Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Richard Weikart and Darwinism

Richard Weikart is an historian. Richard Weikart has a Ph.D. in history. Richard Weikart is a professor of history. So yuo would be excused to think that Richard Weikart is a higly qualified historian, wouldn't you? However, Richard Weikart is also a Discovery Institute Fellow. So we know something must be wrong. Richard Weikart has written the book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. I haven't read the book; but I have read a couple of Weikart's online articles, and there's sufficient specified complexity in those for me to rule out that reading his book is worth the time. I'll here address one of those articles: Does Darwinism Devalue Human Life?. Weikart begins with a story:
A number of years ago two intelligent students surprised me in a class discussion by defending the proposition that Hitler was neither good nor evil. Though I kept my composure, I was horrified. One of the worst mass murderers in history wasn't evil? How could they believe this? How could they justify such a view?
Is it the task of ah historian to pass value judgment on people? It's the task of an historian to figure out, what happened, and, if possible, why it happened. Hitler most likely considered himself to be good, and this is, what is the problem with 'good and evil' - few people do, what they do thinking it's bad, they think it's good. The question, weikart should ask, is, how can humans get the idea that killing other humans is something good in a society, where this is not supposed to be the cased. When I was studying philosophy I wrote a paper about the historian R.G. Collingwood critisizing his idea of history for its focus on individuals and their thoughts. Apparently Weikart is of Collingwood's line, believing that history is made up of a few individuals, who act on inspiration from books. This is simply too naive. But let's continue with Weikart's little story:
They did it by appealing to Darwinism. Their pronouncement on Hitler occurred while we were discussing James Rachels' book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 1990). Darwinism, these students informed us, undermined all morality. This was not the first time I had heard such a view. In fact, at that time I was in the beginning phases of a research project on the history of evolutionary ethics, and I had already reviewed the work of some scientists and social scientists who believed that Darwinism undermined human rights and equality.
What is this thing, 'Darwinism'? Apparently some stuff that undermines all morality, and, if Weikart is to be believed, this stuff even undermines human rights and equality. I am no historian; but I do believe to have understood that human rights were an invention of the Enlightenment, which also introduced the idea of human equality. Just for the record: Galatians 3:28 does proclaim equality in the body of Christ; but not in society. Back to Weikart:
Before reading Rachels' book, however, I hadn't thought much about whether or not Darwinism devalued human life itself. Rachels, a philosopher at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, best known for his contributions to the euthanasia debate, argues that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of human life.
It gets curiouser and curiouser, doesn't it? Weikart is an historian, who wants to play moral philosopher, and not only that; he even wants to play Judeo-Christian apologist. Is there really such a thing as the "Judeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of human life"? Well, with the appropriate definition of "human life" perhaps; for instance that only members of one's own (sub-)denomination count as proper humans. Is this really a historian writing here? A person who should know that ideas come and go with the wind. Anyway, humanism was also an invention of the Enlightenment, I believe to have understood. A paragraph and a few sentences later Weikart writes:
Darwinists were in the forefront of the eugenics movement, which often taught that disabled people and non-Europeans were inferior to healthy Europeans. They argued that Darwinism implied human inequality, since biological variation has to occur to drive the process of evolution. Haeckel even suggested that Darwinism was an "aristocratic" process, favoring an aristocracy of talent (not the traditional landed aristocracy, for which Haeckel had no sympathy).
Aha! The eye of the keen historian should have noticed that Haeckel had no sympathy for the traditional landed aristocracy - with its birthrights indpendent of personal qualifications. So we are dealing with a social change - not a focus on ownership of property, but on 'possession' of talent. Why doesn't Weikart, an historian, see this rather than going off in a quest for the stuff 'Darwinism'? Germany had no colonies, but many talented people - it had the highest level of education in Europe. How come that Weikart, an historian, is unable to see this? Weikart proceeds:
Since Darwinism provided a naturalistic explanation for the origin of ethics, many of its adherents dismissed human rights as a chimera.
They did? Maybe they did, but in what way? I live in Denmark, where a very nationalistic, Lutheran pastor (Søren Krarup) claims that we are created as the concrete individuals that we are; that is, including our nationality, our national culture. Same pastor is against international human rights, because that is imposing an international law upon nations. Could it be that we should seek the cause of any dismmissals of human rights rather in nationalism than in 'Darwinism'? Maybe 'Darwinism' was used as apolegetic for nationalism; but if hadn't been 'Darwinism', it would have been 'Blythism' or something else. Back to Weikart:
Darwin expressed incredulity when critics assailed him for undermining morality. In his Autobiography, however, Darwin rejected the idea of objective moral standards, stating that one "can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones."
Ahh; But don't forget that Darwin counted with social instincts such as sympathy between all humans. In chapter 6 of The Descent of man, Darwin writes:
Ants certainly communicate information to each other, and several unite for the same work, or for games of play. They recognise their fellow-ants after months of absence, and feel sympathy for each other.
And in Chapter 5:
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, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.
So, indeed Darwin was right in expressing incredulity, when critics assailed him for undermining morality. In short, Weikart is barking up the wrong tree. Weikart quotes Friedrich Hellwald from the book The History of Culture (1875):
In nature only One Right rules, which is no right, the right of the stronger, or violence. But violence is also in fact the highest source of right, in that without it no legislation is thinkable. I will in the course of my portrayal easily prove that even in human history the right of the stronger has fundamentally retained its validity at all times.
Ahh; but notice that Hellwald claims that without violence no legislation is thinkable. This is good old Lutheran thinking. The sword of the emperor, king, or prince is needed to protect the innocent. Isn't Weikart an historian? And even if he isn't, is he against law enforcement? That's certainly not biblical, is it? Next Weikart writes:
This Darwinian undermining of human rights would be fateful for the Judeo-Christian vision of the sanctity of human life.
So, what Weikart really means is that US imperialism - exercised under the cover up establishing human rights - is fine; but no other imperialism should be accepted. Methinks Weikart is like a politician. Certainly not like an historian. Politician or not, Weikart proceeds:
Besides stressing human inequality, Haeckel and many of his fellow Darwinists devalued human life by criticizing Judeo-Christian conceptions of humanity as "anthropocentric." Rather than being created in the image of God, they argued, humans were descended from simian ancestors. They blurred the distinctions between humans and animals, alleging that characteristics that had been traditionally considered uniquely human--rationality, morality, religion, etc.--were also present in animals to some degree. In Darwin's own words, the difference between humans and animals is quantitative, not qualitative.
Oh, dear! Please read the above quotes from Darwin's The Descent of Man. What is wrong with e.g. sympathy also existing among animals? Trying to avoid racism, Weikart ends up in speciesism, as Richard Dawkins calls it. I fail to see, what's so wrong in this recognition that there isn't an abyss of differences separating us from animals, the recognition that animals have many human traits. And why is it so much worse blurring the distinction between humans and animals than to claim that humans are nothing but dust? Proceeding, Weikart writes:
Darwin's explanation that all human characteristics that previously had been associated with the human soul were not qualitatively distinct from animals also undermined the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of body-soul dualism, which endued humans with greater moral and spiritual significance than other organisms.
Oh, dear! Could it be that Weikart hasn't heard the news? Biblical Hebrew has no distinction between body and soul; it's only in translation that this distinction appears. Wouldn't an historian know such a thing? Next paragraph, Weikart writes:
Another element of Darwinism that contributed to the devaluing of human life was its stress on the struggle for existence.
Ahh; but don't forget that Darwin also wrote about sympathy and cooperation. The struggle for existance wasn't invented by Darwin. We find it for instance in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, where the solution is a covenant between humans to cease the war of all against all; a covenant embodied in the 'Sovereign', whose duty it was to enforce the covenant upon those who broke it. Now, Leviathan was written in 1651, shortly after the English Civil war and the Thirty Years War on the continent. An appropriate situation to come up with some idea about how to prevent new wars. Wasn't the 19th century much like that? Wouldn't an historian know that? A couple of paragraphs later, weikart quotes Hitler's Mein Kampff:
by no means believes in the equality of races, but recognizes along with their differences their higher or lower value, and through this knowledge feels obliged, according to the eternal will that rules this universe, to promote the victory of the better, the stronger, and to demand the submission of the worse and weaker. It embraces thereby in principle the aristocratic law of nature and believes in the validity of this law down to the last individual being. It recognizes not only the different value of races, but also the different value of individuals. . . . But by no means can it approve of the right of an ethical idea existing, if this idea is a danger for the racial life of the bearer of a higher ethic.
Doesn't Weikart know the evils of beginning a quote in the middle of a sentence and of leaving out part of a quote? Anyway, notice that Hitler here refers to "the eternal will that rulkes this universe". Is that the words of a 'Darwinist', an evolutionist, who doesn't acknowledge an eternal will? Apparently it is this eternal will that embraces the aristocratic law of nature and recognizes the different value of races and of individuals. And notice the phrase "a higher ethic" in the last sentence. Apparently Hitler wasn't into undermining morals, but into improving them - according to an eternal will that rules this universe. Please, Weikart, tell us, who besides Hitler operates with "an eternal will that rules this universe". Hint: "Atheistic Darwinists" is the wrong answer. Weikart begin the next paragraph with:
Thus Hitler justified his racial views by appealing to Darwinian science.
Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh, dear! No, Hitler mixed Judeo-Christian metaphysics with various other lines of thinking - Darwinian science being only a tiny part of the mix. Next paragraph minus the last sentence:
Hitler's genocidal program was not the only adverse consequence of Darwinism's devaluing of human life, and Germany was not the only country impacted. Much work on the history of the eugenics movement in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere suggests that scientific and medical elites in many parts of the world imbibed the Darwinian devaluing of human life. Though it did not lead to genocide in these countries, it did lead to other injustices, such as the compulsory sterilization of thousands of people classified as "less fit," based on their hereditary condition (sometimes based on very tenuous evidence, leading to many cases of misdiagnosis).
Well, at least they weren't burned on the stakes as demon-possessed as they were earlier. We are dealing with old Judeo-Christian traditions, only with a different apologetics. And the last sentence of that paragraph:
Social Darwinist and eugenics ideology also played an important role in the budding movement to legalize abortion in the early twentieth century.
Maybe they did; but don't forget that abortions happened also during times of witch-hunting. Next paragraph is about euthanasia. And then Weikart writes:
Thus, historical evidence from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries overwhelmingly supports the thesis that Darwinism devalued human life.
By the ever burning fires of hell, euthanasia is not a devaluation of human life; it is ending a life that for some reason has lost its human value. Is Christian martyr-worship also a devaluation of human life? Anyway, how does euthanasia square with struggle for survival? Next paragraph:
The question now emerges: Is this all just of historical interest? Haven't we learned a lesson from Nazism not to use social Darwinism to devalue humans? Haven't we abandoned biological racism and rabid anti-Semitism, integral components of Nazi ideology?
Yes, we have learned a lesson from Nazi ideology: not to trust religious zealots believing in an eternal will that rules this universe. But maybe some of us didn't listen. Next paragraph minus the last sentence:
Yes, indeed, we have learned much from the Nazi past, and I don't think it is fair to compare our present situation with Nazi Germany, as though they are completely the same. We don't live in a murderous dictatorship, and racism is on the defensive, at least in academic circles. For this we can be thankful. Still, in some respects, I wonder if we have learned enough, especially when I see big-name Darwinists, evolutionary psychologists, and bioethicists using Darwinism today to undermine the sanctity of human life.
Claims are that 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the latest war in Iraq; but who counts with them? During the war I read a CNN interview with a US fighter pilot. She was asked, if she wasn't afraid that her bombs might hit civilians. She answered that she was confident that God would guide her bombs so they would only hit the intended targets. Last sentence of the paragraph:
Whether Darwinism does actually devalue human life or not, there are certainly many people who think it does, and they are not intellectual featherweights.
Oh, so Weikart isn't even sure that Darwinism actually does devalue human life. What is all this about then? And concerning the people that are not intellectual featherwights and who think that Darwinism does devalue human life, what do they mean by 'Darwinism'? Has Weikart bothered to investigate that? Next up, Weikart writes:
First of all, the position that Rachels stakes out on issues of life and death are strikingly similar to that of the Australian bioethicist, Peter Singer, whose appointment a few years ago to a chair in bioethics at Princeton University stirred up vigorous controversy. Singer is renowned--or notorious, depending on one's point of view--for promoting the legitimacy of infanticide for handicapped babies and voluntary euthanasia, as well as for defending animal rights. Darwinism plays a key role in Singer's philosophy, underpinning his views on life and death. Singer claims that Darwin "undermined the foundations of the entire Western way of thinking on the place of our species in the universe."
So, defending animal rights is a sin on line with everything else? And if Singer claims that Darwin "undermined the foundations of the entire Western way of thinking on the place of our species in the universe", he must disagree with Hitler's "eternal will that rules this universe", mustn't he? Would an historian not notice such an important difference? In the next paragraphs, Weikart mentions how various 'Darwinists', among these Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, have devalued human life. Since I would need to put the quotes into proper context, I'll leave these paragraphs alone. We'll pick up again with this:
Many biologists, of course, disagree with Singer and Dawkins. From the late nineteenth century to today they have assured us that Darwinism has no implications for morality. They allege that those trying to apply Darwinism to morality are committing the "naturalistic fallacy" by deriving "ought" from "is." Darwin's friend and defender, Thomas Henry Huxley, vigorously opposed the attempts of his contemporaries to seek ethical guidance in natural evolutionary processes. More recently, Steven Jay Gould often butted heads with evolutionary psychologists, arguing that morality was a separate realm from biology. In his view Darwinism has nothing to say about how humans should act.
And indeed, how could we conclude any particular moral from evolution? If we have a biologically based moral, and it's the only moral we can choose, there's nothing to discuss about. The mere fact that we can discuss morals shows that they are not based on biology; they are social inventions. Now, Darwin did not deny that culture was of importance, so where is the problem? Has Weikart misunderstood something, or has somebody else? Moving on to the next paragraph, Weikart writes:
Gould, However, did not really divorce science and morality as much as he claimed. While vociferously arguing that Darwinian science on the one hand and religion and morality on the other are "non-overlapping magisteria," separated as far as the east is from the west, he persisted in drawing conclusions from his Darwinian science that are suspiciously laden with religious and moral implications. In Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), the whole point of his book is to use the Burgess Shale--a fossil-laden outcropping of rock in Canada teeming with many extinct, ancient forms of life--as an example of the contingency of history, to demonstrate that there is no real purpose to human existence.
Well, if there is "an eternal will that rules this universe", wouldn't that eternal will have thought up some real purpose to human existance? Was Hitler really a Darwinist, or was he a Judeo-Christian? Weikart starts his ending paragrapg with:
In light of all this, does Darwinism really devalue human life? I think I have shown conclusively that historically Darwinism has indeed devalued human life, leading to ideologies that promote the destruction of human lives deemed inferior to others.
But, but, but ... The problem is that Weikart rather has bundled together under the label 'Darwinism' everything bad, not caring about much, whether it's the same thing in all contexts. Proceeding:
Those on the forefront in promoting abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and racial extermination often overtly based their views on Darwinism.
Except for Hitler, of course, since he based it on "an eternal will that rules this universe". And jumping to the last sentence:
Darwinism really is a matter of life and death.
Finally we are given the answer as to, what Darwinism is. It is really a matter of life and death. But that's a pretty broad category, isn't it? No wonder that Weikart manages to stuff everything into it. Anyway, the main conclusion is that, if Hitler was a Darwinist, every person that believes in "an eternal will that rules this universe" is a Darwinist. Maybe Weikart should have focused more on that line. But for some reason he didn't. We can only wonder why.

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A Christian in Satanist clothes