Sunday, November 23, 2014
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A Scientist Responds to the Charge that Darwin's Theory Obliterated Morality

Swarthmore college biologist Scott Gilbert answers a historian's accusation that Darwin's Theory destorys morality

A Scientist Responds to the Charge that Darwin’s Theory Obliterated Morality

When I spoke with historian Richard Weikart last week in reporting today’s column, the Discovery Institute fellow said something that I thought captured the aversion many creationist feel toward evolution. Here’s his full quote, which I condensed in the column :

“ If everything is a product of chance – purposeless – which is widespread in biology textbooks – it’s a random – purposeless process - if you have a non- teleological random process then I don’t think you have any ground to criticize Hitler. “

I asked Swarthmore College biologist Scott Gilbert to address this, since he holds degrees in both science and religion. He came up with a very insightful reply that also helps debunk the idea that Hitler’s genocide was based on Darwin's evolution:

"Saying that Hitler succeeded because either he was a Darwinian or that Darwinism had no answer for Hitler is blaming science for the failure of twentieth century Christianity. Science can, at its best, tell one what "is." It cannot tell one what "should be." Science cannot determine right or wrong. That's one of religion's roles. Evolutionary biology can tell you that global warming will lead certain species to extinction, will probably bring tropical diseases into temperate areas, and cause the polar ice caps to melt. It cannot say that this is "bad" or "good." That is something religion can do. World War II was not brought on by science. Indeed, the main cause of World War II was World War I and the peace treaty signed after it that caused Germany's economy to crumble. And the fighting of these two world wars was not considered "bad" by the state religions of their times. Quite the opposite. The motto of both the British and Russian armies was "God is on our side." The Germans said (in both wars), "Got Mit Uns." Indeed, "Got Mit Uns" was the motto emblazoned on the belt buckles of the Wehrmacht soldiers.  Religion fostered the fighting, not science. When Hitler was rising to power, biology and Darwinism were not major players. The German Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church were enormously powerful forces. They did what they needed to do to keep their power during the Third Reich, and they did not block Hitler. To say that Darwinism fostered Hitler is to take the blame off of economic politics and religion, which is where it belongs.

Moreover, each country interpreted Darwin differently. When one actually reads Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, and Herbert Spenser, one sees that they envisioned a mixture of competition and cooperation. Often, animals competed such that those that cooperated best survived. And what was competition? It wasn't economic or political warfare, it was competition for mates. Those who had the most offspring were the most fit. In this sense, the poor countries do better than the wealthy so long as they can feed the population. Evolution describes nature and the natural part of humans. According to the agnostic Thomas Huxley, humans evolved as the animal who would fight against natural selection. Indeed, for Darwin's greatest proponent, the goal of "purpose" was to transcend natural selection and to make a just society.

But to do this, does one need an old man giving laws from his celestial throne (or as Haeckel called Him, "the heavenly gaseous vertebrate"?) Huxley and the secularists after him claimed that humans must take on the adult task of forming laws and purposes. Nature has no purpose, but humans can make purposes. We have grown up and no longer need a father-figure to reward us when we're good and threaten us with Hell if we're bad. Humans have to make a just society ourselves, thought Huxley and others, and we've evolved wonderful capacities for so doing.

Evolutionary biology did not play any major role in the world wars. (One has to remember that biologically, the British and the Germans were not exactly racial camps. The House of Windsor is a German-derived family.) So please don't blame science for the the dereliction of religion. If secularism thrives, it is in large part because of the monumental failure of twentieth-century Christianity to prevent the horrors of that century." 

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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