Over the past decade, there has been an increasing effort to portray Darwin as a racist and to claim that Nazi racial ideology was based on evolutionary theory. The roots of this effort can be traced back to a book written by Daniel Gasman in 1971 called The Scientific Origins of National Socialism, but it is with the recent rise of the intelligent design movement that this line of argument has gained increasing attention. With the release of Ben Stein’s movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, claims that the ideas of Darwin led to the Holocaust have gained more traction.
In 2004, Dr. Richard Weikart, head of the history department at California State University and fellow at the Discovery Institute, published From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. In 2007, a “documentary” aired on national television called Darwin’s Deadly Impact: The Chilling Impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, the central claim of which was “No Darwin, no Hitler.” In 2008, creationist Ken Ham published Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots, which portrays evolutionary theory as a product of racism and slavery.
The central claim of all of these works is essentially that “Darwinism” turned traditional “Judeo-Christian” morality on its head, paving the way for racism, eugenics, Nazism, and the Holocaust.
These claims are a two-pronged, deceptive attack on history. On the one hand, they misrepresent Charles Darwin and the impact of evolutionary theory on public attitudes toward race and society. On the other hand and just as important, they shift focus away from the role that religion played in support of slavery, racism, and anti-Semitism.
The facts are that Charles Darwin was an abolitionist who held some of the most progressive views on race of his time, and evolutionary theory refuted major theological beliefs of the time that were fundamentally racist.
Believing that Darwin was a racist, that Darwin introduced the idea of superior and inferior races, and that Darwin inspired the Holocaust requires not just a lack of understanding of Darwin and evolution but also a lack of understanding of the history of racism, anti-Semitism, and atrocities in Western civilization, often inextricably tied to Christian theology and sentiments popularly preached from the pulpit. This is not just about blaming Darwin—it is also about absolving Christianity of the role that it played in the institutionalization of racism, justification for genocides, and the endemic anti-Semitism that made the Holocaust possible.
Before the acceptance of evolutionary theory, the field of biology was theologically based (in nineteenth-century Western civilization). There had been some attempts prior to Darwin to come up with purely naturalistic explanations for the development of life, but these were unsatisfactory. The dominant educational institutions in the field of biology during the nineteenth century were religious institutions. Charles Darwin himself received his biological education from a religious institution, Christ’s College at Cambridge, while receiving his theology degree.
Prior to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, different “races” among people were increasingly being classified as different species. There was widespread consensus that the result of “racial mixing” was degeneration of the offspring. There was overwhelming acceptance of the idea that Africans and Native Americans were biologically inferior to Europeans. It was universally believed that the “races” were static and intended by God to remain separate. There was widespread popular and even academic belief that the darker-skinned races were inherently more sinful and that they were darker due to a curse by God or due to degeneration.
What we are talking about here are not the views of uneducated backwoods hillbillies: we are talking about views that were the mainstream, held by presidents, taught in universities, and preached every Sunday from pulpits across America. These are views about which major and important books were written, in which “scientific evidence” was combined with scripture to provide solid and accepted “proof” for these beliefs.
Africans were used as slaves in American colonies as early as the seventeenth century, and by 1705 legal codes such as the Virginia Slave Codes began to clearly define people of African and Native American descent as property, to be treated differently than persons of other races. The establishment of slavehood during this time was based effectively on two things: one’s religion and one’s race.
Over the next century and a half, there would be increasing interest in the subject of race among both Europeans and Americans. This increasing interest was largely driven by the institutions of slavery and imperialism. Americans and Europeans were enslaving increasing numbers of people of African and Native American descent, as well as conquering their lands, subjugating them to their rule, and engaging in campaigns of extermination of native populations all around the world. As these practices came under increasing criticism, the need to justify the treatment of nonwhites also increased. It is largely out of this need for justification that “scientific racism” was born, and since the “scientific” field of biology was based largely on theology at this time, both naturalists and theologians weighed in on the subject of race. Both groups often relied heavily on scripture as the basis for their reasoning and conclusions. The naturalists typically bolstered their theological reasoning with so-called scientific evidence, while the theologians typically just made arguments straight from scripture. So what were theologians and naturalists saying about different races just prior to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1858?
The manifest moral intellectual and physical inferiority of the Negro issues from the decree of God which no efforts of man can either alter or abrogate. Even modification must be but partial at least. It is the destiny of the Negro if by himself to be a savage; if by the white to be a serf.
—John Campbell, Negro-Mania, 1851
We must, of course, acknowledge that Adam is the ancestor of the white race. The scriptures are evidently meant to be so understood, for the generations deriving from him are certainly white. This being admitted there is nothing to show that, in the view of the first compilers of the Adamite genealogies, those outside the white race were counted as part of the species at all.
—Arthur de Gobineau, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 1853
Nations and races, like individuals have each an especial destiny: some are born to rule, and others to be ruled. And such has ever been the history of mankind. No two distinctly marked races can dwell together on equal terms.
—Josiah Nott, M.D. Types of Mankind, 1854
The great Architect had framed them [negroes] both physically and mentally to fill the sphere in which they were thrown, and His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited to the degraded position they were destined to occupy. Hence, their submissiveness, their obedience, their contentment.
—Thomas R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America, 1858
One of the most important books on race during this time was An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, by the Frenchman Arthur de Gobineau. It was in this book that the concept of the Ary
an race was put forward, with Gobineau arguing that whites were of the Aryan race: the only race that was capable of creating and sustaining civilization.
The theological support for slavery and white supremacy during the time prior to the Civil War in America cannot be overstated. Certainly there were Christians who opposed slavery, but the moral defense of slavery was almost exclusively based on Christian scripture and was popularly supported by priests and preachers. Frederick Douglass himself made note of this fact in a speech that he gave about the Fourth of July.
But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
—Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, July 5, 1852
Even abolitionists and opponents of slavery believed in the inferiority of blacks and Indians. They often argued that whites should take on the role of caretakers for other races and should not exploit them because of the natural superiority of the white race. They contended that white supremacy gave whites the responsibility of caring for other inferior races, but they did not claim that blacks and other nonwhite races were equal to whites. One striking example of this comes from a speech given by Abraham Lincoln during his debates against Stephen Douglass in 1858, the same year that On the Origin of Species was published.
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.
—Abraham Lincoln, fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, September 18, 1858
Comments made in regard to the issue of race by his opponent Stephen Douglass are even more inflammatory.
For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this Government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. . . . Now, I do not believe that the Almighty ever intended the negro to be the equal of the white man. If he did, he has been a long time demonstrating the fact. For thousands of years the negro has been a race upon the earth, and during all that time, in all latitudes and climates, wherever he has wandered or been taken, he has been inferior to the race which he has there met. He belongs to an inferior race, and must always occupy an inferior position.
—Stephen Douglas, first debate with Abraham Lincoln, August 21, 1858
In addition to the issue of blacks and slavery, there was also much discussion of “savages” and “civilization” during this time as well. Critics of Charles Darwin often point out that Darwin used the term savages when discussing tribal peoples in his works. This is true, but this was a term used by everyone of the time. Furthermore, in his discussions of tribal people Darwin noted that they were much more like civilized Europeans than what others had granted. Darwin’s great sin here, in fact, was in suggesting that all people had “savage” origins and that at one time in European history whites too lived in Stone Age societies and acted no differently from the present-day “savages.” The more accepted view of the time, however, was that whites had never been “savages,” that whites had always been civilized, and that whites had no common origins with “savage” peoples.
Clearly, the idea of superior and inferior races existed prior to Darwin and was not based on evolutionary concepts; rather, it was defended with Christian scripture. But what did Darwin himself say about the subject of race? Actually, almost all of our present concepts of race stem from Darwin and evolutionary theory. At a time when the trend was toward classifying people into multiple species, Darwin argued that all people are one species having a single common ancestry. He said that all people come from “savage” origins, not just nonwhites, and that people of different races have much more in common than was widely believed at the time. Darwin argued that people of different races can interbreed with no concern for ill effects. He contended that there are no clear distinctions between the races, but rather all races blend together. Most important, Darwin argued that culture and biology were two different and distinct things: that cultural differences were not the product of biological differences and that characteristics such as behavior, morality, and intelligence were strongly impacted by the environment and upbringing of individuals.
Did Charles Darwin ever state that people of all races were absolutely equal in every way? No, he didn’t, and neither did anyone else of his time. What Darwin did do, however, was move in the direction of seeing greater similarities between races than perhaps anyone prior to him.
Darwin was already a staunch abolitionist when he set out on the HMS Beagle in 1831, but, as he recorded in his journal, his detestation of slavery only grew stronger after seeing it in practice around the world. Darwin had firsthand accounts of slavery from his friend John Edmonstone, a black freed slave who had lived in South America. Darwin learned taxidermy from Edmonstone while a teenager in Edinburgh. He later wrote of Edmonstone in his autobiography, stating that he was “a very pleasant and intelligent man.” During his time on the Beagle, Darwin often fought over the subject of slavery with the ship’s conservative Christian captain, Robert FitzRoy, who supported the practice. In one instance, Darwin was thrown off the boat by Captain FitzRoy after an argument they had over slavery. Darwin wrote while on the Beagle that he wished the black slaves of Brazil would follow the example of Haiti and overthrow their white masters to form their own government, quite a radical statement for a nineteenth-century European. In addition to slavery, however, Darwin also witnessed atrocities against native populations at the hands of Europeans around the world. Two of the most notable instances were in Argentina and Australia, where native peoples were being exterminated or hunted like animals and relocated onto reservations. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin spent mu
ch time in close contact with tribal peoples and slaves of whom he made many observations. Despite all of this, Darwin made no mention of human evolution in On the Origin of Species, intentionally avoiding the subject because he felt that it was too controversial.
It was not until 1871, with the publication of The Descent of Man, that Darwin would clearly enunciate his ideas on race and human evolution.
But the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species, is that they graduate into each other, independently in many cases, as far as we can judge, of their having inter-crossed. Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke. This diversity of judgment does not prove that the races ought not to be ranked as species, but it shews that they graduate into each other, and that it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them.
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871
Darwin noted that despite superficial differences between Europeans and “savages” in terms of their skin color, hair, etc., there were many traits, “shewing how similar their minds were to ours.” Darwin went on to discuss similarities in tools from archeological finds around the world, from which he concluded that “this fact can only be accounted for by the various races having similar inventive or mental powers.” Darwin used these points to argue that man was one species with a common ancestor.
Now when naturalists observe a close agreement in numerous small details of habits, tastes, and dispositions between two or more domestic races, or between nearly allied natural forms, they use this fact as an argument that they are descended from a common progenitor who was thus endowed; and consequently that all should be classed under the same species. The same argument may be applied with much force to the races of man.
As it is improbable that the numerous and unimportant points of resemblance between the several races of man in bodily structure and mental faculties (I do not here refer to similar customs) should all have been independently acquired, they must have been inherited from progenitors who had these same characters.
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871
The points that Darwin made above clearly reflected a view that races were more alike than what was commonly believed at the time, but Darwin went beyond showing similarities between races and arguing for common ancestry to state that the emotion of sympathy was one of mankind’s greatest assets and that sympathy should be extended to people of all races.
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. . . . This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honored and practiced by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871
Clearly, with his talk of extending sympathy to people of “all nations and races,” Darwin was at the forefront of racial tolerance in his time. It is also clear from Darwin’s writings that he believed all people had an evolved propensity for sympathy, but that its adoption in a population was a cultural matter, not a biological one. Indeed, Darwin talked about sympathy numerous times in The Descent of Man, establishing it as a cornerstone for social progress. Darwin believed that the most sympathetic societies would be the most successful and that we should do everything in our power to encourage sympathy for others. This was the real revolution in Darwin’s thinking about race—the idea that despite the focus he put on biology with his own evolutionary theory, biology and culture were distinctly separate and the traits of a society were not merely a function of biology—they were a function of culture, learning, and social institutions.
The western nations of Europe, who now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors, and stand at the summit of civilization, owe little or none of their superiority to direct inheritance from the old Greeks, though they owe much to the written works of that wonderful people. . . . The more efficient causes of progress seem to consist of a good education during youth whilst the brain is impressible, and of a high standard of excellence, inculcated by the ablest and best men, embodied in the laws, customs and traditions of the nation, and enforced by public opinion. It should, however, be borne in mind, that the enforcement of public opinion depends on our appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of others; and this appreciation is founded on our sympathy, which it can hardly be doubted was originally developed through natural selection as one of the most important elements of the social instincts.
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871
As we can see, Darwin himself was an abolitionist. He defended the capabilities and intelligence of Africans and other nonwhites; he argued that all humans were of one species; and he viewed sympathy for people of all races as an important social quality. Not only did Darwin put much effort into the discussion of things like the evolution of sympathy and cooperation in nature, but he also never viewed the harsher aspects of nature, the “survival of the fittest,” as any type of role model for human society. Indeed, Darwin was in many ways repulsed by the violence and callousness that he observed in nature, which was one of the things that led him to conclude that such a system could not have been designed by God. Darwin, like many of his time, saw overcoming the “law of the jungle” as the primary objective of civilization. For Darwin, callousness in nature was something to be overcome by the powers of sympathy and cooperation.
Despite these facts, some opponents of evolution have claimed that Darwin was a racist and that evolutionary theory led to the development of Nazi ideology and the Holocaust. These claims rely almost exclusively on a few quotes taken out of context and broad statements that have no basis in fact. For example, it is often claimed that “Darwinism” leads to atheism, which leads to immorality—then claiming that the Nazis were atheists, and that only by throwing traditional Christian morality out the window was the Holocaust possible.
Once again, reality is at odds with the agenda of the creationists and intelligent design advocates. It is true that the Nazis advocated a philosophy built around the idea that “only the strong survive,” but this was not related to evolution. Not only were the Nazis not atheists, but they specifically railed against atheism and materialism. What made race something worth fighting for to the Nazis was in fact their divine concept of race. Nazi ideology was founded on the sacredness of race—on the holy bond between the Aryan race and God. What made the Holocaust possible was actually the centuries of endemic anti-Semitism in Europe rooted in Christianity. We can see quite plainly that the Holocaust follows a pattern of violence against Jews in Europe directed by Christians along theological grounds.
Many of the anti-Semitic laws enacted by the Nazis were actually resurrections of old, pious laws. For example, the law requiring Jews to wear yellow badges was not a new law: it was the reenactment of a Christian law that was in place from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, which forced Jews to distinguish themselves by wearing badges so that Christians would not “mistakenly” interbreed with them, an early form of “race law.” It is well known that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, wrote a virulently anti-Semitic work, The Jews and Their Lies, which was well read by Hitler and used as a form of propaganda by the Nazis. In The Jews and Their Lies, Luther laid out seven steps of action to take against Jews in order to drive them out of Europe. The Nazis fulfilled every one of the seven steps to a tee and included actions like putting Jews into work camps, destroying their synagogues, and taking gold from them. More important, though, it is very clear from a full study of Nazi material that the Nazis’ concept of race was highly spiritual and that Nazis did not appeal to evolution as a basis for their agenda. Furthermore, Hitler’s views on race, species, and the workings of nature in general, had nothing in common with any kind of scientific understanding of evolution.
Everybody who has the right kind of feeling for his country is solemnly bound, each within his own denomination, to see to it that he is not constantly talking about the Will of God merely from the lips but that in actual fact he fulfills the Will of God and does not allow God’s handiwork to be debased. For it was by the Will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties. Whoever destroys His work wages war against God’s Creation and God’s Will.
—Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925
Similar sentiments were expressed repeatedly in Nazi speeches and literature, as in the following example:
You carry in your blood the holy inheritance of your fathers and forefathers. You do not know those who have vanished in endless ranks into the darkness of the past. But they all live in you and walk in your blood upon the earth that consumed them in battle and toil and in which their bodies have long decayed. Your blood is therefore something holy. . . . But if your blood has traits that will make your children unhappy and burdens to the state, then you have the heroic duty to be the last. The blood is the carrier of life. You carry in it the secret of creation itself. Your blood is holy, for in it God’s will lives.
—Franz Eher Nachf, Faith and Action, 1943
The Nazis frequently cited de Gobineau and even Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, as inspirations for their racial policies, yet they never cited Charles Darwin. A reading of the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials reveals that neither the topics of evolution nor Charles Darwin were ever brought up during the trials, but many other influences on Nazi racial ideology were, ranging from various scientists to Martin Luther to Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic publications. Transcripts of proceedings relating to leading Nazi intellectual Alfred Rosenberg, for example, detail the influences on Rosenberg’s works, yet among these neither Darwin nor any evolutionary biologist are listed:
For 25 years Rosenberg, first acting as Hitler’s collaborator and afterward under his direction, worked out and assisted in the realization of the fantastic plan for world supremacy, having chosen, for the justification of this criminal plan, the misanthropic theory of racism.
The fact that Rosenberg utilized for his purposes garbled science and borrowed theories from Karl Lueger and Paul Lagarde, Count Gobineau, Oswald Spengler, and Arthur Moeller cannot affect the question of Rosenberg’s guilt and responsibility. The important fact is that Rosenberg, having assembled all these “scientific excrete,” raised the racial theories to a degree of racial fanaticism and educated in this spirit the members of the Nazi Party and the youth of Germany.
—Nuremberg trial proceedings from July 29, 1946
In addition, the notes of the Nuremberg trials list the contents of leading Nazi physician Dr. Karl Brandt’s library as containing a book called Eugenics and Christianity. In this book, supportive arguments for eugenics are given from Christian perspectives, citing various Christian leaders from throughout Europe that supported eugenics using theology and the idea of an afterlife to conclude that killing the deformed was acceptable because they would go to heaven anyway if that was what God wanted. Martin Luther is cited as being in favor of killing what were called Wechselbalg, or deformed persons, calling them soulless abominations. From all of this we can see that the charges against Darwin of racism and inspiring the Holocaust are greatly distorted and actually turn the facts on their head. Not only were the racial policies of the Nazis not based on Darwin’s views or evolutionary theory, but they were actually heavily rooted in religious beliefs that were quite contrary to Darwinian evolution.
Certainly some of Darwin’s writings on race and culture are crude by today’s standards, especially some of his comments on “savages,” but these have to be put into a historical context, which opponents of evolution intentionally fail to do. It is abundantly clear that while some of the things Darwin stated are politically incorrect today, he was very much at the forefront of racial thinking in his time. Not only were Darwin’s personal views very sympathetic to slaves and nonwhites, but he used his understanding of biology and evolution to provide scientific arguments against many of the racist ideas of his time. He used scientific evidence to argue against the classification of people into different species and to show that people are much more alike than was commonly believed. He used evolutionary theory to explain how sympathy could have evolved and to explain the social and evolutionary advantages of making sympathy for people of all races the foundation of human society. Darwin’s views on race do matter, and in fact his contributions to the advancement of racial tolerance have been overlooked for far too long.