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World War I and Darwinism: New Online Documentary

Wed, Aug. 20, 2014 Posted: 09:54 PM


This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. By August 1914 many nations had joined the horrible conflict that would take 16 million lives. Although many factors contributed to the beginning of the Great War, a new documentary from Discovery Institute explores the Darwinian ideological connection.

The documentary relies heavily on the work of historian Richard Weikart who is one of the worlds leading experts on German Darwinism up through the Second World War. He has published many essays in refereed journals about the history of German Darwinism as well as several books on this fascinating topic.

The Biology of the Second Reich: Social Darwinism and the Origins of World War I debuted a few days ago. This 14-minute documentary introduces how Darwinian racial theory helped drive German intellectual and military leaders in the years leading up to 1914.

One of the key sources for the argument advanced in this documentary is Headquarters Nights by Darwinian biologist Vernon Kellogg. This book chronicles some of Kellogg's conversations with German officers and intellectuals during the early part of World War I. Here is one excerpt from that book (some of this is in the documentary):

The [German] captain-professor has a logically constructed argument why, for the good of the world, there should be this war, and why, for the good of the world, the Germans should win it, win it completely and terribly. Perhaps I can state his argument clearly enough, so that others may see and accept his reasons, too. Unfortunately for the peace of our evenings, I was never convinced. That is, never convinced that for the good of the world the Germans should win this war, completely and terribly. I was convinced, however, that this war, once begun, must be fought to a finish of decision — a finish that will determine whether or not Germany's point of view is to rule the world. And this conviction, thus gained, meant the conversion of a pacifist to an ardent supporter, not of War, but of this war; of fighting this war to a definitive end — that end to be Germany's conversion to be a good Germany, or not much of any Germany at all. My 'Headquarters Nights' are the confessions of a converted pacifist.

In talking it out biologically, we agreed that the human race is subject to the influence of the fundamental biologic laws of variation, heredity, selection, and so forth, just as are all other animal — and plant — kinds. The factors of organic evolution, generally, are factors in human natural evolution. Man has risen from his primitive bestial stage of glacial time, a hundred or several hundred thousand years ago, when he was animal among animals, to the stage of to-day, always under the influence of these great evolutionary factors, and partly by virtue of them.

But he does not owe all of his progress to these factors, or, least of all, to any one of them, as natural selection, a thesis Professor von Flussen seemed ready to maintain. Natural selection depends for its working on a rigorous and ruthless struggle for existence. Yet this struggle has its ameliorations, even as regards the lower animals, let alone man.

Kellogg remained a Darwinian, but he rejected the way that many German intellectuals justified their war efforts on Darwinian grounds. Had Kellogg merely identified a distortion of Darwin's ideas? Or is there more to the story? Watch the documentary as a first step toward addressing this issue. There are many other sources that I would recommend, but I don't have time to blog on this subject now. Perhaps later.

Postscript: Neo-Darwinian theory today needs to be assessed on the grounds of the latest biological evidence, not the ways that Darwinism may have affected culture, past and present. My blog here at CP contains many entries that address such current issues. But, it is also interesting to consider how ideas have impacted society. This too matters. Enjoy the documentary.

Mike Keas