Robert J. RichardsJan 21, 2014
Was Hitler a Darwinian?
Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory
University of Chicago Press 2013
In his new collection of wonderfully engaging and provocative set of essays on Darwin and Darwinians, Robert J. Richards explores the history of biology and so much more. The eight essays collected in Was Hitler a Darwinian?: Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2013), include reflections on Darwin's theories of natural selection and divergence, Ernst Haeckel's life and work, the evolutionary ideas of Herbert Spencer, the linguistic theories of August Schleicher, and the historical tendency to relate Hitler's Nazism to Darwinian evolutionary theory. Individually, the essays are models of close and careful reading of the documentary traces of the life and work of Darwin, Haeckel, and others, and include some exceptionally affecting and tragic moments. Many of them touch on evolutionary theory's moral character, its roots in Romanticism, and its conception of mankind. In addition to offering a fascinating set of case studies in the history of biology, the essays and appendices also collectively raise some important questions about how historians understand the past and bring it into narrative existence. What kind of thing is the past? What sets the history of science apart from other historical disciplines? Is it reasonable to use contemporary science to help construe the past? What is a scientific theory and where is it located? What does it mean to ask (and what might it look like to carefully answer) a question like, Was Hitler a Darwinian? The essays in Richards' collection are wonderfully reflective considerations that reward the time and attention of both specialists in the history of biology and thoughtful general readers alike.