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Nazism and Darwinism on Film

I saw a film recently that I think would interest anyone who is concerned about the moral implications of Darwinism, and who also believes that art can help us to reflect upon moral issues.

The film is Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero, 1947), by Roberto Rossellini, shot in the ruins of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II with non-professional German actors (albeit dubbed in Italian).

Like the near-contemporaneous films of Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves), Germany Year Zero paints a compelling portrait of the chaos and poverty afflicting the civilian population—especially children—immediately following the war.

What makes Germany Year Zero of exceptional interest, however, is the way in which it builds to an almost unbearably sad climax, due in large part to the effect of lingering Nazi propaganda on the mind and conscience of an individual child.

Edmund, the l2-year-old boy at the center of the story, is convinced by his teacher to commit an abominably evil act for which he afterwards cannot forgive himself. And the argument employed by the teacher is couched explicitly in terms of the “philosophy” of the survival of the fittest.

Not only is Germany Year Zero a cinematic experience you will not soon forget; it also provides much food for thought about Darwinian metaphysics and the human conscience.

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16 Responses to Nazism and Darwinism on Film

  1. If I am convinced that Darwin’s theories are scientifically valid, why should I care about “Darwinian metaphysics,” other than to argue with Nazis and their ilk that their philosophy is not in fact mandated or justified by biology? And what if it was — is that a reason to reject a theory which, under the premise of my question, is scientifically valid?

  2. Probably the most important characteristic of the ID movement — and the critical way that it differs from religious attacks on Darwinism — is its insistence that questions of origins be answered purely via science.

    For that reason, I think it is especially important to abstain from arguments like the one in this post, no matter how tempting they may be. Saying, in so many words, “Darwinism should be opposed because it will lead to Nazi-like carnage,” is to commit the same ascientific logic as, “Darwinism should be taught because anything less than a 100% naturialistic explanation will lead to theocracy and a new Dark Ages.”

  3. Question for Darel & mgarelick:

    Does MORALITY evolve ?…

  4. Sladjo asks:

    Does MORALITY evolve ?…

    I suspect that a quasi-Darwinian selection among nations does exist, in that any society which does not strongly discourage murder, stealing, and vandalism will compete poorly against nations that do.

    However, like biological natural selection, this selection may have no creative effect — it may serve only to eliminate dysfunctional nations which have somehow stopped suppressing destructive behaviors. Whether that counts as “evolution” depends on whether the word is defined to mean “whatever natural selection does” or “a creative, innovative process.”

    Even if morality does sometimes evolve in the innovative sense of the term, wouldn’t that be attributable to human intelligence? If a human individual wrote a book that profoundly shifted society’s view of morality, that book would be the product of an intelligent mind.

  5. DarelRex said:

    I suspect that a quasi-Darwinian selection among nations does exist, in that any society which does not strongly discourage murder, stealing, and vandalism will compete poorly against nations that do.

    I have to disagree with that. Given the moral and ethical surroundings of the 3rd Reich, a nation that promoted murder, ethical cleansing (retarded, sick, etc.), and racism did pretty good during that time, and could compete with any nation in the world (swallowing most of Europe) at that time.

    The destruction of the 3rd Reich came through the knowledge of what is ethically and morally right and wrong – IMHO. This knowledge has not evolved yet it has been here for a while.

    For example:

    When slavery was abandoned, was that due to a better understanding of already existing moral and ethical standards (e.g. all (wo)men are created equally!) or was it due to some innovative evolutionary idea?

    IMHO – The moral and ethical implications of “all (wo)men are created equally” have been there long long before the abolishment of slavery.

    Pseudosciences like darwinian psychology should not try to explain the evolution of things like morality, cause IMHO there was none.

  6. How far an ID ideologist should go in pursuit of his ideology? To blame Darwin’s theory of evolution for Nazi philosophy is too far!

  7. tb

    The destruction of the Third Reich came about largely thanks to the equally unethical and immoral Soviet Union. The world did not rise together in a moral crusade to stop the evil Nazis. We sat by as Hitler devoured several countries including France. We entered the war only when we were attacked and even then it was Germany that declared war on us.

    Your point about allowing murder is a little deceptive. Allowing murder generally and the state employing murder selectively are completely different things. I see no difference morally yet this dichotomy has existed throughout human history. It is not okay to murder citizens or tribesmen or other members of “the group,” but the deliberate murder of a group of “others” has been sanctioned throughout the ages. The notion of all men being created equal is appealing in theory but rings hollow in praxis. As a practical theory it is very new. The American experiment is the first time in the twelve thousand plus years of human history that I am aware of where that principle has been enshrined in law. Of course being enshrined in law and being applied in society have been different things throughout our history, but we are finally there for the most part; at least with Americans.

    My primary disagreement with your post however comes from your belief that the origin and evolution of morality should not be investigated. Morality has changed throughout history and differs within our own society. Whether or not there is a divine ideal morality or not is not a matter for scientific inquiry. The evolution of morality, just like the evolution of the economy or religion does lend itself to more objective study. If you want people to stop asking questions, science just aint your arena. People will always wonder why and how. I do not mean the metaphysical Why? (people will always wonder about that too) but the causal reasons why. That is what drives scientific inquiry.

  8. jmcd–

    The difference you see is precisely because most nations throughout history know there IS a moral difference in killing via the state as punishment for crime in response, and on the other hand MURDER.

    Not all killing is murder any more than all eating is gluttony nor all sex is rape. Context is something my little one understands.

    He is 3 feet high.

    This is the realm where Darwinism and historical revisionism fail us, at least in the respect to the specifics of the type you mentioned about how most nations in history have treated these apparent contradiction that are not contradictions for most.

    One can equally argue, while we’re on the topic of the Soviet contribution, that the brutal winter the USSR had one year that froze fuel in the panzers in their tracks and the BUSTING of treaties between Hitler and Stalin had as much to do with the former’s downfall as the tenacity of the Soviet resistence when the Motherland was attacked. Yet snowstorms cannot be said to be a selctive pressure on moral behavior.
    It just means that on your turf your enemy suffers more than YOU do.
    That’s it.

    Side note: I find it interesting that even pacificists do a double take when Hitler’s name is mentioned. And yet today when troubled with even bloodthirstier elements we are told that negotiation and compromise are the order of the day for solving problems. Interesting.

    The point is that while one can argue, and some have, that Darwinian descent via bio-blind alleys allows/selects for human moral convictions to further our gene flow in some manner for sheer efficiency, it certainly cannot allow for moral thought and making exceptions to the rules–and rules for those exception.

    Thus in your true statement (in part, at least) that the immoral or amoral Soviets had a hand in saving the planet from the 3rd Reich, you actually bolster my view on this kind of thing; being smakced by immoral agents, Hitler’s demise was mostly accident, unplanned betrayal, or the result of mostly bad weather. Or all the above.

    This proves nothing about our response, the West in general, whether we should or should not have taken action sooner. It merely says that at a particular juncture morals had little part in this vanquishing of an immoral person. IE–bad things sometimes happen to bad people too as well as good people! So there was NO selective pressure to rid the world of “bad people”. After all, the Soviets went on for decades after, as did many other unsavory types. If Darwinism can explain moral behavior, or a response to immoral behavior, or whatever, it did a sorry job–happy accidents of history don’t make us better people.

    Winding back the tape of history would you count on this again?

    Neither would I.

  9. Nazi Germany didn’t last very long, and its success at overrunning much of Europe might be testimony not to the quality of Nazi policy, but instead to the poor defenses of nearby nations. Also, the pillaging of the conquered nations probably provided economic fuel to continue the process.

    I concur with jmcd’s observation that a nation that legalizes murder generally is not the same thing as a nation that carries out mass-murder of some quasi-isolated subset of the population. The latter type, however, may still be at a competitive disadvantage due to slaughtering a signficant percentage of their own talent and workforce. And, once they have killed or exiled the “undesirable” group, they then must live normally without state-sanctioned murder.

    Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase, “all men are created equal,” is, I think, a little vague. Observe that it has been modified in this thread to “all (wo)men are created equal,” which doesn’t speak well to Jefferson’s claim that it is “self-evident(ly)” true.

    tb says:

    When slavery was abandoned, was that due to a better understanding of already existing moral and ethical standards (e.g. all (wo)men are created equally!) or was it due to some innovative evolutionary idea?

    This sort of challenge, I think, is intended as a sort of conversational trump card, to which the only acceptable response is, “Oh no, I didn’t mean that slavery was ever OK.” Maybe it’s time to break that spell — here’s a hypothesis: What if human society needed slavery in its pretechnological age in order to reach its technological age? (Just as today’s modern societies still need wage labor, which a vastly improved technology of the future may eliminate.)

  10. D-Rex:

    While it is true that female rights as you and I know them weren’t codified or generally recognized in good old TJ’s agrarian society, TJ was both vague enough and good enough of a writer to write something a person of his caliber would think would hold true for all time. In all probability he meant Mankind in the panoramic sense–human beings.

    This is how honest men tell little white lies to help the rest of us.

    :)

    I think on the much bandied issue of slavery–most people knew it to be wrong, just as the feudal lords of Europe knew in their hearts despite the “divine right of Kings” that holding the peasantry as mere chattel and serving winches while the 1% of the upper crust dined on oiled meats and had warm castle fires to sleep to was a fun time bound to end some day.

    People often mentioned these comparitives as if morals somehow are on some automatic shift that respond to timeframes. G. K. Chesterton had a great time parodying the vegetarians and pacificists of his own day who mumbled things like “peace is patriotic” while Hitler was savaging Poland and proclaimed that “now the time has come for the end of meat eating.”

    To which he quipped dryly—”was there a time then, that meat eating was good or indifferent”?

    If one truly thinks something is immoral, and casting aside metaphysical emergency “lifeboat” situations (since most of us don’t live under emergency code reds and other than cave men don’t “need” to eat meat), why is one age not sufficient reason to eat meat or take any female you like, while in another it is OK?

    The truly interesting thing, with a few exceptions, is that most socoeties have rules that govern such behavior, they just apply them differently. There’s a difference.

  11. Hi jmcd,

    My primary disagreement with your post however comes from your belief that the origin and evolution of
    morality should not be investigated.

    I never said anywhere in my post that the origin of morality should NOT be investigated scientifically and objectively.

    What I am trying to say is, looking at morality from a darwinian evolutionary point does not make sense to me and is maybe the wrong approach. I doubt darwinian psychology has any explanatory power on morality or even emotions without doing its major parts on speculations.

    Morality has changed throughout history and differs within our own society.

    IMHO – Moral laws have been there for a long time. I am agnostic to what may have caused these moral laws into
    existence. The adaption of a society to these moral laws, though, is in my eyes not a process that may be described by an evolutionary process since these laws never changed.

    I entirely agree that finding the origin of morality or that of emotions or conscience would be a great advance in the field of anthropology but it will be hard to explain the origin of some electron patterns in evolutionary terms.

    Whether or not there is a divine ideal morality or not is not a matter for scientific
    inquiry.

    Whether there is an ideal morality, be it divine or not, should be considered when conducting scientific
    studies on morality.

    Whether an unguided process should be used as a tool to investigate morality scientifically should also be considered.

    How do you investigate the emergence of morality scientifically?

    If you want people to stop asking questions, science just aint your arena. People will always
    wonder why and how. I do not mean the metaphysical Why? (people will always wonder about that too) but the
    causal reasons why. That is what drives scientific inquiry.

    Your assumption about me being a “science stopper” is a bit disappointing. I am expressing my doubt, and as you can see above I am asking serious questions out of causal reasons and curiosity.

    hi DarelRex,

    Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase, “all men are created equal,” is, I think, a little vague. Observe that it has been modified in this thread to “all (wo)men are created equal,” which doesn’t speak well to Jefferson’s claim that it is “self-evident(ly)” true.

    He could have meant that it applies only to men, sure, but I think it is self explaining that he meant everyone, regarding men as humankind. Else it does not make sense. If you want to be smart about it, fine with me, yet it does not make sense otherwise.

    Thomas Jeffersons wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

    I said:

    When slavery was abandoned, was that due to a better understanding of already existing moral and ethical standards (e.g. all (wo)men are created equally!) or was it due to some innovative evolutionary idea?

    I don’t know what you did not understand about my question above? The abandonment of slavery was an advance in moral/ethical thinking in society, and I based my question upon this presupposition.
    Your following ironic comment below shows traces of arrogance, and is uncalled for.

    DarelRex said:

    This sort of challenge, I think, is intended as a sort of conversational trump card, to which the only acceptable response is, “Oh no, I didn’t mean that slavery was ever OK.” Maybe it’s time to break that spell — here’s a hypothesis: What if human society needed slavery in its pretechnological age in order to reach its technological age? (Just as today’s modern societies still need wage labor, which a vastly improved technology of the future may eliminate.)

    If you are saying that technological advance is more important than ethical/moral standards, or that ethical/moral standards should be compromised for technological advances I see a materialistic world view that could easily end in a 4th Reich.

  12. tb said:

    If you are saying that technological advance is more important than ethical/moral standards, or that ethical/moral standards should be compromised for technological advances I see a materialistic world view that could easily end in a 4th Reich.

    Oh no, I didn’t mean that slavery was ever OK! :)

    But seriously: Should we attempt to ban wage labor, prisons, and various other necessary unpleasantnesses of today’s society, because in the far future those things may be abolished as barbaric? Should we attempt this even if doing so causes nothing but massive social disruption? Are we “morally obligated” to do it anyway?

    The key question here, I think, is whether morality is an a set of absolutes handed to us by our creator(s), or is a set of social rules that changes over time as technology changes society. I lean heavily toward the latter, and I don’t think pro-ID arguments are thus weakened.

    Does your “4th Reich” comment mean to imply that technological progress will somehow be furthered by bringing back slavery or genocide? Was technological progress advanced by Nazi Germany’s practice of genocide? One of the planks of my position is that technological progress improves (on average) individual freedom and security. (Whether it improves happiness is another question.)

  13. mgarelick:

    You wrote, “If I am convinced that Darwin’s theories are scientifically valid, why should I care about “Darwinian metaphysics”?

    That is a fair question. By “metaphysics,” I meant all those pseudo-sciences (like evolutionary psychology) that pretend to explain away the normative dimension of human existence (the sovereignty of truth, beauty, moral goodness, etc. over us) by reducing them to molecular biology or neuroscience, by means of natural selection.

    If you are prepared to renounce all of that, then we can move on to an argument about the scientific validity of Darwinism with respect to living things generally. But so long as Darwinism wants to “cannibalize” (in the immortal words of E.O. Wilson) the ideal or spiritual dimension within which human beings manifestly live, then I think my label “Darwinian metaphysics” is a fair one.

    jmcd: You write, “Morality has changed throughout history and differs within our own society.”

    It is one thing to say that human beings have disagreed about morality throughout history, and still today; it is something else altogether to say that “morality has changed.”

    Unless, that is, you are simply *assuming* that morality = social convention. But that is the very point at issue between materialist/reductionists like yourself and moral realists like me. So, if you do that, you are begging the question.

    What arguments do I have for the objectivity of morality? Here is one.

    If there were no objectively right and wrong acts, then it would be absurd to try to convince anyone else that what they do is wrong. We would all just have to respect each other’s “differences,” no matter what. Heaven forbid that we should try to tell a Somali tribesman, for example, that female genital mutilation is wrong. Does that seem right to you?

    If you want to hone your intuitions about the objectivity of morality (according to my theory, they are there deep inside you, just by virtue of your being human), there is another wonderful movie well worth watching: Sansho the Bailiff, by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is about the struggle of human beings to rise above the state of bestiality. (Oh, and by the way, there is nary a Christian in sight.)

  14. When drawing comparisions between Nazism (National Socialism) and Darwinism, I would recommend the movie, “Conspiracy” (available at amazon) which is based very objectively on the records and transcripts of the infamous “Wansee Conference” of January 1942 where the ‘Final Solution’ was born.

    The scientific authority and inevitablity of Darwinian Natural Selection was the argument used to convice those attendees who were initially squeemish about the proposal.

    Since Jews were inferior and less ‘fit’ they would ultimately be removed by nature anyway, so there was nothing “wrong” about hurrying the process.

    An excellent, chilling, and highly recommended film.

  15. Graceout:

    Good point. We see the trending here in this forum. No, not to Nazism or anything so flamboynantly evil. But evil is rarely so flamboyant, like Lord Sauron. It is usually more subtle, and creeps in under guise of grand visions, scientific visions, grand economics theories and theories on human behavior that end up being bereft of humanity. It is true that notions of the “rules” that govern that emotionless Darwinian descent can be used for anything, including putative good or good deeds or transforming the “Selfish Gene” into something that sounds politically correct. But ONLY if such values are seen as “normative.”

    The opposite is often supposedly found in human DNA. Most sociobiologists mock modernist notions of morality and remind us kindly but firmly of the strong evidence that cannibalism, rape, and wholesale slaughter were the M.O. of human descent. Saying that morals “evolved” puts a mechanistic twist that sounds exactly like what Theodosius was asking: Is this (morals) all social convention then?
    probably many Darwinists don’t think the realm of science and morals ever intersect, but more than one of prominence has penned something about the “life lessons” of Charles Darwin.

    E.O. Wilson, Oliver Wendall Holmes, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Francis Fukuyama, B.F. Skinner, linguist Noam Chomsky, Stephen Wienburg, among many others have all had a wonderful time writing about the “ultimate meanining” for human morals due to a mechanism set on autopilot that seeks out the most efficient way of making more humans.
    Humans in this role are no more moral, no less, than the saltwater crocodiles that plague Indonesian swimming holes, as their tenure on earth is even older.

    And I would agree if that is where the argument would lead, that phrase is actually hollow on human morals.

  16. I don’t think Darwinism alone “caused” monstrosities like the Third Reich. It merely legitimized a utilitarian, amoral view of how to treat one’s fellow human beings.

    European philosophers (German ones in particular) had been sweeping impressionable minds clean of solid moral structures for at least a century before scientists joined in. They added a nice shiny veneer of Indisputable Science to reprehensible ideas that were previously confined to whisperings between reprehensible people. With the veneer, it was much smoother and easier for the masses to swallow.

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