Did Darwin help start WWI?

by Dick Peterson
Posted 8/21/14, 04:00 pm

As scholars debate whether World War I was an accidental war rife with mistakes and misperceptions or an intentional plan to dominate the world, a new documentary featuring the work of California State University historian Richard Weikart examines the support Germany drew from a virulent form of militarism that its adherents based on biological science.

The Biology of the Second Reich: Social Darwinism and the Origins of World War I reveals the ideological and scientific roots of the war that gave rise to Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust. To German intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wars of annihilation were the natural outgrowth of Darwinian evolution’s survival of the fittest mantra, a “natural law, without which the organic world … could not continue to exist at all,” observed German zoologist Gustav Jaeger in 1870.

Darwin clearly saw the implications of natural selection for human society. In his The Descent of Man, Darwin worried that civilized societies were harming humanity by helping the poor, caring for the sick, and otherwise saving those whom nature would have killed off. He feared that humanitarianism would eventually destroy the human race. Among German political leaders, social thinkers, and scientists, Darwin’s idea of natural selection, where the fit survive and reproduce and the less fit die off, provided biological justification for world domination.

Applied to the German struggle for dominance, Social Darwinism called for the survival of the most advanced races by the elimination of lesser races. The documentary cites the genocide between 1904 and 1907 of the Herero people, native to Germany’s African colony, now Namibia. The men were systematically slaughtered and their women and children driven into the desert to starve to death. After an international outcry to halt the genocide, Germans herded the Hereros into concentration camps, precursors to the camps of the Holocaust.

WWI, which began 100 years ago this month, claimed more than 16 million lives and left more than 20 million wounded.

The Biology of the Second Reich: Social Darwinism and the Origins of World War I is a production of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, written and directed by the center’s associate director, John West. The 14-minute film was released on YouTube on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the German invasion of Belgium on Aug. 4. It will be available shortly on DVD and Blu-ray for group screenings.

Dick Peterson

Dick lives in Summerville, S.C., is a former newspaper reporter and editor, and is now a freelance writer and caregiver for his wife with multiple sclerosis.

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