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Rallying to Darwin's Defense: Robert J. Richards and the Historical Record

Nuremberg Rally

Robert J. Richards's essay "Was Hitler a Darwinian?" and part of his essay "The German Reception of Darwin's Theory, 1860-1945" attempt to refute my two book-length treatments dealing with the ideological connections between Darwinism and Nazism (From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress). In his zeal to disprove my position, the University of Chicago historian makes a number of serious historical mistakes. I will not have time to deal with every single error, but I will focus on seven crucial falsehoods to show that Richards's main arguments are untenable.

Before proceeding, however, I should note that I have already addressed most of these points extensively in my two books (and also in a response to Richards's earlier critique that I have posted to my website). Richards simply ignores most of my evidence, so I will have to restate some of it here. Those who want an even fuller refutation of Richards's position should consult my two books.

Now let me deal with the first major error:

1. Richards maintains, "Clearly, Hitler simply rejected an essential component of Darwinian theory, the origin of human beings from ape-like ancestors."

Since this is the main argument that Richards makes in his essay, one would have expected that he would carefully examine the many statements by Hitler that I quote and paraphrase in Hitler's Ethic indicating rather clearly that Hitler did indeed believe in human evolution. In addition to quotations and explanations littered throughout the book, I devote a seven-page section of Hitler's Ethic specifically to this question (pp. 46-52). I begin that section by quoting the only statement that I know about (and to date neither Richards nor anyone else has ever produced any others) where Hitler expressed reservations about human evolution. He stated in January 1942 during one of his Table Talks:

Where do we get the right to believe that humanity was not already from its earliest origins what it is today? Looking at nature teaches us that in the realm of plants and animals transformations and further developments occur. But never within a genus has evolution [Entwicklung] made such a wide leap, which humans must have made, if they had been transformed from an ape-like condition to what they are now.
This is Richards's strongest evidence that Hitler did not believe in human evolution, but interestingly, he fails to note that in this same passage Hitler clearly stated his belief in the evolution of other species of animals and plants. In this instance Hitler was mentioning humans as a possible exception to the evolutionary rule in nature. So Hitler even at this point did believe in some kind of evolution. Nonetheless, if this were the only statement Hitler ever made about human evolution, then Richards would be right to criticize my position.

Immediately after quoting this passage in Hitler's Ethic, I note that Hitler often spoke about humans not being very separate from apes, a point that contradicts his position quoted above, since there he claimed a "wide leap" existed between humans and apes. Richards mentions one of my quotations from a 1933 Nuremberg speech by Hitler, which shows that Hitler did not always hold this view about there being a "wide leap." Hitler in that speech stated, "The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape." Richards then states: "Weikart suggests that this lonely remark from Nuremberg indicates the German Leader's acceptance of evolution." Then he seeks to demolish my argument by indicating that this statement about racial hierarchy "carries no suggestion of belief in transmutation."

If this were indeed a "lonely remark" that I was relying on to prove Hitler's belief in human evolution, then Richards would have cause to reject my argument. Indeed, never did I suggest that this statement proved conclusively that Hitler believed in human evolution. The point of quoting from Hitler's 1933 speech was to show that Hitler's view about the "wide leap" between humans and apes, on which he based his doubts about human evolution in January 1942, was not a position he took at other times in his career. Richards is right that it is not conclusive proof of Hitler's embracing the animal ancestry of humans, even though Hitler's 1933 statement is a paraphrase of the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel, who stated in 1866 that "the differences between the highest and the lowest humans is greater than that between the lowest human and the highest animal."

However, the glaring problem with Richards's position is that his claim that I only produced a "lonely remark" to demonstrate Hitler's belief in evolution is patently false, as anyone who reads my book should figure out quickly. In my seven-page section on Hitler's belief in human evolution and elsewhere in my book I produce many remarks by Hitler that conclusively prove that he believed in human evolution. At the bottom of the same page that allegedly has my "lonely remark," I state: "An even stronger piece of evidence that Hitler believed in human evolution was a statement he made in a 1927 speech. After emphasizing the importance of the 'law of the eternal struggle,' he told pacifists,

You are the product of this struggle. If your ancestors had not fought, today you would be an animal. They did not gain their rights through peaceful debates with wild animals, and later perhaps also with humans, through the comparative adjustment of relations by a pacifist court of arbitration, but rather the earth has been acquired on the basis of the right of the stronger."
On the following page I quote from Hitler's very extensive discussion of evolution in his Table Talk of October 24, 1941 (just months before his brief statement doubting human evolution). At that time Hitler stated: "There have been humans at the rank at least of a baboon in any case for 300,000 years at least. The ape is distinguished from the lowest human less than such a human is from a thinker like, for example, Schopenhauer."

After his January 1942 statement doubting human evolution, Hitler also made statements showing that he still believed in human evolution. On p. 49 of Hitler's Ethic I quote from a February 27, 1942, Table Talk, in which Hitler stated that men shaving off their beards is "nothing but the continuation of an evolution that has been proceeding for millions of years: Gradually humans lost their hair." Right after that I paraphrase from a June 1944 speech, where Hitler claimed humanlike organisms had existed for millions of years, but humans only for 300,000 years.

My book is chockfull of evidence that Hitler believed in human evolution, including direct quotations from Hitler, a multitude of Hitler's references to evolutionary terminology (including struggle for existence and natural selection), Hitler's descriptions of evolutionary processes, and Hitler's secretary's statement that he believed in human evolution. It is not based on a "lonely remark," but a veritable avalanche of data, as anyone reading my book will learn.

I will only mention one more piece of evidence that I discuss in Hitler's Ethic (p. 79) that is particularly revealing, since in this speech Hitler showed that he believed in Haeckel's recapitulation theory (that embryonic development repeats evolutionary history). When dedicating the House of German Art in Munich in July 1937, Hitler claimed that modern art was atavistic, stating, "When we know today that the evolution of millions of years, compressed into a few decades, repeats itself in every individual, then this art, we realize, is not 'modern.' It is on the contrary to the highest degree 'archaic,' far older probably than the Stone Age."

To sum up, I produce an abundance of evidence of many kinds to prove that Hitler believed in human evolution. Richards simply ignores most of this mountain of evidence, falsely claiming my evidence amounts to no more than a "lonely remark." He then produces a molehill of evidence to trump my "lonely remark." Anyone who takes the time to read my book will find that Richards's evidence is underwhelming. In any case, I will examine his other evidence in my subsequent remarks to show that it does not stack up either.

Now let me respond to the second major error Richards makes:

2. Richards accuses me of playing a "sly trick" by translating Entwicklung as evolution.

Richards is correct that the term Entwicklung is often used simply to mean development, and it is often used in phrases such as economic development, political development, etc. Indeed, Hitler uses Entwicklung in these ways in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. So what? Many people, including me, use the English word evolution to refer to political and economic developments, but they also use it to refer to biological evolution.

Richards is completely wrong, however, with his statement: "By the end of the nineteenth century the term [Entwicklung] as meaning evolution had declined in use both in Germany and England." I don't know where Richards got this tidbit of misinformation, but I have examined the biology journals and biology textbooks of the 1930s and 1940s, and they were still regularly using the term Entwicklung for evolution.

I could give hundreds of examples to prove this, but hopefully this interesting instance will suffice. It is the manual discussing the official Nazi biology curriculum, Erziehung und Unterricht in der Höheren Schule: Amtliche Ausgabe des Reichs- und Preussische Ministeriums für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung (Berlin: Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1938). This publication used the term Entwicklung repeatedly to refer to evolution. On p. 160 it stipulated, for example, that in the eighth class teachers should cover: "Overview of the Entwicklung of life in the course of geological history." Here Entwicklung quite obviously means biological evolution, and if anyone doubts this, he should go look at the context. Immediately after this comment the manual discussed evidence for biological evolution and told teachers they should cover "Darwinismus." The very next point it instructed them to teach was the "Origin and Entwicklung [obviously meaning evolution] of humans and human races."

One hopes it will not be necessary, but I can produce hundreds of more examples from biology journals and textbooks proving that Entwicklung was indeed one of the preferred terms used by biologists and biology teachers for evolution in the first half of the twentieth century.

Another point about translating Entwicklung as evolution: Although the translator of Mein Kampf never translated Entwicklung as evolution, the translator of Hitler's Second Book did sometimes translate Entwicklung as evolution (see an example below in number 3). Translators of Hitler's speeches also sometimes translate it as evolution.

This proves that evolution could be a proper translation of Entwicklung, but none of this proves that my translations are correct. How, then, can we decide if my translations are a "sly trick," as Richards claims, or an accurate rendering? The only way to decide the question is to examine the context, thus determining if Hitler meant the transmutation of species, or if he meant some other kind of development. Every time I translated the term Entwicklung as evolution, I tried to make sure from the context that it was clear that Hitler indeed meant the transmutation of species.

Let me just give one example of a passage where I translated Entwicklung as evolution. In the chapter on "Nation and Race" Hitler discussed on pp. 312-13 (German edition, 1943) the struggle (Kampf) between organisms that occurred because of hunger and love. He explained that this struggle leads to the defeat of the weak and sickly, while the healthiest win the struggle and are thus able to mate and reproduce. (By the way, doesn't this sound a lot like the struggle for existence, whether or not he actually used that official terminology?) He then stated that the struggle is the means to produce health and is the cause of Höherentwicklung. Höher means higher and Entwicklung means development or evolution. Immediately after this statement Hitler wrote that nature selects the best (isn't this natural selection?). Is it really unjustifiable, as Richards claims, to translate Höherentwicklung as higher evolution in a context that is discussing the improvement of biological species through natural selection by the struggle for existence?

Richards, however, never bothers to examine the context of any of my quotations to show that I mistranslated them. If Richards can point out any examples where the context shows that my translation is incorrect, I will be happy to publicly retract my translation.

My critique of point 1 already refutes in many ways Richards's error number 3, but let us look in greater detail at this error:

3. Richards claims that Hitler believed in fixed biological types, and thus rejected evolution altogether.

Richards produces a quotation from the chapter on "Nation and Race" in Mein Kampf, where Hitler stated, "The consequence of this racial purity, which is characteristic of all animals in nature, is not only a sharp separation of the particular races externally, but also in their uniformity of the essence of the very type itself. The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose, the tiger a tiger, and so on." This does seem anti-evolutionary at first glance. However, if one examines the context, one finds it embedded in a discussion that actually demonstrates the opposite.

The main point Hitler was trying to make in this passage was that racial mixing is deleterious. His intention was not to say that fox, geese, and tigers cannot change over geological time, but rather that they do not mate with each other. It should also be noted that Hitler and most Nazis rejected Lamarckian soft heredity, believing in Weismann's hard heredity. Thus they believed that over brief periods of time, geologically speaking, measured in hundreds or even a few thousand years, types were fairly fixed. However, like Weismann, Hitler believed that over geological epochs evolution did indeed occur, as he often made clear (see above).

In this particular passage Hitler argued that when a higher and lower race mate, the offspring would be between the two parents. However, in the ensuing struggle between organisms this offspring would succumb to the higher race. He then stated, "No more than Nature desires the mating of weaker with stronger individuals, even less does she desire the blending of a higher with a lower race, since, if she did, her whole work of higher breeding, over perhaps hundreds of thousands of years might be ruined with one blow."

Not only did Hitler clearly portray in this passage the struggle between organisms as the driving force behind "higher breeding" (Höherzüchtung), but he also used the term "higher evolution" (Höherentwicklung, see my discussion of this term above). He claimed this process took "hundreds of thousands of years." Hitler was obviously not teaching the fixity of species.

If Richards were to compare this passage in Mein Kampf with the opening pages of Hitler's Second Book (a work Richards never cites), he would see clearly that Hitler believed in evolution. The opening chapter of Hitler's Second Book is "War and Peace in the Struggle for Life (Lebenskampf)". From his description of the Lebenskampf (struggle for life), it is clear that Hitler used it as a synonym for the struggle for existence, just as Darwin himself did. In the beginning of his Second Book Hitler argued that the instinct for self-preservation and reproduction is unlimited for biological organisms, but space is limited. Thus, "In the limitation of this living space lies the compulsion for the struggle for survival (Lebenskampf), and the struggle for survival, in turn, contains the precondition for evolution [Entwicklung -- in case you are wondering, this is not a "sly trick" by me, but the rendering of the translator -- see also my discussion about this term above]." Hitler then claimed that the struggle among organisms ruled world history even before humans existed. Humans arrived late in world history, he claimed, but they are also subject to this universal struggle, both against other organisms and against fellow humans.

Now I will deal with Richards's error number 4:

4. Richards argues that "Darwinian evolutionary theory held no special place within the community of biologists supportive of National Socialism . . . and officials in that party utterly rejected Darwinian theory."

I am completely baffled by Richard's chutzpah in making this claim. Over one-and-a-half years ago I sent Richards a copy of an unpublished essay I wrote that completely demolishes this claim, using many lines of evidence. The following points show that the Nazis embraced evolutionary theory, including the evolution of humans:

1) The official biology curriculum endorsed by the Nazi Ministry of Education, as well as lists of books approved for schools, uniformly called for teaching biological evolution, including human evolution. Specifically the biology curriculum endorsed Darwinian theory and rejected Lamarckism.

2) Biology textbooks during the Third Reich, which were approved by the Ministry of Education, all taught evolution, including human evolution, and they taught the Darwinian mechanism for evolution, while opposing Lamarckism.

3) German anthropologists, including Hans F. K. Guenther and many others who lectured at official Nazi functions, uniformly taught human evolution. The Nazi Racial Policy Office listed these anthropologists' books on human evolution as recommended reading material.

4) Karl Astel, who was trying to help turn the University of Jena into a "brown university," solicited and received Himmler's help in recruiting Gerhard Heberer to the university. Heberer was a leading evolutionary anthropologist who was on the forefront in introducing the neo-Darwinian synthesis to Germany. The infamous Nazi Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel pleaded with the Nazi Minister of Education not to allow Heberer to be called elsewhere, because he wanted Jena to be a Nazi bastion.

5) The Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte, an official party organ edited by Alfred Rosenberg, published articles supporting evolution and even bashing creationism.

6) Other official Nazi magazines, such as Der Schulungsbrief , Neues Volk, Volk und Rasse, and Rasse: Monatsschrift der Nordischen Bewegung, all published articles making clear that they believed in biological evolution, including human evolution.

7) Der Biologe, which from 1935 to 1939 was an official organ of the National Socialist Teachers' League, before being taken over in 1939 by the SS Ahnenerbe, published many articles attacking creationists, both before and after the SS took it over. Not one article in this biology journal ever challenged evolutionary theory.

8) Nazi manuals designed to inculcate the Nazi worldview into the army, police forces, and general public, contained sections teaching human evolution. These included the following: (a) the SS pamphlet Rassenpolitik (Racial Policy); (b) the SS manual for worldview training, Lehrplan für die weltanschauliche Erziehung in der SS und Polizei (Curriculum for the Worldview Training of the SS and Police): (c) a propaganda pamphlet that Hitler personally endorsed, written for the German military during World War II, Wofür kämpfen wir? (What Are We Fighting For?); and (d) writings by the medical professor Martin Staemmler that were officially approved by the Nazis.

9) The official Nazi newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, published a tribute to Haeckel on the twentieth anniversary of Haeckel's death in August 1939. The article was entitled, "Um die Abstammung des Menschen: Zum 20. Jahrestage Ernst Haeckels" ("On the Descent of Man: For the Twentieth Anniversary of Ernst Haeckel['s death]"). The title and the article clearly avowed belief in human evolution and praised Haeckel for his evolutionary ideas.

I have already communicated most of these points of evidence to Richards (except #9), and in much greater detail than I've laid out here. However, he simply ignores these many lines of evidence and tries to build his case on a single journal, Zeitschrift für die gesamte Naturwissenschaft, which like just about every other scholarly journal, was taken over by the Nazi Party. Even the evidence that he presents from this journal does more to disprove his case than to prove it. For one thing, the "anti-Darwinists" that he discusses were not opposing biological evolution. None of them rejected human evolution. When they criticized Darwin and Darwinism, they were simply objecting to the Darwinian mechanism. One of the "anti-Darwinists" that Richards discusses was the anatomist Max Westenhöfer. In the article that Richards cites Westenhöfer makes clear that he did indeed believe in human evolution, but he thought that the last common ancestor of humans and apes was some primitive mammal rather than an ape. He was not rejecting human evolution at all. Also, his article was paired in debate with an article by the anthropologist and SS officer Christian von Krogh, who argued for the simian ancestry of humans.

Richards's claim that three or four articles from a single journal establishes what "Nazi biologists" believed about evolution is not convincing, since I could cite dozens (maybe hundreds) of articles published during the Nazi period by biologists in Nazi-approved journals that approved of human evolution, usually in its Darwinian form. The preponderance of evidence is clearly not with Richards. On the contrary, most Nazi racial thinkers, anthropologists, and biologists embraced Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Now let's turn our attention to Richards's error number 5:

5. Richards claims that Gobineau's racism and Hitler's notion of racial purity that flowed from Gobineau were antithetical to Darwinism.

First of all, I agree with Richards that Hitler was significantly influenced by Gobineau's racial ideology, especially Gobineau's opposition to racial mixing. I discuss this issue in both my books, From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler's Ethic, so it is not news to me (see Gobineau in the indices). Gobineau wrote his book on racial inequality before Darwin published his theory, so Gobineau's racial ideology obviously owed nothing to Darwinism. All this is clear.

However, Richards's claim that Gobineau's ideas are antithetical to Darwinism ignores the historical context of racial thought in the early twentieth century. Many racial thinkers in early twentieth-century Germany were devoted both to Gobineau and Darwin. They did not see any contradiction between their ideas.

For example, Ludwig Woltmann was one of the most influential racist ideologues in early twentieth-century Germany. He claimed that he was devoted to synthesizing Darwin and Gobineau. He headed up an influential circle of racial thinkers that included the French social Darwinist George Vacher de Lapouge, the free-lance Darwinian anthropologist Otto Ammon, and Ludwig Wilser. All these figures believed that there was nothing contradictory between Darwin and Gobineau.

By the way, Woltmann's works were praised in Nazi periodicals, and the anthropologist Otto Reche republished Woltmann's works during the Nazi period, remarking in a foreword that Woltmann's racism paved the way for Nazism.

The leading German anthropologist Eugen Fischer, who led the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics, and Eugenics before and during the Third Reich, was enthusiastic about the contributions of both Darwin and Gobineau, as well as Woltmann and Ammon, on racial thought.

The leading geneticist Fritz Lenz also saw nothing contradictory between Darwin and Gobineau. He embraced both.

Ludwig Schemann was the translator of Gobineau into German and founded the Gobineau Society. He certainly did not think that Gobineau and Darwin were irreconcilable. He claimed that some of the greatest influences on his racial thought were men like Ammon, Woltmann, Fischer, and Lapouge. Schemann clearly believed in human evolution, though he was not sure if it happened by a Darwinian or Lamarckian mechanism.

In 1904 Ernst Haeckel, the leading Darwinist in Germany, recommended Gobineau's works. Apparently even Haeckel did not think Gobineau was anti-Darwinian.

If Richards wants to argue that Gobineau and Darwin are irreconcilable, he is free to make that argument. In that case, he would be arguing against the views of leading Darwinists in early-twentieth-century Germany. However, if he wants to claim that Hitler's embrace of Gobineau proves that Hitler did not embrace Darwinism, he is simply wrong and arguing for an anachronistic position. Many, probably most, of Hitler's contemporary racial theorists believed both in Darwin and in Gobineau.

Addenda: After writing the above, I happened to read a recent essay by the prominent historian of medicine Hans-Walter Schmuhl in Medizin und Nationalsozialismus: Bilanz und Perspektiven der Forschung (2011). He noted that there are contradictions between Gobineau's racial thought and social Darwinism, but then he states: "Nonetheless toward the end of the nineteenth century formulations of Gobineau and social Darwinism blended into syncretistic racial theories." (p. 31)

What about Richards's error number 6?

6. Richards argues that Hitler's racial theory came from "one source in particular," i.e., H. S. Chamberlain, and since Chamberlain rejected Darwinian evolution, then Hitler's views were not Darwinian, either.

This is a peculiar argument coming from a scholar who has wrongly accused me of making monocausal arguments. Indeed, I have never argued that Hitler's views came only from one source. Indeed, I specifically rejected a monocausal argument in my books and have always insisted that Hitler's ideology was derived from multiple sources. The same is true of his racial ideology. There is no reason to suppose that it came from one source, and most historians agree with me on this.

I have never denied the influence of Chamberlain on Hitler, nor have I denied that Chamberlain rejected Darwinian evolution. However, Richards has ignored two main arguments I have made in my books: 1) Hitler was influenced by many racial thinkers who did embrace Darwinism; and 2) though Chamberlain rejected Darwinism, his view of racial struggle was not anti-Darwinian.

1) Though Chamberlain was undeniably an important racial thinker whom Hitler respected (and who admired Hitler!), he was not the only racial thinker to influence Hitler's thinking. Many scholars have shown the influence of Ludwig Woltmann, Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, Theodor Fritsch, Willibald Hentschel, and many others. All these I have just listed were true believers in Darwinian evolution, as I explain in great detail in From Darwin to Hitler. I provide much evidence in Hitler's Ethic to show that Hitler was actually influenced by these people.

2) Even though Hitler was likely influenced by Chamberlain, why would this mean that he agreed with Chamberlain about evolution? Chamberlain admitted in his most important and popular book, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899), that Darwin had understood two ideas fundamental for racial theory: the struggle for existence between races and selection through breeding. In other words, Chamberlain recognized that some of the main features of his racial thought were consistent with Darwinism.

Another point: Chamberlain's anti-Darwinism was not a prominent feature of his racial thought, so why should we suppose that his anti-Darwinism would be all that influential? In fact, Ludwig Schemann, the founder of the Gobineau Society who wrote a major three-volume work on the history of racial thought, Die Rasse in den Geisteswissenschaften: Studien zur Geschichte des Rassengedankens, wrongly claimed that Chamberlain was a zealous supporter of Darwinism. Apparently Chamberlain's anti-Darwinian stance was not as well known by Germans as Richards seems to think. It should also be noted that Schemann, whose work was reissued during the Third Reich, also argued that Chamberlain was not as important a racial thinker as was Woltmann (see my discussion of him above).

Finally, here are my comments on Richards's error number 7. I should note in passing that there are other errors in his papers, but I am only dealing with the ones that have the greatest impact on his argument:

7. Richards states that I ignore many factors that gave rise to Nazism.

My book Hitler's Ethic is about the influence of evolutionary ethics on Hitler's ideology. However, I never claim that evolutionary ethics was the sole influence on Nazi ideology. I never claim that I am providing a full explanation for all facets of Nazi ideology.

Evolutionary ethics was an important influence, to be sure, which is why I cover it, but many other factors influenced Hitler and other Nazis. I specifically mention some of these in my book:

Hitler's ideology was drawn from many different sources, and by no means do I think that evolutionary ethics or social Darwinism were the only culprits responsible for Nazi ideology or practice. Neither do I claim in this book to provide a complete explanation for Nazi ideology. Many other influences shaped Hitler's worldview, including Prussian militarism, German nationalism, Christian anti-Semitism, Gobineau's racism, anti-parliamentarian attitudes, the experience of World War I, and Schopenhauer's philosophy, just to name a few. His thinking was also shaped by many non-rational and non-cognitive factors, such as fear, anger, wounded pride, and resentment. (Hitler's Ethic, p. 11)
Thus I do not ignore these factors; I acknowledge them. They are simply not the main subject of my book.

I freely admit that there were many influences on Hitler's ideology, including some of the names that Richards criticizes me for not mentioning (should I really be expected to bore my readers with a list several pages long listing all the influences on Hitler's ideology?). However, it seems to me that maybe Richards is the one ignoring influences on Hitler when he argues that Chamberlain was the "one source" of Hitler's racial thought (see my discussion of this above). In seeking to distance Hitler from anything Darwinian, he ignores the powerful influence of dozens of racial thinkers in early twentieth-century Germany.