Quite a lot has been said about the issue of Social Darwinism and the Eugenenics movement in the Nazi programme and the Holocaust. I’ve even said some of it myself here and here. Less has been said about the role of Social Darwinism in the First World War, though it probably had more effect on the science and religion question, if not on the death count, though the First War’s 37 million is at least comparable to the Second’s 60 million. The estimates of deaths due to “evolutionary” communism range up to 150m, and so dwarf both wars.
I was reading a section of Del Ratzsch’s book, Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate, in which he describes the development of American Fundamentalism before the Scopes Trial. Initially, The Fundamentals was written primarily to counter higher criticism, and although evolution was considered “suspect”, at least a couple of its major contributors were theistic evolutionists of the Warfield type – I’ll have more to say about that in another post. Says Ratzsch:
However, in the shattering aftermath of World War I, things began to change. Fundamentalists came to believe nearly universally that evolution was inherently, ineradicably materialistic and naturalistic. Perhaps even worse, it was driven ultimately by blind chance and was thus apparently irreconcilable with any sort of underlying divine purpose or guidance. In other words, fundamentalists perceived Darwin’s theory not only as having a built-in philosophical agenda, contrary to the rules of good science, but as having a philosophical agenda that was violently contrary to Christianity.
A bit familiar? So, then, is this, which may help explain it:
Various antireligious Darwinists triumphantly insisted that evolution did indeed have antireligious and antiscriptural worldview consequences. Darwin himself had apparently conceded something in that direction in his rejection of Asa Gray’s attempts at constructing a theistic evolution that could combine evolution and design. So it was neither accidental nor arbitrary that fundamentalist Christians would eventually settle on evolution as a deep enemy – they were being explicitly taught that by some of the advocates of evolution.
Now, it’s easy to think the Fundies were being oversensitive: the fact that atheist apologists import philosophical presuppositions into science does not make them part of the theory, as we are often told now. But we’re not living in the twenties – Christians had had sixty years to sense how the land lay in practice, and had actually retreated from what had been largely a cautious approval of evolution. It seems likely that these “various Darwinists” were both strident and influential. Natural scientists had no more realisation of, or concern for, their metaphysical blinkers than the higher critics did. It was “reason” that was triumphant and “dogma” that was on the canvas. The spirit of the age wasn’t interested in sharing its spoils with God. But here’s where the war comes in:
Furthermore, after World War I fundamentalists and various other Christians increasingly came to see evolution as the cause of the bitter evils that had engulfed civilization. Evolution seemed to many to say that conflict was normal – even elevating. It seemed to say that survival was all that mattered – that is, that might (or anything else that enhanced one’s personal or national chances of leaving offspring) made right. Evolution seemed to many to say that elimination of the weak to one’s own advantage had the blessing of nature and life itself. Darwinism was widely held to have been one conscious motivating factor in Germany’s behavior during World War I (and that was not necessarily sheer fantasy)…
It’s easy now to dismiss social Darwinism as a minor aberration of the theory of evolution. But we don’t have human zoos in New York, Bolshevik revolutions ushering in the evolutionary new dawn in the East and – in all too recent memory, the death of the cream of a generation in hellish, scientific, war. Maybe America only lost 116,000, but they were all too aware that their British allies had lost over 2% of their population, and one tenth of their conscripts, in the mud and mustard gas. What godly man would not condemn belief in evolution if that was its outcome?
But perhaps the Fundamentalist lobby were imagining the role of social Darwinism in the war? After all, do we not now realise that it was all to do with the clash of imperialist powers too backward-looking to avoid conflict? Well, that’s partly true (though we must remember that even nineteenth century imperialism was following the ideology of the progressive, industrial nation state and its right to dominate). Yet even that dispassionate source, Wikipedia, says this:
Throughout the fifty years from 1867 to 1914, it proved difficult to reach adequate compromises in the governance of Austria-Hungary, leading many to search for non-diplomatic solutions. At the same time, a form of social Darwinism became popular among many in the Austrian half of the government. This thinking emphasised the primacy of armed struggle between nations, and the need for nations to arm themselves for an ultimate struggle for survival.
As a result, at least two distinct strains of thought advocated war with Serbia, often unified in the same people. (Wikipedia – Causes of World War 1)
Kaiser Wilhelm himself had embraced racist social Darwinism for decades before the war: Langer in 1968 wrote:
He believed in force, and the ‘survival of the fittest’ in domestic as well as foreign politics.
If the Fundamentalists were mistaken, they were mistaken for good reasons, and shared their opinion with many in the educated world. And we must remember that if social Darwinism had become generally less popular after the war, it still formed the backdrop to the Scopes trial that would finally knock Fundamentalism out of the intellectual discourse, arguably leaving the field clear for the rise of Eugenics and the salutory lessons of the Nazi death camps.
In retrospect, it seems to me that their conclusions from the events of the Great War have something to teach us about the culture wars today. Social darwinism may have become eclipsed, but hidden philosphical presuppositions and political muscle are still very much in the running.