Jewish engagement with evolutionary theory is an important dimension of modern Jewish history and thought. While Jewish leaders and intellectuals have used the science of evolution to bolster notions of Jewish identity, they have also confronted and (often fiercely resisted) the use of evolutionary theory to conceptualize conflict between Jews and non-Jews. Published in 2006, Geoffrey Cantor’s Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, by Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz, explores the ways Jews – singly and communally – have engaged evolutionary thought in a variety of historical contexts, and the role it has played in modern Jewish history. A central focus of the book is exploring how evolutionary ideas have been deployed, by Jews and others, in the domains of race, anti-Semitism, and Zionism, and the recurrent use over the last century and a half of evolutionary ideas to characterize Jews.
Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) postulated natural selection as the driving force for biological evolution: that individuals in any species show a diversity of inherited characteristics and compete for the scarce resources needed to survive and reproduce. If certain characteristics benefit them in that competition, these are more likely to be passed on to the next generation and, consequently, the species will evolve over time. By the time Darwin’s book was published the transformation of species was a familiar theme, but Darwin was the first to publicly explicate the precise mechanism. While socialists and communists soon deployed Darwinian evolution in their antireligious polemics, it also attracted conservative and nationalistic thinkers. Darwin’s theory could, for example, be seen to justify unfettered capitalism. Indeed, the centrality of competition in the process of natural selection raised a host of moral issues for a Christian West. The advent of Darwinism also spawned a new way of conceptualizing race and racial competition.
Pre-Darwinian Racial Thinking
European racial thinking long predated Darwin’s famous book. The European colonial expansion from the seventeenth century saw naturalists and philosophers engaged with classifying and characterizing the different peoples they encountered. While French intellectual Jean-Jacques Rousseau enthused about the nobility of the savage, the more typical response was to “emphasize the vast differences between primitive peoples and the Enlightened Europeans with their developed intellects, civilized societies, and refined manners.”[i] Pre-Darwinian thinking about race in Europe culminated in books like The Races of Man (1850) by Scottish surgeon, anatomist and anthropologist Robert Knox who stated “as simply a fact” that “race in human affairs is everything: literature, science, art, in a word, civilization, depend on it.”[ii] The most advanced races were, he asserted, the Germans, the Saxons, and the Celts; the least were the dark races of the Earth. He considered Jews, who he designated a separate race, “sterile parasites” with peculiar physical features often including a “large, massive club-shaped, hooked nose, three or four times larger than suits the face.”[iii]
Though Knox’s book is now almost completely forgotten, it was widely admired at the time, by Charles Darwin among others, and exerted significant popular influence. Knox was pessimistic about British imperial ambitions of civilizing the world: the dark races were, he contended, congenitally incapable of being civilized, and a racially mixed population would only lead to the degeneration of the more intelligent racial party to the admixture as a product of miscegenation. While Darwin avoided explicitly addressing human evolution in The Origin of Species, his implicit views were apparent to many readers, and were later made explicit in The Descent of Man (1871). While embracing a monogenist conception of human evolution (that all races could be traced to a common ancestor), Darwin believed that the races were unequal and locked in a struggle for existence.
Darwin deployed traditional hierarchical notions in placing the “savages” closest to the primates and the civilized Europeans at the top. Moreover, he conceived an overall historical progress – mental, moral, and to some extent biological – from the savage to the civilized state. While acknowledging the superiority of the European races, he also on occasions conceived the various races as locked in a struggle with each other.[iv]
Darwinian Theory was particularly embraced by scientists and intellectuals in Germany, where its main popularizer in the 1860s was the philosopher Ernst Haeckel. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the life sciences in Germany (and throughout the West) became firmly established on materialist assumptions, and the evolutionary perspective significantly shaped social and political thought. Prominence was given by social Darwinians and eugenicists to the inborn, hereditary element of Volk and race in contrast to elements that were culturally acquired.
Darwinian biologists in Germany increasingly stressed racial competition as a form of the human struggle for existence. The anthropologist Ludwig Woltmann, for instance, posited race as the driving force behind all historical development, noting “the same process of natural selection in the struggle for existence dominates the origin, evolution, and destruction of the human races.”[v] Prominent Jewish sociologist at the University of Graz, Ludwig Gumplowicz, proposed in his 1883 book Der Rassenkampf (Racial Struggle) that history was dominated by the Darwinian struggle for existence between the races. History, he asserted, is “the eternal lust for exploitation and dominance of the stronger and superior. The racial struggle for dominion in all its forms, in the open and violent, as well as latent and peaceful, is the essential driving principle, the moving force of history.”[vi]
Darwinism and the Jewish Question
Michael Ruse notes that “in the years after the Origin, the Jewish Question became something of immediate urgency to the Victorians,” and from the 1860s, German intellectuals in particular applied Darwinian principles to the issue, identifying Jews as a distinct race locked in a struggle for existence with other races.[vii] After Napoleon lifted most legal restrictions on Jews in the German territories in 1806, the native population was confronted for the first time with the social and economic effects of unfettered Semitism. Before 1806, Germans and Jews had limited contact in society. This changed throughout the nineteenth century as the urban Jewish population surged: between 1811 and 1875, Berlin’s Jewish population increased by a factor of fourteen. Constant discussion of the Judenfrage was triggered not just by their growing numbers and rapid economic advancement, but the social strife that accompanied the Jewish penetration and eventual domination of mainstream German society. Post-emancipation, “Jews were regarded less as adherents of an alien, barbaric faith and more as members of a secular socioeconomic group that disproportionately profited from modern life.”[viii] By the late nineteenth century, Jews “controlled virtually all the major banks in Vienna and a considerable portion of local industry” a development which produced in the native population “a sense of danger and of being overwhelmed.” Generalized anxiety condensed into the charge that “nothing was sacred” to the Jews.[ix]
The native population sensed Jews were not just a religious community but an endogamous ethnic group that had adopted a highly successful group survival strategy. Weikart notes that, in the eyes of many Germans, “Jews posed the greatest and most immediate threat in this competition to the death.”[x] Wilhelm Marr invoked Social Darwinian principles in his 1879 pamphlet Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum (The Triumph of the Jews over the Germans), conceptualizing the Jewish Question along Darwinian lines as not a religious, but a racial or biological problem. In the past religion had merely served as an excuse, but the real conflict, Marr contended, was the “the fight of peoples (Volker) and their instincts against the actual Judaizing (Verjudung) of society, as a struggle for existence.”[xi] For Marr, neither Jews nor Germans were morally responsible for the struggle between them, since it was the result of ineluctable biological processes. As such, he advised his fellow Germans not to hate the Jews, just as they do not hate individual enemy soldiers in wars: “The struggle between peoples (Völkerkampf) must be fought without hatred against the individuals, who are compelled to attack, as well as to defend themselves.”[xii] Marr’s monograph struck a chord with readers, passing through twelve editions in its first year.
German philosopher Eugen Dühring observed that the mental and moral traits of the Jews were themselves the fruits of this evolutionary struggle for existence, and that cultural patterns are simply a reflection of biological character. French anthropologist Vacher de Lapouge concurred, describing Jews as an ethnic group “founded upon religion and with a psychic identity forged over centuries of selection. They were everywhere the same: intelligent, ruthless, gifted money-makers, arrogant in success and servile in defeat, and congenitally odious, as evinced by their history of persecution, which antedated the birth of Christ by several centuries.”[xiii] For Dühring, evolution was so gradual no significant change to the Jewish psychological makeup could occur in the foreseeable future – thus the Jewish Question would remain an intractable social problem.
Moses Hess, the Jewish philosopher and pioneering Zionist, also conceived the Jewish Question as a racial problem, rather than one about equal rights for a religious sect. The true historical essence of Jewishness was its biological racial roots. Like Theodor Herzl, Hess concluded that a national homeland in Palestine – rather than assimilation – was the proper resolution of the Jewish Question.[xiv] In 1862 he published Rom und Jerusalem: die letze Nationalitätsfrage (1862, Rome and Jerusalem: A Study in Jewish Nationalism), in which he claimed that “Jews are primarily a race that, in spite of all the influences of climate, adapted to all situations and maintained its integrity.”
The Jewish race [claimed Hess] is one of the primary races of mankind that has retained its integrity, in spite of the continual change of its climatic environment, and the Jewish type has conserved its purity through the centuries. The Jewish race, which was so pressed and almost destroyed by the many nations of antiquity, would have disappeared long ago in the sea of Indo-Germanic nations, had it not been endowed with the gift of retaining its peculiar type under all circumstances and reproducing it.[xv]
Perhaps the best-known instance of a volkisch manifesto in the history of Zionism was Martin Buber’s 1911 essay “Zionism, Race, and Eugenics”: a celebration of blood as the paramount essence of Jewish identity. Buber argued the Western Jew was rootless, that the languages and customs of his European hosts were alien to his essential being – having not stemmed from his “community of blood” (Gemeinschaft seines Blutes). Nevertheless, Jews retained an “autonomous reality” beyond mere geopolitical continuity with the past which “does not leave us at any hour in our life. … [B]lood [is] the deepest, most potent stratum of our being.” When he envisions the line of ancestors that led to him, the Jew, Buber declared, perceives “what confluence of blood has produced him …. He senses in this immortality of the generations a community of blood.”[xvi]
The radical Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940) likewise insisted the source of Jewish national feeling should be sought “in the blood…. The feeling of national identity is ingrained in the man’s ‘blood,’ in the physical-racial type, and in it only.”[xvii] In 1931, Jewish anthropologist Arthur Ruppin joined the Zionist movement and lobbied for the “right of the Jews to come to Palestine not on some ‘political’ agreement and concession, but on their historical and racial connection to Palestine.”[xviii] This remains an argument used by Zionist activists today: Australian Jewish leader Peter Wertheim, for example, slams as a “disgraceful falsehood” any claim Jews displaced Palestinians from their land on the basis that Jews “are indigenous to the Holy Land.” With such claims in mind, Falk notes that “Zionism and race are as intertwined today as they were a century ago.”[xix]
Accepting that Jews were a distinct race and (implicitly) that Judaism was a group evolutionary strategy, Jewish anthropologists, statisticians, and physicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries conducted research and published papers on race and the Jewish Question to bolster their views on the place of Jews in modern society. Weindling points out how “Jewish race science texts” from this time created “a new, ‘scientific’ paradigm and agenda of Jewish self-definition and self-perception.”[xx] By the turn of the century, the idea of finding a common index for the Jewish race “proved attractive not only to anti-Semites but also to promoters of secular Jewish identity.” Jewish scientists and intellectuals “drew from a range of available ideas, such as Darwinian natural selection, the ‘struggle for existence’ among individuals and social groups, Mendelian genetics, and the Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics.”[xxi] The prominent Zionist author Max Nordau considered Darwinism an integral component of his scientific worldview.
End of Part 1.
[i] Geoffrey Cantor & Marc Swetlitz, Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, Eds. Geoffrey Cantor & Marc Swetlitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 89.
[iii] Cantor & Swetlitz, Jewish Tradition, 90.
[iv] Ibid., 91.
[v] Richard Weikart, “The Impact of Social Darwinism on Anti-Semitic Ideology in Germany and Austria, 1860-1945,” In: Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, Eds. Geoffrey Cantor & Marc Swetlitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 106.
[vi] Ibid., 101.
[vii] Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us About Evolution (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016) 140.
[viii] Götz Aly, Why the Germans? Why the Jews?: Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), 3.
[ix] Quoted in: Stuart K. Hayashi, Hunting Down Social Darwinism (KY: Lexington Books, 2015), 163.
[x] Weikart, “The Impact of Social Darwinism,” 94.
[xi] Ibid., 102.
[xii] Ibid., 103.
[xiii] Mike Hawkins, Social Darwinism in European and American thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 197.
[xiv] Raphael Falk, “Zionism, Race, and Eugenics,” In: Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, Eds. Geoffrey Cantor & Marc Swetlitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 138.
[xvi] Ibid., 142.
[xvii] Ibid., 143.
[xviii] Ibid., 146.
[xix] Ibid., 162.
[xx] Paul Weindling, “The Evolution of Jewish Identity: Ignaz Zollschan between Jewish and Aryan Race Theories, 1910-1945,” In: Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, Eds. Geoffrey Cantor & Marc Swetlitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 119.
[xxi] Cantor & Swetlitz, Jewish Tradition, 14.