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Can Darwinists Condemn Hitler and Remain Consistent with Their Darwinism?

When the Philadelphia Inquirer's science writer Faye Flam interviewed me recently for her article "Severing the Link Between Darwin and Nazism," she pressed me to discuss the implications of the Darwinism-Nazism connection that my scholarship has explored (especially in my two books, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress). I threw down the gauntlet to many of my Darwinian opponents by telling her that if Darwinism is indeed a purposeless, non-teleological process, as many evolutionists and biology textbooks proclaim, and if morality is the product of these mindless evolutionary processes, as Darwin and many other prominent Darwinists maintain, then "I don't think [they] have any grounds to criticize Hitler."

According to Flam, these are "fighting words." However, I have spoken with intelligent Darwinists who admit point-blank that they do not have any grounds to condemn Hitler, so I am not just making this up. Many evolutionists believe that since evolution explains the origin of morality -- as Darwin himself argued -- then there is no objective morality. The famous evolutionary biologist and founder of sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, and the prominent philosopher of science Michael Ruse co-authored an article on evolutionary ethics in which they asserted, "Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate."

This is obviously not an undisputed point among Darwinists, but it is a position embraced by many leading Darwinists, and it does seem to reflect Darwin's own position. If indeed ethics is an illusion, merely the product of mindless, purposeless processes, it is hard to see what basis Darwinists could have to condemn Hitler morally. Indeed, on several occasions I have asked those committed to the evolutionary origins of morality about the implications of their views: "Can you say then that Hitler is objectively evil or not?" Usually, they reluctantly admit to me that they have no objective basis to condemn Hitler or any other purveyors of atrocities.

Flam, however, tries to take a different approach. First, she seems to imply that since we don't suppose that Galileo or Newton or Einstein should provide us with any moral guidance, neither should we expect it from Darwin. However, she (like many other Darwinists I've talked with) fails to make a crucial distinction here. Most scientists, including Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, did not ever claim to explain anything about morality. Einstein correctly rejected the idea that his theory of relativity had moral implications. On the other hand, Darwin devoted quite a few pages of Descent of Man to explaining the evolutionary origins of morality. Applying Darwinian insights to morality is not distorting the theory at all (as it would be for someone to draw moral implications from relativity theory). Rather, it is explicitly part and parcel of Darwin's own theory of human evolution.

Secondly, she argues that "Darwin himself wrote that violence, selfishness, charity, and goodwill are all part of human nature. He hoped that we would choose to act on the better parts." Wait a minute. Where did this notion of "better" come from? If Flam is taking a fully naturalistic Darwinian perspective, as she seems to be, with evolution being a purposeless, non-teleological process, why does she think that charity and goodwill are any "better" than violence and selfishness. (I do sincerely hope that she was implying that these are the "better" traits.) According to the Darwinian account of the origin of morality, all these character traits allegedly helped humans adapt to their present environment in the struggle for existence. All of these are "natural" behaviors, as are genocide, rape, murder, and theft, or honesty, self-sacrifice, and altruism. What arbitrates between these behaviors? Who can say that any of these behaviors are "better" than any others?

Darwin understood this point, for in Descent of Man he claimed,

If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.
To natural selection killing your siblings and offspring is all the same as loving them. Selection only favors what works to enhance survival and reproduction, and it does not matter if it is nice and moral, or harsh and brutal.

This view persists among Darwinists today. In 2009 at an academic conference on the history of Darwinism at San Diego State University, Baba Brinkman performed rap songs on evolutionary themes that he had been commissioned to write and perform for the Darwin celebrations in Britain earlier that year. Between songs he reminded us that in some species females kill their mates after procreating. Brinkman then stated that it is only chance -- like the flip of a coin, he said -- that our own species did not evolve such a behavior. If we had, he claimed, our moral systems and religions would revolve around females killing their mates.

Darwin explained in his Autobiography that his rule of life is "only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones." He hastened to add that the strongest instincts are the social instincts. He thought his strongest instinct led to the moral maxim to love your neighbor as yourself. However, Hitler thought his instincts told him to love fellow Germans and hate the Jews, whom he considered repugnant. If both Darwin's and Hitler's instincts were produced by chance processes, how can Flam call one of them "better"? Both are part of the cosmos as it exists, and as far as I can tell Flam has no moral fulcrum to pronounce one superior to the other. By insisting that some are better than others, however, Flam is drawing on resources her worldview does not have on offer. She is assuming an objective morality that she wants simultaneously to deny.

Flam's third response is plagued with the same problem. She concludes her article by asking, "If our lives really did hinge on countless accidents, couldn't that notion make life ever more precious?" Again, she is smuggling ideas into her argument that are fundamentally incompatible with her worldview. "Precious" implies that something has value, meaning, and significance; indeed it means that something has more value than other things. However, a naturalistic understanding of Darwinism cannot sustain the notion that life is precious, because everything, not just life, is the product of chance and would be equally valuable, making life no more precious than anything else in the cosmos. A lump of coal or a dung heap is every bit as much the product of countless accidents as you are. Does that make them precious? Many Darwinists today, such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, reject the idea that human life is special and has any meaning or purpose.

I'm happy, of course, that Flam thinks that charity and goodwill are better than violence and selfishness. I'm also glad that she thinks human life is precious. Her inconsistency rescues her from the nihilism implicit in her worldview. I much prefer such inconsistency to those who follow their nihilistic ideas with ruthless consistency. However, it would be even nicer if she were to embrace Christianity, which actually provides us with reasons to believe that human life has value, that loving your neighbors is superior to hating them, that acts of kindness are superior to acts of violence, and that Hitler was objectively evil. Then she would have a real reason to condemn Hitler. "I don't like Hitler because my evolved instincts run contrary to his" just doesn't cut it.