Like the rest of the skeptical blogosphere, I’ve been watching the
uproar around Ben Stein’s new movie with a lot of amusement, but also with
a lot of disgust. There’s one thing that I feel compelled to comment on that
I think has, for some reason, not been addressed nearly enough.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m Jewish. My father knew relatives who died
at the hands of the Nazis. The events of the holocaust are, thus, deeply personal to me. I’ve grown up with an awareness of it.
So I find Stein’s attempt to link evolution to the holocaust particularly odious. The mass extermination of millions of people shouldn’t be a rhetorical bargaining chip, for anyone. It should be something that we never forget, and that we use to motivate us to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. (And I’ll note here that while Ben runs around cashing the checks that he receives for talking about how Darwin caused hitler, there
is genocide going on, today, in several places, and Stein doesn’t seem to care.)
For the most part, people have responded to Stein’s argument linking Darwin with Hitler by refuting it. And that’s certainly a good thing to do,
because what caused the Holocaust wasn’t the writings of a British naturalist,
but by xenophobia and scapegoating. Darwinism was used as an excuse at various times – as were christianity, paganism, economics, and a variety of other
But what strikes me is that we haven’t paid enough attention to something even more important than whether or not there’s a link between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the nazis.
Suppose that it was true that Darwin’s writings about evolution
were the primary thing that motivated the Nazi’s genocide against
the Jews, the Romany, and all the other “undesirables” that they killed. Forget, for a moment, that the linkage is a crock. Pretend that it’s the truth.
What difference does it make?
Does the truth become less true because some idiot used it to
justify something awful?
Science isn’t morality. Science describes what is. Morality
defines our understanding of right and wrong. Science doesn’t tell us what’s
morally right and wrong. It tells us what is. It can allows us to reason from what we know, to determine the effect of an action, which can allow us to decide whether that action is morally right or wrong. But the science doesn’t tell us what’s moral.
What Stein and friends are doing is trying to say that it’s appropriate
to judge science based on what kinds of moral judgements a lunatic can
derive from it – and further, they’re basically trying to argue for
suppressing the truth when they don’t like the results of
trying to infer morality from that truth.
I’ve heard thermodynamics summarized in an informal way as “Reality is, at best, a zero-sum game.” It’s not an entirely incorrect summarization: thermodynamics does, in a way, tell us that we can only build something up by tearing something else down. If you want to use science to draw moral
judgements, just think of the kind of morality you can get from that!
But no one would use that to argue against the reality of thermodynamics as a correct way of describing the world. Thermodynamics is an accurate
description. It lets us understand how things work, and make realistic
predictions about how things work. It’s not a statement of morality; it’s
a statement of the behavior of physical entities.
People will always find ways to justify horrible things. Just look
at the headlines here in the US over the last week about torture. We’ll find
ways of justifying the things we want to justify. But justifications
don’t change facts. Evolution is a theory that does an amazing job of describing a piece of the world. Whether it’s used to justify something
evil doesn’t change that. If it’s true, it’s true. And no amount of
ranting about the horrible things that it supposedly motivated can change that. In the end, the truth is the truth. Evolution is true – whether
Hitler, or the Janjaweed in Sudan, or eugenicists in America choose
to use it to justify their actions doesn’t change that. It’s still true.
The whole Darwin-to-Hitler link in Stein’s wretched little movie
is a totally meaningless exercise. It’s a line of pure and utter bullshit,
and even if we were to accept it as absolute truth, it would be irrelevant. Truth and morality are two different things.