ONE of the hot threads of conversation among Intelligent Design (ID) proponents is, of late, the idea that Darwinism leads to Nazism. The logic, as I understand it, is that if Darwinism is true, then we can improve the human race by exterminating the less fit.
I’ve pointed out several times now that fear of Nazi genocide is utterly unrelated to arguments for or against ID, and makes about as much sense as arguing that we should assert the truth of Darwinism because otherwise science may be destroyed by religion, and democracy replaced with fundamentalist dictatorship. Even if the fears were valid, it would still have nothing to do with the truth or error of the theories in question. (And the fears are promoted with the obvious intent of swaying support for the theory. I’m not stupid.) Some in the ID camp have begun to anticipate this argument, and now preface their Darwin-to-Hitler diatribes with a weak disclaimer like, “This doesn’t prove ID correct, but if ID has been proven correct by other arguments, why not explore the social consequences of Darwinism?”
I’ve avoided doing so for a while, but now I feel I’m ready to tackle this subject.
Darwin-leads-to-Nazism arguments are bankrupt on multiple levels. Firstly, if ID is proven correct by other (i.e. scientific) arguments, then what is the point of speculating on what bad things might happen if Darwinism is believed anyway? Wouldn’t it entirely depend on why Darwinism was believed anyway? As far as I can see, the only reason the population of Germany was willing to go along with a psycho like Hitler was because they were being subjected to the WWI “debt,” and were filled with rage and despair at the resulting ruination of their lives. Inflict something like that on many millions of people, and see if you don’t get a huge social disaster on par with Nazi Germany. Philosophies like Darwinism and anti-semitism are hardly needed — they were just along for the ride.
Another relevant point: Did the Nazis attempt a serious program of social improvement through extermination of inferiors, or did they just kill broad categories of people (e.g. Jews) on the presumption that they were inferior — when many of them were probably genetically superior to the great majority of those not killed?
Also, it is important to note that the only part of Darwinism that is defeated by scientific ID arguments is the claim that natural selection has a creative, building effect (which is responsible for the design of life’s complex adaptations). All other aspects of Darwinism are not refuted at all by ID — including any conclusions about the benefits of weeding detrimental mutations out of the population. So any purported link of modern genetics to Nazi eugenics is not severed by ID in the slightest.
But perhaps the most important issue with Darwin-to-Hitler is this: Evolutionary genetics (which, as noted in the above paragraph is perfectly legitimate except for its purported building effect) has shown that the average impact on the species of any detrimental mutation is the same as the loss of one individual.1 So a detrimental mutation can kill (or sterilize) the individual who first gets it (which is the loss of one individual), or it can be less severe but more spread out in its harmful effects as it is passed on to multiple individuals and more gradually eliminated. Either way, the average effect is the same as the loss of one individual. What does that mean for Darwin-to-Hitler arguments?
There are two ways to deal with detrimental mutations: culling and repair. Let’s explore each:
Natural selection takes the culling approach, which is to more frequently kill off (or sterilize) carriers of the mutation, before they are able to reproduce. Can natural selection be improved upon with artificial culling? No. By showing that the impact of every detrimental mutation is, on average, -1 (the loss of one individual), evolutionary genetics shows us that we can only worsen the impact through artificial culling.
For example, if a new mutation appears and is immediately fatal (or causes total sterility) to the individual who receives it, how can we improve on that via killing or forced sterilization? We can’t — the individual is already killed or sterilized by the mutation.
If, on the other hand, the mutation is not fatal and does not cause sterilization, but does have some detrimental impact on the individuals who inherit it, then we can only increase the harm by killing or sterilizing those individuals — we would be turning each inheritor of the mutation into a full -1, and if there were, say, four of them, then the total impact of that mutation would be -4, when it was going to be just -1 if we left it alone!
So any government culling program (even if conscientiously attempted, unlike the Nazis’ implementation), cannot be an improvement over natural selection. Therefore, those ID proponents who say that belief in evolution leads to (or “justifies”) extermination are simply wrong — evolution actually shows that extermination is only harmful, not helpful.
(And really, this conclusion should be pretty easy to reach even without the mathematical discoveries of evolutionary genetics. If an individual carries a mutation that reduces his probability of reproducing, isn’t it obvious that killing or sterilizing him will only further reduce that probability — to zero?)
The other way of dealing with a detrimental mutation is to proactively repair it. This can be accomplished either by inventing genetic treatments which can be applied to mature individuals, or by selective conception in vitro. Both of these methods (perfected by emerging technologies) promise to neutralize detrimental mutations more effectively than natural selection, by turning a net impact of -1 into a 0 (or perhaps into some inbetween value such as -0.5, if applied later in life).
I wholeheartedly support genetic treatment and in vitro selection, and I think it’s critically important to distinguish these repair techniques from the culling method described in the above section. They’re not the same thing at all. Artificial culling is only harmful; artificially selected conception and/or genetic repair can be beneficial. Beware arguments that blur the distinction between culling and repair — that imply both are potentially beneficial (but nevertheless anathema, and therefore a liability for the theory of evolution).
The above sections on culling and repair are applicable to detrimental mutations. But there is another, rarer type of mutation, which I will call destructive mutation. This kind of mutation causes an individual to destroy (or otherwise harm) other individuals. If such a mutation, on average, causes its host to kill three other, essentially random persons, then the impact of this mutation is not -1, but rather -3.
Once a mutation steps below -1, it suddenly becomes possible for society to improve itself through artificial culling. Killing or confining the carrier of a -3 mutation is the loss of one individual but the gain of three — a net gain of 2. (And, if the destroyer was going to kill himself too, then the gain is 3.)
So — once the relevant mutations are identified — artificial culling will have a socially beneficial use: The neutralization of born killers.
1 James F. Crow, Quarreling Geneticists and a Diplomat — “Muller (1950) was deeply impressed by the principle, first enunciated by Haldane (1937), that each mutation, however mild, has the same average effect on the fitness of the population. The reason is that mild mutations persist more generations in the population and affect a correspondingly larger number of individuals.”
Update 2009.04.29 — One instance of “Darwinism” changed to “modern genetics”.