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A Gentle Message to My Creationist Friends

January 31, 2010
by

If you are a creationist, you have been deceived by demagogues who count on you not thinking for yourself.

This morning, I happened across this comic strip biography of Charles Darwin. Since it was on a Christian website, I was not surprised to see some tasteless images of a Nazi concentration camp thrown into this biography of someone who died more than 50 years before the first concentration camps were built. After all, it’s important for Christians to point out that the Holocaust followed logically from Darwin’s discoveries; if science can be used for ill, it must not be true.

Logical fallacies aside, the party-line fundamentalist claim that Hitler’s massacre was inspired by Darwin is factually false. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote:

The fox remains always a fox, the goose remains a goose, and the tiger will retain the character of a tiger. The only difference that can exist within the species must be in the various degrees of structural strength and active power, in the intelligence, efficiency, endurance, etc., with which the individual specimens are endowed.

and in Tischgesprache im Fuhrerhauptquartier, Hitler said:

From where do we get the right to believe, that from the very beginning Man was not what he is today? Looking at Nature tells us, that in the realm of plants and animals changes and developments happen. But nowhere inside a kind shows such a development as the breadth of the jump , as Man must supposedly have made, if he has developed from an ape-like state to what he is today.

To me, that sounds antithetical to what Darwin taught us. It sounds strikingly similar to what creationists say, but get this: creationism isn’t false simply because a bloodthirsty maniac agreed with it. In fact, Hitler’s demonstrated belief in the fixity of species has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the theory of evolution.

Unlike creationists, arguments from those of us who respect and appreciate the scientific method need not resort to emotional appeals or final consequences. Rather, we consider only the evidence before us, no matter where it leads.

If religious teachers cannot be trusted to do even the most basic research into Hitler’s position on Darwinian theory, how can you trust them to know anything about far more complicated subjects like soteriology?

Update:
While Hitler’s statements indicate his absolute rejection of Darwinian evolution, let’s assume for a moment that he hadn’t explicitly rejected it. His program of exterminating races he deemed inferior was still unrelated to Darwin. Darwin’s discovery was that speciation is a result of natural selection. Eugenics and murder are examples of artificial selection.
Artificial selection had already been in use for millennia; countless crops were bred to be hardier and for greater yields. Genetic evidence shows that all dogs are descended from wolves; the proud dachshund’s tenacity and the golden retriever’s obedience are products of artificial selection from the same lupine ancestor.
The key distinction between natural and artificial selection is agency. It was known well before Darwin’s time that species could be shaped according to the intent of an agent; Darwin’s brilliance was to show that agency is not required to make living things change.
It actually goes deeper than that; the very existence of Slavs and Jews and other un-Aryan riff-raff at the time of Hitler’s regime speaks to the ability of each of those races to survive over time. From a Darwinian perspective, Jews and Aryans would necessarily be deemed equally “fit”. Hitler’s vision demands the intervention of an agent in order to make the arbitrary fit/unfit distinction.

Update #2:   This post takes one simple creationist claim and shows:

  • Logical failure: Emotional Appeal, Argument from Consequences
  • Factual Failure: Hitler’s Rejection of evolutionary principles.
  • Semantic Failure: Creationists’ failure to distinguish natural selection from artificial selection.

Any one of those failures would be sufficient to falsify the claimed link between Darwin and Hitler.  Of course, this one refutation does not invalidate all of creationism, but it does warn that creationists may occupy a logical wasteland dotted with terrible libraries. 

Please investigate every claim I make here.  If you show them to be false, I will happily accept the correction.  If you cannot disprove them, perhaps you can begin looking into other creationist claims with an open mind.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    January 31, 2010 8:05 pm

    Well, the Nazi eugenics could not have been carried out without Social Darwinism, which is based on the ideas developed by Galton, the inventor of Eugenics.

    There could have been no Galton without Galton’s cousin Darwin:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Galton#Heredity.2C_historiometry_and_eugenics

    Social Darwinism, which builds on and finds its base in a lot of Darwin’s and Galton’s ideas, was a huge part of Hitler’s thinking. Even though there is no evidence that Hitler had read Darwin or Galton, Social Darwinism was already a mainstream part of German culture by the time of Hitler.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_eugenics#Hitler.27s_views_on_eugenics

    It is also true that Darwin considered and wrote about, but ultimately rejected, Galton’s eugenics as being impractical:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism#Theories_and_origins

    So, it is a little bit more complicated than what you have said, and Darwin does have a direct link to Nazi eugenics. This of course does not mean that Darwin was wrong or even immoral since he rejected Eugenics. However, in rejecting Eugenics Darwin managed to develop some of the ideas used by Eugenicists. So, I guess everything is relative.

  2. Barry permalink*
    January 31, 2010 9:45 pm

    Think of the McRib Sandwich. Sure it’s named after Dick and Mac McDonald. However, it was introduced in 1981, long after Ray Kroc purchased their equity and the McDonald’s Corporation ceased to resemble in any meaningful way the humble burger stands they built. Social Darwinism is no more a product of Charles Darwin than the McRib is a product of Dick and Mac McDonald. In fact, a different kind of sandwich follows from the brothers’ sandwich shop in a far more logical way than mass murder based on bullshit theories of racial superiority follow from a scientific discovery about the environment’s role in shaping allele frequency.

    By saying that Darwin rejected eugenics, you are only further separating the man from Nazi atrocities. Framing it otherwise is like calling Carl Sagan part of the US nuclear weapons program because he protested against it.

    It is precisely as simple as I made it out to be. So-called social Darwinism has nothing to do with Darwinian evolution for exactly the reason Nazi eugenics has nothing to do with Darwinian evolution: the breakthrough that Darwin made was to divorce speciation from the acts of an intelligent agent.

    Wild bananas barely resemble the things Chiquita markets; the fruit as we know it is the product of meticulous cultivation across millennia and continents. Darwin showed how deep time, more than a few millennia, could yield far greater changes in species. So-called social Darwinism is better analogized to artificial selection, a prospect taken for granted in Darwin’s time.

  3. Jonathan permalink
    January 31, 2010 11:47 pm

    Barry,

    Your McRib analogy is so sound that I won’t touch it.

    However, Darwin didn’t reject Eugenics because he thought it wouldn’t work. He did think it would work. He rejected it because he thought it would be cruel and inhumane. Also, he hoped that weaker members of society wouldn’t reproduce at the same rate as stronger members.

    Furthermore, he thought that what he called “the savage races” would be exterminated by what he called “the civilized races” through natural selection. So saying that Nazi eugenics have nothing to do with Darwin is kind of like saying that since Marx believed his communist state would arise naturally through the evolution of the existing capitalist states, and not through war, that the Soviets weren’t Marxist.

    I have cut and pasted two quotes of Darwin’s:

    From Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex:

    With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

    The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected.

    Also from Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex:

    The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form; but this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, convinced by general reasons, believe in the general principle of evolution. Breaks incessantly occur in all parts of the series, some being wide, sharp and defined, others less so in various degrees; as between the orang and its nearest allies—between the Tarsius and the other Lemuridæ—between the elephant and in a more striking manner between the Ornithorhynchus or Echidna, and other mammals. But all these breaks depend merely on the number of related forms which have become extinct. At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

  4. Jonathan permalink
    February 1, 2010 12:00 am

    And I just want to point out about the final quote that Darwin is not saying that the “civilized races” will replace the “savage races” over the course of millions of years. He is saying that it will happen over the course of centuries. He literally is saying that within centuries of his writing that Caucasians will evolve into some higher being and that black people, aborigines, and gorillas will go extinct.

    I might also point out that with the above statement Darwin is classifying black people and aborigines in the same category as gorillas. I don’t know how you can endorse this stuff.

  5. Jonathan permalink
    February 1, 2010 12:33 am

    And as a last comment, what is so disturbing, and influencial in terms of eugenics, about the first quote is that Darwin sees a negative effect in positive social programs such as caring for the sick.

  6. JoJo permalink
    February 1, 2010 1:08 am

    just because some liberals are yankee fans doesn’t mean i reject liberalism. or that i endorse yankee-ism.

    because science does not recognize any appeal to authority, everything a scientist says has to stand up on its own. eugenics would not be a part of darwinism even if – for argument’s sake- darwin went around saying eugenics was keen. what else darwin believed in addition to Darwinism doesn’t matter. and reasons the yankees suck are not reasons to not regulate banks. (quite the contrary, actually.)

    nothing racist or otherwise morally objectionable follows from a theory about why some arrangements of molecules stick around for longer than other arrangements of molecules. natural selection does not entail anything about politics.

    darwin was not a prophet. he was a scientisist. some things he got right, others he got wrong. but unlike religious followers, who may be beholden to accept every everything a religious authority decree lest that authority not exist, scientists can take the true and reject the false without a guilty conscience, and without threatening the system.

    in fact, they would be strengthening it. whatever ideas do not stand up are rejected. no matter who said them. darwinism- 150 years later, with countless improvements- stands, and is perpetually corroborated. it cannot be impugned by any other of his beliefs that do not stand up to the same scrutiny as his better established theory.

  7. Barry permalink*
    February 1, 2010 9:31 am

    Just to be clear: there’s no reason to think that eugenics woudn’t work if the desired outcome is people bred to have or not to have certain heritable traits. Of course, it would require a tightly-implemented regime of unspeakable cruelty, and is therefore not a desirable course of action.

    However, its moral desirability says nothing about its veractiy. Just like it’s unpleasant but true that tsunamis drown babies and puppies, it’s unpleasant but true that one of the consequences of having the recipe for much of what humans become carried and transmitted by DNA is that the DNA can be manipulated through breeding programs.

    That said, Jonah is absolutely right; Charles Darwin isn’t Charles Darwin for his beliefs about any number of things. For example, his favorite chicken recipe is irrelevant to his legacy. Whether he underpaid his domestic staff (no reason to think that he did) is irrelevant. So are his approach to fatherhood, his favorite soccer team, and his outright condemnation of slavery. What chiefly matters about Charles Darwin is his discovery and description of evolution by means of natural selection.

    All of what’s been said above is also entirely irrelevant to the main point of the blog post: Hitler rejected the fundamentals of Darwinian evolution. Furthermore, Charles Darwin bore less responsibility for Social Darwinism than the McDonald brothers bore for the McRib. Any number of Victorians said any number of racist things, so to link the holocaust in any way to this one guy is both insincere and sloppily argued.

    Finally, in the automatically-generated related links, you’ll find a blog that documents that Darwin’s books were burned by Nazis.

    What better evidence could there be that Darwin’s own thoughts were rejected by Hitler? There are many paths to racism, and the Nazis’ own actions clearly demonstrate that Darwin’s work was not important to their path.

  8. Alek permalink
    February 1, 2010 10:19 am

    a friend once told me something he heard from a teacher, which he found very profound. i’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “everyone is a monster when taken out of context.” he was making the argument that moses, socrates, and thomas jefferson would all be considered immoral if they lived their lives in, for example, 2010 america, but that, generally speaking, we don’t think of them as immoral because we take into account when discussing their words and deeds the cultural milieu in which they wrote/did them.

    darwin lived his life in upper-class, intellectual circles in mid-nineteenth century england. the slave trade was thriving, as was the empire. this was prime white man’s burden time. to be honest, it would be surprising if darwin had not exhibited racism from time to time. it was a very rare figure in his time/place/culture who considered the races to be equal. those words which so shock us probably sounded entirely commonplace at the time he wrote them.

    as to letting the sick die, it seems pretty clear, even from your cherry-picked quotes, that darwin found such an idea repulsive and cruel. i don’t read that passage as darwin saying, “if only we stopped helping each other, we could get on with this whole evolution thang,” but rather it’s as if he’s pointing out the difference between humans and species that are entirely subject to natural pressures. who knows, maybe he’s right. maybe we’d be “better” at surviving if we got the “unfit” genes out of our gene pool. it’s certainly an interesting thought experiment. but that’s all it is. darwin didn’t write a book of social policy recommendations. he wrote a book about biology, and in that context, the evolution of our own species is certainly an important topic to touch on. if there’s any criticism to be made it’s darwin’s ignoring the benefit to survival of traits other than “constitution”.

  9. Jonathan permalink
    February 1, 2010 10:58 pm

    Jojo-

    True, science is not religion… but the two are converging. When your argument for science is that science is not religion, it at best betrays a lack of confidence in science. Yeah, Barry’s original post was about a Christian comic strip, but I am not going to defend religion.

    However, the notion that the above quotes are not Darwinism is something I need to take note with. They are from a book by Darwin in which he first applies his theory of evolution to mankind (as opposed to lower animals) in a comprehensive manner, and spells out his argument that men are descended from apes. Not only is the book a part of evolution, it is the part everybody gets into a hissy-fit over.

    Many of Darwin’s statements are un-falsifiable, which means that they can never be tested. Therefore, when he makes a statement that is falsifiable, meaning it can be tested, I think it is important to look into it. Let me repost part of one of the above quotes:

    “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

    So, we are getting up there in years, and before we know it we will be celebrating the bicentennial of the voyage of the Beagle. So, when I was walking down Hollywood Blvd. to get lunch this afternoon, I made a point of looking around my surroundings in order to see if some of Darwin’s predictions were coming to pass. If they were, I should notice a decline in an African American presence compared to earlier eras in my life and American history. But it was the opposite! I may have seen more African Americans than white people, although I can say with certainty that I didn’t see any gorillas or Aborigines.

    OK, fine. Darwin was not a prophet and he got things wrong. I was reading through The Descent of Man last night because I was interested, and it really looks like he didn’t get a lot right either. He actually says that men evolved to be stronger and smarter than women through natural selection, and that man’s higher place in a society is a result of evolution. Of course this is crazy. It is also revealing, because Darwin makes an error that he repeats throughout his work. He looks at what he is investigating through a narrow cultural lens, and doesn’t take into consideration that woman’s lower place in his society may be the fault of his society. Of course women were weaker back then. They weren’t allowed to exercise. Even today, there is a difference between women who follow an athletic regiment, and those who don’t. Same with men. But he couldn’t see things in that light. Everything has to be the result of natural selection.

    The idea that Darwinism and science have nothing to do with politics is wrong on its face. Government policies are dictated in a large part by our understanding of the natural world. This is why the beliefs of our politicians always comes under such scrutiny both by the scientific community and the religious.

    Barry- Just because Hitler rejected Darwin in name, this doesn’t mean he rejected Darwin in principal. There are many reasons he wouldn’t want his people to read Darwin, but this is not evidence that he was not influenced by Darwinian ideas.

    ALek- Well thought out. Can’t argue there.

    • JoJo permalink
      February 2, 2010 12:48 am

      jonathan-

      first, i don’t accept your characterization of my argument “for science”- if i made such a thing- as the claim that “science is not religion.” you may disagree with what i say, of course- just make sure you are disagreeing with what i actually say.

      second, and more importantly, darwin’s favorite cereal is not a part of darwinism. not everything everyone says is a part of the theory that bares their name.

      one needs to figure out what makes an idea a part of a theory. but it’s not falsifiability, as it seems to me you are suggesting.

      perhaps darwin also predicted that it would rain tomorrow, and he was wrong, or that this box of his favorite cereal would finally have a toy in it. being falsifiable is not sufficient for being a part of darwinism. those false predictions don’t impugn darwinism.

      how does one know what is a part of a theory? one important concept that you are missing is logical entailment. darwin’s speculations about the future of evolution do not logically follow from the concept of natural selection, either his or the modern, superior theory. as a result, it can be severed from the theory; it’s not a necessary part. it can – and will- be jettisoned if false.

      more generally, specific predictions are rarely a part of a theory without all sorts of preconditions being met. one is that predictions require tons of data. and what the initial conditions are, for example, is not strictly a part of the theory that’s being used to make a prediction. false predictions can be based on bad or insufficient data without impugning a theory. one needs a shit load of info in addition to a great theory to make detailed predictions. and darwin didn’t have it. what’s amazing is how much darwin got right given he was ignorant of the next 150 years of evidence, including the discovery of the molecular mechanism underlying the large scale patterns he observed . where darwin was speculating on incomplete information, he was wrong. that just doesn’t affect darwinism. darwinism is not the theory that darwin was infallible. that sentence can be false without darwinism being false.

      third, the notion of logical entailment is also missing from another of your comments:

      “The idea that Darwinism and science have nothing to do with politics is wrong on its face. Government policies are dictated in a large part by our understanding of the natural world.”

      “nothing to do”? who said that? darwinism and politics both exist in the same universe, so they are bound to have something to do with each other at some point. but what is important is precisely what they have to do with each other. the short answer is: ‘nothing logically’.

      what i said in the earlier comment is that nothing about natural science logically entails any political doctrine. that is, there is no logically valid argument that looks like this “objects accelerate at 9.8 meters per second squared, therefore cut capital gains taxes.” so there is no sense in which this aspect of the “natural world” “dictates” anything about policy.

      and there’s no sense in which the overwhelming evidence for climate change even dictates policy. as you may be aware, there is currently a debate over whether we should give a shit and do anything about climate change. no one has to do anything about climate change, so nothing is dictated by the fact that it exists. and the political implications of adopting a particular stance or view towards climate change have no bearing on the truth, either.

      overall, i suspect you are too eager to find fault in darwinism, and so you include far too much as pertaining to the truth of that theory. but the stuff you cite simply doesn’t pertain to the truth of darwinism, and so doesn’t give any reason for someone to not believe darwinism. no evidence for or against a biological theory can come from politics, and no prediction based on woefully incomplete data can possibly impugn a theory, no matter how long the guy’s beard was who said it.

  10. Jonathan permalink
    February 2, 2010 2:11 am

    JoJo

    Well, OK, that’s a concise, tight argument. I would object to the cereal part of it- I am taking quotes from a book Darwin wrote about the evolution of man because that is the topic of discussion, not something he wrote on some other topic. But of course if you boil Darwin down to the concept of natural selection, then you can safely discount the thought process he used to come up with his ideas, as well as the examples he used to support them. I can’t object to that.

    Barry

    I was thinking, and I am not so convinced eugenics would actually work. It would be easy to test. The second largest eugenics program after the Nazis was right here in the US, with the forced sterilization of mentally disabled people from the late 19th century until the mid-late 1960’s. It shouldn’t be hard to determine if there was a drop in mental disabilities as a result, but I would say the answer is probably no just based on common knowledge.

    • Barry permalink*
      February 2, 2010 9:04 am

      Human eugenics was never implemented strictly enough in this country to isolate the many, many variables inherent to human breeding. To be study it carefully, of course, it would have to be blinded and controlled. The eugenics programs in this country were not uniformly applied; also, certain types of mental illness may be genetic but others aren’t. So it’s tough to say that the eugenicists were even selecting based on operative criteria.

      I am confident that it would work in humans because it has worked in countless species domesticated by humans. Domestication is essentially a program of eugenics. Take the wolves that don’t run away from people, breed them, breed their descendants in order to enhance certain traits and suppress others. The reason breeds of domestic dogs, all of which are members of the same species, can be radically different in appearance and behavior is that they have been subject to thousands of years of eugenics.

      If human breeding could be controlled as tightly as dog, corn, banana, or cat breeding, there is no reason to believe that humans would respond differently than any other organism.

      This is not to say that the results would be entirely predictable. The experiment in fox domestication showed pretty conclusively that seemingly unrelated traits may be correlated; a pretty big monkey wrench in the prediction process. But there is no doubt that it could be done.

      Eugenics is evil. It should not be implemented. I hate it. But it would work.

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