Darwin, Evolution, Hitler and the Public Misunderstanding of Science

Chuck D

Chuck D

Some of you may know that this year is the anniversary both of 200 years since Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of the Species.  That book was in fact published 150 years ago TODAY, 24thNovember 1859.  I’m afraid that this has turned into more of an essay than a blog post and for that I apologise.  I hope you think it’s worth it!  Given the occasion I think an essay on Darwin is forgivable…  First, I want to make a few specific comments about a newspaper article on the abuse of evolutionary theory.  I will then provide a brief summary of an article that answers many of the points raised in terms of science in general.  I’ll move onto a specific discussion on evolution before providing the other side of the evolution-ethics debate (too-rarely promoted) in the final section.

The Trouble with “Darwinism”?

An article on the Times website recently highlighted the links between high school shootings and the theory of evolution.  A point by point rebuttal of the article is not really necessary.  The piece is well-written and (on the whole) accurately reported.  However, it is also solely directed towards getting a controversial, narrow point of view across and is, therefore, extremely biased.  While an article on the good and evil associated with the theory of evolution would provide a fascinating read, the tramping out of menacing photographs of youths pointing guns at cameras, students in tears in the aftermath of a shooting and a shrine set up to the dead alongside quotes from those same gun-toting students, ignorant American celebrities and those who have a vested interest in discrediting evolutionary theory only serves to obscure and sensationalise the debate.  The author is simply piggy-backing on the emotional outcry that followed those earlier stories.    The dubious links between scientific theories and hypotheses and their application to the real world were the story of the twentieth century and continues to dog us to this day.

The Times article mainly catalogues the accusations against evolutionary theory and gives the stage to the psychopathic killers of high school children, as well as the rightwing nut job Ann Coulter and Intelligent Design proponent David Klinghoffer.  Throughout, the article feels as though it is about to give a balanced, journalistic account of an issue.  However, the article stops without giving the other side of the argument.  Where is the talk of how evolutionary theory can improve our lives, inform our morals and contribute to the kind of well-rounded naturalistic worldview that Coulter and others find so abhorrent?  This is also “…as much part of the Darwin story as the theory of evolutions [sic]”.  Where is the philosophy of science detailing the difference between ideas and actions based on those ideas?  Where are the quotes from historians of science debunking the drivel that is the supposed link between Darwin and the Holocaust?  Where is the condemnation not just of the actions of those who misapplied evolutionary theory but also of the reasoning that brought them to that point?  I suppose it is too much to hope that this is the first of a two-part piece… The author has pointed out a problem but has not given us the solution, despite the fact that the reporting of that solution is substantially more important than the problem itself.

The Trouble with Science?

Now I turn to that solution –  a better understanding of science and what it can and cannot do.  David Sloan Wilson, in a short piece in a fairly obscure bioengineering book, outlines three reasons why factual knowledge of the sort that coalesced in Darwin’s work and has been built on over the past 150 years can have undesirable consequences.  I shall elaborate on some of his points as that article is not widely available (without subscription).

Unforeseen consequences – There are a number of examples of scientific ideas that have been implemented only to later have far greater negative effects than the gains that were supposed to have been achieved.  Plastics are one of the most important substances that we have ever developed, creating a lightweight, cheap and flexible material that can be used in a seemingly limitless number of applications.  However, recent research has shown that the chemicals that plastics release as they decay in the environment can have worrying effects similar to human hormones.  Furthermore, the very nature of the substance means that the time that it takes to decay is vast.

Negative results also occurred when new mothers were taught the psychological theories of BF Skinner, who believed whole-heartedly in the centrality of reward and punishment in the determination of future behaviour. Among these theories was that a crying child should not be comforted in any way as this would reinforce the crying behaviour and thus make the child more likely to cry in the future.  If you wanted a placid, well-behaved infant you should not attempt to cuddle them when they are distressed.  It was only later that psychological theories developed further and the true damage that this lack of affection and close, personal contact had on children was revealed.

The solution to the problem of unforeseen consequences, as Wilson points out, is not to never apply any kind of scientific progress, for clearly the potential benefits of scientific theories are considerable and the alternative, a technological regression, is almost impossible to contemplate given our current reliance on the products of science.  Rather, we should seek to be as honest as possible about the limitations of our understanding of the subjects that we are researching, with suitable caveats on the implementation of that research.  Also, a greater extent of research is needed to ensure that what we theorise accurately represents reality.  As Wilson says: “The solution to partial knowledge is more complete knowledge”.

Unethical use – That gunpowder was invented by the Chinese and used as nothing more than in fireworks for a source of entertainment seems bizarre to us now that millions of deaths have resulted from conflicts involving projectile weapons powered by just that chemical.  Exact parallels can be seen in the development of atomic theory and the subsequent use of the atomic bomb in Japan during the Second World War.  The ideas themselves are inherently amoral (note that this is distinct fromimmoral) but the uses to which they are put in the real world clearly require certain moral decisions to be made.

Another example of the amorality of science can be seen clearly in microbiology.  Microbiological techniques have allowed us to better understand the organisms that truly form the foundation for the world in which we live: microbes.  These cause our diseases, make our waste decay, produce oxygen for us to breathe and prop up many of the most important food chains.  An understanding of this area has enabled us to harness microbes and exploit them in vital areas of human life such as waste disposal and water filtration, as well as informing our approach to tackling disease.  However, microbial agents have also been used as weapons of the cruelest sort.

There is no solution to the immoral use of science apart from to ensure that the morals of the wider world (i.e. the societies that seek to implement scientific discoveries) are as “moral” (egalitarian, humanitarian, etc) as possible.

Erosion of moral values – Wilson briefly ponders a situation in which the “facts” that we can discover using the scientific method begin to replace the “beliefs” on which our moral systems are based.  Clearly this has great relevance to evolutionary theory within which man is thought to have evolved a moral system that is not absolute.  I don’t really have a lot to say about this.  Our beliefs about the world are the result of evolution, both cultural and biological.  That some of these are considered scared is unnatural and leads to all manner of prejudice and bigotry.  The erosion of some of what are considered to be “morals” (homosexuality is wrong, a woman’s place is in the home, contraception goes against God’s wishes) can only be a good thing so long as people are capable of constructing their own relativist moral systems.  More on this later…

The Trouble with Evolution?

First of all, the issue of the misapplication of scientific concepts is not simply a problem associated with evolution, as outlined above.  The focus on evolutionary theory has come about because of the lack of understanding on the part of the public and the assertion that evolutionary theory equates to moral nihilism via atheism.

Public understanding

It has been said that “…nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”.  While biologists realise this, the theory of evolution does not hold such prominence outside of the scientific world, unlike theories from chemistry and physics.  People can see the bridges that are built on physical premises and appreciate the chemical nature of cookery but the recognition that the essence of what it means to be human lies in biology is often overlooked.  It is this kind of issue that makes it necessary to have a position like the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science, a position that was latterly occupied by Richard Dawkins.  The emotional baggage associated with evolution makes it difficult to convince the public of the theory’s weight.  They seem to readily accept that they are, at their most basic level, fluid-filled sacks of protein built around calcium scaffolding, but try to tell them that they are closely related to a slightly hairier fluid-filled sack of almost identical protein in a zoo and they suddenly turn incredulous.  However, a proper appreciation of mankind’s place in the universe provides a much clearer perspective on the troubles that our species faces in its struggle to survive.

Evolution and atheism

A superficial understanding of evolutionary theory may yield a worldview which resembles nihilism, but Darwin is not supposed to be read in isolation.  The bottom-line to this piece is that science is amoral, not immoral.  If a person is naive, short-sighted and simple enough to say that because lions kill the weakest zebra on the plains of the Serengeti necessarily means that certain ethnic groups should be exterminated then it is not the fault of evolution.  The Religious Right in the United States (along with its sister groups in the Islamic world) have made much of the link between Darwin and the Holocaust, for example.  Any number of such claims have been refuted here (including specific claims that Darwin himself was a racist, evolution is immoral and evolutionary theory informed totalitarian regimes – particularly Stalin and Hitler).  However, the amoral theory of evolution was merely a series of ideas.  The over-arching moral systems of the time were determined by the various religious establishments who are the ones truly to blame for allowing the immoral and incorrect conclusions of these ideas to be promulgated within the ethical frameworks that they defined and policed.  The development of a well-rounded worldview unfortunately requires a great deal of thought to place the knowledge that Darwin and his successors have provided in a context within which it can be properly applied to the maximal benefit of the human race.

The “Evolution Solution”

I suppose the message that I am trying to convey is that THERE ARE NO MORAL IMPLICATIONS OF EVOLUTIONARY THEORY!!  Nobody looks at atomic theory and then only hangs around in groups that correspond to the stable numbers of electrons orbiting atomic nucleii for fear of causing imbalance and high school children do not go around shooting members of groups until their numbers equate to stable electron configurations.  There aren’t any secretive groups running around actively increasing entropy (that’s just helping nature along, after all, isn’t it?).  There aren’t internet cults of thermodynamicists pushing over sandcastles and breaking all their dishes to ensure that everything is as “natural” as possible.  People see a worldview in evolutionary theory that just isn’t there.

This is not to say that a naturalistic worldview, of which evolutionary theory is a part, cannot inform the way we live our lives in a positive way as well.  As far as ethics are concerned, the principle benefit of a naturalistic stance is a recognition of where we are in the scheme of the universe.  Religious views place man at the centre with dominion over “Creation” and an interceding God who helps us out when we get stuck.  Furthermore, the end times will be upon us shortly, in any case, so we don’t need to worry about this planet too much…  Things will be much better in the afterlife!  Clearly this is not a worldview which lends itself to the formation of forward-thinking principles.  The fact that some nations base large portions of their foreign and domestic policy on this short-term, largely apathetic view of the future is downright frightening!

Evolution and naturalistic philosophy, on the other hand, tells us that we are but one of a series of types of reproducing bags of protein that live on a smear of water and oxygen on a mostly-molten piece of iron in the outer spiral arm of a galaxy that is one of millions and billions in the universe (to paraphrase Monty Python slightly).  We are no more in dominion of our world than a termite burrowed into the hull of a ship far away at sea.  We cannot steer the ship or influence it in any other way but eventually, if we try really hard, we can sink it.  The realisation of this fact brings other parts of the human condition into perspective.  We are far from invulnerable – we are threatened constantly by famine, disease, climate change – but we see fit to argue about the minutiae of abstract concepts such as economics and political boundaries rather than address the issues that really matter.  Just as we ourselves have caused (and will continue to cause) the extinction of those animals, so shall we some day cease to exist.  It is for us to lengthen our tenure on this planet as much as possible.  The ethical implications of this are that international harmony is required for the species to pull together.  Nature conservation (including the environment and not just the animals and plants) is of primary importance.  Finally, if we can understand why “morality” evolved then we can understand why it must be adhered to.  Codified morality, when viewed in the cultural and biological context within which it developed, becomes more than simply a series of edicts issued by an omnipotent deity.  We can see the framework within which each moral stance is relevant, why it should be adhered to and when it should not (I read recently about a case in which a well-respected Christian website advocated hypothetically turning over Jewish refugees to Nazi death camps because to hide them would be lying (which is wrong).

In conclusion then, (i) science itself is always amoral, not immoral, (ii) when interpreted within a well-rounded worldview, scientific discoveries can inform (and, indeed, improve) how we live our lives, and (iii) evolution is cool!  Happy birthday Chuck and the OoS!!


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