Date of Award

Spring 2017

Degree Type

Honors Project

School

College of Liberal Arts

First Advisor

Dr. Kristina Deffenbacher

Abstract

First published in 1856, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is one of the most impactful scientific writings in history. While the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory on historical events has been widely studied, no single work of scholarship has previously combined close reading of Origin’s representations of “race” with analysis of how those constructions of “racial” difference are (mis)translated across the cultural discourses of the eugenics movement and Nazi Germany. Through comparative cultural studies and close literary analysis of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Darwin’s works—including Origin, Descent of Man, and Voyage of the Beagle, this paper examines how evolutionary theory and Darwin’s work have been (mis)applied to and used to defend the differentiation of groups and the human social construct of race. The influence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory on eugenic policies in Nazi Germany is evident, yet close examination of Origin shows that Darwin’s theories were often inaccurately applied. While Darwin does point to the elimination of inferior species in nature over vast periods of time, the Nazis pulled this idea out of the broader context of Darwinian theory, ignoring aspects that complicate and contradict their invocation of evolutionary discourse. Not only does Darwin outline the importance of diversity within species through his theory of divergence of character, but he also credits nature as a superior mechanism of selection, particularly when compared to human attempts to cause evolutionary change. The murder of Jews and other “undesirable” groups in Nazi Germany is one of the most well-known instances of genocide in history; it provides one example of the ways scientific ideas have historically been skewed and used to promote a social agenda. By acknowledging the potential for misapplication of scientific work, scientists and all people should be reminded to examine closely the nature of justifications for social and political policies.