Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was never just about biology. Nor were its consequences just about religion. Rather, the origins and effects of Darwinism were largely cultural and moral.
Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, which was at the height of the Industrial Revolution and the Capitalist Revolution. The dynamic free market economy, characterized by intense competition in which weak companies went broke and the strong companies thrived, had brought unparalleled economic and technological progress. It was a small step to speculate that animal species compete and progress in a similar way. What Darwin did was to apply the principles of free market capitalism to biology.
Immediately after Darwin’s theories were published, people were relating his biological theories back to economics and, more importantly, to ethics. Herbert Spencer, the great popularizer of Darwinism, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” applying it not only to animals but to human society.
In the very works in which he explained Darwin’s scientific theories to the world, Spencer formulated what would be called “Social Darwinism.” To achieve social progress, according to Spencer, the fittest must survive and the unfit must die out. Efforts to help the “unfit” — charity for the poor, mental hospitals, government programs for the disadvantaged — actually interfere with social evolution and should be stopped. Meanwhile, unfettered economic and social competition will favor the “fittest,” who will usher in the next stage of human evolution.
At the same time, Darwin’s own cousin, Francis Galton, was arguing that natural selection had to do with who was able to reproduce. The “unfit,” he said, should not be allowed to breed. Only the “fittest” should be allowed to have children. Furthermore, it should be possible to breed these fit human beings for desirable traits, just as we breed domesticated animals. By sterilizing the unfit and selectively breeding the fittest, we can usher in the next stage of human evolution. Darwin’s cousin was the founder of the eugenics movement.
Friedrich Nietzsche took Darwinist moral ideas even further. Whereas Marx believed that Christianity was a way for the strong to keep the weak under control (the “opiate of the masses”) Nietzsche believed the opposite — that Christianity with its teachings of love and compassion enabled the weak to control the strong. Christianity made the strong feel guilty and manipulated them into supporting those who would otherwise die out. As Nietzsche writes in The Twilight of the Gods, Christianity upheld “the poor and base,” representing “the general revolt of all the downtrodden, the wretched, the failures, the less favored.”
Now that “God is dead,” Nietzsche said, mankind can evolve into the “Superman.” His virtue will not be compassion but cruelty. “It is not sufficient for him to be capable of cruelty merely at the sight of much suffering, perishing, and destruction: such a man must be capable of himself creating pain and suffering and experience pleasure in so doing, he must be cruel in hand and deed (and not merely with the eyes of the spirit).”
Whereas the Social Darwinism of Spencer, Galton, and Nietzsche applied mainly to individuals, other thinkers, noting that Darwin was talking about species and not just individual animals, applied natural selection to various kinds of human groups. Marxists believed social evolution would emerge from the conflict between economic classes. A new movement of nationalist scholars focused on the conflict between nations. The new “race scientists,” claiming to be more Darwinian by concentrating on biology, focused on the conflict between races.
In our own time, Margaret Sanger combined eugenics with racism, seeking birth control and sterilization for “inferior races,” becoming the founder of Planned Parenthood. Ayn Rand, the libertarian guru, embraced Spencer’s socio-economic program along with Nietzsche’s critique of Christian compassion with her “virtue of selfishness.”
But the most thoroughgoing Social Darwinist of all was Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi party carried racial theory, nationalism, eugenics, and Nietzsche to their logical conclusion and put them into practice.
As I document in my book Modern Fascism, the Nazi regime practiced both “positive eugenics” (breeding for positive characteristics) and “negative eugenics” (eliminating undesirables from the gene pool). In the former, couples with positive “Aryan” racial characteristics were mated outside of marriage. In the latter, a third of a million of the “unfit” were sterilized.
And then began the euthanasia program. In the so-called T4 program, disabled children, the mentally ill, the incurably sick, and the residents of nursing homes were euthanized. Portable gas chambers were engineered for the project. Larger models were installed in the concentration camps. At first, only prisoners who were “unfit” to work went into the gas chambers. Then the gas chambers were used on a larger scale to eliminate an entire “inferior” race.
All of this was for the Darwinist purpose of ushering in the next stage of human evolution.
Dr. Gene Edward Veith is academic dean of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, and author of God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.
The aim of Truth and Consequences is to help readers understand the broader cultural and historical implications of every theme Tabletalk magazine chooses to cover. Noted commentator Dr. Gene Edward Veith lends his talents to this column each month.