On evolution and Nazism

This entry was inspired by a documentary that I saw recently. It was a 6-part BBC documentary series on World War II called The Nazis: A Warning from History. In it, the narrator (Samuel West) claimed that Hitler was “a passionate believer in the law of natural selection, the rule of the jungle”. This was quite a shock to me when I first heard it.  I had always believed the links between evolution and the Nazis was false and yet here was evidence that it was true. I looked into this more and found that there are indeed links between evolution and Nazi ideology.

I had to sit down and think about this for a while. Can a belief in evolution lead to ideologies like Nazism? After much thinking I came to my conclusion: no, it does not. In formulating my answer I had to distinguish between two types of “beliefs”. A statement such as “I believe in X” can have two meanings: one is a statement of fact (“I believe in gravity”, “I believe in radiation”, etc.) and another is a statement of opinion (“I believe in abortion”, “I believe in euthanasia”, etc.). To say “I believe in evolution” is, to me, a statement of fact. I believe in evolution because it happened, not because I approve of it (and I do NOT approve).

One of the ideas of those who claim that the Nazis were inspired by evolution is the idea that if a person  accepts evolution as fact then they will also approve of it. This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Just because you hold something to be true doesn’t mean you have to approve of it.  If that was the case then everyone who believed in World War II would also be warmongers. Approval or disapproval of something does not depend on the belief of it being true. I think another assumption they make is that evolution is a natural law and thus, those who believe it should follow it. Of course this is completely wrong as well, and is a classic is-ought fallacy. The idea that what is natural is what is right is nonsense. Nature makes a lot of harmful stuff (arsenic, viruses, tidal waves, etc.) and the “natural” process of evolution is a remarkably brutal, slow, and inefficient process. There’s no possible way that I would approve of evolution as a method for people to live by. As human beings we have risen above evolution and can find much better ways of doing things (as Richard Dawkins said, human language and culture is a second type of genetics and it is one that is immeasurably faster). Biological evolution is how we got here, but it shouldn’t be the way we should go from here. What is natural isn’t always better and one should never adopt a policy simply because it is “natural”.

If a Christian were to come up to me and ask if I “believed in evolution” my answer would be “no, but I believe it happened”. I do not “believe” in evolution any more than I “believe” in war or genocide but it’s undeniable that evolution happened (and is still happening). Certainly Hitler and the Nazis may have believed in the fact of evolution but that did not lead to their approval of it. Most likely they used it to back up their own racial hatreds. Stating that evolution is what caused the Nazis to murder millions of people is like blaming Martin Luther’s anti-semitic writings for the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews. In both cases it was the Nazis who made policy (not Darwin or Luther).