Richard Weikart has provided bioethicists with an excellent resource in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). He summarizes the writings of many prominent German scientists, philosophers, and popularizers who wrote during the period between Darwin and Hitler. His book demonstrates a thorough understanding of the primary sources and clearly presents their perspectives on ethics, on human worth and the notion of those unfit to survive, and on the legitimacy of eliminating the unfit and inferior.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species set off a chain reaction that impacted just about every field of study. Although Darwin himself initially tried to avoid dealing with the human implications of evolution, he stated in his Autobiography that someone, like himself, who doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife, “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 one” (quoted on p. 21).
A number of German thinkers, in particular Ernst Haeckel, were to seize on this idea and use it to develop an ethic they believed was based on science. This view was monistic, deterministic, and relativistic. Weikart shows how underlying many of these thinkers was a determination to reject the two dominant ethical systems of that time: Christianity and Kantian ethics. Foremost amongst the problems these thinkers had with Christianity was its claim to moral absolutes and its concern for the weak and vulnerable.
Their problem with the latter was how it contradicted the one moral absolute of social Darwinism. In spite of their adherence to relativism, Weikart demonstrates from the primary sources that evolutionary progress was the goal by which morality was to be evaluated. Decisions and policies that promoted survival of the fittest were thereby viewed as ethical. It was thus a relatively small move to promote the elimination of the ‘unfit.’
Weikart traces the development of these ideas over several decades until they impact the thinking of Adolf Hitler. He acknowledges the difficulty of specifically identifying the ideas that contributed to Hitler’s final ideology. However, a very discomforting conclusion of this development, is how it shows that Hitler’s conclusions were not primarily those of a madman. Rather, “they were mainstream ideas of respectable, leading thinkers in the German academic community” (p. 225).
This is what makes Weikart’s book an important contribution to bioethics. Many of the same beliefs of social Darwinism at the beginning of the twentieth century are once again being promoted today: that certain lives are not worth living, that human life needs to be unsanctified, that ethics is relative, and that science has all the answers. The same academic groundwork is being laid to justify technological developments like embryo grading, infanticide, and euthanasia. Those opposed to these developments can learn much from how the Nazi policies came to be proposed, accepted, and implemented. Richard Weikart has made the historical documents accessible in an engaging format. History shows how important it is for us to combat the current, similar trends.
D?al P. O’Math?a, Ph.D. is lecturer in Ethics at the Dublin City University, Ireland
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