Tom Gilson

The Darwin-Hitler Question: Reflecting on the Process

Series: Darwin to Hitler?

Before now, the one topic that has drawn forth the most anger on this blog has been homosexuality. Not any more. About 2 1/2 weeks ago I wrote about why the Darwin-Hitler link is so sensitive. I’ve been learning, since then, just how sensitive it really is. But that’s not all I’ve been learning. Today’s post is my reflection on that process, and it’s not so much about Darwin or Hitler as it is about us.

Many of us have very deep feelings on this matter. I have not personally heard from Holocaust victims’ family members, but we know this is still grievous to you. Others of us, even without that personal connection, remain aghast at it all. This has obviously touched a sore spot.

The reaction I’ve received here has not mostly been grief, though; it has been anger and astonishment. There were several readers who just couldn’t believe that anyone would draw the link from Darwin to Hitler. Some thought we were laying the whole blame on Darwin, though this is clearly a distortion of what I and others have been saying. Others had a more measured reaction but were still upset that we (myself, and the commenters who have supported this position) would find ethical fault in evolutionary theory. To me, it remains clear that there is an ethical fault in naturalistic evolution. It’s certainly not the kind of error that entails a Holocaust; instead, its failure is that it eliminates any strong ethical corrective to someone like a Hitler. (If you wish to continue discussing whether my analysis on that is accurate, please do so on the original thread.)

The philosophical link from Darwin to Hitler is nowhere near as strong as the historical link. I had said that it appears to be a plain historical fact that German Darwinian scientists were highly influential in establishing the kind of national ethos that could permit a Holocaust. Three different kinds of questions were raised regarding that assertion:

  • There was no historical link, and how could you even say so?
  • If there was any historical link between Darwin and Hitler, how should we evaluate it in light of all the other historical influences on Hitler?
  • The historical linkage from Darwin to Hitler was based on contemporary misunderstandings of Darwin. Why should mistaken views on Darwin be taken as a mark against him or his work?

The first one has been well discussed already. From Darwin to Haeckel to an entire set of German intellectual elites and their widely-selling books and pamphlets, there was an historical train of ideas and events that ended up with individual and racial eugenics being promoted.

The second one goes far out of my expertise and became a learning experience for me. Let me put this in context, especially for readers who do not run your own blog. I have another name for this business: it’s white-water writing. It’s quick, and there are rocks around the next curve. There’s no river guide (editor) other than your own judgment. I adhere strongly to the principle that I will not blog on a topic that I do not know well enough to field questions and challenges on it. This time I entered in without anticipating the question.

The fact that there were multiple influences does not negate the significance of any single one of them. The Darwin-to-Nazism historical linkage remains well supported by evidence already presented. How strong was it among other influences, though? I yield the question. I do not know.

There’s yet another name for blogging like this: it’s learn-as-you-go-in-public. Which means sometimes stumbling in public. It’s not for the timid.

The third question came from Tony Hoffman, and it’s a good one. It’s parallel to one Christians face all the time. If someone claiming to be a Christian commits some atrocity, does that mean Jesus Christ should be blamed? Does it disprove the Christian faith? If someone like Haeckel claiming to follow Darwin’s theory concludes that Papuan humans are more closely related to simians than to Europeans, is that Darwin’s (or Darwinism’s) fault? If others following Haeckel advocate racial eugenics, is that either Darwin’s or Haeckel’s fault?

It took me several days of reflection before I felt ready to answer.

Somewhere along the way Charlie Scott showed us that the basis of the question is not as clear as we thought it was. Properly understood, evolutionary theory provides no true basis for Haeckel’s racism. On the other hand, as Charlie revealed,

[Haeckel] wrote that Darwin was his inspiration, that Darwin was the originator of “struggle to exist” and that he, Haeckel, studied natural selection every day. Darwin wrote back that he was greatly influenced by Haeckel and that Haeckel, among few, truly understood natural selection.

Darwin’s endorsement of Haeckel complicates the matter considerably (please see Charlie’s comment for the source of his information). Did Haeckel really get evolution so wrong after all? In hindsight he did, but what did Darwin himself think? Like almost everything else in this matter, there is ambiguity here.

Anyway, not everyone was satisfied with my answer to Tony, which I need not repeat here. That’s no surprise. It’s a complex issue. Frankly, I’m not completely satisfied with it myself. I’m still wrestling with it in my mind, still trying to learn as I go.

This topic raised considerable anger, as I’ve already said. I’ve been called names this week like never before, here and on other blogs. Why is it so upsetting to suggest this linkage existed in history? Why did it draw forth such emotion when I said there is no proper philosophical link from Darwinism to Hitlerian ethics, yet naturalistic Darwinism also eliminates good correctives for such ethics? These are just facts.

So I’m inviting another learning opportunity. What is it that has made this so anger-producing?

Someone emailed me and asked how I would feel if they wrote a history showing that 9/11 was massively influenced by Christian thinking. Actually, that’s not such an academic question. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have virtually done that. They say that religion caused 9/11, and that all fundamentalist belief is fundamentally flawed in pretty much the same way. I don’t know of any Christians who have gone over the top with anger at them. More recently it was suggested here that Luther was as much to blame as Darwin for the Holocaust. None of us Christians got angry over the suggestion.

I’m going to speculate on why it’s different for the Darwin-Hitler issue. This may turn out to be another white-water learning process, for I run a real risk of being wrong. (Understand, please, that I put this forth very tentatively.) I think this may have become a focal point for a large reservoir of anger against Intelligent Design in general. Expelled put it to powerful rhetorical use, which made it even more volatile. Evolution proponents have been wishing Intelligent Design would go away, and it hasn’t; in fact, Expelled put it out before the public more than ever before. It must be really frustrating. Add that to all the questions and all the historic grief and anger surrounding the Holocaust, and this is the result you get.

If that’s anywhere near the right analysis, I can see why this would have come out the way it has. It’s more sensitive than I realized before, in a post I wrote before most of us had seen the movie, including myself. At this point, I’m going to ask for readers’ awareness of the position I’ve been taking: trying to help Christians and/or ID proponents handle this kind of topic responsibly and sensitively. Whether I succeeded with that encouragement, or whether I succeeded even in following my own advice, is not for me to judge. I’ve been trying to do the best I could do.

So for what it’s worth, which may be nothing at all, that’s my reflection on the process we’ve been involved in here. I would ask that if you have further thoughts on the substantive issues involved in this topic, please continue those discussions on the threads where they have already been in progress. It’s just less confusing that way. Comments here will be open for your reflections on my reflections. I’m sure some of you have completely different perspectives, and we’ll be interested to hear them.

Series Navigation (Darwin to Hitler?):<<< Darwin-Nazi Link: Fundamentally Wrongheaded?

2 thoughts on “The Darwin-Hitler Question: Reflecting on the Process

  1. A very thoughtful, and thought-provoking post, Tom. Definitely worthy of a “Thinking Christian”.

    I’m going to throw something related out there: what makes the Holocaust a more sensitive subject than the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, the gulags of Stalin, and the cultural revolution of Mao?

    This is my sideline observation (nothing more, nothing less): perhaps, instead of of the alleged Darwin-Hitler link, it is because western society had embraced eugenics that makes the Holocaust a sensitive subject. It was only when the effects of actually applying eugenics on a grand scale were seen did society collectively pause in shock and horror. This shock and horror appeared to inspire and motivate people to pass this knowledge down to the younger generations. Because of the Holocaust, eugenics went from consensus science and western social policy to a philosophical hot potato.

  2. I think so too, JJS,
    Other atrocious acts we can distance ourselves from, but although we want to cover our heads and wave away Hitler as a madman we realize we can’t. We have to account for what happened and how people so “like us” could have done it and allowed.
    It’s very scary to look into this mirror.

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