Saturday, July 10, 2010

David Klinghoffer Practices Reductio ad Hitlerum Over at HuffPo

David Klinghoffer has written another article over at the Huffington Post (cross-posted at the Discovery Institute's Evolution News and Views) on the connexion between Hitler and Darwin. This ought to be some sort of corollary to Godwin's Law. He writes:
While barbarism has been going on for as long as there have been human beings, there was something different about the 20th century. The world had never seen anything quite like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. And it was not only a matter of the technology available to them. Treating people as vermin to be exterminated was a new thing under the sun. Eugenics programs in United States and later Germany were warm-up acts for the mass slaughters that were to come.

Hitler's ideas, Dr. Berlinski carefully notes, "came from many different sources but no honest account will omit Darwin." A reading of Mein Kampf makes that clear. Certainly, Berlinski says, the men who formulated Nazi ideology "weren't reading the Gospels."

Darwin elaborated a picture of how the world works, how creatures war with each other for survival thus selecting out the fittest specimens and advancing the species. In this portrait of animal life, man is no exception. Any animal that strives to preserve the weak, as man does, is committing racial suicide. "Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind," Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, a policy "highly injurious to the race of man."
The reason that "honest accounts" omit Darwin is that Hitler did not think evolution applied to humans. I have commented on this here, here and, most importantly, here. In 1942, Hitler said, in a speech:
Where do we get the right to believe that humans have not been, from the very beginning, what they are today? A look into nature shows us that in the realm of plants and animals changes and developments occur. But nowhere in a species does a development occur that is further from the origin which people must have made if they evolved (developed) from their ape-like condition to that which they are now.
That Darwin was responsible for Hitler and Stalin is a persistent meme at the Discovery Institute and creationist movements. It is ironic that the man, himself, did not accept evolution as it applied to humans. Hitler, in this speech, clearly argues that the animal kingdom and humans are separate creations. Further, Hitler went out of his way to systematically eradicate groups of people that he thought were inferior. This is counter to how evolution would proceed. Had Hitler actually proceeded along biologically evolutionary themes, he would have assumed that nature would eventually cull out the inferior "races." In proper evolutionary theory, there is no such thing as "helping it along."

Equally ironically, if Stalin had applied Darwinian evolutionary principles to his agricultural program, the Soviet Union would not have suffered from such bad famines during his reign of terror. He specifically adopted Lamarckian evolutionary principles and the regime purged those that accepted Darwinian ideas. The results were a total disaster.

But the principle problem with this piece (and this is a problem with all of Klinghoffer's pieces on this subject) is that it is also Reductio ad Hitlerum. It is clear that the early 20th century saw a rise in biological determinism and eugenics. It is also clear that some people took some of what Darwin (and others) wrote and warped it beyond what it was intended ever to mean. As Jeffrey Schloss writes:
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.
When we follow this line of thought, it continues to go very wrong for Klinghoffer's argument. Schloss continues:
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”)51 was 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."
It seems that if we are to lay the fault of the genocide in Germany at the feet of Charles Darwin, we would be well to lay it at the feet of Martin Luther as well. The problem is that the simplistic idea of blaming Charles Darwin for the genocide of the 20th century perpetrated by the Nazis reflects a rather one-dimensional view of history and a complete misunderstanding of the complex events that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Is it true that ideas have consequences? Yes, but should we hold a man responsible for his ideas if those ideas are badly misinterpreted? Early 19th century Christians justified the subjugation of Blacks based on the story of the three sons of Noah and the misguided idea that one of the sons, who was less favored, gave rise to the Blacks. Shall we blame the Bible for racism?

You cannot hold a man responsible for his ideas if the abuse of those ideas lead to events or movements that he would have condemned. Darwin did not endorse the killing of the "weak members" of the human race. He simply knew that humans were capable of emotions that would lead to the preservation of those who would not ordinarily survive. Darwin, himself, was perfectly aware of the differences between humans and lower animals and how humans were to behave to each other. He wrote in his autobiography:
If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.
Darwin would have condemned the modern eugenics movement and the rise of Nazi Germany. This is something that never occurs to Klinghoffer.

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  1. Really good. Really, really good! I'm amazed that this myth persists.
    Oh, one little mistake: Before the first Hitler quote, you write that "Darwin did not think evolution applied to humans." You mean, obviously, that Hitler didn't do so.

  2. Yow. Thanks for the heads up! It has been corrected. Thanks for the kind words also.