The Darwinian insight can be turned upside down and grotesquely misused: Voracious robber barons may explain their cutthroat practices by an appeal to Social Darwinism; Nazis and other racists may call on “survival of the fittest” to justify genocide. But Darwin did not make John D. Rockefeller or Adolf Hitler. Greed, the Industrial Revolution, the free enterprise system, and corruption of government by the monied are adequate to explain nineteenth-century capitalism. Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, social hierarchies, the long history of anti-Semitism in Germany, the Versailles Treaty, German child-rearing practices, inflation, and the Depression seem adequate to explain Hitler’s rise to power.
Very likely these or similar events would have transpired with or without Darwin. And modern Darwinism makes it abundantly clear that many less ruthless traits, some not always admired by robber barons and Fuhrers – altruism, general intelligence, compassion – may be the key to survival. — Carl Sagan
Sagan was an engaging writer but not a careful thinker, and it is easy to spot the flaw in the reasoning: We can take any individual factor in the multitude that make up the German scene, 1919-1939, and say “this” one (the one the speaker has devoted much of his life to zealously advocating) didn’t really matter.
Being one of many factors does not mean Darwinism doesn’t matter, any more than being one of a number of damaged pylons supporting a bridge means that that damaged pylon doesn’t matter. All of them matter together and each damaged pylon matters in its own right.
The zealous Darwinist himself is testimony to the power Darwinism can have in a person’s life. It is the beloved creation story of the new atheists. And when Christians embrace Darwinism, Darwin typically becomes a rival to Christ: Doubt about his no-design mechanism becomes bad faith, if not heresy. Such a powerful idea – as demonstrated by the devotion of its adherents – must certainly have had an effect on the many Nazis who embraced it.
Testimony to Sagan’s shallow thinking skills: “… many less ruthless traits, some not always admired by robber barons and Fuhrers – altruism, general intelligence, compassion – may be the key to survival.” Rolls off the tongue and into the ear so smoothly, right? One problem – if we accept facts about Nazi ideology, there is no justification for the view that the Fuhrer did not value altruism, general intelligence, or compassion. He did indeed, but the benefits were to be reserved for his Nazi “master race.”
A generation raised on “Hogan’s Heroes” may be forgiven for not knowing what the daughter of a combat veteran of World War II knows: The men who fought the Nazis did not think them stupid, cowardly, or unwilling to sacrifice for each other. And there is no justification for passing on a false, harmful picture in order to score a cheap shot for Darwin.
See also: Why the ID community maybe SHOULD celebrate Carl Sagan Day.
Note: I found the quote at Jerry Coyne’s blog.