Puck's Criticism of Richard Weikart's Book on Racism

A quibble indeed, given that everyone here already knows, or could easily determine, that Weikart is an American – knowledge that I took for granted. The phrase “European historian” allows of two meanings in English, “a historian who happens to be European” and “a scholar whose field is European history”, and I meant the latter (on the analogy of “Lynn White, Jr. was a Medieval historian”), and a reasonable conversation partner would cut me some slack. If you really were concerned that someone might misunderstand my phrase and conclude that Weikart was European, then fine, but I strongly suspect that your quibble was for the purpose of “catching me out” in an error, as it’s very likely that every single person here who has commented so far on Weikart already knew that he was an American and therefore would not misunderstand my phrase.

Such is the risk of following the evidence in science. There are times where describing how nature works will be twisted into malformed ideas of how nature should work. Ultimately, the Discovery Institute and their supporters aren’t interested in understanding how nature works, only in twisting facts to try and cast doubt on descriptions of reality they don’t like.

Using the same line of reasoning, we could claim that Christianity supplied grist for that very same mill. Hitler stated time and time again that he was doing the Lord’s work in defending Christians against the Jewish threat. The Nazis were famous for their passion plays where the Jews were cast as evil humans crucifying Jesus.

1 Like

Is this in any way obscure? It’s not as though @John_Harshman just invented cladistics this week, by himself. I never mind hearing his explanations of scientific concepts, which are superb, but I hardly think that the idea that tetrapods are within the clade of the sarcopterygians is very controversial, or is his own idiosyncracy. It is true that most people use the word “fish” without meaning a formal taxon, but phylogeneticists aren’t most people.


The public uses paraphyletic names. Phylogeneticists use monophyletic names.


It is very obvious what your objections are about, and you are not fooling anyone.


The logic of that method of classification, it seems to me, is that the putative ancestor of the whales, a land-dwelling animal that was somewhat hippo-like or deer-like, should be called a “fish”. Which is bound to create confusion. If he said that the whale and all its ancestors ultimately go back to the Osteichthyes, and for that reason should be classified as Osteichthyes, that might be fine for specialist talk, but saying that they are all “fish”, given that “fish” is lay rather than scientific classification, is just plain confusing. But as I said, we should not be discussing this here. Let John create a new topic if he wishes.

I would agree that certain statements in the New Testament and early Christian thought lent themselves to anti-Semitic interpretation. I don’t mean that they were intended for that purpose, but that they could be taken out of context and used for that purpose. The statements in the Gospel of John that “the Jews” were responsible for the death of Jesus is an example of a statement that ended up working terrible evil in the world, even though its author almost certainly did not intend such evils.

I think that many of Darwin’s statements were the same, capable of working terrible evil in the world if applied in certain ways, even though Darwin himself would have abhorred such results.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with historians of ideas tracing down such usages and showing their social and political effects. Even if nobody intended anything bad originally, it’s part of the historian’s job to explain the chain of causes by which ideas found their way into society.

Whether Weikart does this sort of work well or not, is not something that I addressed. Nor, it seems, has anyone here read enough of Weikart’s detailed argument to make any judgment on that subject.

Your suppositions about me are incorrect, and always have been, but as you appear to have an unremovable blik about several subjects, there is no hope of altering your attitude by any amount of reason or evidence.

This reflects your limited familiarity with biology rather than anything else*. You might try Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish if you want some accessible education.

*More charitably, one might suppose that your knowledge of biology is 60 years out of date.


Or, of course, Weikart’s Tiktaalik to Hitler.


Exactly. This is exactly what happens when the DI twists Darwin’s words.

You (the general “you”, not specifically you) can’t turn an IS into an OUGHT. In context, you can’t turn “the fit tend to survive” into “we ought to kill the less fit”. Darwin’s theory was descriptive, not prescriptive.


Quite. This is undoubtedly why Weikart generally speaks as though he has no idea that “social Darwinism” (full of oughts) is an entirely separate thing from evolutionary theory (devoid of oughts), and underivable therefrom. He shifts, as suits his need, from speaking about “Darwinism” to speaking about “social Darwinism” and back again, and apparently believes his audience is too dim to pick that up. Regrettably, he’s probably mostly right.


But that is not how he represents himself on ENV. There appear to be over 200 posts relating Darwin to Hitler. I haven’t foind any qualifier yet.

AND I haven’t rushed to promote him. I have written that Weikart seems to be lying by omission, omitting important information necessary for understanding. I am not the only one of this opinion. Quoting Gilboff:

Weikart tries to argue that no ideology as coherent and destructive as Nazism could ever have developed as long as ethics stood on unquestioned Christian foundations, which upheld the sanctity of every individual life. He seems at times to picture a halcyon pre-Darwinian past, when the absolute theoretical foundations of ethics made a real difference in practice. However, as Weikart does acknowledge, there were many ethical lapses before Darwin, too. One might reasonably doubt whether Western civilization was significantly more corrupt after its intellectuals took the naturalistic turn, but Weikart does not. He argues–incredibly, for someone who likes his morals absolute–that things like racism and slavery were less bad before Darwin, because Europeans still had Christian values and were moved to send missionaries to Africa as well as slave traders (pp. 103, 185).

Darwin did not invent Social Darwinism, this became an outlet for previously existing prejudices. Weikart could easily insert brief reminders about the deep roots of racism, but he chooses not to do this in his public media for the DI and ENV. This is the public face Weikart has chosen to present, why should I doubt him?


I agree. Now show me passages in Weikart’s writing where he says that Darwin’s writings had to be interpreted in that way, had to produce eugenics, had to produce Nazi atrocities, etc.

So you seem to be suggesting that Weikart is such a simpleton that he has no idea how his claims are likely to be interpreted and used by anti-Evolution zealots and has been insufficiently scrupulous about preventing this from happening.

All the more reason to avoid reading him.


If you’re going to give weight to what Gliboff says, without yourself having read the book on which Gliboff is commenting, at least read Weikart’s response (on the DI website), where he points out ways in which Gliboff has misinterpreted his writing:

But as I’ve already said many times here, settling the truth of the argument of a book by choosing between a review and a rejoinder, when one has not read the original book that is being discussed, is unscholarly, unreliable, etc.

If you want a further example, also from the DI website, where Weikart makes clear that he is not blaming Darwin for the Holocaust, try this, from his reply to Jeff Schloss:

Your complaint seems to be that Weikart has some sort of obligation, on a website which is focused on the theory of evolution, to cover all kinds of things that don’t directly relate to evolution. Thus, Weikart is offering an account of how Darwin’s theory was used to justify racism, eugenics, genocide, etc., but you want him also to talk about all the other causes of those things, even the causes that have nothing to do with evolution but arise from the history of Jewish-Christian relations in Europe.

Can you find me any place on the DI website where Weikart directly says or even implies that Darwinian thought was the sole cause, or the overwhelmingly main cause, of racism and anti-Semitism and eugenics? If he does not say or even imply those things, then I don’t see the problem, given the limited purpose of Discovery, which is not to offer a comprehensive account of the origins or racism and anti-Semitism (a topic more appropriate for a website on Judaic studies or the like), but only to investigate the effects of particularly Darwinian ideas on society. But as my passages above show, he does in fact make some qualifying statements of the kind you want even on the DI site.

(Bolded for emphasis) LOL. In the quote, Weikart states:

This is pretty clear - Weikart is laying blame (not the entire blame, but some blame) for the holocaust on Darwinism.


You make a good point. And I’m not arguing that all of Weikart’s statements are consistent with each other – I haven’t read enough of him to say. But it’s bad scholarship to cherry-pick one statement of his that makes him sound bad, and omit other statements of his that make him sound reasonable and balanced. That’s not how scholars evaluate an author. They read all of his work, or a large sample of it, and they work on seemingly contradictory emphases and strive to come up with an interpretation in which everything hangs together. To be sure, sometimes they don’t succeed, and then they may render a verdict that the thinker is inconsistent, incoherent, etc. But they don’t come to a judgment based on a few quick glances at sentences or paragraphs quoted out of context on the internet, by hostile critics. They come to a judgment after long study.

I was not defending Weikart – maybe his position is finally incoherent – but merely rejecting the typical ad hominem reasons for rejecting him out of hand, some of which are seen on this page (Discovery funded one of his books, he writes on the DI blog and I hate the DI, as a young man he indicated Christian motivations for studying European history, etc.).

That said, if I were trying to understand how Weikart’s thought might be coherent, I would notice that the one passage concerned “Darwin and the Holocaust” where as the other concerned “Darwin and Nazi ideology.” I would carefully look up what he says about the Holocaust, and how he defines “Nazi ideology” before simply equating these things.

It’s at least possible that he believed that the Holocaust would have happened anyway, due to other factors in German racialist thought (Romantic notions of the Volk, for example, which Weikart mentions in several places as influential on German thought generally and on some Nazi thinkers in particular), even if Darwinian scientific notions had not influenced Nazi ideology. I’m not saying this is what he means, but before I would cry “contradiction” I’d investigate such possibilities. That’s what scholarship is about.

I suspect I would disagree with a number of particular claims in Weikart, but I don’t believe in quick rejections of writers with whom I have only the most superficial familiarity. This is a theme I’ve sounded here before.

There is also the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Even if a thinker says some things that are totally wrong, that same thinker may say some things that are correct and worth paying attention to. Criticizing Weikart for exaggerating, over-generalizing, ignoring contrary data, etc., is all fair game, but even if he does overclaim or make errors, it does not follow that his thesis (that Darwinian ideas were taken up by the Nazi regime, by American eugenicists, etc., and used to make certain evil actions seem more palatable or moral) is completely without foundation or that his research into what people in the past have said to justify atrocious actions is not useful research. I looked at several reviews of Weikart, and even some of those who were very critical of some of his conclusions spoke of his “painstaking research” into the primary sources and had some good things to say about his work. I wish that sort of balanced critique of authors were more in evidence around here, but this seems to be a place where snap judgments reign supreme.

In evaluating the strength of Weikart’s arguments, we have a number of options:

  1. We can naively accept Weikart’s attempts to refute his opponents, in spite of the fact that these attempts seem to all-too-frequently appear in ENV, a trashy propaganda rag with no editorial integrity whatsoever, rather in credible academic forums.

  2. We can throw up our arms and declare the whole thing to be a ‘he says/she says’ and simply fail to make a determination.

  3. We can take a decade or more to get a higher qualification in European History, and then immerse ourselves in the relevant primary sources in order to be able to determine for ourselves whether or not Weikart is guilty “of selectively viewing his rich primary material, ignoring political, social, psychological, and economic factors that may have played key roles in the post-Darwinian development of Nazi eugenics and racism.” By which stage this thread will not only be closed, but long forgotten.

That is not to say however that even an amateur cannot make some attempt to ‘kick the tires’, its just that this will necessarilly not be as deep or conclusive as an expert appraisal.

[Parenthetically, one obvious point where even an amateur can evaluate is Weikart’s claim:

In philosophical terms, Darwinism was a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause for Nazi ideology. [FDtH p9]

In order to substantiate this claim, Weikart would need to first carefully eliminate all ideas in Nazi ideology that either predate Darwin, like racial hierarchies (Linnaeus, Cuvier and others), rabid antisemitism (Martin Luther and others), competition for scarse resources (Malthus), were formulated independently of Darwin, or were simply completely unrelated (or worse antithetical) to Darwinian evolution. He would then need to demonstrate that any remaining commonality was crucial to Nazi ideology. It would be possible to at least attempt such a distinctively eliminationist argument, but I would suggest that it would result in a very different book to FDtH. So even an amateur can evaluate that Weikart has failed to substantiate this claim.]

  1. Or we can attempt to base out assessment on the Academic consensus, by attempting to discern that consensus by the balance of academic reviews of, or responses to, Weikart’s work on this issue.

I will attempt to add some more:

I am not claiming that all these reviews are negative, nor that I’ve been able to find every academic review, but the general trend seems to be considerably more negative than positive.


There is only one option that has any academic or intellectual integrity: “We” have to actually read the book before we can evaluate it. And you haven’t. That makes all the rest of your speculative post a complete waste of time. Whether your conclusion turns out to be right or wrong, you reached it by improper means (speculation, rumor and hearsay) and that means you haven’t earned any readership. But then, speculation, rumor and hearsay is pretty much standard fare around here, isn’t it? The one thing we don’t see around here is anything resembling authentic scholarship.

<Looks at the quote>

<Looks at who is making this claim>


1 Like