Eugenics Documentary Opens at Holocaust Museum
Michael Ollove at the Baltimore Sun reports on a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Museum entitled Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. The exhibit shows a 1937 Nazi propaganda film that invokes the law of natural selection as support for weeding out the unfit. Ollove writes,
The narrator declares that “we humans have sinned terribly against [the] laws of natural selection,” by coddling the genetically impaired and, even worse, by allowing them to reproduce, duplicating their defects in a new legion of offspring. “We have not only sustained unworthy life,” he decries, “we have allowed it to multiply.”
The title of the 1937 film is Victims of the Past, a reference to the idea in the disgraced genetic field of eugenics that illness, disability and delinquency were passed without deviation, gene by gene, from one generation to the next. The film was a piece of Nazi propaganda, required showing in German theaters in support of the nation’s program for the compulsory sterilization of the “genetically unfit” to choke off undesirable human traits – and undesirable human beings.
Ollove says that eugenics led directly to the holocaust: “Ultimately, the Third Reich arrived at a more comprehensive solution than sterilization, one that it would also choose for other ‘biological’ enemies, including Jews, Gypsies and other ‘inferior’ races: extermination.”
Reviewing the displays, Ollove says “the exhibition stands as a frightening warning of where the corrupted use of science can lead.” The marriage of eugenics with the Third Reich was “a marriage made in hell,” he says, and “lent Nazi ideology a whiff of scientific authority.”
Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, was Charles Darwin’s cousin and an admirer of his famous relative’s evolutionary theory. Janet Browne, in her biography Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, 2002) made it clear that racism was a common fault of many British scientists, and was shared not only by Galton, but by Darwin and many of his defenders: Huxley, Haeckel and many others. Charles Darwin himself believed that the white-skinned Europeans with their superior intelligence would eventually exterminate the “lower” races.
Who was Hitler to stand in the way of the laws of nature? The Reich took enthusiastic note of the work of eugenicists. Ollove writes, “After Hitler took power, the eugenicists achieved an unparalleled primacy, the envy of counterparts elsewhere in the world. Many were appointed to key positions at scientific institutions and received research funding. Their critics were silenced, while their views were furthered in state propaganda and official policy.” Yet Germany was not alone in supporting eugenics. The United States passed forced sterilization laws even before Germany did, beginning in 1907 (see this book review by the NCPA).
Ollove next describes the slippery slope that began with euthanizing children, to killing adults, and led to all the horrors with which we have become familiar from newsreels made after the war. Just a dirty chapter in history, a shocking museum exhibit? Ollove warns that “the exhibit’s continued relevance is unmistakable as present-day bioethicists wrestle with the policy implications of startling genetic research and the possibilities it presents.” Already, genetic screening, the desire to breed super-athletes or super-intelligent children, sex selection and the rising costs of health care are creating pressures to weed out the unfit or “undesirable.”
What is the lesson of this exhibit? He concludes, “The underlying issue inevitably bears on the question of the worth of individuals, a question for which both German eugenicists and the Nazis believed they had answers.” Their answers often leaned on the writings of Darwin, Haeckel, and Galton.
See also a new book by Dr. Richard Weikart (UC Stanislaus), From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave McMillan, 2004). The author shows in this book that “Hitler built his view of ethics on Darwinian principles.”
Darwinists hate it when outsiders try to link evolutionary theory with the holocaust. Their response is usually two-fold: (1) science, and evolutionary theory in particular, has nothing to do with how it is used (after all, benign nuclear physics led to the atomic bomb), and (2) Christians have been guilty of atrocities, too: why, passages in the Bible could be, and were, used to justify anti-Semitism, slavery, and genocide. Go read Ollove’s entire article. Then, come back and let’s examine these rebuttals in turn.
First, can Darwin be exonerated from what others did with his theories? After all, Charlie was unquestionably a pleasant chap who wouldn’t hurt a fly (he would study it for evidence of natural selection). He had many friends and admirers. He loved nature and was basically a kind-hearted gentleman. It can probably be affirmed without contradiction that he would have been shocked and horrified at what Hitler did. Nevertheless, look at his ideas and their logical consequences. He set forth a worldview of competition, struggle, and survival of the fittest; a world that filtered out the “unfit” by ruthless, undirected processes. No matter how much he tried to restrict the discussion to scientific terminology, others knew exactly what his ideas meant and where they would lead. Reviewers from day one applied his views to the human race and to politics. The horrors that could follow from his views was precisely one of the arguments leveled at Darwin by critics in 1859 and 1860. Darwin’s admirers, on the other hand, immediately used The Origin of Species to attack Christianity and promote liberal socialism. Haeckel practically worshipped Darwin (and Darwin thought highly of Haeckel in return); Haeckel returned to Germany to promote Darwinism and eugenics, fueling the very fires that culminated in Nazism.
Janet Browne and other historians have pointed out how Charles Darwin’s views fit neatly into the 19th century political climate of British imperialism. Herbert Spencer (originator of the term “survival of the fittest”) told Andrew Carnegie that his cutthroat capitalism was a normal and natural outworking of the laws of nature. Karl Marx felt that Darwinism provided the scientific justification for his communist views. Whether Nazism, communism, or laissez-faire capitalism, each view that promoted ruthless competition and survival of the fittest used The Origin of Species as a scientific justification.
Second, is Christianity just as guilty? Let Joseph Goebbels himself frame the debate. Ollove quotes him as stating in 1938, “Our starting point is not the individual, and we do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, or clothe the naked. Our objectives are entirely different: We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.” Now, pray tell, who taught that we should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked? Who treated each individual as precious in the sight of God? Who healed the infirm, sought out the poor and needy, and lifted up those who were humble? The lines could hardly be drawn more boldly than Goebbels drew them: Jesus valued the individual; Hitler, the eugenicists, and ultimately the Darwinians, valued the race.
Speaking of race, the Bible has the antidote to the false concept that some races are superior to others. Creation teaches that we are all descended from Adam, a principle reinforced in the New Testament by Paul and Jesus. There are no races; there is only the human race. Answers in Genesis is one creationist organization that has recently promoted this Bible doctrine as the cure for racism. The Bible also denies that some individuals are less fit to live. The weak, the sick, the lame, the blind, the poor were often the ones to whom Jesus showed the most compassion.
It cannot be denied that Europeans did some ugly things in the name of Christ (including persecuting other Christians who believed people should follow the teachings of Jesus). But these actions were opposite both the letter and the spirit of the Bible. What about, then, the Old Testament commands to exterminate the Canaanites? We must remember that the rights of life and death belong to God alone. He who gives life has the sovereignty and authority to destroy it, as He did in the flood, and as He will do at Armageddon. God takes full responsibility for His judgment. In some cases, he delegated His judgment to humans. But Moses and Joshua and the prophets had direct revelation from God on these matters (a luxury not afforded us today, nor to the medieval popes). These were specific orders from God, to God’s chosen people, at specific times for His specific purposes, and are never mentioned in the Bible as normative for individuals or kings; in fact, the opposite is taught in both Old and New Testaments –care for the alien and sojourner, orphan and widow, and mercy toward all who are weak or afflicted. Would Hitler or Mao have taught “love your enemies”? Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. These are commandments to individuals, not to “the race.”
The Bible’s position on individual human dignity does not rule out all killing. God has instituted government to protect the rights of individuals, by means including police protection and national defense. War can be just. It can prevent further killing, or destroy those who are about to kill, as in the war against terrorism. This is a far cry from genocide. Neither does the Bible rationalize keeping the fit in their weakness, as if it is their fate. The Biblical values of health, healing, cleanliness and industry should promote medical research into finding cures for genetic diseases and improving health – for individuals, because each person bears the image of God. Even the benevolent competition of athletic games is spoken of favorably in the New Testament. Individuals are encouraged to do their best. This is a far cry from eugenics.
Crusading popes corrupted the teachings of Jesus, but the eugenicists and the Nazis carried the teachings of Darwin to their logical applications. Could figures be accurately known, the body count of those killed in the name of Christ to those killed in the name of Darwinism would differ by orders of magnitude. In the 20th century alone, some 100 million deaths can be traced to communism and Nazism, regimes that banned Bibles and closed churches but exalted Darwinism, promoting survival of the fittest as the governing principle of society. Most Darwinians are “nicer” these days (e.g., not overtly racist) but their core beliefs have not changed. Some already support euthanasia and infanticide in the name of natural selection. Many have no qualms about the ongoing holocaust of abortion. As we approach difficult 21st-century ethical questions about genetic engineering and cloning and other cutting-edge technologies, respect for the individual must be the pole star in our deliberations (for example, see this Breakpoint commentary by Amy Michelle DeBaerts).
Given that racism is a perpetual fire in the human heart, from ancient times to the present, which book – the Bible or the Origin of Species – is like water on the flames, and which is like gasoline? Let history be the judge. We must never forget.