Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.
Oct 19, 2014
We prefer not to think about it, but science can lead to evil.
One way, of course, is through technology enhanced by science. Think of bombs able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in seconds, of paralyzing nerve agents like sarin, or of car bombs used to destroy lives and create terror. Imagine military drones and robots loosened from responsible control. Or think of the global warming that has been unleashed by our energy sciences – or the seemingly endless supply of addictive drugs that mock our hopes for our youth.
But there is another way that science can lead to evil – misconstrued visions of reality inspired by science.
Let’s not be afraid. Evolutionary science is no less a science because of social Darwinism and its misuses. And scientific racism has been put firmly to rout by the extraordinary advances of genetics and the compelling evidence that it gives of the oneness of humanity.
But there are important lessons to be learned. Those who admire and love the evolutionary sciences should learn to appreciate why so many people strongly distrust evolution. Those who want science to be the source of morality can see how ideas claiming to be derived from science can be distorted or bent to support very destructive prejudices. Evolution, in particular, seems to have been particularly susceptible to being misused – even by the best and the brightest.
Group Selection and Darwin’s Descent of Man
We have been following Richard Olson’s highly informative overview – Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe – on the 19th century origins of modern scientism. We turn to it now to describe how Darwinism helped create the scientific racism that came to be so influential in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in Germany. In what follows, we quote extensively from chapter 9.
First, we need to set the scene. In the 2nd half of the 19th century, Olson writes, those trying “to understand and shape European events and trends … had to come to grips with competitive capitalism and imperialism and their consequences, whether they applauded or opposed them.” Similarly, they had to explain “how pervasive and powerful religious institutions have been throughout history” while simultaneously “explaining why they were on the decline during the nineteenth century.”
Darwin, in the Descent of Man, grappled with these issues by introducing the concept of group selection (a perspective now mainly out of favor). This, according to the historian Richard Weikart writing in The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany 1859-1895, was thought to mean that:
Tribes and nations united to fight each other and the ones showing the greatest selflessness and devotion to their society survived and passed on their moral character to their offspring. Wars between nations are a modern manifestation of the struggle for existence. … Darwin also promoted racism in Descent by designating some races as inferior physically, mentally, and morally. Thus Darwin did use the concept of the struggle for existence to explain militarism, imperialism,and racial competition, but he did not use his theory to encourage such activity.
According to Olson:
Darwin’s emphasis on inter-group competition, especially on tribal competition, provided the central arguments of militaristic, imperialistic, and overtly racist ideologies in the writings of men such as Walter Bagehot (1826-77) in Britain, and Ernst Haeckel and Friedrich von Bernhardi (1849-1930) in Germany.
Even though Darwin enjoyed an enthusiastic audience and widespread support for his thought in England, it was in Germany that he was most popular: “Nowhere else did Darwinism, both as a biological theory and as the foundation for social thought, become as deeply rooted and broadly accepted as in Germany.”
The reasons have a lot to do with the strong support for science in Germany, the strong support for the scientific materialisms of Marx and Buchner, the status of German liberalism, and finally the enthusiastic and energetic endorsement of Darwin by Ernst Haeckel, an accomplishment scientist and more than energetic advocate of Darwinism. Olson again:
First, throughout the nineteenth century, in almost every domain of intellectual life, German thinkers emphasized change, transformation, and historical processes. … Germans were preoccupied with change and open to evolutionary ideas.
Second, in Ernst Haeckel, Darwin found a disciple who was an outstanding professional biologist and even more effective than T. H. Huxley in promoting Darwinian ideas. … Haeckel built an entire philosophy of life around evolution, explicitly using it to ground ethics, educational practices, a nontheistic religion, attitudes toward imperialism, war, German racial superiority, and so on.
Third, Darwinism … offered scientific materialist popularizers such as Ludwig Buchner a way to understand the origin and development of the entire universe without appeal to a divine designer-creator. This was tremendously valuable given their opposition to established religion…
Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919), to quote Wikipedia, “was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor, and artist who discovered, described and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms, and coined many terms in biology”. His first book on evolution – The History of Creation: or the Development of the Earth and Its Inhabitants by the Action of Natural Causes. A Popular Exposition of the Doctrine of Evolution in General, and That of Darwin, Goethe, and Lamarck in Particular – sold more copies than even Darwin’s, making Haeckel Darwin’s popularizer par-excellence.
At the core of Haeckel’s perspective was a strong endorsement of a cruelly competitive vision of Darwinian struggle:
The theory of selection teaches that in human life as in all animal and plant life everywhere, and at all times, only a small and chosen minority can exist and flourish, while the enormous majority starve and perish miserably and more or less prematurely…. [Evolution] is aristocratic in the strictest sense of the word.
Haeckel believed strongly in evolution as the “scientific view of humankind” and his enthusiasm for evolution led him to promote infanticide for children who were “weak, sickly, or affected with any bodily infirmity.”
For Haeckel, religion and Christianity were simply superstition and a source of error. Nature operating without design, Haeckel believed, rather than God, created everything:
Nowhere … in the evolution of animals and plants do we find any trace of design, but merely the inevitable outcome of the struggle for existence, the blind controller, instead of the provident God, that effects the changes of organic forms by a mutual action of the laws of heredity and adaptation.
And he was a thorough-going racist. Famously, he wrote:
The psychic distance between the crudest savage and the most perfect specimen of the highest civilization is colossal—much greater than is commonly supposed…
The lower races, he believed, were:
… psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans, we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives.
Olson, writing about Haeckel’s racism, describes him as joining “his version of Darwinism to his long-standing beliefs in German racial superiority and to the Aryan superiority theories of count Gobineau.” Haeckel was:
a believer in the racial superiority of Northern Europeans, and he justified a colonial policy, especially in Africa, that discounted the interests of indigenous populations on the grounds that their “value” was vastly less than that of the colonizers. Haeckel’s racism became increasingly virulent and extensive as the First World War approached.
Wikipedia writes that:
Haeckel divided human beings into ten races, of which the Caucasian was the highest and the primitives were doomed to extinction. Haeckel claimed that Negros have stronger and more freely movable toes than any other race which is evidence that Negros are related to apes because when apes stop climbing in trees they hold on to the trees with their toes, Haeckel compared Negros to “four-handed” apes. Haeckel also believed Negros were savages and that Whites were the most civilized.
Olson concludes that:
Though Haeckel’s extension of Darwinian biology did not create German racism, it certainly encouraged it. Moreover, it provided updated scientific support for both a ruthless racist colonial policy that had long-term consequences in South Africa and a domestic focus on racial purity that ultimately fed the later views of the National Socialists.
Moderation and Civilization
Baha’u’llah, in a statement about moderation, emphasizes its importance:
Whoso cleaveth to justice, can, under no circumstances, transgress the limits of moderation. He discerneth the truth in all things, through the guidance of Him Who is the All-Seeing.
He also emphasizes what can happen when the limits of moderation are transgressed:
The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing. If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.
Does the story of Ernst Haeckel, German materialism, and the excesses of scientific racism illustrate this?
In the next blog we talk about the rise of theories of degeneracy – the idea that whole societies could undergo physical and intellectual collapse if the unfit were allowed to reproduce.
This is the 20th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.