What exactly is the connection between Darwinian evolutionary theory and what is often called “social Darwinism” that emerged out of it—that includes eugenics and race based selection and preferences. Historian Richard Weikart has been with us before on the ideological roots of Naziism, and he extends his past work to connect the philosophy underlying Darwinian evolutionary theory and the race based implications coming out of it, both in Nazi Germany and the current white nationalist movement. Join Scott and Sean for this fascinating historical look at some of the ideas that came out of Darwin’s work on evolution.

Dr. Weikart's latest book is Darwinian Racism: How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism.

Dr. Richard Weikart is Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, Stanislaus. He is also Senior Fellow for the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. He is the author of several books including Hitler’s Religion.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.

Scott Rae: I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell professor of apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here today with Dr. Richard Weikhart, who is a repeated guest. We've had him on several times before. Very provocative work that he's done. Dr. Weikhart is emeritus professor of history at Cal State University, Stanislaus and has written a terrific new book that it's sort of the next, Richard, I think it'd be fair to say it's in the next phase of what you've been working on for many years on the connection between Darwinism and the Nazi ideology of Adolf Hitler, but in this book called "Darwinian Racism", you've expanded the context and your subtitle I think captures it really nicely. "How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism." So bringing it really up to date today.

Scott Rae: So Richard welcome. We're so glad to have you on with us. We're so delighted to see this new book come out and we're really looking forward to our listeners having a chance to hear from you a little bit more about what went into this.

Richard Weikhart: Yeah, thanks for having me on. It's great to be with you.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Now you've written quite a bit. We've had you on before on the things that contributed to Hitler's Nazi ideology, but tell us a little bit more about what sparked your interest in this area, sort of at the beginning, when you first started working on this?

Richard Weikhart: Interestingly, when I first was doing my doctoral research on the impact of Darwinism on socialists, I really wasn't thinking too much about the Nazi period. I thought enough historians were already working on that at, so I was working more in the late 19th century material. And since I was working the history of Darwinism, I started noticing that there were a number of Darwinists in the late 19th century who were promoting evolutionary ethics to try to replace Christian ethics. And so that was really my next research project after my doctoral dissertation. And so it was on evolutionary in late 19th century Germany.

Richard Weikhart: But as I got into that research project, I started noticing that a lot of the people who were promoting evolutionary ethics were also promoting eugenics, which was the idea to improve human heredity as well as scientific racism and other things. And I began to think, Hey, this does sound a little bit like Nazi ideology. And so I then pursued that. And my book "From Darwin to Hitler" that came out in 2004 was looking at the evolutionary ethics and racism and such in the pre 1914 period. And only the last chapter looked at Hitler to sort of show the connections of how those things connected to Hitler. That created a good bit of controversy. So I followed that up with a book in 2009 called "Hitler's Ethic" that looked at Hitler's ideology and showed how it was relying heavily upon evolutionary ethics.

Richard Weikhart: And this book then takes it a step further and looks at the Nazi period itself, not just at Hitler, although I do have a chapter on Hitler also, which sort of overlaps with my previous work, but it also looks at German anthropologists and biologists. It looks at the biology curriculum. It looks at the Nazi propaganda. And so this book is focused mostly on the Nazi period. Although I have an introductory chapter on Darwin himself and his racism, and I have a concluding chapter on white nationalism. Most of it's focused on the Nazi period.

Sean McDowell: That's really helpful to place the historical period and ideas you're looking at, but maybe as we dive in, give us kind of a 30,000 foot view summary of the key ideas that you're arguing for in your book.

Richard Weikhart: Yeah, I'm trying to show that Darwin himself embraced a notion, not only of racial hierarchies, because he thought that different races had evolved to different levels, but he also saw these races as in competition with each other in the Darwinian struggle for existence. And this was going to be a central idea of Nazi ideology, which drove a lot of Nazi policies, including their pension for expansionist warfare, their persecution of people of other races, not just the Jews, although they were one of the main targets, but also the Slavs, black Africans and such.

Richard Weikhart: And then the final chapter then brings and shows how people in albeit a fringe group, the white nationalists people sometimes come alt right and such take these ideas today, essentially recycling the same ideas that the Nazis were putting forward.

Scott Rae: Now, Richard, you indicate that in sort of the early chapters on Darwin and his impact on the Nazi ideology, that many of these racist ideas were in existence before Darwin came on the scene, but that also his theories provided a lot of intellectual support for these racist ideas. So help our listeners understand exactly the connection between Darwin's evolutionary theory and the Nazi eugenic ideology that you argue emerged from that.

Richard Weikhart: Well, as you suggested, racism had been around a long time before Darwin, however, Darwin was going to see racism as evidence for his theory. That is one of the first things that Darwin had to do was show that there was variation within species. And so, in fact, if you look on his book on the origin of species where he doesn't really talk about human evolution, except he barely mentions it right at the end of the book, the first two chapters are on variation. The first chapters on variation under domestication, the second chapters on variation in nature.

Richard Weikhart: So one thing Darwin had to show is that there's lots of variation within and species. And so when Darwin looked at the human species and when he wrote his "Descent of Man" in 1871, he was trying to show that there was lots of variation within the human species and using the racial prejudices of his day, which he embraced himself, he thought that was a way to show this racial, excuse me, show the variation within species. So racism played a very integral part of providing evidence for his theory.

Richard Weikhart: What's interesting though, is then once his theory was in place, Darwinists too came after Darwin. We're going to say, well look because Darwin evolution is true, they thought it was anyway. They thought because Darwin evolution is true, then there must be racial inequality because there has to be variation within species.

Richard Weikhart: So it became a way scientists later after Darwin, we're going to use to try to a use Darwinism as proof for racism. Whereas Darwin tried to use racism as proof for his theory, later on Darwinists were going to use Darwinism as proof for racism.

Richard Weikhart: But not only that, one of the bigger issues as I've already suggested was this notion, the struggle for existence between races. And in "Descent of Man" Darwin has a about a three page section on the extinction of races.

Richard Weikhart: And in that segment, he does argue that races are going to go extinct as the so-called superior ones, ones that have great, of course he thinks the Europeans will be those, we're going to go out and supplant them in the Darwinian struggle for existence. And so in the "Descent of Man", he said, "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world, the savage races." And of course, Darwin saw that going on in his day with European imperialism. So he thought European imperialism was part of the Darwinian struggle for existence. And he justified European imperialism on that basis.

Sean McDowell: You make a pretty provocative connection between natural selection and evolution and genocide and colonization. I know quite a few people, I would imagine some critics would push back on that and say, that's just too big of a stretch for some people, explain your ideas for us, if you will.

Richard Weikhart: Well, actually, interestingly, if you look at "The biography of Darwin" by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, who themselves are Darwinists, they're not anti Darwinian. They argue quite clearly that Darwin did justify genocide. So it's not just anti Darwinist who were saying this about Darwin. His ideas did promote genocide. In fact, there was just a anthropologist at Princeton University this past year published an essay in a book celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin's "Descent of man". And he argued quite forthrightly that genocide and European imperialism was built into the theory from the start.

Richard Weikhart: So there are Darwinists themselves who are admitting this, this is not just something that anti Darwinists are promoting, the idea that Darwin's theory lent support for European imperialism.

Scott Rae: That seems like it's a fairly well kept secret. That's something that most advocates of Darwinism would rather not see get out. Then I think today you even described the white nationalist as more of a fringe group, sort of that connection between Darwinism and genocide and sort of a racial hierarchy is I'd say is no longer mainstream today. Is it simply because of the abuses that we saw take place in the Nazi ideology, that we don't hear that much about that today.

Scott Rae: Well, other than the abuses from Nazis, why do you think that is?

Richard Weikhart: Well, of course, most biologists and anthropologists today don't embrace racism and they do embrace Darwinism. And so they do want to distance Darwinism from that. Although again, there are those who when they look historically do admit that Darwinism did historically suggest that. However, they then will make the argument that well, science is self-correcting and so we've now corrected ourselves and we now know that this isn't accurate.

Richard Weikhart: And I think it is correct to state that Darwinism does not logically entail. It's not a logical necessity that it leads to racism in the sense of racism being of value, but it does lead to the idea of variation, and that's where the white nationalists I think take off on it.

Richard Weikhart: They see the notion of variation, which Darwin did promote and they think that is racial.

Richard Weikhart: Most anthropologists, biologists today would argue, no, that it's not racial. And that genetics doesn't support that particular position.

Scott Rae: Yeah. That's helpful. Let me go back to a little earlier before the Nazi regime, it's widely held that some the early advocates of eugenics were not fringe people, but they were a lot of very well respected intellectuals both in the US and in Europe, Margaret Sanger, for instance, who the founder of planned parenthood, they were in favor of things like involuntary sterilization to keep certain groups of people from reproducing. Was that group or those early advocates of eugenics, were they similarly influenced by Darwin and his theories?

Richard Weikhart: Yes, clearly. And not just in Germany, although in my book, I do deal with the eugenics movement during the Nazi period. And I show that a prominent medical personnel, physicians, anthropologists, biologists, that they did, yes, they were using Darwinism to promote eugenics. And the same thing was true in the United States. Charles Davenport, who was one of the key figures leading the American eugenics movement, very clearly drew on Darwinian ideology, and it was upfront. It was not hidden or anything like that. They were very forthrightly from Darwinism to eugenics.

Richard Weikhart: Now, eugenics, by the way, was promoting artificial selection. You're suggesting things like compulsory sterilization, which they did promote. This is of course a form of artificial selection. Some people today will say, well, it wasn't natural selection, Darwin was talking about natural selection. Eugenics were probably about artificial selection. But if you look at the way that eugenics ideology framed their ideas, they claimed that is because modern civilization had set aside natural selection by caring for the weak and the sick and the poor that's why we needed natural... Excuse me, why we needed artificial selection, because we had set aside natural selection, which otherwise would've gotten rid of these allegedly inferior people.

Sean McDowell: Do you have a sense historically of how unique Darwin's views were during his time among white Europeans? And I don't mean his scientific beliefs, but just some of these racist beliefs that worked their way out through his science. Was he an outlier? Was it actually common? How does he situated within historical period at that time? Just in terms of his beliefs about race as a whole.

Richard Weikhart: Many of his contemporaries held very similar kinds of beliefs. Francis Galton, his cousin who was the founder of the eugenics movement, himself actually did some exploration in Africa and came back with a very negative view of black Africans. And so Darwin and Galton and others were not outliers at all.

Richard Weikhart: That's not to say that everyone in Victorian England was racist. I give a few examples in my book, David Livingston, for example, the famous African explorer was well loved by the Africans because he wasn't racist. And because he was looking out for the interest of the black Africans, trying to elevate them, trying to end slavery and other things.

Richard Weikhart: Now Darwin actually did oppose slavery, but opposition to slavery was actually pretty mainstream in England, too. England outlawed slavery in the British empire in the 1830s. So that wasn't unusual for his day, either.

Richard Weikhart: So Darwin's ideas were not all that unusual about race, but again, the key thing that I'm interested in is the way that he integrated into his theory, and then especially applied it to this competition between the races. Because even if you thought the races were unequal, that doesn't necessarily mean you would embrace the idea that one race would exterminate another, and that would lead to biological progress, which was what Darwin thought.

Scott Rae: Richard, one of the things that caught my attention about your book sort stands in contrast, I think to what a lot of historians argue about Hitler and the Nazi ideology that... I've heard numerous historians say that Hitler was actually influenced by a form of Christian faith, but yet you maintain that Hitler was very critical of the church and Christianity. How does his criticism of the church and Christian faith fit in with what you're describing here about the impact of Darwinism on his ideology?

Richard Weikhart: Well, actually most historians don't see Hitler as being Christian. That's more an idea that you get from the atheist websites, blogs, and other things like that. There are a few historians who've tried to argue about the connections of Darwinism... Excuse me, Hitler and Christianity, Richard Steigmann-Gall being one of the most prominent ones, but that he's pretty much a minority among the historical guild.

Richard Weikhart: Nonetheless, I actually have a whole book on Hitler's religion in which I discuss Hitler's religious ideas. Hitler was a pantheist, I believe in that he exalted nature as God. And he thought that the Darwinian struggle for existence was the will of God in that sense, the will of nature. So the strong overcoming the weak, this was what he was the moral conclusions to be drawn from the Darwinian struggle for existence.

Richard Weikhart: So in this particular book, "Darwin Racism", I don't discuss his religious views to any particular extent, but again, sort of underlying it is this pantheistic view that nature is god.

Sean McDowell: Richard, you hinted at this a little bit before, but make this connection. Let me ask you to take it a little bit further.

Sean McDowell: Explain the connection, how white nationalists today are influenced by Darwinian evolutionary theory. And would you apply that same connection to Christian nationalists?

Richard Weikhart: Yeah, I looked at a lot of publications, mostly online ones by white nationalists, people of the alt-right like Richard Spencer. And I was very interested to find that the vast majority of them were pretty anti-Christian in their orientation and they very forthrightly did invoke Darwinism. You can find lots of articles about evolutionary ethics, about evolutionary psychology, about Darwin himself and his racism that permeate these white nationalist websites that were going on.

Richard Weikhart: In fact, one of the more interesting things that I found as I was doing some of the background work on my research was about a book that was written back in the 1890s that is still popular among white nationalists. It's called "Might is Right" by Ragnar Redbeard. That's a pseudonym.

Richard Weikhart: And actually a young man who committed a mass murder at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 2019, on his social media site recommended that people read this book.

Richard Weikhart: And if you go onto white nationalist websites, it's very widely recommended. The subtitle of the book is "Survival of the Fittest". And it's some of the most incendiary social Darwinism that you can get there. In fact, very interestingly, Anton LaVey, the person who founded the satanic church and wrote the satanic Bible was one of the people who popularized this book by Ragnar Redbeard.

Richard Weikhart: And Redbeard explicitly quotes Darwin, uses Darwin to invoke his racist viewpoint. And here's basically the reasoning they use. Again, this is not just Redbeard, this is many other white nationalists as well today.

Richard Weikhart: The idea is that races have evolved to different levels. So some have higher intellectual capacities. And usually they place the Europeans at the top. Although interestingly, there were a few that actually place East Asians at the top intellectually, but usually they place the Europeans at the top, the black Africans very low. And they used some of the same reasoning that was being used by pre Nazi and Nazi theorists in relation to the evolutionary development of races, that is they claim that the harsh climatic conditions of Northern Europe created a selective pressure that caused the Europeans to have to be more intellectually capable and also more cooperative. So they think that they're more moral also, whereas the black Africans, since they were living in tropical climate, didn't really have to work as hard. They didn't have to use their mental faculties as much, and they were given then to greater sexual immorality and other kinds of things as well.

Richard Weikhart: So there ideas are the same ideas were being put forward before the Nazi period and also embraced by the Nazis interestingly too. So the white nationalists today are recycling really the same evolutionary arguments that were used by Nazis, that the Nazis had got from social Darwinist ideologues for their time.

Sean McDowell: Now, would you connect that to Christian nationalism or is that outside the scope of your research?

Richard Weikhart: I didn't really do much work on a so-called Christian nationalism there, what's interesting though, and there's been a number of other scholars who've concurred with this position as well though, that the white nationalism, the movement that sees white supremacy and such, does tend to be very secular in our day. In fact, there was kind of a shift in the middle of the 20th century. In the early part of the 20th century, there were a lot of connections between at least so-called Christianity and the white supremacist. So the Ku Klux Klan, for example, did claim to have a Christian identity.

Richard Weikhart: But in the middle of 20th century, there was a key shift. And most of the people pushing for white supremacy in the late 20th century are very secular in their outlook and often even anti-Christian.

Sean McDowell: Richard, I'm sorry. I just got to ask, given that you're researching antisemitism, Nazism and white nationalism, do you ever get concerned that you'll get tagged in some FBI database given the extent of your research?

Richard Weikhart: Hopefully not, but I did look at a lot of white nationalist websites. So anyone looks back at my history of searching they'll find that I've looked at a lot of stuff that is not so good. In fact my university library, I was astonished to find out actually has a copy of Ragnar Redbeard's [crosstalk 00:21:27]. I had checked for the last couple of years in part to keep it off the shelf so that other people don't read it.

Scott Rae: Well, Richard, if you ever get tagged like that, Sean and I will vouch for you, no problem.

Scott Rae: Hey, let me pursue the antisemitism for a moment, because that strikes me as curious how that was both at the part of Nazi ideology and white nationalism today, because Jews are white, they're mostly European. They seem to fit with a lot of the Darwinian ideology that you've described already as being according to Darwin, one of those superior races, how did the antisemitism develop for both those groups?

Richard Weikhart: Well, Darwin himself was not anti-Semitic and there's nothing in Darwinism itself that would promote antisemitism per se. However, what happened was a lot of the prejudices that had built up over centuries relating to the Jews, in the middle to late 19th century, began to be applied by some antisemitic theorists in a racial way. Instead of seeing the Jews as being a religion, they began to see them as being a race. And by the way, the word antisemitism didn't even exist until the late 19th century. And it was developed by a guy named Wilhelm Marr in Germany, who was promoting the idea that Jews are a race, not a religion.

Richard Weikhart: They didn't see by the way, the Jews as being a European race, they considered them Asiatic race. They often used that term Asiatic to refer to the Jews.

Richard Weikhart: And although many of the antisemitic theorists admitted that the Jews had some intelligence, they also believed that over the process of the evolutionary process, they had developed negative moral traits, and they saw these as biological traits, not just cultural things.

Richard Weikhart: So when they looked at the stereotypes of the Jews as being deceitful, as being greedy and sexually promiscuous and things like that, they thought these were part of their biological makeup. And so on the other hand, they saw the Germans, the Nordic or Arian race as being honest, diligent, thrifty all these good moral characteristics. So even though they admitted that the Jews had some intellectual capabilities, they thought that actually was maybe a bigger problem, because they would use it in immoral ways. At least that again, that was the stereotype.

Richard Weikhart: So then Hitler and the Nazis bought wholeheartedly into that ideology. Again, Hitler was particularly original in any of his ideas, most of the ideas were around before his time, but he was going to apply them very fanatically. So they saw the Jews as being a separate race that had these immoral characteristics. And so in this twisted logic, Hitler thought that by getting rid of the Jews, he was improving morality by getting rid of these immoral Jews.

Sean McDowell: Richard, I can imagine somebody saying, okay, wait a minute. You're more conservative, and conservatives have had issues with Darwinism for a long time, and clearly it's still embraced by most scientists. So now given that the cultural conversation has shifted to race, here's a new attack on Darwinism to call him a racist. What would you say to that kind of potential critique?

Richard Weikhart: Well, for one thing, my work is not attempting to try to disprove Darwinism. It's showing the impacts that Darwinism has had on culture and thought. And again, like I suggested at the beginning of this podcast, I sort of came into this from the back door. I wasn't really interested in trying to show Darwin's impact on even racism or Nazism. I was actually originally trying to look at the way that Darwin's was being used to try to challenge Christian ethics by the use of evolutionary ethics. So I understand what you're saying that yes, people are going to say, oh, you're just trying to attack Darwin on the basis of racism. Well, I hope people would think about Darwinism as an issue because of some of the bad impacts that it's had on society.

Richard Weikhart: Again, it doesn't disprove it. I think we need to look at the science to disprove it. And I personally believe that there are a lot of scientific problems with Darwinism that should give us pause, but my work is simply trying to lay out what are the... I'm a historian. So I'm trying to lay out what are the implications that these ideas have had for our society and culture.

Scott Rae: So, Richard, one final question, and maybe just a look ahead, and maybe, maybe we'll ask you to play profit just for a moment. Where do you think, given your work on the white nationalist movement in the US and in Europe, where do you think that's headed? Do you see that becoming a bit more mainstream or do you see it continuing to stay on the fringe? Where do you see that headed in the future?

Richard Weikhart: Well, I think it probably will stay on the fringe. I think the dominant thrust of our society is to oppose biological racism. And it doesn't seem to me among the scientific elites that there's any movement in that direction. I mean, you have just a handful. I do give you a few examples in my book of a couple of a academics who have been promoting these kinds of things, but they're on the fringes and I don't see any huge growth in the movement.

Richard Weikhart: It seems to me like about three or four years ago, there was a little bit more of an uptick, more interest and such in it. I think that's died down a little bit and I hope it continues to die down. And I'm hopeful that we can move beyond these ideas. But interestingly, if we can show that the problems with Darwinian racism, this will have an impact on helping to undermine the white nationalist ideology, which again, does rely very heavily on Darwinian racism.

Scott Rae: Well, and maybe also encouraging people to take a second look at Darwinian science as well.

Richard Weikhart: Yes, I hope so.

Scott Rae: That would be a nice, I think, byproduct of that as well. So Richard, as usual, when we have you on, this has been full of really insightful stuff that I think a lot of our listeners just haven't thought about before. So we're very grateful to you for your work, really over a long career as a historian. And since you are now professor emeritus, we look forward to seeing a lot more coming out in the years to come. So I think you've still got a lot of good stuff left to get out there on the table for us. And we look forward to seeing that.

Scott Rae: Comment to our listeners of your book, "Darwinian Racism, how Darwinism influenced Hitler, Nazism, and white nationalism" by historian Richard Weikhart. Richard, thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate the conversation today.

Richard Weikhart: Yeah. Thanks for having me on, I appreciate talking to you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture." Think biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian apologetics now offered for fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more.

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Scott Rae: Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.