In tracing the history of Darwin's accomplishment and the trajectory of evolutionary theory during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most scholars agree that Darwin introduced blind mechanism into biology, thus banishing moral values from the understanding of nature. According to the standard interpretation, the principle of survival of the fittest has rendered human behavior, including moral behavior, ultimately selfish. Few doubt that Darwinian theory, especially as construed by the master's German disciple, Ernst Haeckel, inspired Hitler and led to Nazi atrocities.
In this collection of essays, Robert J. Richards argues that this orthodox view is wrongheaded. A close historical examination reveals that Darwin, in more traditional fashion, constructed nature with a moral spine and provided it with a goal: man as a moral creature. Was Hitler a Darwinian? takes up many topics – including the character of Darwin's chief principles of natural selection and divergence, his dispute with Alfred Russel Wallace over man's big brain, the role of language in human development, his relationship to Herbert Spencer, how much his views had in common with Haeckel's, and the general problem of progress in evolution. Moreover, Richards takes a forceful stand on the timely issue of whether Darwin is to blame for Hitler's atrocities. Was Hitler a Darwinian? is intellectual history at its boldest.
Robert J. Richards is the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine; professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy, and Psychology and in the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science; and director of the Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, all at the University of Chicago. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, The Tragic Sense of Life, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Chicago.
"Scholarly and wide-ranging."
– Yvonne Sherratt, University of Bristol, Times Higher Education Supplement
"An illuminating look at what makes Darwinian theory so slippery, and so magnetic, even to those of us outside the sciences."
– Michael Schulson, Religion & Politics
"These essays display the impressive range of Robert J. Richards's abilities as an intellectual historian and historian of science, as they explore the disparate sources of Darwinian thought in romanticism, theology, ethics, aesthetics, and linguistics. They dispel the notion that Darwin saw the world as purposeless, amoral, and red in tooth and claw, and they bring out the complexity and nuance of Darwin's accounts of the origins of mind, morals, language, emotions, and humanity. It becomes clear, even before we get to the title essay, that Darwin was an unlikely fountainhead for Nazi ideology, and, for that matter, a poor figurehead for other -isms sometimes connected to him, from social Darwinism, to neo-Darwinism, to atheism and materialism. Richards also gives us an unusually sympathetic treatment of Ernst Haeckel, defends him against oft-repeated accusations of fraud, and reveals a strong affinity between his Darwinism and Darwin's own."
– Sander Gliboff, Indiana University
"This collection of essays by Robert J. Richards, today's preeminent historian of evolutionary theory, shows the scholarship and intellectual daring we have come to expect from this author. Knowledgeable and sympathetic toward Charles Darwin, Richards also shows great empathy for Darwin's contemporaries, from supporters like Ernst Haeckel to rivals like Richard Owen and Herbert Spencer. Witty and engaging on the surface, Richards's authoritative dismissal of the hypothesis that the roots of Nazi thinking are to be found in the fertile soil of the On the Origin of Species proves that the volume is held together by a deep moral seriousness and the conviction that the past really matters to the present."
– Michael Ruse, author of The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw