[Note: This article first appeared in The Human Life Review 30, 2 (Spring 2004): 29-37.]
A number of years ago two intelligent students surprised me in a class discussion by defending the proposition that Hitler was neither good nor evil. Though I kept my composure, I was horrified. One of the worst mass murderers in history wasn't evil? How could they believe this? How could they justify such a view?
They did it by appealing to Darwinism. Their pronouncement on Hitler occurred while we were discussing James Rachels' book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 1990). Darwinism, these students informed us, undermined all morality. This was not the first time I had heard such a view. In fact, at that time I was in the beginning phases of a research project on the history of evolutionary ethics, and I had already reviewed the work of some scientists and social scientists who believed that Darwinism undermined human rights and equality.
Before reading Rachels' book, however, I hadn't thought much about whether or not Darwinism devalued human life itself. Rachels, a philosopher at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, best known for his contributions to the euthanasia debate, argues that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of human life. The title of his book comes from an observation Darwin makes in his 1838 notebooks, "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and, I believe, true to consider him created from animals." Rachels assumes the truth of Darwinism and uses it as a springboard to justify euthanasia, infanticide (for disabled babies), abortion, and animal rights. Stimulated by his book, I continued my research on evolutionary ethics, but now with two new questions in mind: Does Darwinism undermine the Judeo-Christian understanding of the sanctity of human life? Does it weaken traditional proscriptions against killing the sick and the weak?
Dr. Richard Weikart is a professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus.
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