Thursday, August 14, 2008

Matt 24 Watch, 65: Some nearly forgotten Lessons from History -- Darwin, Hitler and the Holocaust

Early this year, Ben Stein released his documentary film on academic persecution of the Intelligent Design movement in the United States, Expelled.

In May this year, Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary in a world in which many now routinely compare and in some cases even openly equate the Jews of Israel to the Nazis. This November, Americans will go to the polls to elect a new President in the midst of multiplied concerns on global warming, a controversial global war on terrorism and fears of economic chaos. Next February 9th, many will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin.

The four events are subtly but deeply interconnected in many ways, and they are pregnant with lessons for us here in the Caribbean as we move deeper into the 21st Christian Century. (This, in turn brings to mind George Santayana's cutting observation that history teaches two key lessons: first, those who refuse to learn from it are doomed to repeat its worst chapters; second, by and large we refuse to learn from it.)

The key connexion lies in the line from Darwin to Hitler, which is (understandably) sharply contested by many enthusiasts of Darwin.

Indeed, it is now a principal -- and in some cases intentionally distracting -- objection to the movie, Expelled, that it was dishonest to draw such a line of historical influences. (This is related to the so-called Godwin's Law, by which anyone who draws a parallel from Hitler to a current situation may be dismissed as outside the pale of civil discussion.) But, while there are of course always going to be inappropriate parallels drawn as a way to smear opponents -- such as the easy equation of the Zionists and the Nazis that is now all too commonly seen -- Santayana reminds us that sometimes, history does have some sharp and perhaps painfully pointed lessons to teach us.

Lessons we forget at our peril.

So, let us begin with Chapter 6 of Darwin's second major book, the 1871 Descent of Man, in which he drew out the ways in which the theory of evolution he laid out in the epochal 1859 Origin of Species, applied to man. In short, after he and his allies had won the general scientific debate (and, debate is about persuasion, not necessarily proof . . . ) he now spoke to the implications for us of the now increasingly dominant theory and its associated worldview. So, let us now excerpt and emphasise:

Man is liable to numerous, slight, and diversified variations, which are induced by the same general causes, are governed and transmitted in accordance with the same general laws, as in the lower animals. Man has multiplied so rapidly, that he has necessarily been exposed to struggle for existence, and consequently to natural selection. He has given rise to many races, some of which differ so much from each other, that they have often been ranked by naturalists as distinct species . . . .

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro
or Australian and the gorilla.
Thus, the following excerpt from a now somewhat notorious letter of July 3, 1881 to a certain Mr William Graham, is not to be dismissed as a tossed off, momentary, ill-considered thought:

I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago, of being overwhelmed by the Turk, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.
In short, Darwin, plainly, was a foundational Social Darwinist, and coolly drew out -- without serious compunction -- that his theory explained and predicted genocide between the diverse races/species of man, as a way by which more or less “natural” selection would work to improve the human race.

This gives very pointed focus to the fact that it was Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, who, impressed by the theory of evolution and its implications, pioneered the eugenics movement. Indeed, in the next generation, Darwin's son Leonard, led the movement. This is in itself troubling, as the modern Social Darwinism-based eugenics movement has been associated with serious abuses such as racist targetting of “inferior” breeds, groups and classes of man to be reduced or eliminated, and with giving “scientific” credibility to racial and social discrimination.

Generally, such now discredited ideas are often viewed as illegitimate extensions of the science, but in light of evidence such as the above, we can no longer accept such attempts to distance Darwin from such extensions of his thought.

Things get worse, sadly worse, when we look at a key passage from Chapter XI of Hitler's notorious Mein Kampf (which I refuse to link):

Any crossing of two beings not at exactly the same level produces a medium between the level of the two parents . . . 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 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 . . . .

In the struggle for daily bread all those who are weak and sickly or less determined succumb, while the struggle of the males for the female grants the right or opportunity to propagate only to the healthiest. [That is, Darwinian sexual selection.] And struggle is always a means for improving a species’ health and power of resistance and, therefore, a cause of its higher development.

If the process were different, all further and higher development would cease and the opposite would occur. For, since the inferior always predominates numerically over the best [NB: this is a theme in Darwin's discussion of the Irish, the Scots and the English in Descent], if both had the same possibility of preserving life and propagating, the inferior would multiply so much more rapidly that in the end the best would inevitably be driven into the background, unless a correction of this state of affairs were undertaken. Nature does just this by subjecting the weaker part to such severe living conditions that by them alone the number is limited, and by not permitting the remainder to increase promiscuously, but making a new and ruthless choice according to strength and health . . .
Some have objected that [a] Hitler's racism was more rooted in, say, Luther's vitriolic antisemitism than in Darwin's theories, [b] that he was a Creationist (and even a Christian) not a Darwinist, and [c] that he was extending animal breeding principles to humanity. They have therefore suggested that it is incorrect, improper and even dishonest to draw out any causal or historical links from Darwin to Hitler.

But in fact, it is quite clear that Hitler was no Christian (propagandistic stump speeches notwithstanding), and that in the above he is drawing out his ideas from Darwin's ideas of natural and sexual selection in the struggle for existence and the resulting preservation of favoured races in that struggle [this last is actually the subtitle for Origin!], not from the Creation-anchored ethics of the Bible.

Also, while Luther and other Christians who indulged in vitriolic anti-semitism have no excuse (and helped set up a climate in which men like Hitler would gain a hearing), such a view of Jews can find no biblical warrant. Indeed, we must never forget that our Saviour, as touching his human descent was a Son of David!

Also, it is often overlooked that by the 1920's to 30's Germany had long been in a state of increasing apostasy under the impact of highly destructive hyperskeptical Bible criticism, so much so that by the 1840's Marx had observed, following Fuerbach, that criticism of religion was the premise of all criticism, and that in Germany, that criticism was largely complete.

A decade before that, Heinrich Heine in the conclusion to his Religion and Philosophy in Germany, prophesied chillingly as follows:

Christianity — and that is its greatest merit — has somewhat mitigated that brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered [the Swastika, visually, is a twisted, broken cross . . .], the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. …

The old stone gods will then rise from long ruins and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and Thor will leap to life with his giant hammer and smash the Gothic cathedrals. …

… Do not smile at my advice — the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder … comes rolling somewhat slowly, but … its crash … will be unlike anything before in the history of the world. …

At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in farthest Africa will draw in their tails and slink away. … A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll. [HT: Commenter, Tribune7 at UD.]
Further to this, we must note the grim implications of how Hitler in Mein Kampf hints at the premise that the more advanced races/species of man should in his view act, as the fox to the goose, or the cat to the mouse. The way this echoes and amplifies ideas already present in Darwin's corpus, and foreshadows the sad events of the 1930's and 40's, should give us pause.

All this, of course, also reeks of Nietzsche's will to power ethics, the associated idea that might makes right, and that philosopher's notorious contempt for the Christian ethics of compassion and protection of the weak. Thus, we may quote a key cite from Nietzsche's posthumous Will to Power:

The biblical prohibition "Thou shalt not kill" is a piece of naïveté compared with the seriousness of Life's own "Thou shalt not" issued to decadence: "Thou shalt not procreate!" —Life itself recognizes no solidarity, no "equal right," between the healthy and the degenerate parts of an organism… . Sympathy for the decadents, equal rights for the ill-constituted—that would be the profoundest immorality, that would be anti-nature itself as morality!
The direct echo of the struggle for existence ethics above is plain.

What a contrast do we find to say Richard Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, which Locke cites as a key authority in his second essay on civil government, Ch 2 Section 5, to ground principles of natural law based rights and justice:

. . . if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man's hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire which is undoubtedly in other men . . . my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant.
So, we must first understand the implications of moving away from anchoring our view of man in our sharing in the common image of God our Creator, to the Darwin-inspired image of the ape.

Therefore, as we move towards the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, we plainly need a more objective appraisal of his ideas and their consequences.

The onward link of the above to the postwar UN Mandate to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and the resulting Arab invasion of Israel (on a declared intent to wipe the Jews out) and resulting survival of Israel, refugee crises -- both Arab and Jewish -- and struggle to this day are also in many ways fairly obvious. For, while there is not an explicit Darwinian component, it is plain that a world shocked by what antisemitism led to, was for a few years far more inclined to hear the plea of the Jews and other oppressed peoples than has historically usually been the case. Indeed, this is a key root of the movement towards national independence across the world in recent decades.

The links to the current US election cycle lie in a less well known story, that of the rise of Hitler as a messianic political leader in an era of chaos, confusion and painful struggle to survive.

For, in the aftermath of the First World War, a defeated, demoralised Germany was in chaos. By 1923, it had seen a major Red uprising [e.g. the Spartacists of 1918 – 19], an attempted Nazi putsch, and hyperinflation that destroyed its currency and wiped out the savings of the middle classes. Private armies of the left and the right stalked its streets, and the military became dependent on one of these private armies, the Brownshirts or the SA, for the required reserve in the face of especially the Red threat. So, as the 1930's dawned, the Nazi party and its semi-autonomous SA were the largest single bloc in the much divided Reichstag and the key unofficial manpower base the Versailles Treaty-limited army would have to count on in time of peril. So, the fatal “lesser of evils” compromise was struck, in which a coalition between the Nazis and parties of the right was made, and Hitler was given the Chancellorship, despite the concerns of many that he was little more than a dangerous guttersnipe and ruthlessly manipulative charismatic demagogue. (Indeed, the aging President Hindenberg refused to see him except in the presence of a more “acceptable” Minister.)

In short order a half-mad Dutch Communist youth burned the Reichstag in an ill-considered act of protest, and Hindenberg died. Hitler took advantage of the first to ram through an Enabling Act that gave him power to rule by decree in the face of the crisis. After the second, he in effect unofficially took over the reins of the Presidency in addition to the Chancellorship. His economic policies began to restore prosperity, and his repudiation of the Versailles Treaty received widespread acclamation.

But then, on the excuse [based on false information] that the SA was plotting to seize power, a bloody “counter-coup” was launched, and Germany suddenly found itself in the grips of a demonic, ruthless dictator. The rest, as we may say, is history: 60 millions dead and a devastated continent worth of history.

History that should serve to warn us that if our region walks away from the Biblically anchored understanding that we are all made in God's image and so we all have a duty of neighbour love to one another that leads to justice and caring, it may have terrible consequences. Similarly, we must remember that the “lesser” of two evils may be utterly destructive, so we must insist that those who we support for high office, even in times of crisis, must be men ands women of highest character and proved track record. Third, political messianism and associated blind following of political leaders, is an utterly wicked and destructive idolatry. Fourth, as Romans 13:8 - 10 warns, politics cannot safely exempt itself from the basic civil duties of justice and decency. Fifth, we must realise that not all that calls itself “Science” or based thereupon is either right, or beneficial. Finally, in this hi tech, scientific age, we need to look very, very soberly at the implications of the still rising tide of evolutionary materialism -- which likes to view itself as “science” -- in our culture.

So, God willing, let us take a little time to further explore such themes. END


F/N: KF Blog sub-Series on the Holocaust and its history of ideas roots, Mt 24 W 65, 66 [note the significance of the 3 million non-Jewish Polish victims],  67, 68; cf also video lecture here.


hugh said...

Hey Gordon, great work... I have a slightly adjusted view but I need to articulate it properly befoire I share. Considering man's ability to warp God's designs, I believe the ideas and the questions raised by Darwin's pure observations of nature are good ones... his deductions and projections, those I consider separately. It is possible for one to be sound and the other unsound. That complicates things but that's how "messy" is.

Gordon said...

Hi Hugh


Note above though that Darwin was one of the first to draw out of his theories some sobering implications for humanity.

On theory proper, NDT works at micro level but runs into serious challenges once we ask about empirical evidence to support origination of body plans.