My Chicago colleague Robert Richards, a historian of science, has just come out with a new anthology of his essays on evolutionary biology: Was Hitler a Darwinian? Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory. So far I’ve read only two essays (the two mentioned below), but those are both very good, and on that basis, and looking through the rest of the chapters, I can recommend it highly for anyone with an interest in the history of evolutionary biology—particularly if you want some ammunition against creationists.
The book is available at Amazon for about $22 in paperback and from the University of Chicago Press for $27.50 (the hardback sold by the U of C press costs an unconscionable $82.50: you’re paying $55 more for the binding! That is greedy!)
I wrote Bob and asked him to give me a few words on the book for my readers; et voilà:
The book is a collection of essays on various questions about 19th century evolutionary theory. One of the brief essays is the one you helped me with on Haeckel. The others deal with questions like, What did Darwin mean by the principle of divergence and why it he arrive at it very late in the construction of his theory? (“Darwin’s Principle of Divergence: Why Fodor was Almost Right”). The lead essay, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?”, was directed to the charge that Darwinian theory is responsible for Hitler’s biological racism and thus, ultimately, for the Holocaust. Even if true, of course, it has no bearing on the validity of evolutionary theory, though that argument is often made (even by the friends of evolution). But I thought it interesting to try to determine the sources of his racial views, and the position of the Nazi party. I trace most of his biological attitudes (hardly theories) to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an avowed anti-Darwinian. Insofar as one can make out an official stand of the Nazi party on evolutionary theory, it was quite negative, frequently characterized as Jewish materialism! I do take some delight in bashing the
likes of Richard Weikart and Daniel Gasman along the way.
Here’s the cover:
And the table of contents:
Two of the essays will be of special interest to those of you who go after creationism, as they dispel two recurrent but erroneous claims made by creationists of all types.
1. Did Haeckel commit fraud? It’s a staple in the creationist literature that German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in comparing the embryonic stages of various vertebrates, “fudged” his drawings to make them look more similar in early stages than they really were. This supposed duplicity has been trumpeted by creationists, for the similarity of early vertebrate embryos and their later divergence (which, by the way, is real) constitutes good evidence for common ancestry of vertebrates. But In a 2009 paper in Biology and Philosophy (reprinted as Chapter 7 of this book), and in a book on Haeckel published the same year (references below), Richards showed pretty convincingly that this was an error on Haeckel’s part: he used the same woodcut three times to represent the early embryos of a dog, chicken and turtle. When this was pointed out, he immediately corrected the figure. The fact is that early embryos of these species are indeed very similar, and their supposed differences (highlighted in a later paper by Michael Richardson et al. in Anatomy and Embryology; reference below), is due almost entirely to the difference in the appearance of the yolks sacs in different species. When those sacs are removed, the early embryos are strikingly similar. (Richards shows some before-and-after photos.)
2. Was Hitler a Darwinian? The last chapter, newly written for this anthology, is meticulously researched and clearly written, and makes an unassailable case that the answer to Richards’ question is a resounding “Hell, no!” Not only did Hitler and his minions reject evolutionary biology, but, as Bob says above, drew their specious racial theories from other sources who themselves rejected Darwin. In fifty pages, Richards takes up claim after claim of creationists and historians of science and, going back to the primary sources (including, of course, Mein Kampf), shows that the influence of Darwin on Nazism and Nazi eugenics was nil. I’ll quote briefly from pp. 196-197 of the book:
The strategy of those attempting to show a causal link between Darwin’s theory and Hitlerian ideas about race runs, I believe, like this: the causal relation of influence proceeding from Darwin to future Nazi malevolence justifies regressive epistemic and moral judgments running from the future back to the past, thus indicting Darwin and individuals like Haeckel with moral responsibility for the crimes of Hitler and his minions and thereby undermining evolutionary theory. Now the validity of this kind of moral logic might be dealt with straightaway: even if Hitler had The Origin of Species as his bedtime reading and clearly derived inspiration from it, this would have no bearing on the truth of Darwin’s theory or directly on the moral character of Darwin and other Darwinians. Mendelian genetics became ubiquitous as a scientific foundation for Nazi eugenic policy (and American eugenic proposals as well), though none of the critics question the basic validity of that genetic theory or impugns Mendel’s moral integrity. Presumably Hitler and other party officials recognized chemistry as a science and utilized its principles to exterminate efficiently millions of people. But this hardly precludes the truth of chemical theory or morally taints all chemists. It can only be rampant ideological confusion to maintain that the alleged connection between Hitler’s ideas and those of Darwin and Haeckel, ipso facto, nullifies the truth of evolutionary theory or renders these evolutionists, both long dead before the rise of the Nazis, morally responsible for the Holocaust.
This is an important essay in an enlightening book. I only wish those creationists who link Darwin and Hitler would read it. They won’t, of course, which is why you should.
Richards, R. J. 2009. Haeckel’s embryos: Fraud not proven. Biology and Philosophy 24:147-154.
Richards, R. J. 2009. The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Richardson, M. K., J. Hanken, M. L. Gooneratne, C. Pieau, A. Raynaud, L. Selwood, and G. M. Wright. 1997. There is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates: implications for current theories of evolution and development. Anat Embryol (Berl) 196:91-106.