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Hitler & Eugenics


Expelled’s inflammatory implication that Darwin and the science of evolution “led to” eugenics, Nazis, and Stalinism is deeply offensive and detrimental to public discussion and understanding of science, religion, and history.

The Claim

“Darwinism” “led to” Nazism, the Holocaust, and other heinous historical events.

The Facts

Since the 1920s, a narrow group of Christians who rejected the modernizing changes made by mainstream Protestants, have wrongly tried to blame evolution for what they see as the ills of modern society. World War I, atheism, and communism have all been attributed to evolution. After World War II, this narrow group added Nazism and Fascism to the horrors supposedly caused by evolution. Such claims occur in the writings of the young-earth creationist Henry M. Morris, a founder of the modern creation science movement, and have been repeated by “intelligent design” promoters and creationist Christian organizations such as Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and Coral Ridge Ministries.

Understanding the history of Nazi Germany and how the Holocaust could happen is obviously a very serious, and, in an era when ethnic cleansing and genocide are resurgent, a critically important subject. The public interest is not well-served by the efforts of sectarian groups to advance their own narrow agendas through distorted and simplistic explanations of horrific events.

Any serious attempt to understand the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1920s would consider the devastation suffered by all of the belligerent countries in World War I, especially Germany, and the resulting deep political, social, and economic crisis in that country. The huge military losses (more than 2 million soldiers killed), the extraordinary number of civilian casualties, the fragmentation of German politics, the economic consequences of reparations Germany was required to pay to the war’s victors, the intensification of nationalism, and the exploitation of deeply rooted anti-Semitism are some of the factors that a serious history would address.

Anti-Semitic violence against Jews can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages at least, 7 centuries before Darwin. As Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the aftermath of World War I, they distorted and abused anything they could in their despicable campaigns to foment hatred of Jews and others they stigmatized as “asocial” or “outside society.” The Nazis appropriated language and concepts from many sources, including evolution, genetics, medicine (especially the germ theory of disease), and anthropology as propaganda tools to promote their perverted ideology of “racial purity.”

On April 29, 2008, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued this statement about Expelled:

The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.
Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler’s genocidal madness.

The ADL press release also said, “Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.”

The Claim

Evolutionary biology leads to eugenics

The Facts

Expelled erroneously implies that the theory of evolution necessarily “leads to” eugenics. While some geneticists were supporters of eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement drew on support from many sources. As the United Methodist Church recently stated in an apology for its support for eugenics:

Ironically, as the Eugenics movement came to the United States, the churches, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced it. Methodist churches around the country promoted the American Eugenics Society “Fitter Family Contests” wherein the fittest families were invariably fair skinned and well off. Methodist bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics. Unlike the battles over evolution and creationism, both conservative and progressive church leaders endorsed eugenics.

Opposition came from many quarters as well; some clergy, secular critics, and scientists spoke out against eugenics on social and scientific grounds. Clarence Darrow, famous for defending the teaching of human evolution in the 1925 Scopes trial, wrote this 1926 in a scathing repudiation of eugenics called “The Eugenics Cult”:

We have neither facts nor theories to give us any evidence based on biology or any other branch of science as to how we could breed intelligence, happiness, or anything else that would improve the race. We have no idea of the meaning of the word “improvement.” We can imagine no human organization we could trust with the job, even if eugenists [sic] knew what should be done and the proper way to do it. (Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult.” The American Mercury vol VIII, June 1926, p. 137)

Darrow concluded his article by writing:

Amongst the schemes for remolding society this is the most senseless and impudent that has ever been put forward by irresponsible fanatics to plague a long-suffering race. (Clarence Darrow, “The American Mercury” vol VIII, June 1926, p. 137)

By the 1930s, scientific support for eugenics continued to wane in the United States as it became clear that human genetics was far more complex than had been realized thirty years earlier. Evolutionary biologists were in the forefront of developing this understanding, another fact which Expelled ignores.

In recent decades, Harvard evolutionary biologists Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould have been among the most outspoken critics of crude biological determinism and eugenics. Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man (1981, 2nd ed. 1996) is an excellent and readable account of the history of misuses of science to support racist ideologies, and why modern evolutionary biology does not support these ideologies. Not in Our Genes, by Lewontin et al. argues for extreme caution in making claims about the genetic basis of behavior.

Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present, by Diane B. Paul (1998) gives a full and critical account of the eugenics movement in the United States and internationally. See also In the Name of Eugenics (1985, 1986, 1995) by Daniel Kevles and Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (2004) by Christine Rosen.

The Claim

Charles Darwin advocated eugenics in the Descent of Man.

The Facts

In Expelled, Ben Stein reads a passage (omitting ellipses) that was also read by anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.)

But Stein does not quote the very next passage in the Descent of Man which makes clear that Darwin was not advocating eugenics. Rather, he remarked, “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” (emphasis added)

These are hardly the words of someone arguing for the sort of totalitarian eugenics practiced by the Nazi state, as implied by Expelled.