161 War Against the Weak

Terri Schaivo’s recent death illustrates the continuation of a process detailed in Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak:  Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, c. 2003).   The author, assisted by some 50 researchers combing various archives, links eugenics’ enthusiasts in the United States a century ago (who were primarily concerned with sterilizing the “unfit” and breeding a better species) with the Nazis who vigorously implemented their ideas a generation later.  “National Socialism,” Black says, “transduced America’s quest for a ‘superior Nordic race’ into Hitler’s drive for an ‘Aryan master race.’  The Nazis were fond of saying ‘National Socialism is nothing but applied biology,’ and in 1934 the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted a prominent American eugenicist as saying, ‘The Germans are beating us at our own game'” (pp. xvi-xvii).

To accomplish this, eugenicists in both Germany and America had to defy and destroy a deeply-engrained principle in Western Civilization:  the sanctity of life.  As President George W. Bush recently said, the day Terri Schaivo died in Florida, a good civilization is distinguished by its care for her weakest, most vulnerable persons.  But challenging that position is a worldview rooted in Darwinian biology that insists a species evolves (and thus improves) as its fittest individuals survive.  Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis J. Galton, wriote Hereditary Genius six years after the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species and coined the word “eugenics” two decades later.  Galton is widely considered the “father” of that alleged scientific discipline,

Eugenic ideas quickly gained a favorable hearing in the United States.  In the same year Galton published Hereditary Genius, 1865 “the utopian Oneida Community in upstate New York [best known for its “free love” experiments under the guidance of John Humphrey Noyes] declared in its newspaper that, ‘Human breeding should be one of the foremost questions of the age. . . .’  A few years later, with freshly expounded Galtonian notions crossing the Atlantic, the Oneida commune began its first selective human breeding experiment with fifty-three female and thirty-eight male volunteers” (p. 21).  Though Galton himself disavowed such breeding endeavors, a small cadre of Americans envisioned infinite progress through racial purification.  One of the trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, Madison Grant, the author of The Passing of the Great Race, made the goal clear, “writing that Nordics ‘were the white man par excellence'” (p. 29).  Grant opposed all interracial unions, asserting that inferior race degraded the “superior” race.  Thus the children of an Iroquois and a German were Iroquois.  Somehow the blood of “inferior” races dominates the genetic development of mixed-blood offspring!  To some eugenicists, one drop of a “mongrel’s” blood makes one a mongrel!

Genetic research in America thrived in large part because wealthy individuals (Mary Harriman) and foundations (Rockefeller, Carnegie) supported it.  In 1904 The Carnegie Institution’s Station for Experimental Evolution opened at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island, NY.  The station’s director, Charles Davenport, thenceforth played a crucial role, for nearly 40 years, as the eugenicists’ prime proponent.  Davenport began by gathering a sizeable research library and lab animals.  He effectively enlisted professors from the nation’s most prestigious universities as “associates” at Cold Spring Harbor.  From its inception, Black says:  “Eugenics was nothing less than an alliance between biological racism and mighty American power, position and wealth against the most vulnerable, the most marginal and least empowered in the nation” (p. 57).

One of the powerful men aligned with eugenics was Oliver Wendell Holmes, a justice of the United States Supreme Court, who wrote nearly 1,000 opinions in 30 years on the bench.  He interpreted the country’s Constitution as a “living” document, changing with the decades in accord with new experiences and convictions.  Wounded at Chancellorsville in the Civil War, he read Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics while recovering.  Converted to Spencer’s version of Social Darwinism, Holmes subsequently rejected, as “inherently absurd,” the notion that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”  Truth to tell, he decided:  might makes right.  “‘Truth,’ he declared, ‘is the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others'” (p. 119).  Humanitarians, do-gooders, religionists, sentimentalists–all equally evoked Holmes’ disdain.

Before Justice Holmes’ court came the case of Carrie Buck, a Virginia woman declared “unfit” to bear children.  Under the laws of her state, crafted by eugenicists citing the “research” of Davenport and his colleagues at Cold Spring Harbor, defectives should be sterilized in order to improve the biological basis of society.  Since Carrie Buck was anything but demonstrably defective, her case wound its way to the nation’s highest court.  Writing for the majority of his colleagues, Holmes wrote, in 1927, that Carrie Buck was a “feeble minded” woman who should be sterilized.  “‘It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.'” The state had the necessary power.  And, he concluded:  “‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough'” (p. 121).

Having demonstrated the power of eugenics in America, Black turns to its demonic results abroad.  Though folks like H.G. Wells in England insisted that the movement focus upon restricting the births of undesirables, growing numbers scientists in northwest Europe, and especially in Germany, subtly advocated a more active approach:  “eugenicide.”  A report from the American Breeders Association toyed with the notion of “‘painless killing’ of people deemed unworthy of life.  The method most whispered about, and publicly denied, but never out of mind, was a ‘lethal chamber'” (p. 247).  Lethal chambers were widely used to eliminate unwanted pets in England, and a few eugenicists suggested that “idiots” and “imbeciles” could be similarly destroyed.  Unfit children, the American urologist William Robinson declared, should be chloroformed or given potassium cyanide.  And Madison Grant, in The Passing of the Great Race, summed it up:  “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community.  The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race” (p. 259).

Grant received a letter commending his book from an obscure German politician who referred to it as “his Bible.”  The politician was, of course, Adolf Hitler, whose “eugenic writings resembled passages from Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race” (p. 274).  And he would, in time, implement the eugenic policies so favored by Americans such as Grant.  Still more:  the Nazi legislation followed precedents already laid down by laws in America.  Naturally, Hitler derived his views from German eugenicists as well.  And during the 1920s there were vigorous proponents of race purification and perfection whose ideas bolstered his visions of a “master race” imposing its will upon the world.  To get such a race, “breeding facilities” were needed to “mass-produce perfect Aryan babies.”  They would fulfill Nietzsche’s aspiration for Ubermenschen–”taller, stronger and in many ways disease-resistant” (p. 367).  As defined by Hitler’s influential associate, Rudolf Hess, “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology” (p. 270).

To do this, professors, such as Ernst Rudin, were recruited and scholarly institutes, preeminently the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, established.  Maps were drawn to indicate concentrations of “defective” and “half-breed” populations.  Such folks were dismissed as “worthless eaters” who led a “life unworthy of life.”  Fortunately for the professors, money flowed freely from the Rockefeller Foundation to various “researchers” in Europe.  A new punch card system, perfected and exported by IBM, facilitated such research.  Consequently, in the ’40s, “thousands of Germans taken from old age homes, mental institutions and other custodial facilities were systematically gassed.  Between 50,000 and 100,000 were eventually killed.  Psychiatrists, steeped in eugenics, selected the victims after a momentary review of their records, jotted their destinies with a pen stroke, and then personally supervised their exterminations” (p. 317).

More horrendous developments followed:  Buchenwald; Auschwitz; the Holocaust.  At Buchenwald, Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenwald, who had spent many years in America and “served as chief eugenicist of New Jersey under then-Governor Woodrow Wilson” (p. 320), carried out experiments and supervised the killing of thousands of inmates.  He was, ironically, a Jew who was arrested by the Nazis in 1940.  At Auschwitz, another eugenicist, Josef Mengele–the “Angel of Death”–conducted scientific experiments and orchestrated the killing of thousands.  He was particularly interested in the study of twins, following the lead of Francis Galton, to determine precisely how genetics affected a person’s response to various experiments.  “Twins were the perfect control group for experimentation” (p. 348).

With the collapse of the Third Reich and the world’s horrified reaction to its eugenic aspirations, following WWII the movement’s leaders re-labeled it and re-furbished themselves.  Much of the alleged “scientific evidence” accumulated by eugenicists was largely discarded as spurious.  But the basic commitment remained.  The American Society of Human Genetics was established and elected an American, Joseph Muller, who had worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in the ’30s.  German eugenicists who were not implicated in Hitler’s policies settled quickly into research positions in America and Germany.  England’s James Watson, famed for co-discovering DNA, was deeply involved with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for 40 years.  The term “eugenics” was replaced with a more respectable term, “genetics,” and given fresh energy by environmentalists who focused upon the dangers associated with the world’s “population explosion.”

And we have, today, thousands of scientists clamoring for what Black labels “newgenics.”  To eliminate birth defects, to design a perfect baby, to make ourselves masters of our racial development, are goals widely embraced by many geneticists.  And some propose more radical steps.  “Mass social engineering is still being advocated by eminent voices in the genetics community” such as James Watson, who in 2003 labeled the “lower 10 percent” of the population “stupid” and confessed:  “So I’d like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent” (p. 442).  Others propose cloning as a means whereby we can perfect our species.  Brave New World approaches!

Black’s book is packed with carefully documented information–60 pages of dense, double-column footnotes.  His research, in various languages, clearly demonstrates the close (if unintended) ties between American eugenics and Nazi genocide.  Though the links may be more correlative than causative, they certainly indicate influence.  There are, as one might expect, certain blind spots in Black’s vision.  Strangely enough, he indignantly condemns Margaret Sanger for supporting sterilization for eugenic purposes while endorsing her stance on abortion.  To oppose the sterilization of a retarded person while allowing the killing of unborn children seems morally confused at best!  But the very title of the book, War Against the Weak, rightly alerts us to the unending struggle at the heart of our culture.


As a companion volume, Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler:  Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, c. 2004) deserves careful study.  Weikart is an associate professor at California State University, Stanislaus, who previously published Socialist Darwinism:  Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein.  He does meticulous research and reaches cautious conclusions.  But his message is akin to Black’s:  certain ideas, rooted in Darwinian biology, were brutally implemented in Hitler’s Germany.

Darwin himself, in his Autobiography, noted that a person such as himself, having discounted if not rejected the reality of God and immortality, “can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best one” (p. 21).  Herbert Spencer and Leslie Stephen, almost immediately, developed this position into a purely naturalistic, evolutionary ethics frequently labeled Social Darwinism.  T.H. Huxley–”Darwin’s bulldog”–interpreted Darwin to conclude that “only from death on a genocidal scale could the few progress” (p. 74).  David Friedrich Strauss, famed for his radical portrayal of the purely human “historical Jesus” in The Life of Jesus, published an equally shocking book, The Old Faith and the New in 1872, urging that the old Christian faith be replaced by a naturalistic “worldview containing large doses of Darwinian science” (p. 33).  Though Darwinians today generally demand that the biological theory be separated from its social implications, Spencer and Huxley rightly recognized the inescapable link between them.

The Nazis, six decades later, stepped through Darwin’s door and openly rejected Judeo-Christian morality, seeking to establish a new ethic rooted in both Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophy was a “direct response to evolutionary ethics” (p. 46).  Nietzsche, for example, encouraged suicide and euthanasia, eliminating disabled children and incurably ill adults.  Many Nazis drank deeply of Nietzsche, and they took seriously the call to revalue all values, to construct a new morality more attuned to natural science.  Indeed, Professor Weikart’s research shows that certain unintended consequences seem inevitable when certain ideas are enthroned in ideological movements.  No one doubts that Darwin would have personally detested the Nazi’s concentration camps, but they are perhaps inevitable consequences of the philosophy he advocated.

Weikart discovered and documents the fact “that many Darwinists believed that Darwinism had revolutionary implications for ethics and morality, providing a new foundation for ethics and overturning traditional moral codes” (p. ix).  Eminent thinkers, such as Darwin’s Cambridge mentor, Adam Sedgwick, immediately recognized this in 1859.  Writing his former student, Sedgwick protested that Darwin ignored the moral or metaphysical aspects of human nature.  Doing so would gravely harm mankind, reducing it “into a lower grade of degradation than” ever recorded by historians (p. 1).  Before Darwin, Weikart repeatedly emphasizes, the “sanctity of life” was an intact, governing principle throughout Western Civilization.  Murder, abortion, infanticide, suicide, and euthanasia were both condemned and illegal.   Though the “sanctify of life” ethic was deeply rooted in Christian, even the manifestly humanistic ideals of the French Revolution–Liberty, Equality, Fraternity–were also repudiated by Darwinists so as to celebrate “determinism, inequality, and selection” (p. 89).

A tight nucleus of positions and policies appeared wherever Darwinian evolution gained currency.  Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s most aggressive and influential disciple in Germany, envisioned a radically different world, reconfigured by Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  Freed from centuries of Judeo-Christian tradition, Haeckel and his associates “denied any possibility of divine intervention, heaped scorn on mind-body dualism, and rejected free will in favor of complete determinism” (p. 13).  Darwinism, Haeckel argued, has inescapable ethical implications:  “(1) Darwinism undermines mind-body dualism and renders superfluous the idea of a human soul distinct from the physical body.  (2) Darwinism implies determinism, since it explains human psychology entirely in terms of the laws of nature.  (3) Darwinism implies moral relativism, since morality changes over time and a variety of moral standards exist even within the human species.  (4) Human behavior and thus moral character are, at least in part, hereditary.  (5) Natural selection (in particular, group selection) is the driving force producing altruism and morality” (p. 25).

Consequently, Haeckel advocated killing the “unfit” through abortion and infanticide and euthanizing the mentally ill as well as incurable cancer patients and lepers.  All such steps were a “logical consequence of his Darwinian monistic worldview” (p. 146).   Evaluating Haeckel, Weikart notes that “it is striking that the vast majority of those who did press for abortion, infanticide and euthanasia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were fervent proponents of a naturalistic Darwinian worldview.  Some did not overtly link their views on killing the feeble to Darwinism, though many did” (p. 149).  Anticipating the chorus of criticism, always issued by Darwinists who claim that biology has no social aspects, Weikart sums up his argument:  “First, before the rise of Darwinism, there was no debate on these issues, as there was almost universal agreement in Europe that human life is sacred and that all innocent human lives should be protected.  Second, the earliest advocates of involuntary euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion in Germany were devoted to a Darwinian worldview.  Third, Haeckel, the most famous Darwinist in Germany, promoted these ideas in some of his best-selling books, so these ideas reached a wide audience, especially among those receptive to Darwinism.  Finally, Haeckel and other Darwinists and eugenicists grounded their views on death and killing in their naturalist interpretation of Darwinism” (pp. 160-161).

This was also evident in the militarism so pronounced in WWI.  Darwinists frequently celebrated war as an effective means of natural selection.  The evolution of the human species advanced as “inferior races” were eliminated in combat.  The strongest rightly destroy the weak, and racial progress follows, as Darwin himself said.  In his Descent of Man, for example, Darwin predicted that “savage races” would be replaced by “civilized races,”  as was then taking place in New Zealand.  As H.G. Wells (whose simplistic evolutionary historical works were widely read) declaimed:  “‘there is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it'” (p. 85).  To Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, the Austrian chief of the general staff, naturalistic evolution explained everything.  He had read Darwin as a youngster, and thenceforth considered “‘the struggle for existence as the fundamental principle of all earthly events [and] the only real and rational foundation of any policy.’  History, he thought, was a continual ‘rape of the weak by the strong,’ a violent contest decided by bloodshed” (p. 173).  To the extent he had a moral code it was that of the ancient Sophist, Thrasymachus:  “‘”Right” is what the stronger wills'” (p. 173).

Weikart persuasively documents the degree to which such views permeated German society in the first three decades of the 20th century.  Such positions were by no means espoused by the majority of the people.  But highly aggressive and influential people did so.  Consequently, when Hitler seized power there were  significant numbers of people prepared to support his racial and eugenic notions.  Most of them took their beliefs from popular writers, but those writers were generally disseminating positions espoused by eminent scientists like Haeckel.  With Haeckel–and then Hitler–they had rejected the Judeo-Christian morality as antiquated and unscientific.  With them, they believed the “Aryan race” was the “master race” and entitled to rule “inferior” peoples.  When necessary, certain “inferior” people should simply be eliminated.  Old-fashioned advocates of the sanctity of life could simply be ignored because Darwinism more accurately described the true reality of things.  “In Hitler’s mind Darwinism provided the moral justification for infanticide, euthanasia, genocide, and other policies that had been (and thankfully still are) considered immoral by more conventional moral standards.  Evolution provided the ultimate goals of his policy:   the biological improvement of the humans species” (p. 215).

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