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Was Hitler a Darwinian?

Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory

Was Hitler a Darwinian?

Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory

In tracing the history of Darwin’s accomplishment and the trajectory of evolutionary theory during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most scholars agree that Darwin introduced blind mechanism into biology, thus banishing moral values from the understanding of nature. According to the standard interpretation, the principle of survival of the fittest has rendered human behavior, including moral behavior, ultimately selfish. Few doubt that Darwinian theory, especially as construed by the master’s German disciple, Ernst Haeckel, inspired Hitler and led to Nazi atrocities.
In this collection of essays, Robert J. Richards argues that this orthodox view is wrongheaded. A close historical examination reveals that Darwin, in more traditional fashion, constructed nature with a moral spine and provided it with a goal: man as a moral creature. The book takes up many other topics—including the character of Darwin’s chief principles of natural selection and divergence, his dispute with Alfred Russel Wallace over man’s big brain, the role of language in human development, his relationship to Herbert Spencer, how much his views had in common with Haeckel’s, and the general problem of progress in evolution. Moreover, Richards takes a forceful stand on the timely issue of whether Darwin is to blame for Hitler’s atrocities. Was Hitler a Darwinian? is intellectual history at its boldest.

280 pages | 5 color plates, 33 halftones, 7 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology, Natural History

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Philosophy of Science


“Scholarly and wide-ranging.”

Yvonne Sherratt, University of Bristol | Times Higher Education Supplement

“An illuminating look at what makes Darwinian theory so slippery, and so magnetic, even to those of us outside the sciences.”

Michael Schulson | Religion & Politics

"Richards considers Darwin’s theory of natural selection in relation to moral purpose and moves from there to Darwin’s principle of divergence and the crucial problem of transmutation of species. Subsequent chapters provide a thoughtful, fresh review of Haeckel’s alleged fraud with regard to vertebrate embryos and developmental stages. Herbert Spencer’s notion of social Darwinism and the cogent arguments from earlier chapters are brought to bear on the question that occupies the latter part of the book: addressing whether or not Hitler was inspired by Darwinian doctrine to justify his view of race and the preservation of Aryan character. The author brings compelling logic and considerable insight to this question as well as knowledge about who did influence Hitler’s thinking. . . . Recommended."


“These essays display the impressive range of Robert J. Richards’s abilities as an intellectual historian and historian of science, as they explore the disparate sources of Darwinian thought in romanticism, theology, ethics, aesthetics, and linguistics. They dispel the notion that Darwin saw the world as purposeless, amoral, and red in tooth and claw, and they bring out the complexity and nuance of Darwin’s accounts of the origins of mind, morals, language, emotions, and humanity. It becomes clear, even before we get to the title essay, that Darwin was an unlikely fountainhead for Nazi ideology, and, for that matter, a poor figurehead for other -isms sometimes connected to him, from social Darwinism, to neo-Darwinism, to atheism and materialism. Richards also gives us an unusually sympathetic treatment of Ernst Haeckel, defends him against oft-repeated accusations of fraud, and reveals a strong affinity between his Darwinism and Darwin’s own.”

Sander Gliboff, Indiana University

“This collection of essays by Robert J. Richards, today’s preeminent historian of evolutionary theory, shows the scholarship and intellectual daring we have come to expect from this author. Knowledgeable and sympathetic toward Charles Darwin, Richards also shows great empathy for Darwin’s contemporaries, from supporters like Ernst Haeckel to rivals like Richard Owen and Herbert Spencer. Witty and engaging on the surface, Richards’s authoritative dismissal of the hypothesis that the roots of Nazi thinking are to be found in the fertile soil of the Origin of Species proves that the volume is held together by a deep moral seriousness and the conviction that the past really matters to the present.”

Michael Ruse, author of The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw

Table of Contents

1 • Introduction
2 • Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection and Its Moral Purpose
Appendix 1 The Logic of Darwin’s Long Argument
Appendix 2 The Historical Ontology and Location of Scientific Theories
3 • Darwin’s Principle of Divergence: Why Fodor Was Almost Right
4 • Darwin’s Romantic Quest: Mind, Morals, and Emotions
Appendix Assessment of Darwin’s Moral Theory
5 • The Relation of Spencer’s Evolutionary Theory to Darwin’s
6 • Ernst Haeckel’s Scientific and Artistic Struggles
7 • Haeckel’s Embryos: Fraud Not Proven
8 • The Linguistic Creation of Man: August Schleicher and the Missing Link in Darwinian Theory
9 • Was Hitler a Darwinian?

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