Robert J. Richards & Michael Ruse in Conversation

Was Hitler a Darwinian? Disputed Questions in the History of Evolutionary Theory

Robert J. Richards

In tracing the history of Darwin’s accomplishment and the trajectory of evolutionary theory during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most scholars agree that Darwin introduced blind mechanism into biology, thus banishing moral values from the understanding of nature. According to the standard interpretation, the principle of survival of the fittest has rendered human behavior, including moral behavior, ultimately selfish. Few doubt that Darwinian theory, especially as construed by the master’s German disciple, Ernst Haeckel, inspired Hitler and led to Nazi atrocities.

In this collection of essays, Robert J. Richards argues that this orthodox view is wrongheaded. A close historical examination reveals that Darwin, in more traditional fashion, constructed nature with a moral spine and provided it with a goal: man as a moral creature. The book takes up many other topics—including the character of Darwin’s chief principles of natural selection and divergence, his dispute with Alfred Russel Wallace over man’s big brain, the role of language in human development, his relationship to Herbert Spencer, how much his views had in common with Haeckel’s, and the general problem of progress in evolution. Moreover, Richards takes a forceful stand on the timely issue of whether Darwin is to blame for Hitler’s atrocities. Was Hitler a Darwinian? is intellectual history at its boldest.

Robert J. Richards is the Morris Fishbein Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Science and Medicine; professor in the Departments of History, Philosophy, and Psychology and in the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science; and director of the Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, all at the University of Chicago. In 2011, he was awarded the George Sarton Medal in recognition of distinguished scholarship and contributions to the advancement of the History of Science.

The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet

Michael Ruse

In 1965 English scientist James Lovelock had a flash of insight: the Earth is not just teeming with life; the Earth, in some sense, is life. He mulled this revolutionary idea over for several years, first with his close friend the novelist William Golding, and then in an extensive collaboration with the American scientist Lynn Margulis. In the early 1970s, he finally went public with the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that everything happens for an end: the good of planet Earth. Lovelock and Margulis were scorned by professional scientists, but the general public enthusiastically embraced Lovelock and his hypothesis. People joined Gaia groups; churches had Gaia services, sometimes with new music written especially for the occasion. There was a Gaia atlas, Gaia gardening, Gaia herbs, Gaia retreats, Gaia networking, and much more. And the range of enthusiasts was—and still is—broad.

In The Gaia Hypothesis, philosopher Michael Ruse, with his characteristic clarity and wit, uses Gaia and its history, its supporters and detractors, to illuminate the nature of science itself. Gaia emerged in the 1960s, a decade when authority was questioned and status and dignity stood for nothing, but its story is much older. Ruse traces Gaia’s connection to Plato and a long history of goal-directed and holistic—or organicist—thinking and explains why Lovelock and Margulis’s peers rejected it as pseudoscience. But Ruse also shows why the project was a success. He argues that Lovelock and Margulis should be commended for giving philosophy firm scientific basis and for provoking important scientific discussion about the world as a whole, its homeostasis or—in this age of global environmental uncertainty—its lack thereof.

Melding the world of science and technology with the world of feeling, mysticism, and religion, The Gaia Hypothesis will appeal to a broad range of readers, from students and scholars of the history and philosophy of science to anyone interested in New Age culture.

Michael Ruse is the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Florida State University. He is the author or editor of nearly thirty books.

Event date: 
Friday, November 1, 2013 - 6:00pm
Event address: 
Seminary Co-op Bookstore
5751 S. Woodlawn Avenue
60637 Chicago