Given our rationality, ideas inevitably have consequences and deeply shape human history. In The Death of Humanity: and the case for life (Washington: Regnery Faith, c. 2016), California State University historian Richard Weikart helps explain the “culture of death” so pervasive throughout the past century—during which both belief in the dignity of man and the actual lives of millions of men demonstrably perished. Consider the case of the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer: following his arrest in 1991, he said that he believed “‘the theory of evolution is truth, that we all just came from the slime, and when we died . . . that was it, there was nothing—so the whole theory cheapens life.’ With this vision, he saw no reason not to kill and eat other men. As he confessed, ‘If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point in trying to modify your behavior to keep it in acceptable ranges?’” (#224). Similarly, Eric Harris, one of the killers in Columbine High School in 1999, confessed (in his journal) to loving Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche; furthermore, he wore a T-shirt declaring “Natural Selection” when he launched his killing spree.
Having survived Auschwitz, the great Austrian psychologist Victor Frankl analyzed the intellectual currents he held responsible for the Holocaust: “If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity, and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequences of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—as the Nazi liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers . . . were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers” (The Doctor and the Soul, xxvii).
In many ways, Weikart’s work is an extended commentary on the anthropological ideas Frankl held responsible for genocide, holding man to be “an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity, and environment.” During the past 200 years a multitude of thinkers have embraced varieties of philosophical materialism and rejected the traditional Christian “sanctity-of-life” ethic. Some of them, beginning with Julien Offray de La Mettrie in 1747, imagined humans in terms of Man the Machine. As a machine running within a mechanistic universe utterly devoid of meaning or purpose, it follows that a man is as irresponsible for his behavior as is the moon circling the earth. Picking up on this notion, Ludwig Feuerbach famously said “Man is what he eats” (Der Mensch ist, was er isst!) and Karl Marx drank deeply from this fountain of atheism as he began his revolutionary career. In our day, Francis Crick, celebrated for his DNA discoveries, “has probably done as much as anyone to promote the idea that humans can be reduced to their material basis” (#807) and speaks for many eminent academics. Since we’re nothing but genes and molecules, i.e. matter-in-motion: “‘No newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment and that if it fails these tests it forfeits the right to life’” (#826).
Other philosophical materialists reduce man to a highly-evolved animal, following Darwin’s dictum that he was “created from animals” and has no soul. That view, as adumbrated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s Ingrid Newkirk, holds: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.” PETA enthusiasts, of course, elevate animals to human status, demanding they be treated tenderly. But others lower humans to animals, treating them as disposable if worthless. Following Darwin, human life must be devalued, since all animals share a common ancestry and natural selection requires the denial of any purpose to life. Necessarily there can be no moral standards—might-makes-right as the fittest survive and individuals struggle for supremacy in life-and-death competition.
Weikart traces the powerful trajectory of Darwinism (a theme he earlier documented in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress), culminating in some of the pronouncements of Peter Singer—Princeton University’s Professor of Philosophy. Studying Singer—famed for his promotion of “animal liberation,” infanticide, bestiality, and “unsanctifying human life”—one realizes how much that’s wrong with our world can be traced to Charles Darwin, whose moral relativism justified any behavior which increased an individual’s survival potential (“even killing one’s own offspring”) if advantageous. “Singer admits that Darwinism informs his own position that humans are not special or uniquely valuable. He claims that Darwin ‘undermined the foundations of the entire Western way of thinking on the place of our species in the universe’” (#1054). Without those Christian foundations, there is no reason to condemn the might-makes-right victors in the struggle for existence.
Differing somewhat from the Darwin (who stressed environmental factors and understood little of what we label genetics), there are biological determinists such as Harvard University’s Stephen Pinker. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, he justifies infanticide inasmuch as one’s “genes made me do it.” Pinker labels just-born humans “neonates,” whose killing he calls “neonaticide” rather than murder. Since the neonate lacks “morally significant traits” and is not demonstrably a full person, he has no more right to life than a mouse. Hard-wired by our genes, we have no free-will and simply follow what’s prescribed for us. Criminals are thus not to be held responsible for their crimes—a position increasingly held by criminologists and judges who attack this nation’s incarceration policies.
Biological determinism was strongly asserted, more than a century ago, by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who eagerly embraced the theory of natural selection and applied it to eugenics—a “‘new religion’ that would humanely improve humans biologically” (#1792). In Galton we encounter “Social Darwinism” in its purist form. Enthusiasts for this endeavor promoted a blatantly-racist agenda in Europe and America, passing laws and influencing a variety of academic disciplines. Later tarnished by its association with the Nazis, eugenics following WWII, but it has recently revived under the rubric of “sociobiology” and “evolutionary psychology.” Sociobiology’s architect, Harvard University’s E. O. Wilson, restricted reality to “chance and necessity” and insisted “that everything about humans—behavior, morality, and even religion—is ultimately explicable as the result of completely material processes” (#1955). Given this assumption, virtually any behavior may be “good” as long as it contributes to the evolutionary process. If one finds animal species engaging in suicide or infanticide or incest, numbers of evolutionary devotees declare such behavior may very well be appropriate for humans as well.
Environmental determinists glibly declare “my upbringing made me do it”—as did Clarence Darrow (the famed defense attorney at the Scopes monkey trial) when he defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in a celebrated Chicago case a century ago. The two young men, both brilliant and wealthy, had murdered a 14 year old boy simply to carry out the “perfect” crime. Darrow (working out the implications of the Darwinism he had early defended in the Scopes trial) declared they were simply acting out what had been programmed into them and were thus guiltless of any crime! Wikhart traces the genealogy of this position across 200 years, running from Helvetius through Robert Owen and his socialist supporters to Marx and his 20th century revolutionaries such as Stalin and Mao. Prominent American psychologists, led by John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, declared that one can prescribe any kind of behavior by applying the right stimulus. Thus criminals ought not be held responsible for their acts—society shapes them and they do what they cannot but do.
Yet another powerful component in the “culture of death” is the “love of pleasure” most sharply evident in the works and influence of the Marquis de Sade, who embraced any kind of behavior (including sadism) that “feels good.” He and other Enlightenment thinkers recovered and promoted Epicurus and Lucretius—ancient writers clearly at odds with the Christian tradition. Subsequently, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill constructed an ethical system—Utilitarianism—reducing all moral questions to a pleasure/pain calculus. There are no “natural” rights, only more or less pleasurable experiences. Maximizing pleasure becomes the sole “good,” whether one considers an individual or a society. Subsequently, Sigmund Freud set forth his highly-influential psychology, reducing most every question to its sexual implications and satisfactions. His case for sexual liberation had enormous influence, particularly as the counterculture of the ‘60s worked out its hedonistic ethos.
Some of the 20th century’s most toxic deadly notions flow from existential and postmodern philosophers. One of the chief sources for both movements is Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared, in Also sprach Zarathurstra: “Die at the right time; thus teaches Zarathustra . . . . Far too many [people] live and hang much too long on their branches. May a storm come to shake all these rotten and worm-eaten ones from the tree.” When Clarence Darrow mounted his defense of Leopold and Loeb he invoked Nietzsche as well as Darwin to explain away their responsibility for murder. Nietzsche certainly shared Darwin’s view of human origins, writing: “‘You have made your way from worm to man, and much of you is still worm’” (#3307). When one carefully studies the careers of Mussolini and Hitler it becomes evident that many of the most murderous regimes were influenced by the atheistic existentialism of Nietzsche, including his contempt for the less fit in life’s struggle. We have a picture of Hitler looking at a bust of Nietzsche in 1938. A caption for the picture proudly claims “Nietzsche was a forerunner of Nazism” (#3300), and Hitler certainly wanted to move “beyond good and evil” in his will-to-power ambitions. Traditional ethical notions, such as opposing suicide and infanticide, were to be discarded in an endeavor to purify and elevate the race.
Having looked at the many thinkers responsible for our culture of death, Weikart assesses the fact that suicide, euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion have become increasingly acceptable in much of our world. Thus we find two medical ethicists, in 2012, proposing we re-conceptualize infanticide as “after-birth abortion” to insure its social acceptability. “Death-With-Dignity” initiatives have succeeded in Washington, Oregon, and California and promise to succeed elsewhere as secularism replaces Christianity as the nation’s moral foundation. Many secularists (including the famous “situation ethicist” Joseph Fletcher) insist that mere human beings are not fully “persons” and have no right to life. Persons, Fletcher asserted, “must have certain qualities, such as the ability to make moral decisions, self-awareness, self-consciousness, and self-determination” (#4078). Similarly, Peter Singer says, neither an unborn “fetus” nor a newly-born baby can be considered a “person.” Nor do severely handicapped individuals or terminally ill comatose patients qualify as “persons.”
In his “Conclusion,” Weikart says: “Humans on display in zoos. Comparing farm animals in captivity to Holocaust victims. ‘After-birth abortion.’ Physicians killing patients, sometimes even when they are not sick or in pain. Accusing fetuses of assaulting their mothers, just because they are living peaceably in utero. Promoting ‘love drugs’ to make us more moral. Granting computer programs moral status. These are just a few examples that powerfully illustrate how sick our society is. As many intellectuals have abandoned the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic in favor of secular philosophies, we have descended into a quagmire of inhumanity. Some today view humans as nothing more than sophisticated machines or just another type of animal. For them, human s are nothing special—just another random arrangement of particles I an impersonal cosmos” (#4936).
The Death of Humanity deserves careful study and reflection. J. Budziszewski, one of today’s finest Christian philosophers, says: “So often I have heard the question, ‘How did we ever become so muddled in this twenty-first century? What happened?’ This is a question for a historian, who can weave a single coherent story about a great many sources of confusion. Richard Weikart is that historian, and I will be recommending his sane and lucid book often.” As will I—and am so doing with this review!
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In Architects of the Culture of Death (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2004), Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker provide brief vignettes of 23 thinkers, grouped together in seven sections, who bear responsibility for the dehumanizing “culture of death” facilitating the killing of innocent persons. De Marco is a philosopher; Wiker is a biologist; both are committed Catholics who write to promote the “Personalism” associated with Pope John Paul II and deeply embedded in two millennia of Christian thought. “It is precisely because of the infinite value of each human person, as revealed especially in the great drama of Jesus Christ, that truly Christian culture must be a Culture of Life, a culture that sees the protection of persons and their moral, intellectual, and spiritual development as the defining goals of society. Whatever contradicts these goals can have no place in the Culture of Life” (p. 14).
Clearly at odds with the Culture of Life is Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the “will worshippers” who celebrated a “Will to War, a Will to Power, a Will to Overpower’” (p. 41). His heroes were “Supermen” like Julius Caesar who imposed their will on others, using whatever (frequently violent) means necessary. In 1940 an American historian, Crane Brinton, diagnosed the impact of his literary works: “Point for point he preached . . . most of the cardinal articles of the professed Nazi creed—a transvaluation of all values, the sanctity of the will to power, the right and duty of the strong to dominate, the sole right of great states to exist, a renewing, a rebirth, of German and hence European society. . . . The unrelieved tension, the feverish aspiration, the driving madness, the great noise Nietzsche made for himself, the Nazi elite is making for an uncomfortably large part of the world’” (p. 52).
Though not connected with them in any formal way, Nietzsche certainly shared much with eminent eugenicists of his era, who all embraced Charles Darwin’s notions of evolution through “natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest.” Though Darwin himself evaded the implications of his theory for human beings for much of his life, it became clear in 1871, with the publication of his Descent of Man, that he was a eugenicist. And he was also “a racist and a moral relativist” (p. 76). Thus his cousin, Francis Galton, enthusiastically worked out the social implications of Darwinism by promoting eugenic measures designed to improve the race. Just as we can breed better dogs we can breed better babies. Inferior members of the species are best left to die off or forced to embrace celibacy. Private correspondence between cousins Galton and Darwin proves how totally the latter endorsed the work of the former, so the two share responsibility for what we term “Social Darwinism.” Embracing some of the deadlier aspects of this movement, the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel championed a rather ruthless form of evolutionary philosophy he called Monism, “drawing out the full implications of Darwinism” (p. 107). He fervently espoused “eugenics and racial extermination” as well as “abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia as well” (p. 107). Haeckel’s books were widely read at the turn of the 20th century and demonstrably influenced many of the policies crafted by Adolf Hitler.
“Secular utopianists,” preeminently Karl Marx, prepared the way for mass-murderers such as Stalin and Mao. Though his devotees religiously absolve Marx from any responsibility for the behavior of Communist regimes—asserting all efforts to implement his teachings strayed from the founder’s intent—there is clearly a deadly dimension to all efforts to establish a perfectly egalitarian world. In fact, “Marx could not be more limpid in his call for violence. He advocated hanging capitalists from the nearest lampposts” (p. 125). Aligned with Marx (sharing both his atheism and communism), the French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s “philosophy leads logically and directly to despair and suicide. . . . His world of atheism is a kingdom of nothingness plunged into intellectual darkness, convulsed with spiritual hate and peopled by inhabitants who curse God and destroy each other in their vain attempt to seize his vacant throne” (p. 175). (There is thus some warrant for Paul Johnson to suggest, in his biography of Darwin, that Pol Pot, the genocidal Cambodian Communist, derived some of his murderous ideas from both Sartre, who introduced him to Darwin, and from Darwin himself!)
While the “pleasure seekers” might not seem to promote the culture of death, at least indirectly they do! Thus Helen Gurley Brown, who made Cosmopolitan magazine a stellar success (especially on college campuses), singularly promoted “feel-good sex.” Her “Sex and the Single Girl, [was} a ‘shameless, unblushing, runaway, unmitigated’ manual advising and instructing women on how to seduce men and enjoy their inalienable right to have as much sex as humanly possible” (p. 237). Her message helped shape the enormously successful television show, “Sex in the City,” mainstreaming her ideas. Inevitably she approved adultery, contraception, and abortion—anything pleasuring yourself was fine.
So too “sex planners” added their notions to the anti-life brew. Margaret Mead, named “Mother of the World” by Time magazine in 1969, was certainly one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century and reached a broad women’s audience through her regular columns (1961-1978) for Redbook magazine, helping “bring the twentieth-century sexual revolution to its culmination” (p. 250). As a young woman she published Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and instantly became an academic superstar. Though her misleading portrayal of the sexually libertine Samoans was “autobiography disguised as anthropology,” the book would be required reading in hundreds of university classes and help undermine the Christian tradition’s commitment to chastity and opposition to abortion. Joining Mead as a spurious “scholar” was Alfred Kinsey, who sought to justify his own covert homosexuality and pedophilia with allegedly statistical studies on the Sexual Behavior of the American male and female. The Kinsey Reports lent an aura of respectability to deviant behaviors simply by falsely stating large numbers of Americans actually practiced them.
Finally, there are the “death peddlers”—Derek Humphry, who in Final Exit championed suicide; Jack Kevorkian, the pathologist who bragged about his “mercy-killing” activities and “personifies the Culture of Death” as vividly as anyone; and Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher who seeks to discard the “traditional Western ethic” which for 2,000 years has promoted the “sanctity of life.” Taking Darwinism to its ultimate conclusions” (p. 363), Singer denies significant differences between humans and other animals. He also believes a “person” is a human being with certain capacities and thus not all humans are “persons” worthy of being. His books—and his international prestige as being one of the preeminent ethicists in the world—bear witness to the triumph, in many sectors, of a noxious ideology.