We can analyze Charles Darwin’s influence in Germany by examining four connections. These include, first, Darwin’s relationship to social Darwinism and, in particular, to Hitler and the Third Reich, as many people still tend to see a strong link between these two movements. While we cannot regard Darwin as connected to the cruelties of the Third Reich, there is a relationship between Ernst Haeckel, the main defender of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany, and some aspects of Third Reich politics. The second connection is Darwin’s influence on two major German zoologists, August Weismann and Ernst Haeckel. Third, we can focus on the influence Darwin has had on the ideas of German philosophers and philosophical anthropologists, including David Friedrich Strauss, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel, Ernst Cassirer, Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen, and Vittorio Hoesle. Fourth, we can examine how Darwin is seen in Germany today.
Darwin, Social Darwinism, and the Third Reich
When the name “Darwin” comes up in discussions in Germany, it still happens that people mention Social Darwinism and Darwin’s influence on Hitler and the Third Reich. Therefore, there is the necessity of making two brief remarks about this issue.
First, it has to be said that Hitler, like Darwin, saw himself as a defender of the “will of nature.” However, Hitler linked the concept of the “will of nature” with a particular people and infers from this the necessity of aggressive behavior toward inferior races (“Aryans” versus “Jews”). Such an element cannot be found within Darwin’s theory.
Second, it needs to be said that Darwin does not promote measures against contraselection. Contraselection takes place within a civilization when the struggle for existence cannot be active in an appropriate manner, as inferior, weak, and lazy people are supported and are taken care of, and such circumstances are supposed to lead to the transmission of weak hereditary dispositions. Of course, it is a matter of dispute whether there is such a phenomenon as contraselection or not. Measures against contraselection were demanded by Ernst Haeckel, further promoted from some race hygienists (Rassenhygieniker) and later on carried out by Hitler and the national socialists. I say more about this in the section on Haeckel. At this point, it has to be stressed that first, contraselection cannot follow from Darwin’s theory of selection, as the individuals who win the struggle for existence within his theory are by definition the most suitable whatever the cultural conditions are; and second, Darwin never demanded that one should refrain from helping the weaker.
Given the above comparison between Darwin’s and Hitler’s ideas, we must conclude that Darwin should not be seen as an intellectual precursor of the German national socialist movement.
Darwin and Two Major German Zoologists
The first zoologist I deal with here is August Weismann (1834-1914). At the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday, Weismann pointed out the importance of Darwin by stressing that before Darwin zoology, botany, and anthropology existed as separate sciences, but with Darwin’s theory of evolution, a connection between these various sciences was established. Weismann is regarded as the first proper Darwinist and as the founder of neo-Darwinism, although originally he believed in Lamarck’s theory of the transmission of acquired traits. What is significant for neo-Darwinism is that it combines our knowledge of genetics with Darwin’s theory of selection. Weismann combines the theory of cells, embryology, and genetics with another, and interprets the result by means of the theory of selection. He transfers the principle of natural selection from the macroscopic to the cellular perspective, which implies that the cellular plasma (Zellplasma) is transmitted from generation to generation and thereby becomes potentially immortal. The cellular plasma is also the basis for the soma or bodily plasma. Today, we would use the expressions genotype and phenotype. To clarify this position a bit further, we could say that for the neo-Darwinists, the genotype is the basis for transmission and the phenotype follows from it, whereas for a Lamarckian, the phenotype is the basis and the genotype develops from this. In addition, I wish to make clear that it was important for Weismann to stress that given the theory of selection, it does not follow that the beastly tendencies should govern human beings, but that for human beings it is particularly the mind or spirit that matters, rather than the body.
The next scientist we discuss is the zoologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). I have already alluded to some of his ideas in the first part of this article, and I return to them later in this section. Before comparing Haeckel’s ideas to Darwin’s I need to point out that in 1863, Haeckel wrote a letter to Darwin informing him that he wished to dedicate his life to Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he did by taking the theory of descent and the principle of selection for granted, and then applying these theories to the various areas of biology.
First, I wish to mention that Haeckel clearly expressed that none of the living great apes is the ancestor of the human race, as they died out long ago. Today, we believe that the last common ancestor of human beings and great apes lived about a couple of million years ago. It seems to me that even today, many people believe that the living apes are actually our ancestors. Haeckel clearly recognized this problem of understanding. Second, Haeckel managed to relate phylogenesis and ontogenesis to one another. According to him, the ontogenesis is a short and fast repetition of the phylogenesis, which means that an embryo passes through the various phases of our ancestors via fishes to higher mammals. One can find this relationship between ontogenesis and phylogenesis already within Darwin’s works, yet it comes out clearly for the first time in the writings of Fritz Mueller (1822-1897), Johann Friedrich Meckel (1781-1833), and in particular Ernst Haeckel.
All of Haeckel’s above-mentioned observations were very perceptive, yet it also has to be noted that he and some other German scientists, like Carl Vogt or Fritz Mueller, were far more extreme and axiomatic than Darwin. For example, Haeckel boldly and loudly expressed his opinion: “There is no God, and no immortality.” Considering this aspect of Haeckel’s personality, we can now return to the topic of the first part, where Haeckel was already mentioned. According to Haeckel, it is the most important task of the practical philosophers of his times to develop and bring about a new ethics. The only ethics that he was able to regard as consistent with Darwinism was neither democratic nor socialist, but aristocratic. Given this belief, it makes it easier to understand why Haeckel was in favor of measures against contraselection, such as recruiting ill people for the military, the death penalty for criminals, or murder of ill and weak children. Twenty years later, his ideas with respect to contraselection were taken up again by race hygienists (Rassenhygienikern) such as Wilhelm Schallmyer (1857-1919), who wrote the first book dealing with the hygiene of a race in 1891, and Alfred Ploetz (1860-1940), who in 1895 created the notion “hygiene of a race” (Rassenhygiene). Both refer directly to Haeckel. In numerous publications after 1933, Haeckel is seen as a thinker closely related to national socialism, his demands concerning eugenics were praised, and indirectly via the race hygienists, he influenced the ideology of the national socialist. One can even find related ideas in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
To make the orientation easier for someone interested in the German reception of Darwin within the fields of biology and anthropology, I mention the most important German biologists and anthropologists who were significantly influenced by Darwin in this section. The most notable German biologists in the 19th century besides the one already mentioned were Naegeli, Hermann, and Fritz Mueller. For the 20th century, E. Baur, Rensch, Timofeef-Ressovsky, Zimmermann, and Schindewolf have to be mentioned. The most important German anthropologists in the 19th century were Rudolph Wagner, Carl Vogt, Hermann Schaaffhausen, Karl Ernst von Baer, Robert Hartmann, and Gustav Schalbe. Rudolf Virchow and Johannes Ranke Extremely were critical of Darwin. Concerning 20th-century anthropologists who were significantly influenced by Darwin, Hermann Klaatsch, Gerhard Heberer, Winfried Henke, and Hartmut Rothe have to be mentioned. In addition, one should not forget the Social Darwinists Alfred Ploetz, Wilhelm Schallmeyer, and Otto Ammon. After having shown Darwin’s influence on two major German zoologists, and having mentioned the most important 19th- and 20th-century German biologists, and anthropologists who were significantly influenced by Darwin, I now come to the relationship between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the ideas of German philosophers and philosophical anthropologists.
Darwin, Philosophers, and Philosophical Anthropologists
Within this section, I progress in chronological order, starting with the earliest thinkers influenced by Darwin and ending with the last notable thinker. It has to be noted that most of the thinkers listed were active during the first half of the 20th century.
The first thinker I wish to mention is the theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874). He was the author of the famous book The Life of Jesus, which was very influential, especially in the 19th century. David Friedrich Strauss admitted that Darwin’s theory was irresistible to those who thirsted for “truth and freedom.”
More famous and influential than Strauss are the next two thinkers, namely Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). The following story has often been told when the relationship between Darwin and Marx was discussed. “And when Marx proposed to dedicate to him [Darwin] Das Kapital, he firmly refused the honour, explaining that it would pain certain members of his family if he were associated with so atheistic a book” (Himmelfarb, 1962, p. 383). However, in recent times, doubt has been shed on the truth of this story. Bowler (1990), for example, said, “It is perhaps worth noting that the once popular story that Karl Marx offered to dedicate a volume of Capital to Darwin is based on a misinterpretation of the relevant correspondence” (p. 206).
What is certain is that both Engels as well as Marx had been deeply impressed by Darwin’s theory of evolution, as the topic comes up very often in their correspondence, and both Engels as well as Marx were usually full of praise for it. Engels once wrote that Marx’s theory of history can be compared to Darwin’s theory of evolution, whereby it has to be assumed that he was referring to the scientific value of both theories. In another letter, which Engels wrote to Marx in November 1859, he praised Darwin for destroying the then still very strong teleological worldview. Here, he was referring to the principle of selection, which is indeed consistent with a mechanistic description of the world. In December 1860, Marx says in a letter to Engels that although Darwin’s works are very English, he regards them as containing the basis for their own work. Of particular interest has to be Engel’s letter to the Russian journalist Lawrow (1875), who was a strong opponent of Darwinism. In this letter Engels makes clear that he accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution, although he has doubts with respect to his methodology. For Engel, it was not possible to base all activity within this world on the “struggle for existence,” and he compared Darwin’s theory in this respect to the positions of Hobbes and Malthus. Engels believed that all worldviews containing the idea of the “struggle for existence” theory must have come about by means of the following mistake. The respective thinkers must have observed the realm of plants and animals and expanded the observed forces to the human world. This, however, cannot be done, according to Engels, as human beings have developed the capacity to produce things, and this capacity cannot be found anywhere else in nature except in human beings. Therefore, it cannot be justified to apply observations of the realm of plants and animals to the human world. This seems to have been Engel’s main point of criticism.
After having dealt with the relationship of Marx and Engels to Darwin, I now come the most important philosopher of the second half of the 19th century in Germany: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Birx (2000) correctly pointed out that “The scientist Charles Darwin had awakened the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche from his dogmatic slumber by the realization that, throughout organic history, no species is immutable (including our own)” (p. 24). In addition, Birx also explained, “As with Thomas Huxlex, Ernst Haeckel and Darwin himself, Nietzsche taught the historical continuity between human beings and other animals (especially the chimpanzees)” (p. 24). However, Nietzsche was not unconditionally affirmative of Darwin. Nietzsche’s most important criticism was, like Engel’s, directed toward Darwin’s “struggle for existence” theory. He did put forward many types of arguments against the theory of the “struggle for existence,” and he also explains why he regards the aspect of power as more important than the aspect of pure existence. One of the better arguments can be found in an aphorism titled “Against Darwinism.” Here, Nietzsche pointed out that Darwin overestimated the outer situation and forgot to take the inner form giving force into consideration. This creative force leads to the feeling of becoming stronger, which again is what human beings are after. This is one of the reasons why Nietzsche did not regard the “struggle for existence” but the “will to power” as the basis of all human actions. Finally, concerning the relationship between Darwin and Nietzsche I wish to mention that Nietzsche did not read much by Darwin himself, but a lot of secondary literature about him.
Georg Simmel (1858-1918) is the next thinker with whom I am concerned. He is a philosopher and one of the founders of sociology, and besides many other subjects, he also dealt with evolutionary epistemology. This theory of knowledge considers that human beings are the result of a long natural process of evolution, since it regards this fact to be relevant for our way of understanding and getting to know the world. Through Simmel and the Austrian ethnologist Konrad Lorenz who was heavily influenced by Darwin, the idea of an evolutionary epistemology was transmitted to the present, in which it has become an influential stream of philosophy that is the subject of intense philosophical debates.
Another philosopher of culture deeply indebted to Darwin’s ideas is Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945). This neo-Kantian philosopher has often referred to the role of 19th-century biology with respect to the breakthrough of historical thinking within the field that is concerned with knowledge of nature. The 17th century was dominated by a mathematical ideal of the natural sciences. However, in the 19th century, the historical approach became more and more important, according to Cassirer. Especially because of Darwin’s theory, the historical approach to knowledge of nature has been able to reach a new level of importance, and it has become obvious that scientific and historical thinking do not have to be contradictory, but can complement one another, to attain a useful symbiosis of these two streams of thinking.
The Catholic Nietzsche and founder of philosophical anthropology Max Scheler (1874-1928) is the thinker with whom I deal with next. He studied with Ernst Haeckel in Jena, who influenced him significantly with respect to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Within his mature philosophy, he accepted that with respect to their “physis,” human beings are constructed according to the same fundamental plan as animals. However, with respect to the mind, there is an enormous difference between men and animals. Yet it is not the case that animals do not have a mind, according to Scheler, but they have it to a much lower degree. This difference alone would not grant human beings a special status in the world. It is because of something else that men have such a special status, which I explain soon.
From the above remarks alone, one can see that Scheler’s thought was closely linked to the sciences. Yet he was not the only one who was so strongly influenced by the natural sciences. According to him, all educated Europeans think within the tradition of the following three cultures when they are asked what comes to mind when they think about human beings: the Jewish-Christian tradition, the ancient Greek cultural realm, and the field of modern natural sciences, particularly the theory of evolution and genetic psychology. However, these three realms exist parallel to one another within our civilization without there being a link between them. Scheler tried to find a solution to this problem, and Cassirer in 1944 took up the same problem but without accepting Scheler’s solution. Scheler’s solution goes as follows. According to him, given the theory of evolution that Scheler accepts, human beings (men as Homo naturalis) cannot have a special status within nature, as mentioned before. He developed a model where the organic realm is separated into various stages, yet this cannot justify that men have a special status, as human beings and animals do form a strict continuum. However, Scheler thought that there is something that separates us from the natural realm. Here, the notion of Weltoffenheit (openness to the world) comes in. By this notion, he means our ability to be relatively free from our instincts and forces, and therewith our ability to choose for ourselves which type of life we wish to live. In this way, he introduced a dualism within his philosophy, which was rejected by the later philosophical anthropologists Helmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen.
Often, Darwin’s theory has been criticized on the grounds that selection is a tautology and, as such, cannot be regarded as a scientific theory, as it cannot be falsified. While this was reason enough for many people to doubt Darwin, Nicolai Hartmann thought the plausibility of this principle revealed its status as a priori knowledge. Spencer, too, had emphasized the a priori status of the principle of selection.
After Hartmann, we can come back to the philosophical anthropologists again, and so we reach Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985). Although he agrees with Darwin on many points—like the one that there is only a very small difference between men and animals, but not a substantial difference, only a gradual one—he is very critical of Darwin as well. For example, he does not accept that at the basis of all actions is the “struggle for existence.” It also needs to be mentioned that Plessner grants the principle of selection also an a priori status.
Another important philosophical anthropologist who was influenced by Darwin is Arnold Gehlen (1904-1976). There are quite a few similarities in their theories. Darwin regarded the biological weakness of human beings as probably their greatest strength, as it brought about that men work together and form communities, and it enabled men to adapt themselves to the various possible situations and to develop great spiritual capacities. Gehlen referred to the same phenomenon with the expression Maengelwesen (defective creature), whereby he alluded to Nietzsche, who in the “Gay Science” described human beings as “wayward animals.” Human beings need culture, and, as Gehlen says, institutions in order to be capable of living well, as they are lacking the appropriate instincts. Like Darwin, Gehlen held that there is only a gradual difference between men and animals. However, he neither attributed a lot of importance to the “struggle for existence” nor granted any relevance to the principle of selection.
The last great philosopher who has dealt with Darwin is Vittorio Hoesle (1960-). Together with the biologist and philosopher Christian Illies, he wrote the very philosophical and clear introductory book titled Darwin (1999). However, within his own understanding of history, he is much closer to Hegel than to Darwin.
Darwin in Germany Today
The attitude toward Darwin in Germany today is still ambiguous. The following two aspects have to be stressed. On one hand, there is the “bad Darwin,” who is related to Social Darwinism and eugenics, and on the other hand, there is the “good Darwin,” who is the great observer of nature, clear writer, and role model for any natural scientist. Two recently published articles represent good examples for each of these attitudes.
The first article, “Reine Rasse” (“Pure Race”) (Franke, 2001), deals with the questions of gene diagnosis, cloning, and euthanasia. It was mainly inspired by the fact that just before Easter, the Dutch Parliament passed a law that legalized active mercy killing, or euthanasia, which brought about a massive and emotionally charged discussion in Germany. Within this article, Darwin was mentioned as someone who realized the problem of a surplus population but accepted that nothing can be done about it. However, it was also said that many of his followers have taken a different view, and it was implicitly expressed that the danger of a solution different from Darwin’s was clearly contained within Darwin’s ideas, as he himself had realized the problem of a surplus population. Although the author could have given a much worse description of Darwin, here one can still find the picture of the rather “bad Darwin.”
The second article, “Mit Darwins Augen” (“With Darwin’s Eyes”), was written by Durs Gruenbein (2001), a famous German writer. In it, Darwin was portrayed as the role model of a natural scientist. His ability to express the results of his research to the public was praised, and positively compared to the capacities of the present generation of natural scientists. It was made clear that he had the calmness, the perseverance, the patience, and just the right eye for being a clear and rigorous observer of nature, from whom all natural scientists could learn something.
It is fair to say that although we can still find the “good” and the “bad” Darwin within German contemporary culture, it seems that the positive aspects dominate. What we must consider, however, is that even in Germany, we find creationists with posts at good universities again, a fact that should make us question whether creationism will become more influential.
- Birx, H. J. (2000, October/November). Nietzsche & evolution. Philosophy Now, 29.
- Bowler, P. J. (1990). Charles Darwin: The man and his influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University
- Darwin, C. (1998). The descent of man (Intro. By H. James Birx). New York: Prometheus Books. Darwin, C. (1999). The origin of species: By means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. New York: Bantam.
- Franke, K. (2001). Reine Rasse [Pure Race]. Der Spiegel, 29, 128-134.
- Gruenbein, D. (2001, June 23). Mir Darwins Augen [With Darwin’s Eyes]. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Bilder und Zeiten, p. 1.
- Himmelfarb, G. (1962). Darwin and the Darwinian revolution. New York: Norton.
- Sorgner, S. L. (1999). Metaphysics without truth: On the importance of consistency within Nietzsche’s philosophy. In N. Knoepffler, W. Vossenkuhl, S. Peetz, & B. Lauth (Eds.), Muenchner Philosophische Beiträge. Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag.