Sunday, August 03, 2008

Creationism, Darwin, and Nazis

One of the arguments that Creationists use is that Darwin's ideas are wrong because the Nazis applied them during their rule, culminating in the Holocaust. While I think it's easy to see that this isn't actually an argument against the idea of Darwinian Evolutionary theory but a case of guilt by association, at least I hope it's easy to see, I think it's wrong on a deeper level as well. There are two things going on here, the first being the actual components of Nazi ideology and the second being the context of Modernity at the end of the 19th century up to the creation and spread of Fascism.

On one level, Nazism simply repurposed modern ideas about science and the world to serve a pre-existing ultra-conservative agenda. Instead of being scientistic, Nazi ideology contained a very large set of reputiations of modern ideas like democracy, liberty, equal rights. Instead, Volkisch ideas linking the State to an idea of society composed of organic groups generated by people living together in a static way for centuries at a time, which supposedly formed towns and provinces into unique Volks, or Folk units. A return to a Volkisch system of society was an essential component, one that threw out ideas like equality and liberty from the get go, since the traditions of the Volk meant more than the decisions of voters and general freedom and liberty to do what you want without interference also violated the same ultra-conservative ideals. Equality was also tossed because there could be no equality between different Volks in the sense that you really couldn't compare them completely, so that members of very different ones could not meet each other on equal terms. This doesn't imply superiority, inferiority, but just difference and incomparability. However, communities that were closer together in geography and in linguistics and customs were thought of as being much closer to something like equality than communities that were divided by language and traditional customs. The Folk could be extended to a general idea of a family of peoples.

Besides the F├╝hrerprinzip, which justified total dictatorship by one person over a state structure that violated the theoretical decentralization implied by ultra-conservative Volkisch ideas and that would take a long detour to explain, that was the conservative context.

Science was thought to be detrimental to society in one form through the dissolution of traditional social bonds brought about by scientific explanation, but this wasn't the only form possible. Science itself did not necessarily imply this sort of dissolution but the radical social thought associated with the Enlightenment of the 18th century that they saw grafted onto science did. So they sought to strip science of perceived ideological and political bias and harness it to the service of ultra-conservative Volkisch ideas. The book "Volkisch Utopias", which I unfortunately have not had time enough to properly go through, points out in its introduction that the Nazis sponsored at least one science fiction novel in their effort to promote the idea that they weren't necessarily opposed to all science or were pure anti-modern reactionaries. So far so good. Science was politicized but within the realm of what was politically acceptable it was not opposed. But that still doesn't explain why these ideas lead to the Holocaust or where race theory and eugenics fit into the picture.

Theoretically, you could have a very nasty, authoritarian, fascist state that believed in both of the components of Nazi ideology outlined that didn't engage in mass murder, but race played such a fundamental role in the Nazi state that it's hard to imagine something being rightfully called Nazistic without it. Which brings us to the second point, the context of science at the end of the 19th century and the beginning decades of the 20th. The context of Darwin was drastically different than that of the early scientists of the Enlightenment. This was right before the Second Industrial Revolution, that made use of alloys, synthetic products and in general devices that needed specialized knowledge beyond what was present during those times in order to come into existence. It was less tenable to automatically link science with liberal social progress than it had been, which doesn't mean that science was depoliticized, or that radical supporters of the new science didn't exist, but it couldn't be counted on to be in their service. Enter social Darwinism.

The interesting thing about social Darwinism is that it existed before Darwin. The idea of peoples triumphing over other peoples because of inherent superiority was an old staple from the colonial period on. Within society itself the idea of people with better skills or talent deserving what they got, getting it because of natural superiority, and people who didn't have anything not getting it because of natural inferiority, was not a new idea either, only it was often identified with moral characteristics as well, so that the superior person would not only be smarter but morally sounder. A version of this, call it an authoritarian libertarianism, had been present in England from the beginning of the 19th century on, with Malthus being a prime example. Malthusian economics said that it was pointless to spend money on the poor because if you did so they'd just reproduce faster and the increased resource use would negate whatever gains they might have gotten from the help. Rich people deserving to be rich and poor people deserving to be poor because of natural differences and will could be read into original classical liberalism, which opposed wealth gotten through inheritance with wealth gotten through industry.

People who already believed these things used Darwin's ideas to bolster their own. Because of the disconnect between radical politics and science this alliance between conservatism and Darwinian theory was perhaps more easily created than it would have been had the theory been proven a hundred years earlier. The new science and new technology could be used, for instance, by the Prussian government to sponsor economic development in Germany through fostering strategic industries, while maintaining an authoritarian, undemocratic state. People like Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Nietzsche could both present themselves as radicals in the sense of accepting scientific reasoning and also as conservatives through the use of Darwin in a non-radical context.It must have seemed like science could actually prove Conservatism and that Conservatism was proven by science. This was the context that the integration of race theory and eugenics into Nazi thought occurred in.

The scientific worldview, seeing man as linked in an evolutionary chain with other organisms, the earth as having experienced aeons of geological time, the universe obeying laws that could be regularly observed without an explanatory need for a creator, was not to blame for this. In fact the same lessening of politicization of science that allowed it to be appropriated by conservatives provided it with a good cover and defense against charges of impartiality; pure science became less about proving any particular worldview and more about just discovering regular connections between facts, although the controversy between radical atheists who rely on the idea of science to support their claims and the creationists themselves wouldn't seem to indicate this.

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