How Darwin's Theory Changed the World

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How Darwin's Theory Changed the World

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A century and a half after the publication of The Origin of Species, it’s difficult for us today to appreciate the seismic shift in attitudes that began with its publication. Most of us have grown up having been taught Darwin’s theory in our schools. Many people accept it unquestioningly. Few question the teaching of his ideas in our public schools. But it was very different in 1859.

Richard Weikart, head of the history department at California State University, Stanislaus, describes how some viewed the book’s initial publication: “A good deal of the initial resistance to Darwinism sprang from a perceived threat to the moral order. Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s former mentor in natural science at the University of Cambridge, expressed this fear poignantly in a letter to Darwin in 1859, shortly after reading The Origin of Species. He stated, ‘Passages in your book…greatly shocked my moral taste’ ” ( From Darwin to Hitler, 2004, p. 1).

Warning of the consequences of the book’s publication, Sedgwick added that “humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history” (ibid.).

Where did Darwin’s ideas lead?

Enthused with his new theory, it’s doubtful that Charles Darwin gave much thought to the possible moral consequences of what he was writing. He certainly could not have foreseen that less than 75 years later, his ideas would lead to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt at exterminating the Jews. But Professor Weikart’s detailed book documents the connection, with plenty of quotes from mostly German philosophers and scientists in the intervening years.

Dr. Richard Evans, professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge and author of The Coming of the Third Reich, says that Weikart’s book “shows in sober and convincing detail how Darwinist thinkers in Germany had developed an amoral attitude to human society by the time of the First World War, in which the supposed good of the race was applied as the sole criterion of public policy and ‘racial hygiene.’

“Without over-simplifying the lines that connected this body of thought to Hitler, he demonstrates with chilling clarity how policies such as infanticide, assisted suicide, marriage prohibitions, and much else were being proposed for those considered racially or eugenically inferior by a variety of Darwinist writers and scientists, providing Hitler and the Nazis with a scientific justification for the policies they pursued …” ( From Darwin to Hitler, back cover)

Many have asked how the nation that produced Beethoven, Bach, Goethe and Schiller could have allowed a man like Hitler to become their supreme leader. Weikart’s research helps us understand how this happened, by showing the gradual change in thinking that took place “from Darwin to Hitler”—a degeneration in appreciating the value of human life that continues to this day.

It wasn’t only Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) movement that was heavily influenced by Darwin. “After reading Darwin’s Origin of Species, Karl Marx [the founder of the communist movement] wrote to Friedrich Engels, ‘Although developed in a coarse English manner, this is the book that contains the foundation in natural history for our view.’ Furthermore, many pacifists, feminists, birth control advocates, and homosexual rights activists—some of whom were persecuted and even killed by the Nazis—were enthusiastic Darwinists and used Darwinian arguments to support their political and social agendas” (p. 4).

A new morality takes hold

Darwin’s ideas led to a radically different worldview on the part of many European thinkers. “In 1904 one of the leading German Darwinian biologists, Arnold Dodel, proclaimed, ‘The new world view actually rests on the theory of evolution. On it we have to construct a new ethics … All values will be revalued’ … Their moral relativism implied that some moral values might have been valid in the past, but may no longer apply under modern conditions” (p. 43).

Interestingly, a contemporary of Dodel, the famous American anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan, “was largely motivated by concern over the moral implications of Darwinism. As a pacifist, Bryan was outraged by the Darwinian rhetoric of German militarists, whom he held responsible for the outbreak of World War I” (p. 1).

Bryan’s concerns were proven right, as their thinking was just a stepping-stone to Hitler’s racial theories leading to a second global conflict a quarter century later.

Darwin’s theory did not just alter political thinking, contributing to fascism, communism and two world wars. It also changed the thinking of huge numbers of people within Western societies. Values based on centuries of Judeo-Christian teaching on the sanctity of marriage and human life in general began to erode. Darwin’s theory did not just provide an alternative explanation to the biblical account of creation, it effectively led to doubts on everything in the Bible, including the moral laws.

Today, many in the West view marriage as a quaint but outdated custom, while the idea of fidelity—sexual commitment to one partner for life—is held by only a small minority. In the minds of many, sex is solely for pleasure, and children are an inconvenience. Without realizing it, one of the inevitable consequences of Darwinism is a very real threat to the very existence of the Western European peoples who have embraced his teaching.

Rejection of Judeo-Christian values

Weikart explains how accepting Darwinist dogma shifted society’s thinking on human life: “Before Darwinism burst onto the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the idea of the sanctity of human life was dominant in European thought and law (though, as with all ethical principles, not always followed in practice). Judeo-Christian ethics proscribed the killing of innocent human life, and the Christian churches explicitly forbade murder, infanticide, abortion, and even suicide.

“The sanctity of human life became enshrined in classical liberal human rights ideology as ‘the right to life,’ which according to John Locke and the United States Declaration of Independence, was one of the supreme rights of every individual” (p. 75).

But that was to change. “Only in the late nineteenth and especially the early twentieth century did significant debate erupt over issues relating to the sanctity of human life, especially infanticide, euthanasia, abortion, and suicide. It was no mere coincidence that these contentious issues emerged at the same time that Darwinism was gaining in influence. Darwinism played an important role in this debate, for it altered many people’s conceptions of the importance and value of human life, as well as the significance of death” (ibid.).

This progression in Western thinking is not surprising to biblical readers who are familiar with the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, written 18 centuries before Darwin. In it, the apostle showed how people’s rejection of the true God, in spite of the abundant physical evidence of His existence all around them in His creation, led inevitably to the worship of things and, in turn, to casting off moral values and restraint.

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him … Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals … and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:20-25 Romans 1:20-25 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things. 24 Why God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: 25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

In the ancient world, the peoples who rejected God soon found the need for something to replace Him. Thus they came up with the pagan gods of their imaginations—many of which reflected man’s own blood-lust and sexual appetites that are so much the opposite of the true Creator of the Bible.

Consequences come from rejecting God

Rejecting the true God also had social and sexual consequences, as Paul showed in subsequent verses. “For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due” (verses 26-27).

Just as man’s earlier rejection of God led to throwing off morality, once Western societies began to reject the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, people no longer saw any justification for their nations to be governed by God’s moral laws. Many enthusiastically embraced Darwin’s theory as it gave them an excuse to reject the laws of God and live sexually liberated lives.

Some well-known evolutionists admitted as much. The famous author Aldous Huxley, for one, wrote: “Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their [purpose] that the world should be meaningless … For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was … liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom …” ( Ends and Means, 1938, pp. 270, 273).

Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous and also a leading proponent of evolution, later wrote, “The sense of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a superhuman being is enormous” ( Essays of a Humanist, 1966, p. 223).

No restraints

Anything and everything can be justified once you take God out of the picture.

Paul in Romans 1 went on to say: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness” (verses 28-29). Sadly, this reads like a vivid summation of today’s Western world.

Perhaps the next verse sums it up best, with Paul writing that men became “haters of God” (verse 30). Darwin may not have started out with any idea of rejecting Judeo-Christian morality, but that’s where his theory ultimately led. Living in Victorian England, Darwin would no doubt have been appalled at Nazi ideology—but without the theory of evolution, Hitler’s Third Reich could not have justified itself.

Weikart concludes: “Darwinism by itself did not produce the Holocaust, but without Darwinism, especially in its social Darwinist and eugenics permutations, neither Hitler nor his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scientific underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the world’s greatest atrocities was really morally praiseworthy. Darwinism—or at least some naturalistic interpretations of Darwinism—succeeded in turning morality on its head” ( From Darwin to Hitler, p. 233). GN