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A History of the Impact of Darwinism on Natural Rights and Bioethics

by Richard Weikart

My essay explores the way that leading Darwinian thinkers since the late 19th century used biological evolution to explain the origin of morality in such as way that it undermined both a natural rights philosophy, so central to classical liberalism, as well as the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic. Admittedly, some philosophers and social thinkers accepted Darwinism as a biological phenomenon, but insulated morality from its purview. However, among leading Darwinists, including Darwin himself, the thrust was quite different; they insisted that every human trait—including morality—originated through entirely natural processes. In addition to believing in the evolutionary origins of morality, some—including Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, the foremost Darwinian biologist in Germany—even began using evolution as an ethical norm: whatever promoted evolutionary advance was morally praiseworthy and whatever hindered it was morally bad. However, some, such as T. H. Huxley, who opposed this form of evolutionary ethics still accepted the evolutionary origins of morality.

By accepting an evolutionary account of the origins of morality, Darwin and other leading Darwinists accepted several ideas that put them in conflict with classical liberalism’s natural rights philosophy. First, Darwin rejected the timelessness of moral precepts, which had evolved and could still be evolving. Since variation among biological organisms was a crucial part of his theory, he also denied the universality of morality. Some races of humanity could have different moral sentiments, just as they could have different physical traits. Further, the idea that humans had evolved from simian ancestors altered many people’s view of humans and human nature. Instead of understanding humans as beings created in the image of God, they now thought humans were “created from animals,” to use Darwin’s own phrase. This altered vision of humanity would have a profound impact on the field now known as bioethics. Finally, another ingredient in Darwin’s theory that affected bioethics was his idea that death brings progress. Instead of being a curse, the mass death of organisms causes evolutionary progress.

After discussing Darwin’s own contribution to undermining natural rights philosophy, I discuss prominent scholars who followed up on his insights. The biologist Ernst Haeckel not only argued on the basis of his understanding of evolutionary theory that Christian ethics were too altruistic, but he also became the first German proponent of infanticide for eugenics purposes. Friedrich Jodl, philosophy professor at the University of Vienna and editor of the International Journal of Ethics, dismissed any fixed morality on the basis of biological evolution. The Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner claimed Darwinian sanction for rejecting human equality and natural rights. One of the more remarkable examples of Darwinian-inspired rejection of natural rights philosophy was the early twentieth-century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who in private correspondence overtly dismissed the “sanctity of human life” and the “sacredness of human life.” He also advocated “substitut[ing] artificial selection for natural by putting to death the inadequate.” No wonder he wrote the opinion ruling in favor of compulsory sterilization for eugenics purposes in the Buck v. Bell decision in 1927.

The eugenics movement, which aimed at helping humans evolve to higher levels, militated against the view that humans were equal and intrinsically valuable. Eugenicists often referred to people with disabilities as inferior and burdensome. Some of the more radical of the eugenicists—in the US, as well as Europe—began pressing for infanticide and “euthanasia” to rid the world of allegedly inferior biological specimens. As I explain in my two books, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, the Nazis took social Darwinism and evolutionary ethics to an extreme by killing over 200,000 disabled people, and by massacring millions who were deemed biologically inferior because of their racial heritage.

During and after World War II, most biologists—especially in the Anglo-American world—rejected the Nazi interpretation of evolutionary ethics. The evolutionary biologists Julian Huxley, the founding leader of UNESCO, and George Gaylord Simpson utterly rejected Nazi racism. However, while combating Nazi excesses, they both used evolutionary theory to promote a relativistic view of ethics that denied human rights. More recently, Darwinian biologist and founder of sociobiology E. O. Wilson has argued that Darwinism undermines what he calls transcendental ethics, i.e., any ethics that has objective validity. Peter Singer, bioethicists at Princeton University, argues that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic, and partly on that basis he thinks that abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are justified.
By tracing the way that Darwinian thinkers since the nineteenth century interpreted morality and rejected natural rights philosophy, this essay is making an historical argument, not a philosophical argument. However, it points out the main themes that Darwinists themselves used to argue for their positions. Philosophers today who want to support or critique evolutionary ethics need to take these following points seriously, one way or another:

  1. evolutionary biology implies that morality arose through naturalistic processes;
  2. the evolution of morality implies that morality changes over time;
  3. the evolution of morality implies that moral sentiments can vary even among human populations;
  4. Darwinian forms of evolutionary biology with its stress on natural selection through the struggle for existence implies that death is a necessary and indeed beneficent process;
  5. Darwinian evolution implies biological inequality; and
  6. biological evolution undermines the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic. Not all Darwinists accept all these points, of course, but they are all positions that some leading Darwinists have taken. Thus they need to be critiqued.

 To learn more about the contributions of Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension (Lexington Books, 2013), click here for a fuller discussion at the EPS website. Readers are also encouraged to take advantage of a 30% discount when purchased through Rowman and Littlefield's website (Lex30Auth14 - this discount expires 12/31/2014).

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