Friday, September 10, 2010

Christopher Hitchens Takes On David Berlinski

Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken atheist, who is battling esophageal cancer reserved special energy for a debate with the Discovery Institute's David Berlinski. Berlinski occupies that niche that is even stranger than evolutionary creationism: an anti-Darwinian secular Jew. The account, by Greg Garrison, is in He writes:When
Berlinski linked Nazism and Darwinism while connecting atheism with violent government regimes of the 20th Century, Hitchens bristled and went on the attack in his next turn at the podium.

Connecting Nazism with Darwinism "is a filthy slander," Hitchens said. "Darwinism was derided in Germany."

Hitchens said Adolf Hitler claimed in "Mein Kampf" that he was doing God's work with his policies against the Jews and that the first Nazi treaty was with the Vatican.

"To say that there is something fascistic about my beliefs, I won't hear said, and you shouldn't believe," Hitchens said to the audience, almost thundering despite his diminished voice.

Berlinski responded that fascist and Communist governments including Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia held in common the proposition that "No power was greater than their own, and they acted on that." They were godless governments, despite some "infiltrations of religious thought," he said.
This seems to be a particular sticking point with the Discovery Institute and several posts here and elsewhere have dealt with this subject. Writers such as Berlinski and David Klinghoffer (and here, also) seem compelled to ascribe all of the world's evil to evolution and they do not seem to care how much they get correct or how much academic and intellectual dishonesty they commit in the process.

It has been established that Hitler did not use Darwinian principles during the Third Reich. The problem is that if the Discovery Institute admits that, then it is hard to paint evolution in a moral light. It becomes what it should have always been: a scientific theory. Nothing more, nothing less. I am not a fan of Hitchens' theology. In many ways, he gets exactly the same things wrong for different reasons. He accuses Berlinski of using Darwin as a scapegoat for the world's evils then proceeds to argue the same thing for religion. The truth is that violence is committed both for secular and religious purposes and it is simplistic to point to one or the other as the culprit.

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  1. Hitchens' brilliant and unchallenged writings, particularly “god is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything” could hardly be called “simplistic”.

    To the truly objective observer, history proves that he is absolutely right with as much finality as do current events.

  2. But he is laying the blame at the feet of God, when it belongs with his misguided followers. This is what Berlinski attempts to do with his argument with Darwin. My point is that they are both misguided. Hitchens has a much better time of it tying the violence to ideology than Berlinski does, though. While Hitchens' argument may not be simplistic, Berlinski's is.

  3. The other comment I would make is that one can (and people have) use any ideology, religious or otherwise, to mistreat and kill other human beings. Stalin needed no belief in either God or Darwin to systematically kill off over 20 million Russians in the 1920s and 1930s. He simply believed he was right in doing so.

  4. I would recommend to you the book, Nazi Nexus, by Nazi researcher Edwin Black. He does a good job of describing how American eugenics programs, funded by American industrial tycoons and universities, laid the foundation for the Nazi eugenics programs.

    The connection between Eugenics and Darwin is pretty clear from his own writings, and from the writings of his close associates and immediate followers.

    Darwin was a racist, and he believed that the "higher" races (i.e., caucasions) would eventually eliminate the "lower" races (i.e., aborigines, blacks, etc.).

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

    Racism of this sort led, directly or indirectly, to the genocides perpetrated by the Nazis. This fact is pretty hard to miss, I think.

  5. Charles, please read this post:

    Darwin was largely a product of his time but his observations on the "lower race" were not motivated by either hatred or his concepts of evolution. Darwin, in fact, had a lifelong hatred of slavery and anti-slavery was long a cause associated with him. Funny thing for a racist.

    Beyond this, though, racism was around quite a bit longer than Darwin was. If my history serves me, the earliest racism and slavery in the North American continent started in the late sixteen hundreds. How is Darwin responsible for that? What about the people of Israel? During the time of Darwin, Jews were not the pariah that they became under Hitler. Hitler, who did not believe that evolution pertained to humans, simply hated Jews. He didn't need Darwin or anyone else to drive that hatred.

    This argument is like that of Berlinski's and Klinghoffer's and seeks to portray Darwin as responsible for all the evils of the world. It doesn't hold up very well.

  6. Jimpithecus, your point is well taken. I agree that Darwin was a product of his time, and that his racism was not motivated by hatred of "lower races."

    I think the larger point is that Darwin gave racism a "scientific" justification (scientific for his time, not ours). Darwin's ideas on race and origins were thus used (or abused) to justify the "science" of Eugenics.

    Darwin's (and Haeckel's, Malthus', etc.) ideas did not cause the holocaust, just as Luther's Antisemitism did not cause it. I am convinced, however, that their great ideas and extensive influence contributed to it.

    I am sure that, had Darwin been alive during and after the Holocaust, he probably would have been horrified by it.

    However, big ideas have big consequences, and I think his ideas have had a major influence on many areas outside of biology and paleontology - sometimes for good, and sometimes for evil.

  7. Also, Hitler was not the lone person responsible for the Holocaust, so it is much too simplistic to just say that "Hitler did not believe in human evolution" and so Darwin's ideas could not have influenced the Holocaust.

    The Holocaust was a collective effort by thousands of people, many of them the most educated and intellectual people in Germany.

    We have to ask the larger questions of what influenced all of these scientists, physicians, professors, educators, government workers, and common everyday people to help design and implement a system of mass-sterlization and mass-extermination of certain classes of people who were deemed to be a "lower" or "inferior" race?

    It seems to me that ideas such as those promoted by Haeckel, Malthus, Darwin, Huxley, et al, were primarly responsible.

  8. The same might be said of Edward Teller, a man who gave the word "peace" a new meaning.

    The problems that I have with the Darwin comparisons are two:

    1. He wasn't the only one who came up with the idea of natural selection, nor was he the only one who thought that things evolved. Even before Alfred Russel Wallace co-discovered natural selection, there were many different naturalists, some who lived a hundred years before Darwin, who believed that organisms evolved.

    2. His ideas of natural selection (s. stricto) and evolution (s. lato) were of biological processes and people like Ray Comfort, David Berlinski and David Klinghoffer elevate them almost to the level of first cause. Somehow, whether or not things evolve suddenly becomes a moral argument rather than a scientific one. That seems like a logical disconnect to me.

  9. Malthus was actually a Minister who wrote some truly scary papers in the early 1800s on population growth. He was an influence on Darwin only in the sense that Darwin understood the problems of overpopulation and what that would do the dynamics of populations.

    As far as Montagu and Huxley were concerned, even they saw the error of their ways. Michelle Brattain writes in her essay ""Race, Racism, and Antiracism: UNESCO and the Politics of Presenting Science to the Postwar Public":

    "The distance between academic science and public discourse on race had already convinced some scholars of the need to break the nonacademic public's habit of using the term altogether. In 1935, British biologists Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon argued in their popular book We Europeans: A Survey of "Racial" Problems that "with respect to existing populations, the word `race' should be banished, and the descriptive and non-committal term ethnic groups should be substituted." In the United States, anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued against use of the term in any context. In 1941, Montagu "shocked his colleagues" at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) annual meeting by declaring "the whole concept of race to be `utterly erroneous and meaningless.'"(1)

    (1) Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon, We Europeans: A Survey of "Racial" Problems (London, 1935), 7–8; "Anthropologists," Time, April 21, 1941, 58 (second quotation), clipping in subject files, Anthropology, Series IV, Box IV-5, Ashley Montagu Papers, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia, Pa. [hereafter Montagu Papers].