Social Darwinism Is Alive and Well and Living at the Discovery Institute

I am as reluctant to review a book I have never read as to judge a book by its cover. Thus, this essay is not a review of a book but rather a review of its cover.

The book is From Darwin to Hitler, Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), by Richard Weikart, a Fellow with the Center for Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute. The Institute issued a press release taking credit for the book, so we may assume that they had a hand in the work (“New Book by Discovery Institute Fellow Shows Influence of Darwinian Principles on Hitler’s Nazi Regime,” Discovery Institute News, August 13, 2004,

According to the press release,

Weikart explains the revolutionary impact Darwinism had on ethics and morality. He demonstrates that many leading Darwinian biologists and social thinkers in Germany believed that Darwinism overturned traditional Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment ethics, especially those pertaining to the sacredness of human life. Many of these thinkers supported moral relativism, yet simultaneously exalted evolutionary “fitness” (especially in terms of intelligence and health) as the highest arbiter of morality. Weikart concludes that Darwinism played a key role not only in the rise of eugenics, but also in euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis.

In case you doubt that the Institute (if not Weikart) is blaming “Darwinism” for Hitler, Phillip Johnson, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, says on the book jacket,

The philosophy that fueled German militarism and Hitlerism is taught as fact in every American public school, with no disagreement allowed. Every parent ought to know this story, which Weikart persuasively explains.

Nancy Pearcey adds,

If you think moral issues like infanticide, assisted suicide, and tampering with human genes are new, read this book. It draws a clear and chilling picture of the way Darwinian naturalism led German thinkers to treat human life as raw materials to be manipulated in order to advance the course of evolution. The ethics of Hitler’s Germany were not reactionary; they were very much ‘cutting edge’ and in line with the scientific understanding of the day. Weikart’s implicit warning is that as long as the same assumption of Darwinian naturalism reigns in educated circles in our own day, it may well lead to similar practices.

and Francis Beckwith concludes,

Richard Weikart’s masterful work offers a compelling case that the eugenics movement, and all the political and social consequences that have flowed from it, would have been unlikely if not for the cultural elite’s enthusiastic embracing of the Darwinian account of life, morality, and social institutions. Professor Weikart reminds us, with careful scholarship and circumspect argument, that the truth uttered by Richard Weaver decades ago is indeed a fixed axiom of human institutions: “ideas have consequences.”

All three quotations are from the book jacket, according to the Web site,

You don’t have to read very far between the lines to recognize that “Darwinism” is being blamed for an array of social ills, culminating in Nazism. The “logic” is straightforward:

“Darwinism” led to eugenics and whatnot

Eugenics and whatnot led to Hitler

Therefore “Darwinism” is wrong or evil or whatever

These are educated people (if a bit black and white in their thinking). Have they never heard of the genetic fallacy? They are - explicitly - rejecting “Darwinism” because they do not like its consequences. Similar reasoning, including the -ism epithet, could be applied to any scientific theory:

Einsteinism [the theory of relativity] led to the atomic bomb and then to the hydrogen bomb

The atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb are evil

Therefore Einsteinism is wrong or evil or at fault

You don’t have to limit your “logic” to scientific theories:

Jesusism led to the Crusades

The Crusades were evil

Therefore Jesusism is wrong or evil or at fault

When they talk of “the Darwinian account of life, morality, and social institutions,” Drs. Johnson, Pearcey, and Beckwith are referring to a theory known as social Darwinism (even though its early proponent, Herbert Spencer, proposed a similar theory before the publication of The Origin of Species). Social Darwinism is the philosophy that the individuals or classes in a society are subject to natural selection, much as organisms in nature are subject to natural selection. Thus, it is seen as fitting for the weak to grow weaker and the strong to grow stronger; the population is thus improved overall. Social Darwinism was popular in the early 20th century, and I have no doubt that it influenced Nazism and a lot of other aberrations. That fact has absolutely nothing to do with “Darwinism,” as the Discovery Institute people call the theory of evolution. Darwin never made the mistake of assuming that the theory of evolution could be extended to social systems, and theories regarding different races (a term that subsumes what today we call ethnic or religious groups) predate Darwin by centuries.

Social Darwinism is thus a misnomer; it has nothing to do with Darwin. It was, however, used to provide intellectual support for laissez-faire capitalism. Economic stratification was considered “natural.” Thus, the state was prohibited from intervening and supporting the lower economic classes. Survival of the fittest, a term coined by Spencer, not Darwin, was ensured as the “unfit” poor received no quarter. Social Darwinism was also used to justify imperialism and racism. It was a self-serving theory that could easily be adopted by rich individuals and imperialist nations. It “justified” the inequality of the social system and, indeed, the position of the rich in society.

Who are the social Darwinists of today? The far right, as represented by the Discovery Institute. They disguise laissez-faire capitalism under the rubrics of the free market and deregulation. They oppose, to varying degrees, welfare, Social Security, universal health care or insurance, a sustainable minimum wage, affordable housing, low-cost college education, and any other program that will help poor people get ahead, not to mention government regulation of almost anything. The pretext for all those positions is letting the free market operate, just as the pretext for giving tax cuts primarily to the rich, not to the lower or middle class, is trickle-down economics. Pretexts aside, however, the far right practices social Darwinism in all but name; the poor and the lower middle class are expected to live within their dwindling incomes, even as the gap between rich and poor widens.

It is obscene for the social Darwinists at the Discovery Institute to argue against “Darwinism” on the grounds that it leads to social Darwinism.