How Darwinism Contributed to Modern Views on Abortion, Infanticide, and Euthanasia

A specialist in modern German history argues that evolutionary thinking contributed significantly to our current "culture of death"!

All quotations are from Richard Weikart. 2004. From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Pages 145-148, 160f. Bold print indicates emphasis added.

(Richard Weikart, a historian at California State University, Stanislaus, was featured in the Ben Stein film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed!)

Before the advent of Darwinism in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no significant debate in Europe over the sanctity of human life, which was entrenched 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, was one of the supreme rights of every individual. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, and to a large extent even on into the twentieth century, both the Christian churches and most anticlerical European liberals upheld the sanctity of human life. A rather uncontroversiaI part of the law code for the newly united Germany in 1871 was the prohibition against assisted suicide. 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.

Darwinism played an important role in the debate over the sanctity of human life, for it altered many people's conceptions about the value of human life, as well as the significance of death. Many Darwinists claimed that they were creating a whole new worldview with new ideas about the meaning and value of life based on Darwinian theory. Darwinian monists and materialists initiated public debate and led the movements for abortion, infanticide, assisted suicide, and even involuntary euthanasia. Many of them also considered suicide a private matter beyond the scope of morality, and many favored capital punishment to rid society of "hereditary criminality." . . .

The earliest significant German advocate for killing the "unfit" was [biologist Ernst] Haeckel, whose views on killing the weak and sick were, in his estimation, the logical consequence of his Darwinian monistic worldview. Already in the second edition of his work, The Natural History of Creation (1870), he lamented some of the dysgenic effects of modern civilization and expressed support for eugenics. In this context, he favorably mentioned the ancient Spartan practice of killing weak and sickly infants, implying that he advocated this practice. . . .

In his later books Haeckel argued more explicitly in favour of infanticide for the congenitally disabled, which would, in his view, benefit both the individual being killed, as well as society in general. In legitimating his position, he used evolutionary scientific arguments. One of Haeckel's own contributions to evolutionary theory was the dubious claim that ontogeny (embryological development) recapitulates phylogeny (evolutionary ancestry). This means that as each individual organism develops from a single cell (such as a fertilized egg) to adulthood, it allegedly traverses the evolutionary stages of its ancestors. Based on this view, Haeckel argued that newborn infants were still in an evolutionary stage equivalent to our animal ancestors. The newborn child, he stated, "not only possesses no consciousness and no reason, but is also dumb and only gradually develops the activity of the senses and of the mind." Newborn infants thus have no soul, so killing them is no different than killing other animals and cannot be equated with murder.

With respect to a physically or mentally handicapped infant, he wrote, "a small dose of morphine or cyanide would not only free this pitiable creature itself, but also its relatives from the burden of a long, worthless and painful existence." The only reason we do not kill "defective" children at birth, according to Haeckel, is because we are following emotion rather than reason. "However, emotion," he emphasized, "should never abolish the grounds of pure reason in such important ethical questions." In matters of life and death, then, Haeckel wanted reason to trump emotions, so sympathy and pity would have to take a backseat to cold, scientific calculation. In that impersonal equation, the value of human life varied according to the health and vitality of the individual.

Since Haeckel legitimated infanticide, it should come as no surprise that he used similar reasoning to justify abortion. However, his justification for abortion was quite different from the arguments of abortion rights advocates a century later. Haeckel considered it a scientific fact that human life begins at conception. So seriously did he hold this conviction that in 1917 he celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday with his family nine months ahead of time, explaining to his former student, Richard Semon, that everyone is really nine months older than his official birthday. However, since he believed that the human embryo recapitulates earlier stages of evolutionary development, it does not have the full value of adult humans. It is still on the level of other animals from which humans descended. He stated "that the developing embryo, just as the newborn child, is completely devoid of consciousness, is a pure 'reflex machine,' just like a lower vertebrate." Abortion, in Haeckel's view, is thus no different from killing an animal. . . .

Not only did Haeckel justify infanticide, abortion, and assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, but he also supported the involuntary killing of the mentally ill. He condemned the idea that all human life should be preserved, "even when it is totally worthless." He called cretinism and microcephaly "decisive proof" for the physical basis of the soul, since those suffering from these conditions "spend their entire life at a lower animal stage of development in their soul's activity." He complained that not only are many mentally ill people burdens to society, but so are lepers, cancer patients, and others with incurable illnesses. Why not just spare ourselves much pain and money, he asked, by just giving them a shot of morphine? To safeguard against abuse, Haeckel proposed that a commission of physicians make the final decision in each case, but the individual being reviewed would have no voice. The leading Darwinist in Germany thus gave his scientific imprimatur to murdering the disabled, both in infancy and in adulthood. . . .

Clearly not all Darwinists and not all eugenicists favored killing the "unfit." Most searched for other ways of ridding society of these "dangerous burdens," and some even vigorously protested against any form of killing. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the role that naturalistic Darwinism played in initiating and fueling the debate on suicide, euthanasia, and abortion. By reducing humans to mere animals, by stressing human inequality, and by viewing the death of many "unfit" organisms as a necessary—and even progressive—natural phenomenon, Darwinism made the death of the "inferior" seem inevitable and even beneficent. Some Darwinists concluded that helping the "unfit" die—which had for millennia been called murder—was not morally reprehensible, but was rather morally good.

Those skeptical about the role Darwinism played in the rise of advocacy for involuntary euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion should consider several points. First, before the rise of Darwinism, there was no debate on these issues, as there was almost universal agreement in Europe that human life is sacred and that all innocent human lives should be protected. Second, the earliest advocates of involuntary euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion in Germany were devoted to a Darwinian worldview. Third, Haeckel, the most famous Darwinist in Germany, promoted these ideas in some of his best-selling books, so these ideas reached a wide audience, especially among those receptive to Darwinism. Finally, Haeckel and other Darwinists and eugenicists grounded their views on death and killing on their naturalistic interpretation of Darwinism.

For further reading:

Richard Weikart, " 'Expelled' and the Darwinism-Nazi Connection: A Reponse to Jeff Schloss" <>

Richard Weikart, "Rescuing Darwin: Another Major Problem with Peter Bowler's Counterfactual History" <>

Richard Weikart, "The Role of Darwinism in Nazi Racial Thought" <>

Richard Weikart, "Was Hitler Influenced by Darwinism? A Response to Robert Richards" <>