Part Four of my analysis of Premier Christian Media’s screening and debate of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed examines the film’s claim that Darwin’s theory directly inspired Hitler and 20th century eugenics.
The final quarter of the film makes the outrageous allegation that Darwin’s work directly inspired Hitler and eugenics. The host, Ben Stein, visits Darwin’s former home of Down House in Kent and his memorial at the London Natural History Museum. He visits the Dachau concentration camp and Hadamar Clinic where he interviews the tour guide Uta George and Richard Weikart, Discovery Institute research fellow and author of From Darwin to Hitler.
I haven’t read Weikart’s book, but I listened to this lecture and was distinctly underwhelmed by the tenuous links made between the ancient idea of eugenics and Darwin’s theory. Darwinism describes a scientific process for which there is ample evidence. Whether we like its moral implication is irrelevant and Weikart is guilty of the naturalistic fallacy; confusing “what is” with “what ought to be”. Weikart’s arguments rely heavily on some disgraceful quote-mining of Darwin’s work, more of which below.
Weikart also ignores a wealth of other social, economic and indeed religious factors that resulted in the rise of Nazism. For excellent refutations of his thesis, I came across his radio debate against atheist Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, Hector Avalos, as well as Avalos’ extensive blog posts on Debunking Christianity here and here.
Towards the end of Expelled, Stein reads out the following passage which is often quoted by creationists from The Descent of Man, first published in 1871:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. 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, 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. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
However, the passage in full shows that Darwin was deeply compassionate to the handicapped and was not in favour of any euthanasia programme:
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, if so urged by 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 a certain and great present evil.
There are several other passages from Darwin that creationists mine in their attempts to show that he was immoral, but reveal quite the opposite when read in their true context. In the post-screening debate (at 43 minutes on the podcast) I asked the panel a question that drew their attention to this distortion, adding that while Darwin was about as racist as anyone else in Victorian England, he was a passionate abolitionist of the slave trade. Surprisingly, my comments drew nods of agreement from Steve Fuller. I also added that I have read Hitler’s Mein Kampf for myself. It contains not one reference of Darwin, evolution or natural selection, but talks rather a lot about his faith in Heaven and the Almighty as well as his theological hero, Martin Luther.
Alastair Noble made noises about how Darwin influenced Stalin. This claim is straight off the Answers in Genesis website and was repeated by David Robertson in our second debate on Premier’s Unbelievable? last year. The truth is that Stalin rejected Darwinism in favour of Lamarckism which lead to Lysenko’s insane programme to grow giant vegetables and deliver multiple harvests in one year, leading to the starvation of millions:
Mendeleyev’s “periodic system of elements” clearly shows how very important in the history of nature is the emergence of qualitative changes out of quantitative changes. The same thing is shown in biology by the theory of neo-Lamarckism, to which neo-Darwinism is yielding place.
– Stalin 1906, 304
Steve Fuller replied that Mein Kampf discussed “selection”. However, Hitler was referring to artificial selection which humans have known about for centuries. Dog breeding and pigeon fancying have more responsibility for Hitler than On the Origin of the Species.
There is widespread confusion over Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and “Social Darwinism”, which was coined by the Protestant anthropologist Herbert Spencer, who also came up with the term “survival of the fittest”. Although still tarring Darwin’s good name, Hitler’s ethic is better described as “Social Darwinist”.
Irritatingly, many respectable scientists and historians have linked Darwin to Nazi Germany. Sir Arthur Keith is often quoted by creationists as writing in Evolution & Ethics (1946) that Hitler was an evolutionist and was trying to create Darwin’s utopia based on the principles of eugenics, though Keith never showed which parts of Origins inspired Hitler. Laurence Rees’ otherwise excellent study of the Final Solution, Auschwitz, was tarnished somewhat with the assertion that the Nazis’ ideology was “expressly Darwinian”, again without citing any primary sources in support.
The full original title of On the Origin of Species is infamously “Or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life”. Again, creationists have argued that this is clear evidence that Darwin was in favour of a brutal struggle for survival where the strong would crush the weak. However, as Richard Dawkins explained following the film’s release in an “Open Letter to a victim of Ben Stein’s lying propaganda”:
Darwin was using the word “race” in a very different sense from ours. It is totally clear, if you read past the title to the book itself, that a “favoured race” meant something like “that set of individuals who possess a certain favoured genetic mutation” (although Darwin would not have used that language because he did not have our modern concept of a genetic mutation).
The Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish pressure group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, issued the following statement against Expelled which is the first and last word against anyone claiming that Darwinism is in any way a link to eugenics or Social Darwinism:
The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.
Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.
Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.
Steve Fuller also argued that people who support the teaching of evolution also support abortion and euthanasia on the grounds that it will lead to a better version of humanity. Again, I found this claim deeply offensive. I have recently written that I am pro-choice on the grounds that the alternative is worse. Abortion should be the last option. Prevention is better than cure. The answer is increased access to contraception and education as to its proper use. I am not in favour of abortion because it is a quick and convenient method of wiping out Down’s Syndrome.
I can think of no better way to end these posts than with this compilation by YouTube auteur, Thunderf00t, that features Stein on a Christian TV network shortly after Expelled’s release making the appalling claim that “science leads to killing people”, juxtaposed with his own delusional fantasies about America needing to start World War Three in order to protect itself against Iran and North Korea.
P Z Myers couldn’t have phrased it any better:
What a vile little man. I sincerely hope that his career is dead now … and that the rest of his life will be spent eking out speaking fees at Christian fundamentalist conventions, before audiences who will cheer him while dreaming of the day the Jews are exterminated or converted, bringing on Armageddon.
Right on, brother.
Now, a “call to arms” (in the strictly metaphorical, non-jihadist sense of the term) to all atheists, rationalists, humanists, secularists and everyone else who cares about truth in science and a proper education of school children which is free from religious dogma and presupposition: Let’s go to work.
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