Posted on Feb 26, 2009
The estimable Nick Matzke has raised the issue here again whether we can appropriately draw any causal linkage from Darwin to Hitler or Nazism. He suggests that to make that connection is not only historically inaccurate but morally opprobrious. Some of what he has said is certainly exaggerated. Still, he has presented some new information to me, and this has opened up the topic again.
The last time I wrote about this was last May. On top of the blame he places on me for thinking there’s some link between Darwin and Nazism, Matzke adds the fault that I have not kept up with all of the literature on the question. Mea culpa. Lately I’ve been trying to catch up, through reading what’s available on the web. There has been a new book published on the subject by Robert Richards, which I have not read, but there’s enough on the web to work with for now. Here are some sources:
- http://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/staff/webpages/site.cfm?LinkID=397&eventID=34 (There are a number of articles listed at the end here)
In a word, Matzke proposes that Robert Richards, historian at the University of Chicago, has effectively disproved any meaningful link between Darwin and Nazism. Taking the opposing view are Daniel Gasman and Richard Weikart. Jeffrey Schloss points out (as Weikart certainly would agree) that a monocausal interpretation could not be anything but oversimplified, especially in view of Christian understandings of human nature. My sense after reading all this is that Richards’s case (which Matzke supports) is far from established, and that Darwinism was one contributor to Nazism, and that there were very many other contributors besides, in the usual tangle of events and ideas that lead to any historical outcome.
I propose taking this question in a different direction, though, somewhat in keeping with Schloss’s approach. Whether Darwin actually led to Hitler is fiercely disputed by scholars more knowledgeable than any of us here. It’s also not necessarily the most salient issue, as far as I’m concerned. It affects how one evaluates the movie Expelled, I suppose, but that’s not my most pressing issue right now.
Here’s the more important and interesting question: Is Darwinism, along with its intellectual descendants* the kind of thing that could contribute to something like Nazism? Does it lay any intellectual or philosophical groundwork that might tend to promote generalized hatred, mass killings, dreams of absolute racial and national domination, and especially the horrifying dehumanization of victims that still, sixty-plus years later, sets Hitler apart from other genocidal tyrants?
Nazism was fed by many historical streams. The most significant of them goes back before the dawn of history: it is the nature of humankind. Biblically the description of humanity is that we were created in God’s image, but we are all tainted and marred by pride, self-centeredness, desires for power and prestige, disregard for God’s righteousness, and an innate inability on our own to rise to his righteous standard. From a human perspective, this sinful taintedness appears in varying degrees of destructive desire and opportunity. (From God’s perspective, those differences are much like the different heights of buildings seen from an aircraft at cruising altitude.) Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, the leaders of the Rwandan massacres, Milosevic, Mao Zedong, Bin Laden, and others of their ilk have expressed this sinfulness far more fully than most others have, but we all possess it.
With that in mind, surely Nazism could have arisen without any help at all from Darwin.
Nevertheless ideas have consequences, and under what Christians describe as God’s common grace, even with sin in the world, better ideas have better consequences. One almost gets the sense from Nick Matzke’s protestations that Darwinism couldn’t have negative consequences. This seems rather unlikely, and somewhat of an overly defensive position to take. I want to suggest that it is also dangerously false, and that it is not (contra Matzke) a moral failing on my part to think so.
At this point I’m going to turn specifically toward naturalistic Darwinism, which (for reasons I won’t go into here) properly includes monistic Darwinism such as Haeckel’s, even if his monism was not strictly naturalistic or materialistic. The best authority I can reference to make my point is actually Richard Dawkins, from his critical review of Expelled.
My own view, frequently expressed (for example in the The Selfish Gene and especially in the title chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). 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.
Dawkins acknowledges that natural selection is no basis for ethics. (I’m sure that if pressed he would have the same opinion of random variation.) He also astutely acknowledges that one cannot derive an “ought” (ethics) from an “is” (the way life has developed). So here, in Darwinian evolution, there is no good basis for ethics at all to be found. But that presents a rather overwhelming problem, which Dawkins overlooks. The causal space has been filled: all of life (says Darwinism) has been fully explained by random variation and natural selection (i.e. the success of that which succeeds). They cannot be the source of ethics, just as Dawkins said. But then what else could be? If you suggest there is something within humans that leads us to some true, real, higher ethical realization, where did it come from? There is no other source to turn to, no other place else it could have come from. There is no conceivable cause for the existence of right and wrong.
Is the proposal then that right and wrong have existed from eternity past? This seems unlikely, to suggest that in the early inflation of the cosmos, ethics existed along with coalescing galaxies. Or was it injected into human life from some exterior (yet fully natural) authority? What would that be, and what would give it that authority? If it hasn’t existed from eternity past, and if it didn’t arise by some cause within time, then it doesn’t exist. Under naturalistic Darwinism, properly speaking, right and wrong do not exist.
Even Dawkins as “a citizen and a human being” knows he has to fight his Darwinian biological roots for the sake of his ethical position. That’s an odd position to take, for one who believes that biology explains all, and Darwinian processes explain all of biology!
I understand that beliefs and opinions about right and wrong exist. They certainly exist among naturalistic Darwinists, and obviously naturalists act in accordance with them; they do what is considered good and right, perhaps as much as anyone does. Matzke speaks of a “high ground, ” and Dawkins speaks of universal medical care and looking after the poor. Evolutionists have little trouble accounting for the existence of moral beliefs or opinions. But the belief or the opinion is not the reality; having a thought about right or wrong does not cause right or wrong to exist. The “high ground” is not really more elevated than the level plain, for there is no real up or down. “Higher” and “lower” have no actual reality; they are matters of opinion, and such opinions are unconnected to any real elevations.
Darwinism did not have to lead to Nazism. It didn’t have to lead anywhere. It does not—cannot—direct anything anywhere, except toward what succeeds reproductively (and even to say that is rather anthropomorphic). If it is true, however, there is also nothing in it to prevent any impulse, especially that which might succeed reproductively. This much, I think, is incontrovertible. As for the dehumanization that Hitler committed (warehousing human parts for sale, for example), there is certainly nothing in Darwinism to restrain that—for naturalistic evolution entails that there is nothing essentially different about hair from human corpses (still stored at concentration camps, as a lesson for history, but originally intended for commercial purposes) and horsehair used for violin bows. There is nothing essentially different between the woman and the mare.
Now, there are those who say that Darwinism leads to certain ethical obligations: that the most powerful ought to succeed, or that the more advanced have some moral duty to supplant that which is less advanced. Those are not proper conclusions to draw, since Darwinism cannot support any oughts or obligations whatever. It’s a very seductive fallacy, however, and it certainly was committed by many. Darwin made that very mistake himself in The Descent. The eugenicists followed him. Is it so unlikely that Haeckel, and later Hitler, did too?
So if Darwin did lead to Hitler (which I continue to think was likely), and especially to beliefs that the Aryans must dominate, it was not by philosophical necessity. It was by mistakes men made in interpreting Darwin. Yet these were plausible mistakes, in an age when progress was virtually a god, and when Darwin seemed to have defined progress as the upward climb of the better species, when men like Haeckel placed the Aryans at the top of the species tree, and when anti-Semitism was running rampant. What if Haeckel was not an anti-Semite, as Richards claims, and others dispute? The mood was rampant in Europe, and Haeckel (and Darwin) opened wide the door for anti-Semitic nationalism by saying, “We welcome the opinions of those who think some humans aren’t really fully human.”
Was this, too, a mistake? Philosophically and biologically, yes. (By the way, can someone explain why Dawkins thought it implausible—see the quote above—that Hitler might have made a mistake in moral reasoning?) Was it really, actually morally wrong? No one who takes a consistent naturalist Darwinian position could say so, for naturalism excludes real moral rights and wrongs. The best such a person could say is, “It’s wrong in my personal opinion!” or “Most of us around here are of the opinion it’s wrong!”
So I have in a sense sidestepped whether Darwin led to Hitler. I’ve done that because it’s a question for specialists in history, which I am not. I have an opinion, which I hold with (I hope) appropriate tentativeness while the experts work it out.
I say this as directly as I can, though: there is nothing immoral in anyone suggestion that it could have happened, since it is a live historical question. And under naturalistic Darwinism, it wouldn’t have (couldn’t have) been really wrong if Darwin actually did lead to Hitler, because under naturalism there can be no real right or wrong.
*The issue in Hitler’s day was Darwinism; now it is neo-Darwinism, the modern synthesis, etc. I’ll continue to use the term that applied in the 1940s and earlier, since to jump back and forth between older and newer terminology would be tiresome.