This year being a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of his Origin of the Species, there has been much hagiography produced about Darwin. There is an effort to paint Darwin as a secular saint.
A brand new biography is willing to ask hard questions about his life and teachings. The Darwin Myth, by Benjamin Wiker, is a biographical sketch of Charles Darwin which examines both the man and his thinking, as well as his impact. In it Wiker examines a number of myths that have sprung up around Darwin.
Among the biggest of these myths is the view that Darwinism is the same as evolution, and that Darwin invented the concept of evolution. The truth is that the idea of evolution had been around for at least two generations prior to Charles Darwin, even in his own family. His grandfather Erasmus had propounded the idea, as had numerous other thinkers and scientists prior to Charles.
Darwin’s real originality, as Wiker reminds us, lay in deliberately setting out to create a godless version of evolution. Many of his close friends and allies – such as Gray, Lyell and Wallace — disagreed with Darwin about this. Indeed, they also offered many criticisms of the weight Darwin placed on natural selection, and noted other major problems with his version of events.
Wiker also highlights the major disconnect between Darwin and Darwinism. Darwin the man was kind, polite, humane, a great husband and father, and a gentleman. He was a philanthropist, and keenly supportive of the abolition of slavery movement. But his take on evolution ran directly counter to all of this, for it led of necessity to social Darwinism and the logic of the Nazis.
According to Wiker, social Darwinism is not the misapplication of Darwinism, “it is Darwinism”. While the first 85 pages of The Darwin Myth provide the biographical details, the last 85 pages make the case for this intrinsic connection between Darwinism and social Darwinism.
To make this case, Wiker reminds us that Darwin’s two most famous works are really one book in two volumes. His famous 1859 volume, The Origin of Species, which dealt with evolution as applied to plants and animals, was followed up by its 1871 sequel, The Descent of Man, which took evolutionary theory and applied it to humans. The two go together and should be read as such.
The end result is a worldview that totally contradicts Darwin as a person, including his passionate abolitionism. In his earlier book he had written about the “slave-making instinct” found in nature. He used the example of how little black ants were enslaved by big red ants. This was how nature – and evolution – worked. It was neither right nor wrong – it just was, as is everything in a purely naturalistic evolutionary account of things.
So, when he penned his next volume, he sought to show that mankind operates in the very same manner as the rest of the biological world. Man is merely an animal, and he too proceeds by principles of natural selection just as other animals do.
Morality itself is simply a product of evolution. Morality thus becomes whatever helps one tribe or race to survive over against another tribe or race. Therefore that which is “good” is whatever helps a particular race or people to survive. If survival is the ultimate “goal” of evolutionary processes, then the stronger species will win out and rule over the weaker, and that is just the way it goes.
But how could an abolitionist like Darwin promote a view which seems to provide a fixed biological rationale for slavery?
It meant that he had to step back from the obvious implications of his own theory. Thus, he introduced the idea that “sympathy” is an evolved trait. But this will just not do. Sympathy for the weak, sickly and intellectually inferior “is not just one more ‘moral’ trait,” says Wiker. “It is a trait that goes directly against the principle of natural selection.”
If the ruthless struggle to survive is where evolution has taken us, then humans, as well as animals, must simply submit to how nature has programmed us: “If Darwin’s theory were true, then human slavery was no less natural than ant slavery and hardly a matter for moral disapproval.”
More consistent evolutionists like Huxley were happy to run with the logical implications of all this. Indeed, the whole eugenics movement, culminating in the horrific Nazi programs, was to find full justification in Darwin’s thinking.
The eugenicists were quite happy to latch on to Darwin’s ideas to provide the scientific underpinning for their nefarious schemes. His own son George became a leading eugenicist, and leagues of his followers were happy to take his ideas to their bitter – yet logical – end. Nietzsche, Marx and Stalin all warmly welcomed Darwin’s ideas, and happily made use of them. Indeed, hundreds of scientists, doctors, intellectuals and political leaders embraced the obvious implications of Darwinism.
It is no objection that Darwin himself would have been appalled at how his ideas were used, especially by the Nazis. The truth is that his whole position provided the rationale and justification for what these social Darwinists were doing. Indeed, says Wiker, “by Darwin’s own principles, Darwin’s own ‘morality’ is no more than the shape of his nose or the colour of his skin”.
The entire framework of Darwin’s theory leads inevitably to the gas chambers and the concentration camps. The biologically inferior had to be exterminated in order for humanity to survive and flourish. “If one society crushes another, that is not wrong. That is not even a shame. That is natural selection at work.”
Certainly, there were “social Darwinists” before Darwin, but Darwinism provided the scientific grounds for, and vindication of, their position. It is as logical as it is scientific, if Darwin’s views are correct. If human evolution is to advance, it must go through the same process as in the rest of the biological world: the “favoured races” must exterminate the “less favoured races” to use Darwin’s own terms.
That is why Rudolf Hess could state with confidence, “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology”. That is why Hitler could boldly proclaim that the “highest aim of human existence is the conservation of race”. This comes straight out of Darwinian thinking.
As this important volume demonstrates, ideas have consequences. Or in this case, bad ideas have bad consequences. It is to be hoped that with all the hoopla surrounding Darwin this year, this book will get a wide reading. It might just take a bit of the edge off the celebrations.
Bill Muehlenberg is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at several Melbourne theological colleges and a PhD candidate at Deakin University.