Ernst Haeckel (1843 – 1919): Once a Professor of Anatomy at Jena, he was regarded as the most influential Social Darwinist and leading Darwinian biologist in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was the earliest proponent of eugenics and euthanasia. Haeckel read Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1860, when it was translated into German. Darwin himself greatly admired Haeckel and made numerous references to his work in his Descent. For Haeckel, reading Darwin was like “scales fell from my eyes”, akin to conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. He coined phrases like ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, ‘ecology’ gaining a permanent place in the history of the theory of evolution.
His book, Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (1899) was a phenomenal bestseller. It had gone through ten German editions by 1919 and was translated into 25 languages. Gauging by the influence he wielded over the German intelligentia, it is reasonable to assume that his ideas influenced Hitler and his cohorts.
In 1906 he founded the Monist League to ensure that evolutionary science would become the basis of individual and state actions. He dehumanized non-Western Europeans, describing them as connecting links between the apes and white Europeans. He advocated infanticide for babies having certain kinds of disabilities. He argued that ethics should be based on evolution, and Darwinism proved human inequality, especially racial inequality.
“The lower races (such as Veddahs or Australian Negroes) are psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans; we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives… The gulf between (the) thoughtful mind of civilized man and the thoughtless animal soul of the savage is enormous – greater than the gulf that separates the latter from the soul of the dog”
“We must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives”: This the crux of the problem in Darwinism. Human beings assign values to each others’ lives. Now we know how it ended in the hands of Hitler.
When Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), head of the Royal Geographical Society of Germany developed the idea of the “psychic unity of mankind” (all humans shared a basic mental framework), Haeckel vehemently opposed this idea. Haeckel argued that human races were so different that they constituted ten or twelve separate species.
He played a prominent role in the formulation of Nazi ideology and National Socialism. In his influential book The Scientific Origins of National Socialism, historian Daniel Gasman stated how Haeckel’s Darwinism played out in Hitlerian horrors.
“The fact remains, however, that on a basic level the history of National Socialism in Germany, and fascism in other countries like Italy and France, should be viewed largely from the perspective of the scientific culture rooted in evolutionary biology under the sway of Haeckelian Monism during the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century………..Haeckel’s Monism advocated a fundamental and radical departure from the established intellectual and moral traditions of humanistic and rational science, drawing upon alternative heretical and non-Christian traditions of thought that stressed, among other things, the absence of a personal God, the meaninglessness of existence, the essential amorality of the cosmos, and opposition to linear, progressive conceptions of history. His general assumption that the monotheistic God was dead, that mankind was divided into separate and eternally divergent biological races, that the transcendental religions were rooted in anti-scientific superstition, and that morality was historically relative were ideas that came to be accepted among many of the educated and semi-educated classes of Europe as irrefutable truths that were sanctioned by the most up-to-date science. Over time, Haeckel’s notions were increasing radicalized, and eventually served as a major theoretical basis for National Socialist activity.”
That’s a nice summary of the consequences of Darwinian worldview: “ the absence of a personal God, the meaninglessness of existence, the essential amorality of the cosmos, and opposition to linear, progressive conceptions of history”
Thus Haeckel based ethics on evolution and argued for racial inequality.