Posted on Apr 19, 2008
William Dembski asked again yesterday, “What’s wrong with uttering ‘Darwin’ and ‘Hitler’ in the same breath?” There actually is a connection, he says (rightly), so why is something like Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed so vilified for saying so? Expelled’s most criticized feature in the period prior to its release has been its use of Nazi-related imagery. (I was on an airplane last night, so I still haven’t seen the film myself.)
Dembski asked this question rhetorically. It would help to consider some actual answers anyway. I propose four of them here.
1. There is no inevitable link from Darwin to Hitler.
Richard Dawkins pointed this out in his predictably scathing review of Expelled:
It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism.
He goes on to say he doubts Hitler is more guilty of this fallacy than other world leaders have been. Dawkins is right at least to this extent: to say, or even to imply, that there is a strict philosophical and ethical progression from Darwin to Dachau is wrong. Darwin’s theory was a description of how life’s complexity and diversity arose. It’s a statement of a condition of nature. As such, it contains no ethical imperative. It just is, or rather, Darwinian theory just claims to tell about an “is.” Oughts don’t come from is-es.
Now, as I have suggested elsewhere, we still have to wonder about the problem this raises. For Dawkins and others, neo-Darwinism is the sole explanation for life. If the sole explanation of life cannot lead to any oughts, then are there any oughts at all? Where do they come from? Dawkins’s own ethics (see his review article, in the paragraph about Hitler) have nothing to do with his beliefs about what life is about. They almost seemed snatched out of thin air, so disconnected are they from his other views regarding reality.
Nevertheless, we must be quite cautious never to suggest that Darwin led inevitably to Hitler by philosophical necessity.
2. We’ve forgotten that there is an historical link from Darwin to Hitler.
Darwinism did not have to lead to Hitler, but the way evolution was interpreted in Germany, it happened anyway. The story is told in Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. David Klinghoffer has recently written a short synopsis of the same. Weikart traces a line among German scientists, physicians, psychiatrists and other thinkers that began a (philosophically false yet historically real) belief that, under evolutionary theory, the “progress of the species” is a great moral imperative. Progress was defined such that the mentally or physically handicapped were impediments to this progress, so they should not be allowed to reproduce. Eugenic practices–both forced sterilization and “elimination” (killing)–were vigorously promoted.
This theory was not confined just to individuals, though. The Northern European “species” of humans (yes, they used that term) was considered the most advanced. Ernst Haeckel, famous for doctoring drawings of embryos, used his creative artistry also to “show” that some “species” of humans were more close related to simians (apes, etc.) than to Europeans. I’ve been unable to find an internet-available version of the Haeckel woodcut that Weikart reproduced in his book, but there is one very similar to it here. Just imagine the same, only rearranged to show a “progression” from human to ape, in which the Hottentot and Papuan are placed next to the simian, and look much more simian than human (as Haeckel represents them).
Haeckel was not the only one. There was, as a matter of historical fact, an influential group of people writing of a moral imperative to improve humanity by eliminating its “lesser” members. These scientists do not appear to have been particularly anti-Semitic–that was HItler’s special contribution to the horror. But they laid a cultural groundwork. I’m convinced that Hitler could never have persuaded an entire nation to cooperate with his murderous program if they had not already been conditioned by this principle of racially-oriented eugenics. Darwin has hardly the only basis for Nazism–war and anti-Semitism have a much longer history than that!–but this particular form of murder could not, in my opinion, have happened without the groundwork laid by German Darwinists.
3. The Darwin-Hitler link carries incredible emotional and rhetorical power.
I find myself having to pause often for a sigh or a deep breath when I’m writing on this topic. Hitler was a horror. He invokes an incredible emotional effect–emotions that are entirely legitimate. We recoil from the images of the Holocaust.
Now when I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who is not prone in the first place to support Expelled’s message, I can easily imagine feeling outraged. Part of that outrage would be toward the Holocaust itself, and part of it would be toward the possibility that Expelled is making an effective point with it. But this leads to a far deeper and more important issue:
4. We’ve sacralized the Holocaust, so that it seems wrong to use it in support of another purpose.
Dembski’s article, to which this one is a response, refers to the Anti-Defamation League’s complaint of “trivializing the horrors of the Holocaust.” I don’t think that just speaking of historical realities leading up to the Holocaust could be considered trivializing. The problem is that this was used to support another theory, another agenda.
Let me compare this to something else on a far smaller and less important scale. For me as a musician and as a Christian believer, there is hardly anything higher or greater in all of art than Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Musically magnificent, it is also an incredibly glorious recounting of the greatness of Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom. Some bright advertising agency apparently got the idea, though, that its message was not much more than, “Gosh, I’m happy.” And they used it as the musical score for a toilet tissue advertisement. I was incensed. I think that ad disappeared rather quickly–I don’t watch much TV so I don’t know for sure–but I still get worked up just remembering it.
Six million deaths are considerably more significant than that, and if we can distinguish “sacralizing” from “deifying,” then there is something sacred, holy, and untouchable about the six million–each of them as individuals, and collectively as the victims of the Holocaust. We tread on holy ground here, and we ought to expect emotions to rise quickly and forcefully. Why is it wrong to say “Darwin” and “Hitler” in the same breath? Partly for the same reason, magnified, that it’s wrong to use the Hallelujah Chorus to sell toilet tissue.
Yet there is a difference, too. God help us if we don’t learn from the Holocaust. If there really was an historical link from Darwin to Hitler–and there was–we must learn what happened, and why. The very sacredness of the Holocaust, the memory of the victims, demands it.
Richard Weikart’s recent article on this topic outlines six lessons to learn from it. I will focus on just one. What was it about Hitler and the Holocaust that was (and is) so horrifying? Stalin and Mao both killed more people than Hitler did. Pol Pot and Idi Amin rank high among genocidal maniacs. Why Hitler? Why is it that when we want to point to one glaring example of utter evil, it’s always his name that comes up?
I think it’s because before he killed the six million, he dehumanized them. He dehumanized them rhetorically, in his writings and his speeches; and he dehumanized them by packing them like merchandise on trains, carting them off to death factories, killing them by assembly-line methods, using them for horrific experiments, and storing parts in warehouses. There’s still a roomful of human hair at Dachau, according to a friend of mine who has visited there. The thought angers me deeply even as I write this. Yes, Hitler was worse than the rest!
Before Hitler, Haeckel dehumanized vast sections of humanity. He did it in the name of evolution. And here, I think, the philosophical link is valid. There may not be an “ought” to derive from the “is” of evolution, but there is this: if Darwin’s version (along with its 21st century updates) is the whole story of humans, then there isn’t much difference between us and any other organism. There is no such thing as “more advanced,” because evolution knows no advancement except for the more excellent adaptation to an ecological niche. Ingrid Newkirk of PETA can rightly say, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” because there’s no real difference at the bottom of it all, no ontological difference.
I do not think it’s prostituting the Holocaust to draw this lesson from it: that which dehumanizes, points us toward Auschwitz and Dachau.
None of this has a lot to do with the manner in which Nazism was portrayed in Expelled. It couldn’t–I haven’t seen the movie yet. I hope, though, that it will help bring understanding to both sides: that supporters of Darwin will recognize there’s an actual historical basis for linking Darwin to Hitler, and it’s not wrong to say so. I hope others who disagree with evolution will be aware of the emotions we may stir up by saying so. I hope we can reason together on these things, learning from the facts, recognizing the real feelings, learning for the future.