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 ofmany prominent German scientists, philosophers, and popularizers whowrote during the period between Darwin and Hitler. His bookdemonstrates a thorough understanding of the primary sources andclearly presents their perspectives on ethics, on human worth and thenotion of those unfit to survive, and on the legitimacy of eliminatingthe unfit and inferior.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species set off a chain reaction thatimpacted just about every field of study. Although Darwin himselfinitially tried to avoid dealing with the human implications ofevolution, he stated in his Autobiography that someone, like himself,who doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife, “can have for his rule oflife, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instinctswhich are the strongest or which seem to him the best one” (quoted onp. 21).
A number of German thinkers, in particular Ernst Haeckel, were to seizeon this idea and use it to develop an ethic they believed was based onscience. This view was monistic, deterministic, and relativistic.Weikart shows how underlying many of these thinkers was a determinationto reject the two dominant ethical systems of that time: Christianityand Kantian ethics. Foremost amongst the problems these thinkers hadwith Christianity was its claim to moral absolutes and its concern forthe weak and vulnerable.
Their problem with the latter was how it contradicted the one moralabsolute of social Darwinism. In spite of their adherence torelativism, Weikart demonstrates from the primary sources thatevolutionary progress was the goal by which morality was to beevaluated. Decisions and policies that promoted survival of the fittestwere thereby viewed as ethical. It was thus a relatively small move topromote the elimination of the ‘unfit.’
Weikart traces the development of these ideas over several decadesuntil they impact the thinking of Adolf Hitler. He acknowledges thedifficulty of specifically identifying the ideas that contributed toHitler’s final ideology. However, a very discomforting conclusion ofthis development, is how it shows that Hitler’s conclusions were notprimarily those of a madman. Rather, “they were mainstream ideas ofrespectable, leading thinkers in the German academic community” (p.225).
This is what makes Weikart’s book an important contribution tobioethics. Many of the same beliefs of social Darwinism at thebeginning of the twentieth century are once again being promoted today:that certain lives are not worth living, that human life needs to beunsanctified, that ethics is relative, and that science has all theanswers. The same academic groundwork is being laid to justifytechnological developments like embryo grading, infanticide, andeuthanasia. Those opposed to these developments can learn much from howthe Nazi policies came to be proposed, accepted, and implemented.Richard Weikart has made the historical documents accessible in anengaging format. History shows how important it is for us to combat thecurrent, similar trends.
Dónal P. O’Mathúna, Ph.D. is lecturer in Ethics at the Dublin City University, Ireland,
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