Robert Richards’ new collection of essays on the history of evolutionary biology, including “Was Hitler a Darwinian?”

October 27, 2013 • 12:09 pm

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:

Picture 5

And the table of contents:

Picture 6

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.

43 thoughts on “Robert Richards’ new collection of essays on the history of evolutionary biology, including “Was Hitler a Darwinian?”

  1. 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!”

    Granted, my German is a bit weak, but shouldn’t that be, “Heil, nine!”?

    Reminds me…what comes between fear and sex in Germany? Funf!

    …I did mention the lobster, didn’t I…?


    1. A variation of this joke, which should be spoken rather than written, is:

      A hotel guest answers the clerk,’9, W’; what was the question?

      “Do you spell Wagner with a ‘V’?”

  2. I’m more interested in “Darwin’s Principle of Divergence: Why Fodor was Almost Right”. Can you elaborate?

    1. Haven’t read that one yet but the title is certainly provocative. Just skimming it, I think Bob is discussing just the principle of divergence, and excoriates Fodor for his stupid claims about the nonexistence or incoherence of natural selection. I’ll read it in the next few days.

      1. He actually does say that Fodor was (accidentally) right (sort of). His central thesis is that Darwin attributed (real, non-metaphorical) volition to natural selection, though modern biologists, contra Fodor, don’t. I wouldn’t say that me makes a great case. But it’s interesting.

  3. Thanks for announcing and describing this book, including the exchange you had with the author. What an historian of science. I’m in awe of his research skills, analytic and synthetic. I’ve never been disappointed in anything I’ve read by Robert Richards. Just glad to be alive during the same time he has been writing. I look forward to reading and using this book.

  4. Wow!! I’m pretty familiar with modern European intellectual history, but I did not have the faintest idea that racialist Houston Chamberlain was also a strong anti-Darwinian!!! (Apparently HSC had a degree in botany, with a thesis arguing against mechanism to explain the flow of fluids in plants, saying it could only be accounted for by a “vital force”).

    Perhaps then Hannah Arendt’s impression of even a marginal second-hand Darwinian influence on the Nazis needs a correction re my earlier post/comment today on this site (under the Texas textbook article).

    This is now a must-read-soon for me, first book recommended by JC in the 16 months I’ve been following this site that I definitely have to get soon.

    Thanks, Jerry.

      1. Coel:

        In my modest collection of links refuting the Darwin-Hitler connection (which really should be Luther-Hitler), yours I have tagged as “ultimate response to Darwin-Hitler link”! You are “da man”.

        For anyone who is interested, here are some other useful links I’ve collected; the Sensuous Curmudgeon, in particular, has responded to the Dishonesty Institute’s repeated bleating of Darwin -> Hitler on numerous occasions. I hope I don’t overstep some limit on the number of links in a post. (this gives links to his other posts on the subject) (quotes from Mein Kampf (another superb post from Coel!) (This is a pdf and is probably similar to or the same as Richards’ essay in his book)

        What is, (I think) important to remember is that in this case the facts (almost) do not matter; the “Darwin led to Hitler” mantra is repeated so often by the Weikarts, David Bartons, and preacher of the world that the average (by which, of course, I mean “accepting of whatever he hears in church and on Fox News, and unable to think for himself”) christian now takes it as an article of faith.

  5. Book added to the big list. Wow, those fellows on the cover sure look unhappy. Totalitarianism whether political or religious always leaves people bereft of humour. :\

    1. It appears that men (boys?) nearer to the camera are either smiling or making an attempt to be perceived as smiling while the one farther are definitely Not Smiling.

      1. …ones farther away …

        Yeah. Standing around in large groups in close proximity under coercion is pretty much my definition of not being in a good mood.

  6. It seems to me Hitler’s biological racism would be a bad fit to evolution, because maintaining that humans share a common root would beg the question why nazis sorted races.

    A much better fit would be the religious myth of separate creation of species.

    Houston Stewart Chamberlain

    And what do you know, Chamberlain’s ideas traces back to Gobineau [Wikipedia], which in turn took the christianist texts as “a true telling of human history” and equivocates on the separation!

    “Gobineau took the Bible to be a true telling of human history and accepted in An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races the day’s prevailing Christian doctrine that all human beings shared the common ancestors Adam and Eve (monogenism as opposed to polygenism).
    Nonetheless, he suggested that but for the Church’s teaching there was nothing else to suggest that the coloured races were foreborn, like the white race, from Adam,[9][10] since “… nothing proves that at the first redaction of the Adamite genealogies the colored races were considered as forming part of the species”.[8]”

    [ ]

    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.

    After assimilating as much of biology as I could (and probably misunderstanding most of it), I wondered why people attempted to draw a line between evolution and eugenics as opposed to say earlier artificial selection (husbandry, farming). Culling variation unnecessarily may minimize pain, but it shouldn’t make a species more adaptable.

    A connection with genetics sans evolution I may well understand.

    1. Re Gobineau, what I can see he uses the myth of separate creation of species as an alternative to the specific race creation myth.

    2. Minor nitpick entirely ignoring the substance a typically excellent post, offered for a non-native English writer who writes English better than the overwhelming majority of Americans: the proper idiom, despite popular misuse, is to “raise the question,” not to beg it. “Begging the question” is the term used for the logical fallacy of assuming your conclusion.

      We now return you to your regularly-scheduled insightful commentary, already in progress….



      1. It scares me that I was beginning to compose this reply in my head while scanning the rest of the comments…and then there’s my reply, already written for me by Ben. Am I starting to think like Ben Goren, or have I always thought like Ben Goren? Not sure which I’d be more comfortable with.

            1. I’m thinking of pie. Pumpkin, in fact, from a pumpkin out of my parents’s garden, and with eggs from their hens. It’s what’s for brunch in a bit….


    3. If you read German, this recent doctoral thesis from TU Berlin might interest you:
      Margrit Bensch, Rassismus als kulturelle Entwicklungstheorie. Formen biologischen Denkens im Sozialdarwinismus
      (Racism as a cultural theory of social development. Forms of biological thinking in social Darwinism)

      (Free download from TU Berlin server )

      In a very German, übergründlich way, Bensch investigates the multiple ideological strands of racism that eventually matured into industrial-scale eliminationism. We must always remember that Nazism has a number of ideological underpinnings; many unsavoury characters contributed their pet obsessions to the brown soup.

      One of more interesting insights from Bensch’s work connects a diffuse, thoroughly unreflected, bogus naturalism (related in name only to scientific naturalism) prevalent among the more conservative elements of German society, and an equally unreflected, pseudo-mystical organicist holism. A recipe for much steamy rhetoric if considered rationally, but deadly effective. Consider Hitler’s mishmash of races and species (Mein Kampf, vol. 1, chapter XI):

      Each animal mates only with one of its own species. The titmouse cohabits only with the titmouse, the finch with the finch, the stork with the stork, the field-mouse with the field-mouse, the house-mouse with the house-mouse, the wolf with the she-wolf, etc. … The fox remains always a fox, the goose remains a goose, and the tiger will retain the character of a tiger.

      Immutability of species: now where have we heard that kind of language again?

  7. I’ve had the recurring fantasy of showing a Darwin-led-to-Hitler creationist this mid-19th century graphic:

    When the creationist claims that graphic illustrates his point–Darwinism leads to racism–it would give me great pleasure to point out that this graphic was:
    1) published 2 years before On the Origin of Species
    2) was produced by ardent creationists

  8. My co-worker was a virulent racist.
    His justification: Noah in the Bible and the curse of Ham. He was the son of a German WWII Nazi Admiral. Never mentioned Darwin.

  9. I have mixed feelings about the title of this otherwise excellent (judging from your description) book. The title is catchy but risky, exactly because many creationists will not read it – but they may see it in a bookstore and make a mental note of a title.

  10. There is absolutely no question that Hitler used Darwinism – in its warped “social” form – as a justification for his views: “Politics is nothing more than the struggle of a people for its existence … the weaker ones falls so that the strong one gains life” (Taken from Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936 Hubris.)

    1. You need to read Richards’ essay: he takes up exactly this point and shows that there is no obvious connection between this and Darwin, nor that Hitler was an advocate of “social Darwinism.” The strong dominating the weak in society had many sources besides Darwin. You can’t just use a trope like this and say it’s obviously due to Darwin.

      1. Interesting ( and I will read the essay ).

        Kershaw actually argues the opposite in his magisterial biography of Hitler and he explicitly states that social Darwinism was a driving force for his policies.

        This is Kershaw’s view about Hitler’s political philosophy “Such ideas [of a “community of struggle” where nationalism and socialism would be united] were neither new or original. And, ultimately, they rested not on any modern form of socialism, but on the crudest and most brutal version of nineteenth-century imperialist and social Darwinistic notions.”

        I am not necessarily agreeing with Kershaw ( I will read the essay ) but he has put an alternative view.

        This is Kershaw’s book that I have been referencing:

        1. JAC and Richards are correct.

          Kershaw’s analyses of the social and ideological developments that culminated in Nazism are among the less compelling parts of his monumental volume.

          In particular, the otherwise largely functionalist Kershaw fails, in my view, to present convincing evidence that Hitler’s particular obsessions and hatreds were actually rooted in, and not just expressed in the phraseology of, the dimmest and most vulgar understanding of ‘social Darwinism’.

          Always with the proviso that whatever was meant by ‘social Darwinism’ until the aftermath of WWI was often a fighting slogan, mostly derogatory, and actually directed at the Spencer-Sumner vulgata, or a caricature thereof.

          Another point: the modern connotation of ‘social Darwinism’ in anglophone literature was largely defined by the pioneering study of Richard Hofstadter. Bear in mind that ‘Sozialdarwinismus’ as understood — or not — in Germany and Austria during Hitler’s formative years was not exactly congruent with the notion of ‘social Darwinism’ sensu Hofstadter 1944, with the benefit of hindsight and the distorsion of a Weltanschauungskrieg at its apex.

        2. In addition to the other replies, note that the very quote you give (“Politics is nothing more than the struggle of a people for its existence”) is not that mis-named thing “Social Darwinism”.

          If “social Darwinism” is anything it is about artificial selection *within* a group or species, not a competition between groups or species.

          The violent struggle between groups is what we call “warfare” and it has a vastly longer history than Darwinism.

          Kershaw is guilty of what many people are, lazy and simplistic analyses of Nazi ideology without making any attempt to analyse it properly.

  11. I wonder what Professor Richards’ (or anyone else) take is on Jerry Bergmans’ book, ‘Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian worldview: How the Nazi eugenic crusade for a superior race caused the greatest Holocaust in world history’, which came out last year.

  12. While imprisoned for the Beer Hall Putsch Hitler read the book Human Heredity and Racial Hygiene by Eugen Fischer, Irwin Bauer, and Fritz Lenz, which had a great impact on his thinking.

    Apart from the polemics of creationists, there is a large body of scholarship on the cultural, ideological, and scientific context of Nazi race ideology. In light of that scholarship, the dismissal of the thesis that Social Darwinism – especially as influenced by Haeckel – was a component of the formation of Nazi race policy and ideology seem premature to say the least.

    See also:

    Robert N. Proctor. 1988. Racial Hygiene.

    Paul Weindling. 1989. Health, race and German politics between national unification and Nazism, 1870-1945.

    I am an evolutionist and atheist. I recall when scholars and scientists (e.g. SJ Gould) were not disposed to rehabilitate Haeckel.

  13. Sorry, folks but it seems that they really did it. In an article published recently (The Role of Darwinism in Nazi Racial Thought link at end), one can see that “the claim that the Nazis did not believe in the transmutation of species and human evolution runs aground once we examine Nazi racial ideology in detail.” Richards’ position is briefly cited and contradicted in the article.
    The following evidence are presented:
    1) Hitler believed in human evolution.
    2) The official Nazi school curriculum prominently featured biological evolution, including human evolution.
    3) Nazi racial anthropologists, including SS anthropologists, uniformly endorsed human evolution and integrated evolution into
    their racial ideology.
    4) Nazi periodicals, including those on racial ideology, embraced human evolution.
    5) Nazi materials designed to inculcate the Nazi worldview among SS and military men promoted human evolution as an integral part of the Nazi worldview.
    Only to quote some examples (from article), one important official Nazi Party newspaper publication, Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte, the following article appeared in 1941 whose auctor, after stressed that the principles of evolution were just as valid for humans as for other organisms, finishes the article with the following:
    “The hereditary health of the German Volk and of the Nordic-Germanic race that unites it must under all circumstances remain intact. Through an appropriate compliance with the laws of nature, through selection and planned racial care it can even be increased. The racial superiority achieved thereby secures for our Volk in the harsh struggle for existence an advantage, which will make us unconquerable.”
    But another important source of information regards the biology curriculum and WHAT the adopted books said. One important fact to keep in mind is that “All the biology texts published in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s needed official approval of the Ministry of Education”. Let’s see an example (all from the article): “Jakob Graf’s 1942 biology textbooks has an entire chapter on “Evolution and Its Importance for Worldview.” Therein Graf combated Lamarckism and promoted Darwinian evolution through natural selection. He claimed that knowing about human evolution is important, because it shows that humans are not special among organisms. He also argued that evolution substantiates human inequality.”.
    In another officially adopted book one can read (Erich Meyer and Karl Zimmermann) ” In this hard time [Ice Age] humans already lived. In the conflict with nature he improved physically and intellectually more and more. It bred him ever upward. We find him first as a half-animal prehuman, then as a primitive human who lived in caves and knew how to use fire and to make stone tools and hunting weapons.”
    And so on. Much more can be found in the original article:

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