Whitewashing Darwinism's Ongoing Moral Legacy
Is it somehow petty, offensive, exploitative, and beyond the pale to point out how the Holocaust Memorial Museum shooter, who murdered a guard on Wednesday, writes about evolution in his sick manifesto? Should it be considered beneath one's dignity to quote the man and let his words speak for themselves?
James von Brunn, the suspect in question, is a white supremacist, a bitter anti-Semite, a Holocaust-denier, a wacked out conspiracy theorist, who served more than 6 years in a federal prison for attempted kidnapping. All this is fair game to report. Everyone agrees to that. But the fact that he writes of "Natural Law: the species are improved through in-breeding, natural selection and mutation. Only the strong survive. Cross-breeding Whites with species lower on the evolutionary scale diminishes the White gene-pool" -- that's somehow inappropriate to note in public?
That seems to be the message from the media, which has ignored the fact, and from some readers who have responded to my blog on the subject. I realize the topic is uncomfortable for all sides in the evolution debate. So let's try to step back and consider this rationally.
It's historically undeniable that Darwinian thinking forms a thread linking some of the most reprehensible social movements of the past 150 years. I and many other people, including professional historians (which I'm not), have written about this repeatedly and from many different angles. By all means check out my own most recent contributions on the theme of "Darwin's Tree of Death."
From Darwin's own musings on the logic of genocide, to his cousin Francis Galton's influential advocacy of eugenics, to the Darwin/monkey statuette on Lenin's desk, to Hitler's Mein Kampf with its evolutionary theme, to the biology textbook at the center of the Scopes trial that advocated racism and eugenics, to the modern eugenics movement right here in the U.S., to recent school shootings in which the student murderers invoked natural selection, to yesterday's tragedy at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and much more along the way -- the thread is persistent, if widely ignored.
Should it be ignored? No, it shouldn't. I will give you an analogy. Our culture is very comfortable reminding us often of atrocities committed in the name of religion -- whether it's the Crusades, the Inquisition, or 9/11. Ironically, the day of the Holocaust Museum shooting, an interesting new Jewish web magazine, Tablet, published a fascinating scholarly essay by Paula Fredriksen about how under the Nazis, some German theologians tried to fit Jesus into a Nazi mold. They drew on anti-Jewish writings widely available in Christian tradition.
Is it "beyond the pale" to point this out? No, of course not. So what's the difference? I would say it's not only appropriate to document the dark side of religion. It's necessary. The Anti-Defamation League commented on the Holocaust Museum shooting, pointing to this "reminder that words of hate matter, that we can never afford to ignore hate because words of hate can easily become acts of hate, no matter the place, no matter the age of the hatemonger."
Exactly. It's also the case that ideas have consequences and knowing those consequences can rightly prompt us to look with renewed skepticism at a given idea, whether religious or scientific. 9/11 was a good reason to go back and take a second look at Islam. Not to reject it, but to consider it critically. The Crusades are a good reason to do the same with Christianity. Not to reject it, but to think twice. That's all.
Why would the incredibly popular and influential work called Mein Kampf not be a reason to think twice about Darwinism? Not to reject it, but to get yourself properly informed and make up your own mind rather than simply go along with the prestige culture and media view.
The legacy of Mein Kampf included the murder of 6 million Jews. As Richard Weikart meticulously documents in From Darwin to Hitler, Hitler's book was part of a stream of intellectual influence that began with Darwin and continued through to Hitler. It's with us today and it played a part in the demented thinking of James von Brunn, "a peripheral but well-respected figure among American white supremacists," as the ADL notes.
If you want a good chill, Google the phrase "natural selection" as it appears on the popular neo-Nazi website Stormfront.org. Here, I've done it for you.
It doesn't negate the point to remind me that Hitler put his own wicked spin on kindly Charles Darwin's words, one that Darwin himself would absolutely repudiate. Nor that evolutionists like James von Brunn have a crude grasp of evolutionary theory. Nor that today's evolutionary scientists, unlike their fairly recent predecessors, do not truck with racism (though some certainly do truck with anti-religious agitation, reserving special venom for the God of the Hebrew Bible).
All these same things could be said about religion-based haters of today and centuries past. They too distort their tradition. Yet they emerge from it, and so, again, that's a sound reason to give a second, skeptical look to the relevant religious traditions.
What's not reasonable is to give Darwinism's social influence a special pass, forbidding any mention of it as somehow out of bounds. Very far from reasonable indeed, it's nothing less than a cover-up.