Ben Stein's Curious Post-Modernist Adventure
s the theory of evolution responsible for the Nazi Holocaust? To scientists, the idea is as ludicrous as the idea that Marie Curie's work on radioactivity is responsible for the atomic bomb, or the idea that the theory of gravity is responsible for the Space Shuttle disaster, or the idea that "two plus two equals four" is responsible for four-wheel drive. Yet creationists, inspired by a new movie by comedian Ben Stein, have declared a holy jihad on biology. With an army of wild-eyed Internet creationists following suit, Ben Stein tries to blame what creationists call "Darwinism" for the Nazi holocaust.
The reasoning of the creationists apparently is this: Darwin argued that physical strength and health, morality, and intelligence were achieved by natural selection. Hence, Darwin's ideas led to eugenics programs, and Hitler, who committed genocide in a mad belief that his race was superior to others, was a Darwinist, or at least descended from one. The creationists' bright idea is that "Darwinism", in effect, evolved into Nazism. As one creationist put it:
"Does that mean that Darwin would have approved? No. Does that mean that Darwin's theory provided the framework for Hitler's eugenic program? Yes."
Balderdash. As an argument, it's as transparent a smear campaign as the attempts by radical atheists to link Christianity to Hitler--a type of argument known as a "reductio ad Hitlerum." But it doesn't work, in part because the theory of evolution is not an ideology. Evolution is a theory about nature--an explanation of how things work. A theory explains natural phenomena. It can be true or false, but it doesn't tell you what to do. For that, you need a philosophy, religion, or some other belief system. "Darwinism" simply isn't any of those.
Ben Stein's idea that the theory of evolution in some way led to the Nazi Holocaust has been called "a blood libel against science, and a blood libel against Western civilization." Reasonable voices on the Right, including John Derbyshire writing in the respected magazine National Review, have also repudiated it, and rightly so. If the creationists' anti-science attitude took over the conservative movement, it would mean the end of conservatism as a viable political force for decades to come. Few educated people, and even fewer scientists, would be willing to associate themselves with it. But on right-wing Internet bulletin boards, conservatives courageous enough to defend science often seem to be in a minority.
Scientists, regardless of their political persuasion, should not remain silent in the face of these ideas. It may seem that modern science is powerful enough to withstand attacks from a handful of torch-carrying villagers. But we have only to look across the campus to see what politics has done to the study of history to see what might happen if politics gets a foothold in science. Books like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, which is filled with misleading innuendoes and outright falsehoods, are now the principal way many students learn about their country. As a result of the influence of historians like Zinn, the field of history is now (perhaps unfairly) regarded by non-historians, not as a noble and dispassionate study of the past, but as a cesspool of ultra-left-wing political activism, identity politics, and anti-Western hatred. The goal of creationists is the same: to convert science into a vehicle for their own political agenda. Whether such a change comes from the Left or the Right, politicization of science would be a disaster.
There's certainly no intellectual link between Darwin and Hitler. Not only was Hitler not an intellectual, he was almost completely ignorant about biology. But then, you don't need to be much more than a raving madman to come up with a plan to wipe out the people you hate. Hitler used whatever excuses he wanted to justify his actions. He used Christianity. He used environmentalism, music, and Norse mythology. He also used the theory of evolution. That doesn't mean that any of those things contributed to Nazism or bear any responsibility for what he did.
Hitler and the Nazis also used arithmetic: one million here, two million there .... Does that mean we can say that mathematics led to the Holocaust too? In fact, by the creationists' logic, you could link pretty much anything to Adolf Hitler. For example, Hitler was originally an artist. We could just as well use the creationists' logic to claim that art leads to genocide.
The theory of evolution is a philosophy? Who knew?
Creationists speak of the theory of evolution as if it were not just a theory, but some sinister new philosophy of life. "Darwinism", as they see it, encourages a secular outlook and therefore, somehow, turns you into a liberal. In other words, they believe that naturalistic explanations of how the world works constitute a political philosophy that must be challenged.
To be perfectly honest, this line of reasoning utterly baffles me. Is it possible that creationists somehow missed the fact that scientists have been deriving naturalistic explanations of the world for over three hundred years? These theories, and the technology derived from them, took us to the moon. They gave us the toaster, the internal combustion engine, and indoor plumbing. They allowed biologists to eradicate smallpox and polio, and set us well on the way to figuring out how the brain works. When creationists try to connect the secularizing influence of science to Hitler's genocide, they are not just rejecting Charles Darwin, monkeys, and DNA; they're rejecting almost all the progress Western civilization has made since the Dark Ages.
The traditional left-right political scale has gotten very complicated lately. Liberals put Hitler at point B, while conservatives put him somewhere around point A.
Since we've been deriving mechanistic explanations of nature for three hundred years, some might argue that it's a bit late to start arguing against it. But, the creationists would probably say, better late than never. In some ways, the idea that nature can be studied and understood is a philosophy. But if you reject a theory on that basis, you have to reject all of science, not just the parts that tell you things you don't want to believe.
In fact, creationists seem to be fairly satisfied with some theories. Quantum mechanics, for example, almost never gets criticized for turning people into godless communists. The one that really curls the toes of creationists is the theory of evolution. That's because any secular explanation of natural phenomena that conflicts with the Biblical creation story calls into question the validity of literalistic theology. For fundamentalist Christians, the authority of God is the sole basis of ethical and moral behavior; therefore, creationists see the theory of evolution, and indeed, any naturalistic explanation of the world, as a threat to the very foundations of civilization.
Win Ben Stein's Postmodernism
Ironically, in adopting this viewpoint, creationists abandon many of the values of the Enlightenment, especially rationalism, on which our modern civilization is founded. No longer is our thinking to be guided by the evidence of our senses; we must reject any evidence that threatens the central core of religious belief, lest we lose our only way of distinguishing right and wrong. In this sense, creationism (or "intelligent design" as the creationists now like to call it), is a rejection of rationalism and modernity, just as postmodernism is. Indeed, creationists have begun using the same tactics as their postmodernist brethren.
Postmodernists believe that all knowledge is part of an ideology, and that knowledge is created specifically to support that ideology. For example, the concept that nature is knowable and understandable, and the assemblage of facts and truths we have derived from centuries of study of nature are, according to postmodernists, merely part of a narrative--a form of propaganda--that Western patriarchalistic society has constructed as part of its colonialist and imperialist paradigm. In this view, scientific knowledge is only meaningful within its own narrow context, and cannot be "generally true", because there is no such thing as universal truth.
Alas, this view has proved to be mistaken. If someone drops an atomic bomb on you, it's not part of their dialectic narrative. You get vaped. That's as close to a universal truth as it gets. If you add two apples and two oranges, you never get six bananas, no matter whose narrative paradigm you adhere to. Yet postmodernists believe that a narrative that gives you six bananas is just as valid as any other. That's what rejecting rationalism gets you: bananas.
Creationists may not be hep to the postmodern jargon--they don't often say things like, "We have to choose between neotextual postcultural objectivism and the semiotic paradigm of context," but their viewpoint is the same. For creationists, it seems, truth is political: whether something is true depends on whether something good or something bad happens because of it. Creationists believe that the theory of evolution undermines morality because it denies the role of God in creating man and giving mankind a special position in the world; therefore, it must be false. The idea that unpleasant truths about the world can be thrown out and replaced by our own, more pleasant, artificially-created truths--our own narrative--is pure postmodernism.
There are many unpleasant facts in the world. These facts are true regardless of whether we humans believe them or not. Pretending they aren't true is like a soldier believing the enemy can't see him if he closes his eyes. Sooner or later, this sort of willful ignorance will get you into trouble. Ben Stein and the other creationists may not think of themselves as postmodernists--but they are. Both believe you can replace one truth with another as you see fit. Like the original postmodernists, creationists have nothing but contempt for rationalism. And now, it seems, for science as well.
Conservatives, in particular, need to use the courage they're known for to resist the temptation to reject science. Doing so would only give free rein to those on the Left who want to turn science into their own little political playground--and there are many of them. If they succeed, what happened to history could very well happen to science.