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Bioethicist Art Caplan: The Darwin-Hitler claim is a form of “Holocaust denial”

I knew there was a reason why I like bioethicist Art Caplan.

Leave it to him not to be afraid not only to wander a bit afield of medicine than usual but also to call it as he sees it, mainly his argument for why Expelled! and its claim that “Darwinism” led directly to the Holocaust is not only historically incorrect but a form of Holocaust denial. I don’t quite agree with him, but he makes a compelling argument:

The movie seeks to explain why, as a matter of freedom of speech, intelligent design should be taught in America’s science classrooms and presented in America’s publicly funded science museums. But what is really on display in this film is a toxic mishmash of persecution fantasies, disconnected and inappropriate references to fallen communist regimes and their leaders and a very repugnant form of Holocaust denial from the monotone big mouth Ben Stein.

Caplan explains:

The core of the movie consists of a sequence in which Stein visits the former German psychiatric hospital at Hadamar where the mass sterilization and murder techniques were first perfected that were later to be used in the concentration camps. Then Ben heads to Dachau, the first concentration camp, where 35,000 people died. These excursions are followed by a visit to Down House, Charles Darwin’s country home outside of London where Ben looks warily at the memorabilia of Darwin’s scientific work that led him to posit the theory of evolution. Stein finishes this sequence by bravely visiting a statue of Darwin where he stares the long deceased now marbleized evil-doer down while making it clear who is directly to blame for Hitler, the sterilization of tens of thousands of German children, the death of 6 million Jews and the deaths of countless other millions of victims of Nazism and those who died fighting the Nazi regime.

This frighteningly immoral narrative is capped off with a lot of shots of the Berlin Wall, old stock footage of East German police kicking around those trying to escape through the wall to the West and some solemn blather by Ben, who calls upon each one of us to rise up in defense of freedom and knock down a few walls in order to get creationism back into the curriculum at Iowa State, Baylor, and other dens of American secular iniquity.

This is the core of what is ethically rotten about this movie. Darwinism did not lead to Nazism in Germany. Nor does Darwinism inherently contain the seeds of Nazism.

There were many nations, such as Brazil, where Darwinism led to no political ideology. There were some such as Britain which embraced Darwinism but saw a considerable number of their population killed trying to eliminate Nazism. There were other nations, such as the Soviet Union, where Darwinism was seen as so dangerous and subversive to state sponsored dreams of social engineering that those who espoused it were killed or exiled and a complete biological fairy tale, Lysenkoism, put into classrooms and agricultural policy ultimately leading to the deaths of millions from starvation.

And there were some nations where Darwinism was greeted with glee because it seemed so compatible with the prevailing ideology of the day. In particular the United States at the turn of the 20th century where robber-baron capitalists like the Carnegies, Mellons, Sumners, Stanfords and yes, even Jack London, could not stop rattling on about how the “survival of the fittest” justified crushing unions, exploiting immigrant labor or being left unregulated to amass huge fortunes while administering monopolies.

Ben Stein apparently understands none of this. He flags Darwin but does not bother to go and stare at the busts of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Ernst Haeckel, Thomas Malthus so much beloved by American proponents of survival of the fittest.


To lay blame for the Holocaust upon Charles Darwin is to engage in a form of Holocaust denial that should forever make Ben Stein the subject of scorn not because of his nudnik concern that evolution somehow undermines morality but because in this contemptible movie he is willing to subvert the key reason why the Holocaust took place — racism — to serve his own ideological end. Expelled indeed.

Read the whole thing.

Sadly, Ben Stein’s not alone. David Klinghoffer, fellow at the Discovery Institute, recently dropped this drippy, stinking turd about the supposed connection between “Darwinism” and the Holocaust that is so despicable, so outrageous, that it’s hard for me even to write about it as he begins with a single sentence:

Hitler understood something about Judaism that even many Jews today don’t grasp.

I mention this because you’re soon going to be hearing a lot about a new movie, Expelled, which understands something about Hitler that, in turn, many Jews and non-Jews don’t or don’t want to understand.

I want you to stop and think about that for a moment. I have seen this very sentiment expressed on many a white supremacist website: That Hitler understood something about the Jews and Judaism that no one else, not even the Jews, did. Does Klinghoffer even know or care what Hitler “understood” about Judaism and the Jews? Here’s a sampling of what Hitler “understood” about the Jews. To Hitler, the Jews were a “cancer” or an “infection” that had to be extirpated from the German nation. He “understood” them to be greedy bankers who controlled the money supply, strangling Germany economically; to be “depraved” and responsible for what he saw as the “degeneration” of German culture during the Weimar Republic; and as completely alien to German culture. In short, Hitler “understood” Jews and Judaism as nothing more than an implacable enemy of Germany that must be removed by any means necessary and/or destroyed utterly. What he “understood” about Judaism was in essence The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as justification for what he saw as pre-emptive genocide to purify the German volk of what he viewed as a malign influence that would destroy it.

That’s what Hitler “understood” about the Jews and Judaism.

Come to think of it, Ben Stein and the makers of Expelled!, not to mention Klinghoffer, understand evolution about as well as Hitler understood Judaism. The rest of his vile article is argument enough for this point.

So what was it that Hitler supposedly “understood” about the Judaism that even the Jews don’t understand, according to Klinghoffer? I almost can’t read this without wanting to vomit, but this is what Klinghoffer argues:

A gentle soul, Darwin himself never advocated genocide. But in The Descent of Man, he predicted that the logic of natural selection made inevitable something like what Hitler attempted against the Jews:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”

What you would not readily foresee from reading Darwin’s writings is that the race requiring extermination would turn out to be us Jews. But Hitler perceived an inner logic in Darwinism that even Charles Darwin didn’t.

In the same chapter of Mein Kampf where the Darwinist flavor is most pronounced – Chapter XI, “Nation and Race” – Hitler comments that while his philosophical outlook is based on respecting Nature’s laws, the Jews with their “effrontery” say the opposite: that “Man’s role is to overcome Nature!”

Hitler notes with disgust that, “Millions thoughtlessly parrot this Jewish nonsense and end up by really imagining that they themselves represent a kind of conqueror of Nature.”

There is, in other words, a Darwinian case for seeing the Jews as the ultimate Enemy. Darwin’s portrait of reality in his books is one where Nature determines all. In The Descent of Man, he explains that even our morality is a product of natural selection just like everything else about us.

The Jews, Hitler wrote, defy nature and call others to do so. This is the characteristic “Jewish nonsense.”

This doesn’t even make sense on a most superficial level. Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews because they had the effrontery to believe that “Man’s role is to overcome nature”? That’s a belief that is not just based in Judaism; Christian doctrine is based on Judaism, and the line about “giving Man dominion” over nature is far more likely to be cited by a Christian than Jews. There’s also more than ample evidence to link the anti-Semitism that drove Hitler to mass murder on an industrial scale to Christian beliefs. (Read some of Martin Luther’s thoughts on the Jews sometime. They aren’t pretty.) Just because Hitler used the supposedly Jewish desire to “dominate nature” as one of his justifications for exterminating the Jews does not mean that he had any insight into biology or “nature’s laws.” In fact, Hitler’s understanding of how “nature” works is most definitely as flawed as that of any creationist, as a wider quoting of the chapter of Mein Kampf to which Klinghoffer refers readily demonstrates:

Thus men without exception wander about in the garden of Nature; they imagine that they know practically everything and yet with few exceptions pass blindly by one of the most patent principles of Nature’s rule: the inner segregation of the species of all living beings on this earth.

Even the most superficial observation shows that Nature’s restricted form of propagation and increase is an almost rigid basic law of all the innumerable forms of expression of her vital urge. Every animal mates only with a member of the same species. The titmouse seeks the titmouse, the finch the finch, the stork the stork, the field mouse the field mouse, the dormouse the dormouse, the wolf the she-wolf, etc.
Only unusual circumstances can change this, primarily the compulsion of captivity or any other cause that makes it impossible to mate within the same species. But then Nature begins to resist this with all possible means, and her most visible protest consists either in refusing further capacity for propagation to bastards or in limiting the fertility of later offspring; in most cases, however, she takes away the power of resistance to disease or hostile attacks.

No wonder creationists like to quote Hitler so much to try to smear their hated “Darwinism” with the association. Hitler’s understanding of biology was as bad as theirs. I trust that anyone with a knowledge of biology and evolution can spot the ignorance of biology, evolution, and, yes, even “Darwinism” in the above passage. Nothing in “Darwinism” claims that members of different species must mate with each other, and Hitler seems hopelessly confused about the definition of “species,” confusing it with race. Indeed, Hitler seems to conflate the two, as the next passage clearly shows:

Any crossing of two beings not at exactly the same level produces a medium between the level of the two parents. This means: the offspring will probably stand higher than the racially lower parent, but not as high as the higher one. Consequently, it will later succumb in the struggle against the higher level. Such mating is contrary to the will of Nature for a higher breeding of all life. The precondition for this does not lie in associating superior and inferior, but in the total victory of the former. The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness. Only the born weakling can view this as cruel, but he after all is only a weak and limited man; for if this law did not prevail, any conceivable higher development of organic living beings would be unthinkable.

The consequence of this racial purity, universally valid in Nature, is not only the sharp outward delimitation of the various races, but their uniform character in themselves. The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose, the tiger a tiger, etc., and the difference can lie at most in the varying measure of force, strength, intelligence, dexterity, endurance, etc., of the individual specimens. But you will never find a fox who in his inner attitude might, for example, show humanitarian tendencies toward geese, as similarly there is no cat with a friendly inclination toward mice.

Later in that same chapter, Hitler writes at great, pontificating length (as was his habit) about how the “Aryan” race is the “founder of culture” and superior, another conclusion that nothing in “Darwinism” leads to. In any event, nothing in evolutionary theory makes a value judgment of what is “superior” or “inferior.” There are only traits that make an organism more adapted or less adapted to survive in its environment. These do not have to be strength, intelligence, dexterity, or endurance. None of these traits are inherently “superior” or “inferior” either. A trait that makes an organism less likely to survive in one environment could just as well be advantageous in a different environment. In other words, Hitler had no clue about how evolution works, and, as I’ve been saying all along, there is nothing inherent in Darwin’s theory that demands genocide or eugenics. Rather, it is the twisted interpretations of individuals like Hitler that inferred genocide and eugenics from Darwin’s theory when neither are inevitable consequences of it. Indeed, even if they were, it would not invalidate the scientific validity of evolutionary theory any more than the atom bomb invalidates quantum theory or Einstein’s theory of relativity that made its development possible or that Hitler liked to invoke Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur as a justification for his Jew-hatred invalidates the germ theory of disease.

Reading over Klinghoffer’s mind-bogglingly stupid and offensive attempt to link Darwinism and the Holocaust, I can’t help but wonder if it’s in reality an incredibly clever satire of the creationist love of argumentum ad Nazium with respect to evolution, but then I remember that it’s a Discovery Institute fellow I’m talking about. His writings are so brain-dead that they can’t be parodied without being mistaken for the real thing, according to Poe’s Law. Between Ben Stein and David Klinghoffer, the stupid burns so brightly that it threatens to go supernova, obliterating the entire solar system. Truly, no Stupid-O-Meter can be set high enough to match what this not-so-dynamic duo of intellectual dishonesty can achieve without breaking a sweat.

Coming back to Art Caplan’s arguments, although I agree with him that this dishonest constant attempt by creationists to paint Hitler as an inevitable consequence of Darwinism is a lie and inherently immoral in its intent and content, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to characterize it as “Holocaust denial.” It is true that by blaming Darwin Klinghoffer, Stein, and their ilk are in essence denying the true causes of the Holocaust, but they do not deny that the Holocaust happened or attempt to minimize the death toll, as real Holocaust deniers do. There’s a substantive difference between the two, and equating them actually weakens Caplan’s argument. Indeed, Stein and Klinghoffer would probably have preferred it if even more people had died at Hitler’s hands during the Holocaust. A higher death toll would have provided them with just that many more murdered victims that they could dishonestly place at Charles Darwin’s doorstep.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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