibility of Darwinism with other world views, especially traditional religion. The warfare thesis, which sees religion and science in perpetual conflict (often with science heroically winning the battle), has largely been abandoned by historians of science, who now see greater complexity in the interactions of science and religion. Reacting against the warfare thesis, some have emphasized accommodation, showing how science and religion often work in harmony. As applied to Darwinism the accommodationist view stresses the receptivity of many Christians, including prominent evangelical pastors and theologians, to evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century. While the warfare thesis was clearly a crude caricature, an overemphasis on accommo-dationism can render the intensely emotional debates over Darwinism in the nineteenth century unintelligible and ignores the polemical uses of Darwinism by materialists and positivists in their fight against religion.

This essay will attempt to make a contribution to both these debates by focusing on aspects of Darwinism that have been insufficiently explored to date—not the issues of competition vs. cooperation or capitalism vs. socialism or explicitly on religion, as is usual in the discussion over warfare or accommodation, but how Darwinism impacted thinking about the value of human life and the significance of human death. Indeed Darwinism, in harmony with the growth of materialism and positivism, helped alter many people's views on matters of life and death. Many prominent German Darwinists urged their society to reevaluate its stance on what today is known as biomedical ethics—infanticide, euthanasia, suicide, abortion, etc. By focusing on these issues, we will see that leading Darwinists invoked Darwinian science to undermine traditional Judeo-Christian ethical values; this went far beyond merely dismissing the Genesis creation story or even rejecting the supernatural.

The scientists and physicians most important in embracing, developing, and popularizing Darwinism in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany vigorously argued that Darwinism did have important implications for religion, ethics, and social thought. Darwinism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced a significant shift in the world views of many who embraced it, and leading Darwinists insisted that their newly-found world view undermined traditional ways of thinking, including traditional ideas about religion and ethics. Ernst Haeckel, the most famous German Darwinist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, believed the most important aspect of Darwinism was the animal ancestry of humans, which would "bring forth a complete revolution in the entire world view of humanity." The physician Ludwig Büchner, one of the most important popularizers of Darwinian theory in late nineteenth-century Germany, agreed. To Hermann Schaafhausen, the anthropologist who had discovered the Neanderthal...

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