Nietzsche, Materialism, and Eugenics: A Brief History of the Connection

The course/tutorial sessions about which I posted a couple of weeks ago have taken us into Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous declaration that “God is dead,” his subsequent call for a “revaluation of all values,” and his prophesy that the next century (the twentieth) would witness a potentially catastrophic “advent of nihilism.”

Arguably this final prediction of Nietzsche’s was spot on. Understanding what Nietzsche meant has been challenging, however; scholars are not always in agreement about what he was driving at.

Nietzsche was not a systematic thinker (the closest he comes is probably On the Genealogy of Morals), and this complicates matters. If the history of philosophy divides (somewhat) into system-builders and system-smashers, Nietzsche was more the second than the first. Elsewhere I’ve distinguished “neats” from “scruffies.” The former are pristine and logical, concerned with precision, consistency and comprehensiveness. They tend to like mathematics, geometry, and formal logic. The find all such things fundamentally inauthentic, artificial, and falsifying our actual lived experience which they see as far from systematic. “Neats” (system-builders) include Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, the early Wittgenstein, and Whitehead; “scruffies” (system-smashers) include the ancient Sophists, Montaigne, Hume at least some of the time, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche obviously, and in the twentieth century, the later Wittgenstein and those he directly influenced such as Paul Feyerabend.

What our course/tutorial turned up surprised me — possibly because I’d not looked at Nietzsche in quite a while (although I do not recall this from history of philosophy seminars when I was a student). The question Jack Carney and I found ourselves confronting over the past couple of weeks: was Nietzsche an incipient eugenicist? Pursuing this further, should the answer be a resounding Yes: does this supply another reason for not being a materialist? My answer will be another resounding Yes!

First things first: although Carney and I are on opposite sides of the worldview fence (he is a materialist; I am not), I need to credit him for turning up the bulk of this material. This is important, because it connects one of the pivotal figures of around 150 years ago both with what I describe in my book What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory (2021) as the replacement of the worldview of Christendom with that of materialism (Ch. 3) and, from there, with some of the most dangerous tendencies afoot in the world today.  

What is eugenics? Here is a thoughtful discussion:

Eugenics is a social movement based on the belief that the genetic quality of the human race can be improved by the use of selective breeding, as well as other often morally criticized means to eliminate groups of people considered genetically inferior, while encouraging the growth of groups judged to be genetically superior. Since first conceptualized by Plato around 400 BC, the practice of eugenics has been debated and criticized. 

Continuing:

Coming from a Greek word meaning “good in birth,” the term eugenics refers to a controversial area of genetic science based on the belief that the human species can be improved by encouraging only people or groups with “desirable” traits to reproduce, while discouraging or even preventing reproduction among people with “undesirable” qualities. Its stated goal is to improve the human condition by “breeding out” disease, disability, and other subjectively defined undesirable characteristics from the human population.

Influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest, British natural scientist Sir Francis Galton—Darwin’s cousin—coined the term eugenics in 1883. Galton contended that selective human breeding would enable “the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.” He promised eugenics could “raise the present miserably low standard of the human race” by “breeding the best with the best.” 

In other words, Plato was the first philosopher to toy with the idea, which may be an occupational hazard with those who either believe themselves most fit to rule, or that the question of who is most fit to rule others, or humanity as a whole, can be given a meaningful answer.

Eugenics become quite popular among many forward-looking intellectuals with a social-engineering bent starting in the late 1800s. This interest continued into the 1900s. Note the close tie to Darwinism. Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, coined the term and became its first avid promoter. The idea was soon picked up by other intellectual elites.

It fell out of favor because of its connection to the Nazis, under whom it went by the term National Socialist racial hygiene. Arguably, though, the idea never went away completely, and has been revived in our time — without anyone being so bold as to call it that, of course.

Was Nietzsche in the camp of early eugenicists? Leaving aside the fact that if anything, he wasn’t a “joiner,” when we consider his later writings collected in The Will to Power, we find this (Pt. 4, 734, Kaufmann translation):

There are cases in which a child would be a crime: in the case of chronic invalids and neurasthenics of the third degree. What should one do in such cases?… [S]ociety has a duty here: few more pressing and fundamental demands can be made upon it. Society, as the trustee of life, is responsible for every botched life before it comes into existence, and as it has to atone for such lives, it ought consequently to make it impossible for them ever to see the light of day: it should in many cases actually prevent the act of procreation, and may, without any regard for rank, descent, or intellect, hold in readiness the most rigorous forms of compulsion and restriction, and, under certain circumstances, have recourse to castration.

This material, dating from 1888, surely puts Nietzsche in that camp! So our answer is indeed that resounding Yes!

What makes eugenics wrong, morally condemnable? From where philosophers such as myself are sitting, eugenics is unacceptable because it is entirely incompatible with the idea that human lives have intrinsic moral value — even lives that some deem “botched” in one way or another. What entitles anyone to make that judgment? Is it necessary to provide a list of people with physical and even mental infirmities of various sorts who have made important and sometimes magnificent contributions to civilization???

Nietzsche despised Christianity; this is a given. His despising Christianity motivated his call for a “revaluation of all values.” What did this mean? Nietzsche wrote:

“We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values should itself, for once, be examined?. [What if] morality itself were to blame if man, as a species, never reached his highest potential power and splendor?”

Christianity stressed love, charitability, humility, forgiveness, family, church, community — and, I would argue, it paves the way for responsible freedom within the bounds of a moral view of the world. The Christian worldview saw us all as “equal” in the eyes of our Creator (which obviously did not mean equal in an economic sense). The idea that human lives matter, that the autonomy of each of us should be respected so long as we are respecting the autonomy of others, begins here.

But if Christianity is removed from your conceptual map of the world, on what can any of these notions stand? Even a moral principle that justifies non-aggression or non-coercion with a proposition such as, “If everybody refrained from aggressing or initiating coercion against others, the world would be considerably better off,” is vulnerable. The proposition is true enough, but as we’ll see presently, irrelevant. Everybody won’t. Globalists, for example, are not impressed with it (any more than were the Nazis or the Communists). They are in a position to simply ignore it and do as they please, answering only to each other, without larger consequence.

If Nietzsche was anything, he was a dedicated antagonist to the idea that you could have a fundamentally Christian ethos without a Christian foundation: God and original moral commands as found in the Old and New Testaments. Not only did it make no philosophical sense, it was self-deceptive and intellectually dishonest.  

Nietzsche thus scorned utilizing any Christian notions in one’s ethos because he was fundamentally a materialist even if he doesn’t defend materialist explicitly (that I know of). If anything, he assumes it, at least for his purposes here. The above passage (734) continues:

The Biblical prohibition “thou shalt not kill” is a piece of naiveté compared with the seriousness of the prohibition of life to decadents: “thou shalt not procreate!” — Life itself recognizes no solidarity, no “equal rights” between the healthy and the degenerate parts of an organism: one must excise the latter — or the whole will perish. Sympathy for decadents, equal rights for the ill-constituted — that would be the profoundest immorality, that would be antinature itself as morality!

Life, that is, has a first imperative: survive! Do more than survive. Be strong and vigorous! If life is strong, vigorous, and healthy: reproduce. Improve the strength of the species in the drive for empowerment within the material world.  

My conclusions are two.

First, the materialist worldview does not compel eugenics in any strict logical sense. But neither, as we saw above, does it provide any basis for ruling it out. It is one possible consequence those so inclined are likely to draw.

For second — and let me be just a tad Nietzschean here myself! — those so inclined will sometimes have the money and therefore the power to infer just these kinds of conclusions, perhaps almost unconsciously — or not! They may present what they have to say cleverly, that is, disguised in philanthropical sounding language about “making the world better.”  

Beginning around the time of the Fabian socialists, the idea was that there are people in this world who may not be physically or mentally infirm but are nevertheless “of no use.” George Bernard Shaw (one of the founding Fabians and author of the very Nietzschean play Man Into Superman) put it this way:

“You must know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they’re worth, just put him there and say: now will you be kind enough to justify you, if you’re not pulling your weight, if you’re not producing as much as you consume, then clearly we cannot use the big organization of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”

Shaw, like Nietzsche, was severely critical of the mass of humanity. Both philosophers looked at the common people and saw only herd animals: the moral equivalent of cattle. Perhaps they had the capacity to be more than they are; or perhaps not. The point being: you don’t have moral qualms about moving cattle around by force, covert or overt, rearranging them in such a way that (1) there is a place for the cooperative, with all the cooperative in their places; and (2) those who don’t get with the program can simply be eliminated from the gene pool.  

The Fabian socialists, as I outline in some detail in my Four Cardinal Errors (2011), infiltrated the U.S. government, universities, think tanks, and eventually corporations transforming them from within. Theirs was the consummate social engineering project, because for decades virtually no one noticed what was happening. It took author Rose L Martin to document this multi-generational effort with her treatise Fabian Freeway: High Road to Socialism in the U.S.A. (1968).

By then the transformation of the U.S. was well underway, and subsequent events suggest that it may have been unstoppable even then. It is not that those in positions of power were Fabians. Most in the American political and corporate classes were not; most have never even heard of them. But they were members of organizations that had adopted, at the top, Fabian mottos such as “make haste slowly” and “penetrate and permeate.” Their symbol was the tortoise: moving inexorably along, but always moving forward, barely noticeable. They were not Marxists because they were not revolutionists but evolutionists. They recognized that revolutions were messy, difficult to control, and often precipitated periods of chaos. Far easier, it was, to transform societies by transforming their dominant institutions from within, by stealth — until the change was so far along that opposing it from the inside was impossible. Institutions had been not just penetrated but permeated. Those who noticed could be branded “paranoid” or “reactionary” or “conspiratorial.”  

Today, as I suggested, a variation on the eugenics theme is back full force, without anyone calling it that (the word transhumanism appears to be in vogue among the “scientific” elites). This, I would argue, is the actual the culmination of around 150 years of materialist dominance of the world’s intellectual centers. Its latter-day theme is that there are simply too many people in a world in which, e.g., jobs are disappearing due to technology. Also, in the recent past — perhaps during the years 1950-1970 which experienced a real economic boom — too many of the peasants earned too much money and began to travel around too much (their children are still doing it). They are spreading their diseases! The herds of cattle therefore need to be controlled! For the good of the planet!

Yuval Noah Harari has risen in stature over the past decade or so as one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. He is an Israeli and a full professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For our purposes his biggest claim to fame is his status having the ear of arch-globalist Klaus Schwab who founded and, since the 1970s, has directed the World Economic Forum who organizes the globalist superelite each January in Davos, Switzerland. Harari’s books have titles like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017, the title alone probably tells you all you need to know!). A good compendium of quotations illustrating Harari’s views can be found here:

What Harari has said recently (note how he echoes what Shaw had said a hundred years before):

“… I think that the biggest question in maybe in economics and politics of the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people. I don’t think we have an economic model for that …

Is there a direct connection between latter-day eugenics (transhumanism) going back through the Fabians and including Nietzsche? That would be a Yes.

Nietzsche’s variant on the materialist worldview held that we find meaning — if we find it — exclusively between birth (the start of our journey through life) and death (the extinguishing of the human personality). There is nothing else to draw from. There is no “transcendent” world in which to find meaning, not that of Christianity, not that of Plato (“forms”), not that of those philosophers who attempt to maintain a fundamentally Christian ethos, emphasizing being truthful, keeping one’s promises, etc., but place it on a different foundation (Kant would be an example).

Nor is there any “future transcendence” to look forward to and serve in the present, such as Marxism. There is only this world — with all its trials, tribulations; occasional victories amidst many failures and losses; and within which there is a great deal of suffering.

We must build an ethic, asserts Nietzsche, based on overcoming all of this, which otherwise suggests nihilism if your reference point for meaning remains outside this material world. Such an ethic would go “beyond good and evil.”

What would that ethic look like? We (Carney and I; him, actually, more than me) have figured out that it might look very much like what Schwab and Harari are proposing.

Consider Nietzsche’s words, again from The Will to Power (Pt. 4, 954, 960):

A certain question constantly recurs to us; it is perhaps a seductive and evil question; may it be whispered into the ears of those who have a right to such doubtful problems — those strong souls of to-day whose dominion over themselves is unswerving: is it not high time, now that the type “gregarious animal” is developing ever more and more in Europe, to set about rearing, thoroughly, artificially, and consciously, an opposite type, and to attempt to establish the latter’s virtues? And would not the democratic movement itself find for the first time a sort of goal, salvation, and justification, if someone appeared who availed himself of it — so that at last, beside its new and sublime product, slavery (for this must be the end of European democracy), that higher species of ruling and Cæsarian spirits might also be produced, which would stand upon it, hold to it, and would elevate themselves through it? This new race would climb aloft to new and hitherto impossible things, to a broader vision, and to its task on earth.”

From now henceforward there will be such favourable first conditions for greater ruling powers as have never yet been found on earth. And this is by no means the most important point. The establishment has been made possible of international race unions which will set themselves the task of rearing a ruling race, THE FUTURE “LORDS OF THE EARTH” [my emphasis] — a new, vast aristocracy based upon the most severe self-discipline, in which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be stamped upon thousands of years: a higher species of men which, thanks to their preponderance of will, knowledge, riches, and influence, will avail themselves of democratic Europe as the most suitable and supple instrument they can have for taking the fate of the earth into their own hands, and working as artists upon man himself. Enough! The time is coming for us to transform all our views on politics.”

What matters, of course, is the chain of thought that begins with ideas like these, from the 1880s (which was also the decade in which the British Fabian Society was founded) leading straight to today’s globalists, who fancy themselves as Platonist philosopher-kings, Lords of the Earth, redesigners of humanity — those most fit to rule by virtue of their superior “preponderance of will, knowledge, riches, and influence….”

There is much, of course, that Nietzsche could not have anticipated — most importantly, the role technology would play and the idea of incorporating it as an omnipresence force in our lives. Compare the above to this comment, then, from Klaus Schwab’s book Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (2018):

The lines between technologies and beings are becoming blurred and not just by the ability to create lifelike robots or synthetics. Instead it is about the ability of new technologies to literally become part of us. Technologies already influence how we understand ourselves, how we think about each other, and how we determine our realities. As the technologies…give us deeper access to parts of ourselves, we may begin to integrate digital technologies into our bodies.

For more quotations on the kind of future Harari envisions, go here. We are dangerously close to that state of affairs. Or this, from Homo Deus:

The notion of superhumans is using bioengineering and artificial intelligence to upgrade human abilities. If they use the power to change themselves, to change their own minds, their own desires, then we have no idea what they will want to do.

Harari thinks that Homo Sapiens will be transcended, made obsolete, by the end of the present century. There are plenty of people who do not want to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the dystopia that would herald their obsolescence.

What will be done with them all? Does anyone really want to know?

The question is worth asking, because this is where the advanced world, empowered by money, is heading, and at breakneck speed! The first problem with all forms of humanist ethics — humanist ethics here meaning all those ethical theories that begin with human beings in this world alone — starts with their having led to a babble of incommensurable voices. Consider he past 150 years of the subject. How many secular ethical theories has this era produced, anyway? They divide loosely into the deontological ethical theories that follow Kant and the utilitarian ones that follow Bentham and Mill, but then there are more divisions based often on little more that political ideology. (Identity politics has done all it can to create an ethos in which some have more “rights” than others because of past or present “victimhood,” and because those others had historical “privilege.”)

The leads us to the realization that the minority I’ve often mentioned — a subset of sociopaths, most likely — who are fascinated with power, know instinctively how to exploit this incommensurable babble for personal gain, and how to use money/financial systems to gain global dominance. If the globalist ethos can be reduced to a single sentence, that sentence would read something like, “If I want global domination, i.e., power, I have a right to it by virtue of my superior intellect, wealth, and will.”

Nietzsche may well have concurred!  

There is much more to be said that cannot be expressed in a blog post as brief as this. These connections, from the materialists of the second half of the nineteenth century, scientific or philosophical, down through the genocides of the twentieth, and to the proposals for today, all require a longer and more involved essay. What I’ve done here, hopefully, is to get the discussion started.

Suffice it to say: would it not be best, now, to “reinvent ourselves” by imagining (or reimagining) a worldview that does not permit a chain of inferences leading to these kinds of consequences, because its analysis of life in this world starts with the idea that human lives have intrinsic worth: that we are not cattle, not pawns to be moved around as on a chessboard, and above all, not mere objects to be experimented on (as with some interpretations of the covid-19 jabs).

That sort of worldview, I submit, is only possible if we reject materialism in all its forms. (See my article series here, here, here, here, here, here, here.)

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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