Dr. Mohamed Noor is the Earl D. McLean Professor and Associate Chair of Biology at Duke University. His specialties include evolution, genetics and genomics.
Professor Noor also runs a free online course entitled, “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” through Coursera, which “gives interested people a very basic overview of the principles behind these very fundamental areas of biology … and tries to clarify some misconceptions.” By all accounts, Professor Noor’s exposition of evolutionary theory is admirably lucid and succinct.
In the last week of his course, Dr. Noor discusses some applications and misapplications of the theory of evolution. In the final lecture, Dr. Noor puts up a Powerpoint slide claiming that Hitler believed in Intelligent Design! The text is below:
Nazi Germany also adopts:
* Nazi euthanasia program (Aktion T4) instituted to eliminate “life unworthy of life.”
– People with disabilities seen as drain on resources and killed
* BUT, contrary to claims, Hitler was not influenced by Darwin or true evolutionary theory
– No reference to Darwin in Mein Kampf
– Darwin DISAPPROVED of eugenics
– Hitler believed in Intelligent Design:
(End of slide.)
When I heard about this slide (from a friend of mine who took Dr. Noor’s course), my initial reaction was one of sadness and disappointment. How could such a learned scientist be so badly misinformed? Then I decided that I would turn this slide into a teachable moment. For it is clear that Professor Noor simply does not know what Intelligent Design is.
What is Intelligent Design?
Professor Noor seems to equate Intelligent Design with the belief that Nature has a Designer (or designers). On this point, he is mistaken. Intelligent Design is the search for circumstantial empirical evidence indicating that either Nature itself, or certain patterns in Nature, can be best explained scientifically as the product of an intelligent agent (or agents).
From this definition, it follows that someone’s having a belief in a Designer of Nature is not enough to make them an Intelligent Design theorist. They must also believe that the Designer left visible signs pointing to his/her activity, and that human scientists are capable of discovering these signs and showing that intelligent agency is the best explanation of their origin.
In case some readers are wondering about the basis of my claims, I would like to point out that Professor William Dembski and Dr. Jonathan Wells define intelligent design in the glossary of their book, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence In Biological Systems (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas, 2008) as: “The study of patterns in nature that are best explained as the product of intelligence” (p. 315).
A more comprehensive explanation is provided by Professor Dembski in his 2003 essay, Intelligent Design (for the entry in Lindsay Jones’s Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition, Macmillan, 2004), from which I shall quote the first three paragraphs:
Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?
In that case, what about this rock formation would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design, known as design theorists, purport to study such signs formally, rigorously, and scientifically. Intelligent design may therefore be defined as the science that studies signs of intelligence.
Because a sign is not the thing signified, intelligent design does not presume to identify the purposes of a designer. Intelligent design focuses not on the designer’s purposes (the thing signified) but on the artifacts resulting from a designer’s purposes (the sign). What a designer intends or purposes is, to be sure, an interesting question, and one may be able to infer something about a designer’s purposes from the designed objects that a designer produces. Nevertheless, the purposes of a designer lie outside the scope of intelligent design. As a scientific research program, intelligent design investigates the effects of intelligence and not intelligence as such. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
So the question we need to ask ourselves is: is there any evidence that Hitler believed in, or would have supported, such a scientific endeavor?
Is there any good evidence that Hitler believed in Intelligent Design?
RationalWiki, in its article, Hitler and evolution, provides three quotes in support of its claim that Adolf Hitler believed in the intelligent design of human beings by God:
“Whoever would dare to raise a profane hand against that highest image of God among His creatures would sin against the bountiful Creator of this marvel and would collaborate in the expulsion from Paradise. (Mein Kampf, vol. 2, chapter IV.)
“[I]t was by the Will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties. Whoever destroys His work wages war against God’s Creation and God’s Will. (Mein Kampf, vol. 2, chapter I.)
“The most marvelous proof of the superiority of Man, which puts man ahead of the animals, is the fact that he understands that there must be a Creator. (Mein Kampf, vol 2, chapter X.)
In the passages above, Hitler declares his belief in a Creator who designed human beings. He also declares that human beings, unlike other creatures, are made in the image of their Creator, and are capable of understanding that there must be a Creator. But those beliefs do not make Hitler a believer in Intelligent Design. At most, they would make him a creationist (although as we’ll see, he probably wasn’t one).
Professor Noor is doubtless aware that Intelligent Design advocates come in all shapes and stripes: some are young-earth or old-earth creationists, while others (like myself) accept common descent.
Just as being an Intelligent Design advocate doesn’t entail a belief in creationism, so too, being a creationist doesn’t entail a belief in Intelligent Design. Put simply: believing in a Creator doesn’t necessarily commit you to believing in a Creator Who left visible traces of His existence and His activity, which science can discern.
For instance, someone might believe in a Creator, while at the same time believing that His existence either (a) cannot be demonstrated at all, or (b) can be known by us, but not empirically demonstrated. Judging from the foregoing remarks, Hitler may well have fallen into category (b). He may have held that human beings know their Creator through introspection (e.g. by the argument from conscience, which gives us a knowledge of right and wrong) or through personal revelation (e.g. hearing the voice of God when they pray). However, there is nothing in Hitler’s works which suggests that he believed that a scientific argument could be formulated, showing that the human body – or any other part of Nature – was the product of intelligent design. Nor is there any evidence indicating that Hitler thought humans could demonstrate that this Designer must be God, and not merely some superior intelligence, such as an angel or advanced alien. (Since it is a modest research program, Intelligent Design makes no pronouncements regarding the identity of the Designer.)
If the quote in his last slide is the best evidence Dr. Noor has for Hitler’s belief in Intelligent Design, then I have to say it’s very poor evidence indeed. To see why, I’d like to contrast it with a quote from a well-known independent thinker who encouraged his own nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear,” but who argued on rational grounds that the universe and its numerous life-forms could only be the product of an Intelligent Agent:
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organized as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms.
We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in its course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos. So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe. Surely this unanimous sentiment renders this more probable than that of the few in the other hypothesis. Some early Christians indeed have believed in the coeternal pre-existence of both the Creator and the world, without changing their relation of cause and effect.
Now that’s what I call Intelligent Design. Let Professor Noor show me a passage like that in the writings of Hitler, and I’ll be impressed. The writer from whom I’m quoting is of course President Thomas Jefferson. The passage reproduced above is taken from his letter to John Adams, from Monticello, dated April 11, 1823.
Was Hitler even a creationist?
So far, we have assumed that Hitler was a creationist of some sort. But even this is highly doubtful. There is good evidence that Hitler believed in human evolution. Let me begin with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In the chapter on Nation and Race, he wrote:
The stronger must rule; it must not unite with the weaker, thus sacrificing its own stature. Only the born weakling can think this cruel, and that is why he is a weak and defective man; for if this law did not hold, any conceivable evolution [Entwicklung] of organic living things would be unthinkable. (p. 278)
But little as Nature wishes a mating of weaker with stronger individuals, still less does she want the fusion of a higher with a lower race, since otherwise the whole labor of selective evolution [Entwicklung], perhaps through thousands of years, would be set at naught. (p. 279)
(Quoted from Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Barrows Mussey, New York: Stackpole Sons, 1939.)
While Professor Noor is correct in stating that there is no reference to Darwin in Mein Kampf, Hitler certainly makes reference to evolution in that book. What’s more, Hitler describes it as “selective evolution” and declares his belief that “the stronger must rule.”
I should add that the German term Entwicklung is translated as “evolution” by leading scholars, as Professor Richard Weikart points out in an online article entitled, Did Hitler Use the Term “Evolution” in Mein Kampf? (August 27, 2012).
I’d also like to draw attention to a statement Hitler made in a 1927 speech. After emphasizing the importance of the “law of the eternal struggle,” he told pacifists:
You are the product of this struggle. If your ancestors had not fought, today you would be an animal. They did not gain their rights through peaceful debates with wild animals, and later perhaps also with humans, through the comparative adjustment of relations by a pacifist court of arbitration, but rather the earth has been acquired on the basis of the right of the stronger.
In a 1933 Nuremberg speech, Hitler stated:
The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.
It follows that since Hitler believed that the gulf between the “lowest” and “highest” races had been crossed naturally, he must also have believed that the far smaller gulf separating the highest ape from “the lowest creature which can still be styled man” must also have been crossed naturally. Hitler’s 1933 statement paraphrases the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who declared in 1866 that “the differences between the highest and the lowest humans is greater than that between the lowest human and the highest animal.”
Hitler also discussed evolution at length in his Table Talk of October 24, 1941, when he stated: “There have been humans at the rank at least of a baboon in any case for 300,000 years at least. The ape is distinguished from the lowest human less than such a human is from a thinker like, for example, Schopenhauer.”
And on February 27, 1942, Hitler stated in his Table Talk that men shaving off their beards is “nothing but the continuation of an evolution that has been proceeding for millions of years: Gradually humans lost their hair.”
The foregoing quotes are all documented on pages 46-52 of Professor Richard Weikart’s book, Hitler’s ethic (Palgrave Macmillan, Reprint edition, 2011).
Even Rationalwiki, in its article, Hitler and evolution, concedes that Hitler “shows at least an awareness of the concept of humanity’s evolution from primates” in another remark that he made in his Table Talk, justifying his vegetarianism on the grounds that “[t]he monkeys, our ancestors of prehistoric times, are strictly vegetarian” (Hitler’s Table Talk – 1941-1944, edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Enigma Books, 2000, p. 231).
Hitler, it seems, thought monkeys were our ancestors. Rationalwiki archly notes that “it is a common misconception to state that humans evolved from apes or monkeys, since these animals, like humans, are the results of divergent evolution from our common ancestors.” However, it is worth pointing out that even Charles Darwin, in his work, The Descent of Man, traced our evolution as follows: “The Simiadae then branched off into two great stems, the New World and Old World monkeys; and from the latter, at a remote period, Man, the wonder and glory of the Universe, proceeded.” (Volume I, Chapter VI, p. 213.) And in the final chapter of his book, Darwin wrote:
For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon, who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practises infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
(Volume II, General Summary and Concluding Remarks, Chapter XXI, pp. 404-405.)
Thus in declaring that monkeys were our ancestors, Hitler was not saying anything un-Darwinian.
In fairness, I should point out that there is one passage in Hitler’s Table Talk which seems to cast doubt on human evolution. As far as scholars are aware, this is the only statement made by Hitler in which he expressed reservations about human evolution. In January 1942, Hitler stated:
Where do we get the right to believe that humanity was not already from its earliest origins what it is today? Looking at nature teaches us that in the realm of plants and animals transformations and further developments occur. But never within a genus has evolution [Entwicklung] made such a wide leap, which humans must have made, if they had been transformed from an ape-like condition to what they are now. (Monologe im Fuhrer-Hauptquartier, 25-26 January 1942.)
Professor Robert Richards provides a slightly different translation in his elegantly written 2011 essay, Was Hitler a Darwinian? Professor Richard Weikart has written a crushing rejoinder entitled, Rallying to Darwin’s Defense: Robert J. Richards and the Historical Record (November 28, 2011). In his reply, Weikart points out the flaws in Richards’ argument:
This is Richards’s strongest evidence that Hitler did not believe in human evolution, but interestingly, he fails to note that in this same passage Hitler clearly stated his belief in the evolution of other species of animals and plants. In this instance Hitler was mentioning humans as a possible exception to the evolutionary rule in nature. So Hitler even at this point did believe in some kind of evolution. Nonetheless, if this were the only statement Hitler ever made about human evolution, then Richards would be right to criticize my position.
Immediately after quoting this passage in Hitler’s Ethic, I note that Hitler often spoke about humans not being very separate from apes, a point that contradicts his position quoted above, since there he claimed a “wide leap” existed between humans and apes. Richards mentions one of my quotations from a 1933 Nuremberg speech by Hitler, which shows that Hitler did not always hold this view about there being a “wide leap.” Hitler in that speech stated, “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”
On balance, then, I think it is probable that Hitler believed in human evolution. That of course does not preclude him from having believed in some kind of Intelligent Design; but in the absence of any arguments put forward by Hitler for the existence of a Designer, we must be skeptical of the idea that he would have endorsed Intelligent Design as a scientific research program.
Professor Robert Richards also adduces a quotation from the chapter on “Nation and Race” in Mein Kampf, where Hitler seemed to espouse a belief in essentialism:
The consequence of this racial purity, which is characteristic of all animals in nature, is not only a sharp separation of the particular races externally, but also in their uniformity of the essence of the very type itself. The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose, the tiger a tiger, and so on.
But as Professor Richard Weikart points out, Hitler was making another point entirely:
The main point Hitler was trying to make in this passage was that racial mixing is deleterious. His intention was not to say that fox, geese, and tigers cannot change over geological time, but rather that they do not mate with each other. It should also be noted that Hitler and most Nazis rejected Lamarckian soft heredity, believing in Weismann’s hard heredity. Thus they believed that over brief periods of time, geologically speaking, measured in hundreds or even a few thousand years, types were fairly fixed. However, like Weismann, Hitler believed that over geological epochs evolution did indeed occur, as he often made clear (see above).
Hitler’s Nazi regime ordered human evolution to be taught in schools and universities
I’d like to finish with a quote from Professor Richard Weikart’s essay, Rallying to Darwin’s Defense: Robert J. Richards and the Historical Record (November 28, 2011), which shows that whatever his private views on human origins may have been, the teaching of human evolution in schools and universities was official Nazi policy:
The following points show that the Nazis embraced evolutionary theory, including the evolution of humans:
1) The official biology curriculum endorsed by the Nazi Ministry of Education, as well as lists of books approved for schools, uniformly called for teaching biological evolution, including human evolution. Specifically the biology curriculum endorsed Darwinian theory and rejected Lamarckism.
2) Biology textbooks during the Third Reich, which were approved by the Ministry of Education, all taught evolution, including human evolution, and they taught the Darwinian mechanism for evolution, while opposing Lamarckism.
3) German anthropologists, including Hans F. K. Guenther and many others who lectured at official Nazi functions, uniformly taught human evolution. The Nazi Racial Policy Office listed these anthropologists’ books on human evolution as recommended reading material.
4) Karl Astel, who was trying to help turn the University of Jena into a “brown university,” solicited and received Himmler’s help in recruiting Gerhard Heberer to the university. Heberer was a leading evolutionary anthropologist who was on the forefront in introducing the neo-Darwinian synthesis to Germany. The infamous Nazi Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel pleaded with the Nazi Minister of Education not to allow Heberer to be called elsewhere, because he wanted Jena to be a Nazi bastion.
5) The Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte, an official party organ edited by Alfred Rosenberg, published articles supporting evolution and even bashing creationism.
6) Other official Nazi magazines, such as Der Schulungsbrief , Neues Volk, Volk und Rasse, and Rasse: Monatsschrift der Nordischen Bewegung, all published articles making clear that they believed in biological evolution, including human evolution.
7) Der Biologe, which from 1935 to 1939 was an official organ of the National Socialist Teachers’ League, before being taken over in 1939 by the SS Ahnenerbe, published many articles attacking creationists, both before and after the SS took it over. Not one article in this biology journal ever challenged evolutionary theory.
8) Nazi manuals designed to inculcate the Nazi worldview into the army, police forces, and general public, contained sections teaching human evolution. These included the following: (a) the SS pamphlet Rassenpolitik (Racial Policy); (b) the SS manual for worldview training, Lehrplan für die weltanschauliche Erziehung in der SS und Polizei (Curriculum for the Worldview Training of the SS and Police): (c) a propaganda pamphlet that Hitler personally endorsed, written for the German military during World War II, Wofür kämpfen wir? (What Are We Fighting For?); and (d) writings by the medical professor Martin Staemmler that were officially approved by the Nazis.
9) The official Nazi newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, published a tribute to Haeckel on the twentieth anniversary of Haeckel’s death in August 1939. The article was entitled, “Um die Abstammung des Menschen: Zum 20. Jahrestage Ernst Haeckels” (“On the Descent of Man: For the Twentieth Anniversary of Ernst Haeckel[‘s death]”). The title and the article clearly avowed belief in human evolution and praised Haeckel for his evolutionary ideas.
Let me say that I think that Darwin’s ideas should be judged on their scientific merits. I am well aware, too, that Charles Darwin was a man who abhorred violence, fought against the slave trade, and rejected the view (espoused by some of his disciples) that the strong should rule the weak. I have no doubt that he would have been horrified by the Holocaust.
I should also like to add that there were many factors contributing to Hitler’s sick and twisted worldview, including a then-prevalent racism, nationalism, Prussian militarism and Christian anti-Semitism.
The point I want to make, however, is that just as it would be wrong to discredit Darwin’s ideas by arguing that Hitler was a Darwinist, it is utterly unfair of Professor Noor to attempt to smear Intelligent Design by stating that “Hitler believed in Intelligent Design.” Let us therefore hope that Professor Noor amends his last slide before his next online course starts in January 2013.