Darwin-Nazi Link: Fundamentally Wrongheaded?

A few days ago Tony Hoffman suggested,

Expelled’s charge and the constant revival of this aspersion on this website — that Darwin leads to Hitler — seems fundamentally wrongheaded….

Tom, you keep saying that although you concede that there is no philosophical link from Darwin to Hitler there is in fact a historical one. While I agree with you, I have no idea what your point is in raising it….

It’s a good question. Besides having had about half a dozen deadlines land on me since then, I’ve had to take time to give it some serious thought. Now that I have some time again, what, indeed, is the point of all this?

I hope Tony recognizes I didn’t start this discussion. It was brought up by a movie that’s proving to be fairly popular, as documentaries go. There were some who objected that the Darwin-Hitler link was an ID proponents’ fabrication. I’ve weighed in to respond to that, but I didn’t start it.

Also, if one reviews what I’ve actually posted on this topic, I think “constant revival of this aspersion” is overstated. I wrote one post calling for understanding on why this is such a sensitive issue. I hope an approach of that sort isn’t considered off limits. Other than that, I’ve posted just one link to an article on another website, and two other sentences. Of course there has also been discussion, fueled by participants on all sides of the issue.

But whether or not I’m not to blame as Tony apparently thinks I am, that doesn’t address his real question: why would anybody expend any effort on this at all? Isn’t it all a complete red herring, a distraction from genuine issues? I don’t think so.

First, we ought to learn from history. That ought to be relatively uncontroversial. If the German scientists made a mistake interpreting Darwin, then for heaven’s sake, let’s not forget what they did, and make the same kinds of mistakes all over again! I see potential for it even in our enlightened 21st century. Haeckel’s biggest error was dehumanizing some races of humanity. Peter Singer and PETA are doing the same for the whole human race. For Ingrid Newkirk of PETA, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” For Singer, we are guilty of “speciesism” if we hold humans to be of more value than animals. This is Haeckel’s error writ large.

Second, it’s not quite true that there is no philosophical link from Darwin to Hitler. There are two at least two valid connections between them.

A. There is an ethical consequence to Darwinism. It is not, as was supposed at the time, that it leads to a moral requirement that we “advance the species.” The connection is this: naturalistic Darwinism, if taken to be the sole explanation for all of life,* erases all ethical requirements. It is specifically the naturalism–closely related to atheism–that is the serious problem in all non-theistic versions of evolution (which I think answers Point 1 in Tony’s comment).

I’ve never seen a good refutation or even rebuttal for this. Paul stated the issue quite well two and a half years ago, long before the current debate began:

Just to be clear, I think the Holocaust was wrong. From my culture’s morality, from many cultures’ morality, but not from Hitler’s. I would fight against it no less.

That’s a hole big enough to drive a Panzer division through. Paul would “fight against it,” and for that I commend him; yet for him, that’s all he has. The only ultimate moral decider is power:

A relativistic moral law is made when a group of people (family, tribe, culture, country, etc.) decide to do so. There is no absolute or objective foundation for doing so: as I’ve said before, it is merely a question of power what laws are made…. When differing moral cultures clash, it’s up to power to decide the difference. Doesn’t look pretty, but that’s the way it is, assuming there’s no God.

Fighting is all anyone can do. There’s no recourse to any higher ethic. If Hitler had won, his power would have decided the difference between the differing moral cultures. Now, lest anyone think I’m picking on Paul, I think he’s right, based on his assumptions. I think he gets it. “That’s the way it is, assuming there’s no God,” says Paul, quite rightly; and that’s an assumption that squares up quite nicely with naturalistic, unguided evolution.

B. There is an ontological implication in Darwinism: humans are the same kind of thing as animals. Hitler applied this selectively, to be sure, but he applied it with great effect. He packed up hordes of people on trains like cattle, took them to the slaughtering plant, and used their parts as raw materials for industry. Yes–they wove gunny sacks out of Jewish hair. You can see unused remains of it still warehoused at Dachau. This, I believe, is why we abhor Hitler so much more than other great murderers like Stalin or Mao: they all killed; but only Hitler so thoroughly dehumanized. Darwinism dehumanizes in a different way. Hitler treated humans like animals; Darwinism says that’s what we are.

Third, ideas matter. I suppose we could trace all kinds of historical linkages to the Holocaust. In fact, I’ve actually heard people say this, even taking it to ridiculous extremes: “if you’re going to say Darwin was responsible, then so were the people who invented shower heads. It couldn’t have happened without them, either!” The difference is in ideas and their consequences. Darwinism–the naturalistic version–is not ethically neutral. It is not lacking in ethical implications. True, it doesn’t prescribe an ethic–it just applies a kind of metaphorical poison gas to any overarching, culture-transcending ethic a nation might turn to, in deciding whether to stand with or against a would-be tyrant like Hitler.

Fourth, contrary to Tony’s point 2, influencers certainly can be blamed for the actions of others that follow. They can be blamed to the extent that others did harm while following them:

  • Doing actions the influencers recommended, taught, or prescribed, or
  • Doing actions for which the influencers opened an ideological or ethical door, which would not otherwise have been opened.

Darwin was responsible in the second sense. This is the sense in which Berlinski (in Expelled), and Weikart (in his book on this topic) said, “Darwinism was not a sufficient condition for Hitler’s atrocities, but it was a necessary condition.” Without Darwinism, I believe, Germany would have resisted Hitler. It was not the only necessary link leading up to Nazism, but it was one of them.

*This is the sense in which I am speaking of “Darwinism” throughout this article: naturalistic evolution by means of random variation and natural selection, unguided by any intelligence. I recognize there are other versions of evolutionary theory.