Charles Darwin and Adolf Hitler: Rethinking the 'Links'

You could make a good case for saying that Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) started two and a half thousand years ago with Socrates, because it was he who first thought up the Argument from Design to prove the existence of God. The world is too complex and functional to be the product of blind, unguided laws of nature, the argument goes. Hence there must be another reason, an intelligence that we can call "God." The modern form of IDT started in 1991 with Darwin on Trial by now-retired law professor Phillip Johnson. This was followed later in the decade by Darwin's Black Box, by Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, and then by The Design Inference by mathematician and philosopher William Dembski. It was argued that certain aspects of the world, the world of organisms particularly, exhibit an "irreducible complexity" -- the flagellum of bacteria was a favorite example -- that and the only satisfactory explanation is a guiding, intervening intelligence. This argument asserts that the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection is just wrong.

IDT is not straightforwardly a variant of traditional American creationism. For a start, although Young Earth Creationists represent supporters of IDT who believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, other IDT proponents, notably Behe, are very comfortable with the generally accepted ages of 15 billion years for the universe and about 4.5 billion for the Earth. However, there are links between IDT and creationism to the extent that some (myself included) refer to it as "Creationism Lite." In a devastating critique, Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, philosopher Barbara Forrest and scientist Paul Gross showed just how deeply IDT is entwined with an evangelical Christian agenda. Moreover, IDT is pushed as a front for a very conservative social program -- anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, pro-capital punishment, and anti-feminism. (I used to wonder why Phillip Johnson was so obsessed with cross-dressing. I really don't think that Richard Dawkins goes home and slips into a bra and panties. Then someone pointed out to me that the real target is stroppy broads in pant suits -- think Hilary Clinton meeting world leaders.)

IDT has had a somewhat mixed second decade. In the first part of the 1990s it did really well, aided especially by the support of the conservative Discovery Institute, a think tank in Seattle. But then the forces of science started to fight back seriously. First-class books refuting IDT were published, notably Brown University biologist Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God, which shows just how threadbare are the scientific pretensions of IDT, and Michigan State University philosopher Robert Pennock's The Tower of Babel, which did the same on the philosophical front. As is well know, in 2005 the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania wanted IDT introduced as part of the biology curriculum in their schools; after a much-publicized trial the judge, a conservative Christian appointed by George W. Bush, wrote a scathing condemnation of the board's actions.

However, it would be silly to think that IDT has just curled up and died or gone away. It is still cherished in the hearts of many American evangelicals, and recently it has even been making inroads in the most respectable of circles. For instance, in my own field of philosophy the leading philosopher of religion, just-retired Alvin Plantinga, has long been sympathetic to its claims. (Even though he worked at Notre Dame University he is a Calvinist, which makes his sympathy for IDT all the more surprising given Calvin's insistence on the rule of law down here in God's creation). Now, the no-less-leading social philosopher from New York University, Thomas Nagel, has come out in favor of teaching IDT in schools. He has endorsed a recent book by Discovery Institute associate Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, naming it in the Times Literary Supplement as one of the top books of 2009.

I don't here want to go back over the criticisms of IDT as science. I really just don't see anything new that needs saying on that front. And in an earlier blog I drew attention to what seem to be grave theological problems with IDT. Namely, if you get God involved on an ongoing basis in the creative process, then although He deserves praise for the good things, He also walks right into criticism for the horrendously bad things, like deleterious mutations that cause lifelong suffering and pain. However, I do want to draw attention to a different tactic that is now employed by IDT supporters: trying to tar Darwinian natural selection theory with the sins of National Socialism. There is a direct line, so we learn, from Charles Darwin to Adolf Hitler. As some have tried to pin the blame on Martin Luther, so now the blame is being pinned on the author of the Origin of Species. From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, by Discovery Institute associate Richard Weikart, is a prime example, although if you go to you will see that there are others. In like vein, the movie Expelled, featuring former New York Times columnist Ben Stein, made the connection a major story theme.

Prima facie, you might think that there is something to all of this. If you look at Charles Darwin's Descent of Man, published in 1871, you will find some pretty conventional Victorian ideas about the races. At the other end, if you look at Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, you will find some passages that do seem to draw on Darwinian theory: "Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live."

Now, let me say, speaking now as a historian of ideas, I don't think you can or should say definitively that there are no links. Apart from anything else, something had to lead to Hitler and the Nazis, and if you eliminate Luther and eliminate Darwin and eliminate -- well, you know the tune -- then you end up with no causes at all leading to the horrendous movement that overtook Germany in the 1930s. I would be very surprised if the anti-Semitism of Christianity and the racism of the nineteenth century had no causal role. However, before you rush to conclude that the IDT crew is correct and that significant links can be found between Darwin himself and Hitler, there are a number of points that should be considered.

First, the members of the Darwin family were fanatical anti-slavery campaigners. In the early part of the nineteenth century, when the young Darwin was growing up, this was the family obsession. And it rubbed off on him. On the voyage of the Beagle, he had a horrendous row with his captain, Robert Fitzroy, over slavery in South America. And during the American Civil War he was a strong supporter of the North, precisely because of the slavery issue (many Brits supported the South because of the links with the cotton trade). Descent of Man, for all that it did reflect the concerns of a middle-class Victorian gentleman, was no clarion call to racial superiority. Darwin was explicit that when the races met and (as so often was the case) the non-Europeans suffered, it came not from intellectual or social superiority but because non-Europeans caught the strangers' diseases and suffered and died.

Second, while it is true that many used Darwin's ideas to promote specific social policies, and that some used them to promote aggression -- the pre-World War One German general Count Friedrich von Bernhardi argued strongly for the moral imperative of Germany fighting and destroying competitors -- there were others who promoted very different ideas. The co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, was an ardent socialist and feminist in the name of Darwinism. The Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin argued for anarchy in the name of Darwin. And Vernon Kellogg, associate of then future president Herbert Hoover, argued for pacifism on Darwinian lines. Wars kill the best and brightest and that is biologically stupid.

So you can argue that Darwinism, a bit like Christianity, supported a plethora of quite contradictory positions. This being so then, a bit like Christianity, one might ask just how genuine and important was the support being offered. There was a propaganda value, true. But genuine links are another matter. (I should say that since I am criticizing the IDT folk for thus tying Darwin to Hitler, I am no less critical of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion tying Jesus to Hitler. The truth, as always, is much more complex than it appears in such simplistic analyses.)

Finally, when you turn to Hitler himself, the story is murky. To put the matter politely, he was not a well-educated man. There is no evidence he studied Darwin's writings or much about them. At most, he was picking stuff up off the street or from the barroom or from the doss house where he lived in Vienna before the War. And when you look at Mein Kampf in more detail, the story seems less straightforward. Just before the apparently Darwinian sentiments quoted above, he wrote: "All great cultures of the past perished only because the originally creative race died out from blood poisoning." What he is really on about is the Jews. Darwin would have been appalled at such a connection.

So take my advice. Reject IDT as bad theology, bad philosophy, and bad science. And while you are at it, reject it as bad history. Charles Darwin was not to blame for Adolf Hitler.