Darwin vs. Hitler: Why Evolution Makes No Comment On Ethics

I have no idea how many times I have heard that the motivation for Hitler’s genocide lay at least partly in Darwinism. Ben Stein’s Expelled focused for a while on this issue and the Introduction to Ray Comfort’s abridged version of the Origin of Species argues for it as well.

darwin and hitler

Darwin’s theory of natural selection and, more broadly, the ‘theory of evolution’, does not and cannot make any comment on moral matters what so ever. If Darwin never existed Hitler would have still committed his genocide. This post is to set the record clear— which is not to say that everything below is original, just that it apparently isn’t explained as well or as often as it should be. Below are five very simple arguments

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First, the idea of ‘racial’ or group superiority has been around as long as people have been noticing there were other groups of humans on the other side of the hill. Throughout the Bible, entire families, tribes and nations of people are distinguished as separate and distinct in moral terms and punished accordingly. With specific regards to Jews in Europe, the concept of ‘blood libel’ is a centuries-old idea that has no connection with Darwin. Maybe the persecution of Shakespeare’s Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1500s, was influenced by Darwin as well?  Lastly, the idea of slavery based on the inferiority of one kind of people to another has been around for millennia with no need for Darwin or Natural Selection to justify it.

To say that Darwin influenced Hitler’s Genocide and that it would not have happened without the theory of evolution is ridiculous. Genocide and ethnic violence occurred long before Hitler and Darwin. In fact, Darwin was a major advocate for the abolition of slavery and used his theory to argue accordingly. As Darwin argued, we actually have vastly more in common than was thought before.

But let’s assume the argument is more nuanced than that. It’s now argued that Darwin provided a ‘natural’ explanation for this phenomena of superiority of one race over another… which somehow gives these beliefs a more ‘powerful’ justification for genocide. After Darwin, we can now talk about racial superiority in more scientific terms.

Next, let’s assume there is in fact a real, biological distinction buried within our genomes between one race and another, or that someday such a trait might evolve. What is this trait going to look like that will justify slavery, or even genocide? What possible trait that could vindicate an otherwise immoral act?

It can’t possibly be a trait about physical prowess. We don’t think Olympic athletes are morally better people or deserve to be authoritarian overlords. Same with any kind of mental prowess. Winning a spelling bee or scoring well on your exams doesn’t mean you can kill and enslave. What kind of trait would allow someone any kind of special moral privileges? If a race of aliens came down that were physically stronger or mentally more capable we wouldn’t just say “Oh, okay, I guess they deserve to be worshipped and to rule us”.  They might try to do so, of course, but they have no innate moral right to claim it.

The only way that natural selection ‘ranks’ organisms compared to each other is in their reproductive fitness, i.e. how many babies one leaves.  And even then the comparisons are only made among members of a species. One organism is ‘better’ than another from an evolutionary standpoint if it leaves more fertile offspring. Does mere fitness mean rape, murder and so on now become legitimate? Should we give government positions and listen to the edicts of those with the largest families?  Of course not.

Third, why is it there can be no moral inequality brought about by genomic inequality? Well, in moral philosophy there is a basic distinction between Is and Ought. Describing what a situation is like does not imply how a situation ought to be. One is descriptive while the other is prescriptive (or normative). Evolution just describes what things are like. It simply says this one being reproduces more for this or that reason. Simple and dry. It makes no statements about how things ought to be or the value of a thing or process. It is like trying to draw conclusions about whether vaccines are or are not a good thing from cell biology or germ theory. Should we build more nuclear weapons? Let’s see what nuclear physics says about how atoms interact. In both situations any possible answer is meaningless because germ theory and nuclear physics only describe the things involved. They can tell how germs spread disease or how devastating a bomb might be, which is important to know, but they can’t talk about value or recommend actions. They cannot make prescriptive statements.

Fourth, “But evolution degrades our status as humans. If we’re all just animals then why not act like animals?” Again, this is simply trying to draw a moral statement about actions and values from a descriptive statement. All the important characteristics and beliefs about what we are and should do remain the same. We make moral statements about value not from where something came from but from what it is. Pain will still hurt as much, love will still feel as beautiful, art and music will be just as exhilarating or calming as they were before – even if it turns out millions of years ago humans evolved from lower primates. Next time someone points out “Your father was a monkey, why not act like a monkey?” simply respond, “because I have no reason to”.  You’re a homo sapien, find out and then act like a homo sapien.

Fifth, Hitler banned Darwin’s books.  Check it out HERE or HERE.

Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University)
DSC_0484Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc.  Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.

3 responses to “Darwin vs. Hitler: Why Evolution Makes No Comment On Ethics

  1. Very interesting – have you ever heard of Harun Yahya? He wrote Atlas of Creation, and links Darwinian Evolution to the Nazi regime, stating that Hitler was motivated by Darwin’s theory (seems very unlikely given that he banned Darwin’s books, and it is well documented that Hitler was in fact a creationist). It’s a ridiculous argument, and even if true it does not comment on the theory of evolution, which as you quite rightly say makes no comment on ethics.
    Just one other point – you mention that there is no real biological difference between races, which is true but for a tiny fraction of our genomes, however there has been some research done into the biological reasons for racism; it is less to do with our DNA and more to do with our evolution as tribal groups. It seems it may have been advantageous for us to discriminate our own tribal members from others, and breed only with those in our own or ‘ally’ tribes, as opposed to ‘foreign’ ones. This is just a theory, but it could go a long way to explaining the phenomenon of racism. Of course, it is no excuse for modern racist behaviour, but could be the biological underpinning of it.

    Sorry for the long comment – really enjoyed reading this.

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    • I definitely agree. Both about Yahya, who I have heard of, and the tribalism bit.

      Concerning evolution and tribalism the jury is in that we have strong biases toward social categorization and essentializing arbitrary aspects of groups. There is also a good reason to suppose natural selection has picked up on early survival value of this tendency. Btu again, like you say, this fact makes no comment on whether we should actively stereotype other groups. Learning that we naturally tend to do something doesn’t justify doing it.

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