Monday, August 10, 2009

Military Selection

Recently I have been trying to post on matters Medieval; however I always have one foot firmly in the 19th century. In the book Galileo goes to Gaol and Other Myths about Science and Religion there was quite a good essay by Robert J Richards on the German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel. Richards has had something of a longrunning spat with Daniel Gasman over how much inspiration the Nazis took from Haeckel’s work (see here and here). The full text of this essay happens to be online here and I thought it was fairly successful. Anyone familiar with the history of the Third Reich knows what a hopelessly confused mish-mash of ideas National Socialism really was; hence one can find many antecedents but no single blueprint.

The part I found the most interesting was Haeckel’s idea of ‘Military Selection’, a phenomenon he noted during the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71. He appears to have been under the impression, that while the most heroic and virile men were manning the front and getting slaughtered, the most cowardly and feeble men were manning the bedrooms and propagating themselves. Haeckel writes:

The opposite of this artificial selection of the wild Redskins and the ancient Spartans is seen in the individual selection which is universally practised in our modern military states, for the purpose of maintaining standing armies, and which, under the name of military selection, we may conveniently consider as a special form of selection. Unfortunately, in our day, militarism is more than ever prominent in our so-called "civilisation"; all the strength and all the wealth of flourishing civilised states are squandered on its development; whereas the education of the young, and public instruction, which are the foundations of the true welfare of nations and the ennobling of humanity, are neglected and mismanaged in a most pitiable manner. And this is done in states which believe themselves to be the privileged leaders of the highest human intelligence, and to stand at the head of civilisation.

As is well known, in order to increase the standing army as much as possible, all healthy and strong young men are annually selected by a strict system of recruiting. The stronger, healthier, and more spirited a youth is, the greater is his prospect of being killed by needle-guns, cannons, and other similar instruments of civilisation. All youths that are unhealthy, weak, or affected with infirmities, on the other hand, are spared by the "military selection," and remain at home during the war, marry, and propagate themselves. The more useless, the weaker, or infirmer the youth is, the greater is his prospect of escaping the recruiting officer, and of founding a family. While the healthy flower of youth dies on the battle-field, the feeble remainder enjoy the satisfaction of reproduction and of transmitting all their weaknesses and infirmities to their descendants. According to the laws of transmission by inheritance, there must necessarily follow in each succeeding generation, not only a further extension, but also a more deeply-seated development of weakness of body, and what is inseparable from it, a condition of mental weakness also. This and other forms of artificial selection practised in our civilised states sufficiently explain the sad fact that, in reality, weakness of the body and weakness of character are on the perpetual increase among civilised nations, and that, together with strong, healthy bodies, free and independent spirits are becoming more and more scarce....

If any one were to venture the proposal, after the examples of the Spartans and Redskins, to kill, immediately upon their birth, all miserable, crippled children to whom with certainty a sickly life could be prophesied, instead of keeping them in life injurious to them and to the race, our so-called "humane civilisation" would utter a cry of indignation. But the same "humane civilisation" thinks it quite as it should be, and accepts without a murmur, that at the outbreak of every war (and in the present state of civilised life, and in the continual development of standing armies, wars must naturally become more frequent) hundreds and thousands of the finest men, full of youthful vigour, are sacrificed in the hazardous game of battles.

It’s curious to see what is essentially an anti-militaristic argument coupled with a proposal to murder disabled children. This kind of rhetoric of racial disintegration was pretty much par for the course in the late 19th and early twentieth century. One recalls Francis Galton’s infamous plan to ‘restock Africa’ with ‘Chinamen’.

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