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Did Darwin lead to Hitler?

Without question, Expelled’s single most riveting though not necessarily central claim, and the one that has turned out to be a lightning rod for contention, is the assertion that Darwin inspired the Holocaust. Strictly speaking, this question is not really germane to the film’s purported emphasis on whether or not ID should be part of science. Arguing against an idea on the basis of supposedly negative social consequences is called the consequentialist fallacy. Russian Marxism, for example, wrongly rejected traditional genetic theories in favor of Lysenkoism for this very reason.

But still, the question is hugely important in its own right. On the one hand, any understanding we can muster of “horrendous evil” is crucial for making sense of the world and for attempts to make it better. On the other hand, there is a terrible tradition of dishonoring the moral gravity and the victims of the Holocaust, and sabotaging civil conversation, by manipulatively using Nazism to vilify those one disagrees with. Every American president from JFK to George W. Bush has been equated by their critics with Hitler. This is not only unfair to them but also grossly dismissive of truly Hitlerian malice. In fact, the Holocaust has been used by critics to vilify Expelled. Prominent bioethicist Art Caplan calls the film a “toxic mishmash of persecution fantasies...and a very repugnant form of Holocaust denial from the monotone big mouth Ben Stein.”Arthur Caplan. "Intelligent design film far worse than stupid: Ben Stein’s so-called documentary isn’t just bad, it’s immoral." Commentary, MSNBC. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24239755/... Rod Rose claims, “If you believe the Holocaust was funny, you’ll love ‘Expelled,’ an anti-science, anti-intelligence propaganda bolus ejected from the mind of Ben Stein.”Rod Rose. "Ben Stein’s expulsion of reason." The Lebanon Reporter. April 22, 2008. http://www.batesvilleheraldtribune.com/statenews/cnhinsall_story_113175422.html

I don’t believe the Holocaust was funny, nor does the Jew, Ben Stein, nor do I believe it is acceptable to use hyperbolic claims of Holocaust denial or finding the Holocaust comical, as rhetorical devices of criticism. Like a number of others speaking to the issue, my own stake in this is personal. I am the son of a German Jewish refugee from Hitler, and I have held my father in my arms as he wept in front of the empty graves of his family, marked by tombstones that simply said “ermordet in Riga.” I do not say this to play an emotional trump card, but to plead against playing the ultimate emotional trump card of Holocaust shaming as seems to be the case here.

The question is whether Expelled has done the same thing. Let’s take a serious look. This is far too serious an issue to be settled by film clips or sound bites on one side or another.

There are several ways Darwinism (or any idea) could have contributed to the Holocaust. The most modest way is that evolutionary theory could have been used “merely” as a justification for what Nazi social architects wanted to do anyway. Politicians do this kind of justifying behavior all the time. So do our children! So do all of us. Or, it could actually have contributed to the thinking of some master race theorists, even if such ideas were neither advocated by Darwin himself nor employed by all Nazi thinkers. The historical record amply and indisputably confirms the fact that references to Darwin and to ideological principles attributed to the evolutionary process were frequently employed by the intellectual architects of the Reich, at the very least in this way. That Darwin was used (or abused) in Holocaust thinking seems uncontestable.

But it is also not necessarily very interesting. Darwin has been used in this way for many other social movements very different from fascist eugenics: e.g., racial egalitarianism, feminism, anti-feminism, Marxism, and free enterprise capitalism. Big ideas can be used, or misused, for all manner of big causes, and Darwinism - like the Bible - has been claimed to justify or inspire many. In fact, the Bible and the Christian tradition themselves were used to justify the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. Martin Luther’s fierce denunciation of Jews (“everyone would gladly be rid of them,” “we are at fault in not slaying them”)Martin Luther. On the Jews and Their Lies. 1543, translated by Martin Bertram, available online http://www.humanitas-international.org/showcase/chronography/documents/luther-jews.htmwas frequently referred to by Hitler and other influential anti-Semites. Luther was lauded as the “greatest anti-Semite of his time,” and the infamous Kristallnacht on the night of November 9/10, when my own grandfather was taken to a concentration camp, was celebrated with the applauding observation that “on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.”From the forward to Bishop Martin Sasse’s compendium of anti-Semitic views, cited in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. 1997. Vintage....Not just Luther, but Jesus gets in the story too. Hitler personally claimed

My feelings as a Christian point me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter... How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before, the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross.Adolf Hitler, April 12, 1922. From The Speeches of Adolf Hitler. Oxford University Press. 1942.

These words stun me, as they should any follower of Christ. I believe they betray a monstrous distortion of the life and message of Jesus. [And there is considerable evidence that Hitler didn’t believe them anyway, but merely used them to manipulate the religious emotions of others.] Either way though, the point is that they did successfully manipulate Jew hatred. The question we should ask - regarding Christian or evolutionary ideas - is did right understanding of such ideas reasonably lead to Nazi racism?

If so, there are two ways this could occur, and Expelled features advocates of each interpretation of Darwin’s influence. The strongest and most pernicious way would be for Darwinism to “lead” to Hitler by advancing ideas that logically entail it. When historian and ID advocate Richard Weikart - author of From Darwin to Hitler - is asked in the film, “Was Hitler insane?”, he answers that he was not insane but just took an idea to its logical conclusion. I am not a clinically trained mental health professional (and neither is Weikart). But if a man who orchestrates the mass murder of millions as a life ambition, who endorses not just violence but terror as a preferred means of social control, who has episodic fits of rage, depression, and schizophrenia, who utterly fails to develop adult friendships or attachments, who murders or drives to suicide his two primary erotic partners, and who does all this with the confidence that he is the greatest German who has ever lived and the divinely appointed, infallible Savior for the next millennium - if that is sane, I’ll take the blue pill.

Of course Hitler may well have been gravely mentally ill (as many serious studies of his personality conclude), and yet still have been clever enough to see the logical entailments of a Darwinian worldview that Weikart argues are there. The problem with this is that many of the most important aspects of the Hitlerian program have nothing at all to do with Darwin (such as Germanic superiority, Jewish vileness, a racial view of human history). And those ideas that are attributed to Darwin (such as natural selection makes might right in social policy) were actually not advocated but repudiated by Darwin and his immediate colleagues. Nor have ensuing generations of self-professed Darwinians and modern evolutionary biologists been led to conclusions that are remotely similar. Clearly the horrors of Nazism cannot be inevitable outcomes or logical extensions of Darwinian theory.

So another option is that Darwinism did not “lead” to Hitler - the road to the Holocaust is paved with something else - but perhaps it provided some of the necessary gas to get there. Movie producer Ben Stein appears to endorse this option, saying “Darwinism does not lead inevitably to Hitler” but it may have “inspired” such ideas. In his film interview David Berlinski makes this same distinction with the very emphatic claim that for the atrocities of the Reich “Darwin was not a sufficient idea but a necessary one.”

Ok, so the movie claims that Darwin was “necessary”- not the whole recipe but a crucial ingredient in the stew, or golden spike in the tracks - and without it we never could have had the evils of the final solution. But there are also serious inadequacies with this seemingly more modest assertion. For one thing, there have been many programs of racial extermination - before and after Darwin - that made no appeal to evolution. So the idea isn’t necessary to such evils. And looking specifically at the Holocaust, there are important factual problems with the claim even when applied just to this phenomenon.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

Did Darwin lead to Hitler?

Seeking an Open Inquiry
Is Evolution Wedded to Atheism?
Do “anti-science bigots...censor scientists and stifle science”?
Are ID advocates being expelled?
Was Caroline Crocker expelled?
Was Richard von Sternberg expelled?
Was Guillermo Gonzalez expelled?
Should ID advocates be expelled?
Darwin and Hitler: Darwin disavowed selective breeding of humans
Darwin and Hitler: The idea of a master race and subhuman Jews does not fit well with Darwin’s theory
Darwin and Hitler: Prominent anti-Jewish voices rejected Darwin
Concluding Comments: Walls Torn Down?


Dr. Jeff Schloss
Dr. Jeff Schloss

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix