With friends like these, or Tony Campolo gets eaten by the Hitler zombie

Tony Campolo, generally considered a member of the Christian Left, writes a staggeringly wrong essay on evolution. After rightly dismissing typical creationist complaints that evolutionary "theories contradict their literal biblical belief that creation occurred in six 24-hour days," Campolo jumps onto the Coral Ridge/Disco. Inst. bandwagon, claiming that the "real dangers of Darwinism," lie in "the ethical implications of Darwin's original writings."

After which we get the typical half-literate practice of judging Darwin's 500+ page opus based on a single phrase in the subtitle: "Favored Races." Anyone who reads the book would know that Darwin used "races" here to refer to varieties of a species, and to emphasize his idea that species form from such naturally occurring varieties. His usage does not discuss particular races of humans. Of course, someone who had read Darwin's book would never claim "that among Darwin's scientifically based proposals was the elimination of 'the negro and Australian peoples,'" since the phrase in quotation marks never occurs in the book, and since he does not present that or any other political proposals.

The lies and misrepresentations continue for several paragraphs, claiming that Nazi abuse of Darwin's ideas somehow shifts responsibility from the shoulders of the leaders of the Third Reich onto Darwin. I've commented before that such claims verge on Holocaust denial, and I stand by that claim here. Nobel Prize-winning biologist Konrad Lorenz is cited for his brief stint in the Nazi Party, rather than for his explicit rejection of Naziism during WWII, nor is any mention made of the impact on evolutionary thinking in his subsequent Nobel-winning work in animal behavior. His explanation that "many [scientists] quickly turned away from [Naziism] with the same horror as I" also remains on the cutting-room floor. Of course, there is no mention of the fact that scientists and medical researchers in the US and Britain used Darwinian principles to protect Allied forces from disease in the trenches and jungles of the fight against Germany, Italy and Japan.

If one truly seeks an evangelical perspective on the implications of evolutionary thinking for morality, one would do better to turn to Presbyterian minister Samuel Stanhope Smith's comments from 1787. In "An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species," quoted in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll, Princeton's seventh president wrote of the moral dangers in thinking of humanity as a population sundered by race, rather than united by common ancestry:

The science of morals would be absurd; the law of nature and nations would be annihilated; no general principles of human conduct, of religion, or of policy could be framed; for, human nature … could not be comprehended in any system. The rules which would result from the study of our own nature would not apply to the natives of other countries who would be of different species. … Such principles tend to confound all science, as well as piety; and leave us in the world uncertain whom to trust, or what opinions to frame of others. The doctrine of one race, removes this uncertainty, renders human nature susceptible of system, illustrates the powers of physical causes, and opens a rich and extensive field for moral science.

My emphasis, from Scandal, p. 89.

Similarly, seeing all of life in this context gives a basis for a moral view of all of life, and justifies the Christian Left's call for Creation Care, and for responsible stewardship of our world's natural resources. Not only is humanity united as a family, we are united with all of life through our shared family tree. This insight, central to Darwin's writing, has profound moral and philosophical significance, even beyond its crucial place in modern biology (a factor which Campolo ignores, to his essay's great detriment). Darwin saw this, too, famously concluding his magnum opus with the observation that:

There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Campolo ignores this, as he ignores Darwin's rejection of slavery and other racist practices of his day, andcloses on a note which falls exactly into the trap Smith described over 220 years ago:

I hope our schoolchildren will be taught that it is up to science to study the processes that gave birth to the human race. But, as postmodern as it may be, I also want them to learn that whatever science discovers about our biological origins, there is, nevertheless, a mystical quality in human beings that makes each of us sacred and of infinite worth.

We don't need postmodernism or other sorts of relativism to justify human morality. Even before Darwin wrote, common descent was seen as a tool for unifying a moral community. The Christian Left could be, and ought to be, allies in the fight against miseducation in our public schools. Campolo's dishonesty about Darwin, and his ignorance of his own religion's theological history do no one any good. They will not serve children, since the grapes of scientific wisdom are not gathered from the thorn bushes of creationist misrepresentation, nor are the figs of moral knowledge gathered from the thistles at the mouth of a quotemine. It's important to be honest, not to put words in the mouths of others, nor to misrepresent the words they did say.

The Nazis misrepresented and misconstrued Darwin's work because, like Campolo, they failed to see the moral significance of our shared family tree. We improve nothing by repeating their errors, misrepresenting the state of science and replacing extensively-tested ideas about the world with our personal biases. Part of Noll's concern in Scandal (cited above, thanks to a tip from slacktivist) is that evangelicals have abandoned the field in terms of the hard work of "patient, comprehensive Christian thinking about the world and life as a whole." The Christian Left could be allies in the fight against this anti-intellectual strain, and could even find allies in that effort from non-Christians on the left. Instead, Campolo repeats the same lies that his enemies promoted by his enemies and ours, making himself an ally to none.


More like this

From a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer' editors I wrote that probably won't be printed because of the use of words like "lie":

Mr. Campolo claims that Darwin argued that "advanced societies should not waste time and money on caring for the mentally ill, or those with birth defects." Darwin did, in fact, point out that civilized people "do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick." He pointed out that "No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man." But he immediately followed with:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1st edition, Volume 1, p. 168-69.

Darwin was not a saint. He shared the common view of Englishmen of his day that Europeans were the "highest" form of humans on the planet, though he also argued strongly for the dignity of all human beings and against the slavery that many churchgoers and preachers supported by reading out of their Bibles.

sometimes something irritates me enough to take action against monumental ignorance displayed by someone who should know better. I sent this to his website:

I suppose you have received numerous e-mails about your STUNNING IGNORANCE displayed in your recent Inquirer article. Let me add to those condemning you for your inability to show that you have read ANYTHING in The Origin of Species. You apparently have swallowed whole the lies that Creationists have been perpetrating for decades.
As to the source of Nazism,you are so far off that I find it incredible. It's as if you stated that "suffer the little children" means that "children should suffer. Your research abilities are that bad. If you want to look for a scientific theory that is related to Nazism, then you should look at the Germ Theory and condemn Pasteur and Koch. Hitler described Jews as an infection, somethiong dangerous to society that had to be eliminated. Are you going to condemn Pasteur? Perhaps the major force in the Nazis desires to eliminate the Jews was the long history of anti-semitism in Germany that probably reached its peak with the writing of Martin Luther. There is an absolute connection there, not some second or third hand misapplication of Darwin


The contact on his website is here.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 22 Jan 2008 #permalink

May I suggest a contributing factor to the abuse of "evolution" in various social/political movements of the early 20th century:

The belief that natural selection was not enough. That it had to be helped along by purposeful, intelligent intervention.

In support of this suggestion, I would point out that the early 20th century was an era which has been called "the eclipse of darwinism", for the reason that natural selection was not understood and accepted.

Campolo has an undated article on beliefnet - circa 2005? - that's almost worse.

"Those in favor of Darwin's theory usually act as though his explanation of evolution has empirical validation. It doesn't! It's just a theory. . .. There are other explanations of evolution that are available in the marketplace of ideas that at least deserve some consideration. For instance, paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin rejected the scientific-materialism viewpoint that says Darwinian processes are all there is. The theories of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck differed from Darwin's theory . . ."

And etc.

Ah well.

And this guy was Bill Clinton's pastoral counselor? Explains a lot.

Any time a creationist tries to link evolution and Nazism, there's a very simple way to respond. Ask them if they accept microevolution. When they say yes, remind them that what Hitler was attempting amounted to change within the species, therefore, by their own argument, they are Nazis for accepting microevolution.

May I beg to differ.

You refer to "Nazi abuse of Darwin's ideas".

I have not seen evidence that Nazis made any use - not even abuse - of Darwin's ideas.

I have seen some evidence that they were opposed to Darwin's ideas. For example, like burning "darwinian" books.

I can't imagine that they would be very favorable to the idea that "Aryans" shared any ancestry with apes.

They surely didn't think much of natural selection.

Yes, they did speak favorably of Pasteur, Mendel, and Koch. It would be fair to say that they abused those scientists. But where did they speak favorably of Darwin?