Scientists and historians have acquired skills of data analysis which are essential for their professional lives. It is therefore strange to find examples of scholars being satisfied with rather superficial conclusions. A recent case concerns the crimes committed by German scientists during the Nazi era. Most of us ask questions like: 'What perverted the thinking of these scientists?' and 'Why were their peers and their leaders not outraged by the experiments?' However, in a review of a history of the crimes committed in the years 1933-1945 by scientists of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, the take-home message is banal:
"What is the bottom line? Do not try to write the history of bad scientists when any of them are still alive. Like [the author of the book], do it only when all of those who were involved are dead."
The long shadow of Darwinism reaches far beyond the domain of science (Image source here, Credit: Noma Bar)
The Nazi leadership in 1933 left the Director of the Institute and six group leaders in place, but required the redundancy of 12 staff because they were Jewish. Thereafter, as staff retired, new appointees were "according to the wishes of the Nazis". Sad to say, nothing more is said in the review about the ideology that was enforced at that time and how it affected the thinking and actions of research scientists.
Claus Schilling was a group leader in 1933. He had been a medical doctor in Africa and was "fascinated by malaria". After retirement, he continued research into finding a vaccine.
"[B]etween 1942 and 1945, he used prisoners from the concentration camp at Dachau in southern Germany for his malaria experiments. Of the 1,200 people he infected with malaria, between 300 and 400 died. Schilling was caught by the Allies and executed in 1946."
Eugen Hagen was a virologist who conducted his infamous experiments in a concentration camp in Alsace. In a letter to his group leader, dated 1943, Hagen wrote:
"I contacted the central office of the SS [the Nazi protective squadron] to receive sufficient human material from worthless lives for our purpose."
Here, at least, is a pointer to the ideology that fostered destructive experimentation with human lives. Some people were regarded as "worthless" and dispensable. Medics, whose life's work involved alleviating suffering and curing diseases, degenerated to murder to further their research ambitions. Even when facing the death sentence, Schilling sought permission "to publish the results of his unethical malaria studies".
However, Muller-Hill does not give us any insights into this thinking in his review. There is no highlighting of ideological issues, no analysis of how these scientists came to view fellow humans as "worthless" and no application to the present day where the ethics of scientific research is firmly on the agenda for discussion. If the book is like the review, opportunities to learn lessons have been lost.
However, I am reluctant to assume that the book passes over the ideological issues so completely. There may be other factors at play here. An article appeared recently in The Daily Telegraph with this by-line: "The Nazis' gruesome experiments became an accepted part of German medical research, according to the author of a new history". The writer is Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, and his new book is The Third Reich at War. After discussing examples of the abuse of science, he writes:
"What underpinned this behaviour was a widespread belief that some people were less than human, relegated to a lower plane of existence by their inherited degeneracy - or their race."
After this tantalising comment, it is frustrating not to have further analysis of the factors leading to these attitudes. The ideological roots are hidden in this piece; all we see are some aberrant outgrowths of the plant. Yet, the author has done more work on the ideological issues and he does know what factors were at work. Here is a paragraph from an earlier book (The Third Reich in Power, p. 259):
"The real core of Nazi beliefs lay in the faith Hitler proclaimed in his speech of September 1938 in science - a Nazi view of science - as the basis for action. Science demanded the furtherance of the interests not of God but of the human race, and above all the German race and its future in a world ruled by ineluctable laws of Darwinian competition between races and between individuals. This was the sole criterion of morality, overriding the principles of love and compassion that have always formed such an important element in the beliefs of the world's great religions."
The diagnosis is clear. The Nazi's had latched on to the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection as a scientific justification of their ascendancy claims. They regarded themselves as representatives of the 'fit' humanity and they considered it a 'law of nature' that the fittest had the right, not just to survive, but also to promote the demise of the less fit. To the Nazi's, it made perfect sense to pursue a policy of extermination for that part of humanity that had nothing to offer their brave new world.
There are lessons here for today. It is important that each scientist thinks about his/her personal ideology and the framework of ethics within which they operate. Unfortunately, there is too much of an ethical vacuum today. People adopt principles for personal or pragmatic reasons. All too often, research ethics gets no deeper than gaining ethical approval from the appropriate ethics committee. Too many scientists are post-modernists when it comes to ethical procedures - all is relative. No one is prepared to move from ethics to morality - to say that anything is right or wrong. For previous blogs on this, go here and here.
This situation leaves the scientific enterprise vulnerable to being corrupted by business interests, funding agencies and ideologically-driven researchers. Many would argue that we are seeing warning signs on a regular basis. Social Darwinism is not dead. It continuously comes back to public debate saying that it has learned from mistakes and that Darwinism must be the only valid interpretive framework for understanding society. A recent presentation of this stance is found in The Economist. This is why the agenda of the ID movement includes opening up debate about the ideological influences in modern thought. This is why it is justified to come back again and again to the corruption of Nazi scientists: they have something important to teach us about the role of ideologies in science and the need for robust foundations for ethical practice.
Crimes in the name of research
Nature 456, 575 (4 December 2008) | doi:10.1038/456575a
BOOK REVIEWED - Das Robert Koch-Institut im Nationalsozialismus, by Annette Hinz-Wessels. Kulturverlag Kadmos: 2008. 192 pp. (in German)
First para: The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin was founded in 1891 and conducts research into infectious bacteria and viruses. When it celebrated its centenary, the crimes committed by members of the institute between 1933 and 1945 were apparently not of interest, and were not mentioned. Ten years later, after the Max Planck Society and the DFG, Germany's main research-funding agency, had investigated their own histories, this changed. Scientist Annette Hinz-Wessels has written the first history of the institute, concentrating on the years under National Socialism.
Evans, R. How Hitler perverted the course of science, Telegraph Online, 02 Dec 2008
Weikart, R. From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004
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