Sunday, August 20, 2006

From the Archives: Hitler Was A Christian and Himmler Didn't Like Evolution

Through PZ and Raw Story I see that the wonderfully Ninth-Commandment-Committed James Kennedy is sponsoring an upcoming television special featuring none other than I-Walk-In-Christ's-Shoes Ann Coulter which will "connect the dots" between Darwin and Hitler. Those of us who can actually read know this will be pure Christian propoganda with limited fact, a dearth of appropriate context, a bevy of misquotes and absent volumes of data that don't fit the "Darwin Led to Hitler" conspiracy theory. In honor of this upcoming event, I would like to resurrect an old post of mine that touched on just this subject:

More on Farah's Lunacy
(From the March 2006 Archives)

Several days ago, Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, posted comments on an article by Joseph Farah at WorldNetDaily entitled “Hitler’s Evolutionists”. Farah, citing an article in Archaeology entitled “Hitler’s Willing Archaeologists” rehashes the worn out creationist “evolution-leads-to-Hitler” argument that attempts to link evolutionary theory with the rise of the Nazi regime. This is, of course, a subset of the broader philosophy espoused by creationists and some Christian apologists, that “everything bad is the result of evolution; everything good stems from Christianity”, whether it’s Nazism, Communism, Columbine, abortion or a whole additional host of social ills. Brayton makes short work of Farah’s latest twist on this creationist myth by pointing out that even a superficial perusal of history reveals a much different story; one that Farah would rather his readership not know about. Hitler’s own writing and speeches show clearly that if he justified his ideology with any philosophical position, it was Christianity. Hitler claimed to be a Christian, cited biblical passages to justify his ideology, and was clearly familiar with centuries of church history documenting anti-Jewish attitudes on the part of many prominent Christian figures. Despite this, Brayton correctly clarifies that Christianity is no more to blame for the development of Hitler’s ideology than is evolutionary science:

Now, the Christian would obviously argue that what Hitler did was distort the true aims of Christianity, and I would agree with them. It is folly to blame Hitler's ideology of hatred on Christianity; his pathology was far deeper than a mere religious belief. But by the same token, neither was he motivated by a zeal for science. He was a manipulator who used every possible means to convince his followers to go along with him and changed his rhetoric depending on the nature of the audience he was speaking to. This should be obvious to any thinking person, which of course leaves Farah out right from the start.

Farah is the poster-boy for the creationist tactic of creating data where none exist while simultaneously ignoring volumes of legitimate information that counters his position. Brayton illuminated Farah’s idiocy with the light of reason, logic and a more comprehensive look at a available information. I would have left the whole issue there except that, as an archaeologist, I was curious about the connection Farah was attempting make between archaeology, Hitler and evolutionary theory. So I bought a copy of Archaeology and looked at the original article. It took only a few paragraphs to realize something I’ve always suspected of Joseph Farah: he needs to learn how to read.

The article is largely about Assien Bohmers, a Dutch national with a scientific background in soils analysis, stratigraphy and archaeology, who joined Heinrich Himmler’s elite research institute, the Ahnenerbe. The Ahnenerbe’s official mission was to “…unearth new evidence of the accomplishments and deeds of Germanic ancestors”. However, in reality it was clearly designed to bring “scientific methods” to bear on the question of a Germanic “Aryan” ancestry preferred by Hitler. Not only were the researchers tasked to identify common physical features between Germanic people and human fossils that were already being excavated in Germany and France, they were also to demonstrate the cultural superiority of these ancestors of the master race by showing significant developments in material culture. In other words, they were to cherry-pick data to demonstrate a preconceived notion to the larger public: everything culturally good originated from the Aryans; everything culturally bad originated with inferior races.

In reading through the article after having read Farah’s take on it, there were a number of issues that struck me. Brayton points out that in his own article, Farah cops to the fact that Ahnenerbe’s researches were manipulating data to demonstrate a particular viewpoint but doesn’t catch the relevance to doing proper science. Brayton demonstrates that is precisely the opposite of what science does. But the original article goes further in depth on this point, and is completely ignored by Farah. Despite the overt coercion from Himmler on what the Ahnenerbe researchers were to produce, many were clearly questioning the results, precisely because they were aware of the totality of the data. Bohmers reported enthusiastically to Himmler that his data suggested the ancestors of the Germanic race did not migrate in from the east as previously supposed, but “…must have developed in greater Germany”:

Bohmers was well aware, however, that the European scientific community would be considerably less enthralled by these ideas. Indeed, his foreign colleagues would need serious convincing, for Bohmers knew that many European scholars scoffed at the science of the Third Reich.

As I read through this, the depth to which Farah himself manipulated the article’s data to demonstrate his own warped sense of history became increasingly apparent. But the most egregious example was to come. Farah either didn’t read the whole article or (more likely) specifically ignored the following gem:

Himmler also found time to take Bohmers aside at a gathering to convey his personal views on the subject of human evolution. It must have been an instructive conversation. As Bohmers later reported, Himmler dismissed outright the notion that the human race was closely related to primates. He was also outraged by an idea proposed by another German researcher that the Cro-Magon arose from the Neanderthal. To Himmler, both these hypotheses were “scientficially totally false”. They were also “quite insulting to humans.”

Himmler, head of the SS and Gestapo, the person whose activities and ideology Joseph Farah would most like to lay at the feet of evolutionary theory, did not believe in evolution! In fact, it is quite clear that Himmler’s ideas on the subject of evolution were exactly the same as…Joseph Farah’s!

There was a final parallel I couldn’t help but notice. In an opening paragraph to the article I found the following description of Himmler’s need to establish the Ahnenerbe, which was partly to correct the fact that scholars had not uncovered evidence of the designers of the “master race”:

The answer to this problem, in Himmler’s mind, lay in more German scholarship – scholarship of the right political stripe. So he created the Ahnenerbe, which he conceived of as a research organization brimming with brilliant mavericks and brainy young upstarts who would publicly unveil a new portrait of the ancient world, one in which Aryans would be seen coining civilization and bringing light to the inferior races…

The concept of conscripting “brainy young upstarts” to “publicly unveil” a new way of looking at things sounded vaguely familiar. And I didn’t have to go far to find where I had originally read it:

Scientific revolutions are usually staged by an initially small and relatively young group of scientists who are not blinded by the prevailing prejudices and who are able to do creative work at the pressure points, that is, on those critical issues upon which whole systems of thought hinge….The primary purpose of Phase II is to prepare the popular reception of our ideas. The best and truest research can languish unread and unused unless it is properly publicized….We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidence's [sic!] that support the faith, as well as to "popularize" our ideas in the broader culture…

These are from the Discovery Institute’s Wedge document. Will ironies never cease?

Blogging More Frequently Soon

I'll be back to blogging more frequently soon. My temporary detail ends in two weeks and I'll be back home on a more regular basis after that. I had tried posting from my temporary location during the week but couldn't get my computer to connect over the phone lines there, which explains why my posts have been limited to the weekends. I'm also gearing up to teach An Introduction to World Prehistory at Lassen Community College for the first time this semester as well as a correspondence course in Physical Anthropology. Not to mention catching up with the family and getting the kids ready for college and eighth grade, respectively. So time has been limited.

However, in regards to my previous posts I will have some interesting case studes to relay to you that have to do with forest management and evolutionary theory. So stay tuned....

Part III: Conclusion

(Here's the last segment in my essay on the Forest Service and evolutionary theory. I rushed it a bit to get it on the blog, but the bottom line is that all resources management depends on Darwin evolution. There is nothing that Intelligent Design offers to maintain species, restore forest health, etc. Again, bear in mind that it was originally written for the public at large, although I'm pulling together a more in-depth article on the topic for peer-reviewed publication.)

Was Darwin Right? And Should the Forest Service Care?

Part III: Conclusion

IDT has no practical application to the management of natural resources that supercede or replace Darwinian natural selection. We now realize that species change can occur very rapidly, and each year there are more and more studies documenting measurable physical differences between populations in no more than a few decades. This is documented for a host of species including salmon, cichlid fishes, squirrels, rats, guppies, mosquitofish, finches, and a host of plant species. We depend on these evolutionary principles of species variability, inheritance and adaptation to develop management techniques to reach a desired ecosystem condition. There are, however, serious philosophical implications for natural resource management and conservation if IDT is legitimized as scientific inquiry through no other mechanism than public appeal.

The fact that IDT proponents have convinced the broader public that a non-scientific idea merits discussion alongside serious scientifically backed theories does not bode well for biological conservation and management science. Christopher Mooney, in The Republican War on Science, has documented a concerted effort by the current administration to either limit (in some cases outright censor) scientific research or promote scientifically vacuous ideas as legitimate science. While this occurs under all political philosophies, attacks on science have been particularly egregious over the last five years. Biologists, ecologists, foresters and others who maintain scientific approaches are increasingly forced to defend their conclusions against non-professional administrators with the ability to elevate baseless conjecture to the status of alternative theory in the public arena. Whether it is outright dismissal of solid data on sage grouse distributions without appropriate countering data or warping collection of blind test data on lynx to promote a public perception of unethical behavior on the part of agency biologists, the methods mirror those of IDT advocates. Other agencies are affected as well. The current re-write of the National Park Service management rules to eliminate any reference to evolutionary biology is a clear attempt to remove scientific approaches to management.

If there is an implication for natural resource management that stems from ID, it’s that conservation biology is irrelevant. It is, after all, not much of a logical leap to go from “we don’t need an explanation, the Intelligent Designer just did it that way” to “we don’t need to worry about causes for species extinction, it’s just all part of God’s plan”.
If it is true, as some ID theorists suggest, that the only way a cell could make a flagellum (or the only way some conifer species are more fire resistant than others) is if the characteristics were already coded for in their DNA. If this pre-structural coding is the result of intelligent design, then why bother limiting competition through selective harvesting? Moreover, is genetic information necessary for implementing management methods that take advantage of the genetic make-up of populations? Under evolutionary theory, the answer is decidedly “yes”; under IDT the practical applications of genetic information are absent. In response, IDT proponents may suggest that some combination of natural selection mechanisms and IDT principles is possible (another moving target!). But IDT does not apparently accept the evolutionary premises on which genetic variability, inheritance, adaptation and selection are based, therefore IDT has nothing useful to say about natural resource management. IDT proponents are not specific about the instances, locations and conditions under which Darwinian mechanisms might be overridden by Designer intervention. So if ID proponents accept some Darwinian mechanisms such as adaptation, then why not all? What separates some principles from others? With IDT there is no way for managers to predict the outcome of their management strategies and adapt to new conditions.

Of course the ultimate goal of IDT is not to develop testable hypotheses and build applicable knowledge to real world problems. If there is any goal of IDT advocates, it is to justify their personal belief in an omnipotent, intelligent designer. However, considering the prevalence of extinction throughout life’s history, the presence of genetic anomalies like mutation, and more importantly, the inherent ability of the human species to manipulate and change the environment seemingly at will, the broader implication of IDT is not an omnipotent designer, but rather a significantly impotent designer.

Land management agencies rely on Darwinian principles to maintain species, restore forest health, develop genetically appropriate species for reforestation, combat invasive species, promote sustainable ecosystems, and help protect the environment in which we live. Unfortunately, most agency scientists do not understand the nature of the creation-evolution debate or the impacts it has on their own fields of expertise. Biologists, ecologists and other environmental scientists within land management would do well to pay attention and get involved in debates over evolution and science. They can start by checking up on their local school districts to ensure their children are getting a proper science education. They can volunteer to present good science in the classrooms. They can publicly support teachers who are being pressured to offer non-science alternatives or find it easier to just stop teaching science. They can be more vocal in identifying the evolutionary principles underlying management to a broader audience. They can include more evolutionary theory in interpretation and public outreach. Our public lands are too important to be managed on anything but the best available science.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Part II: How is Darwinian Evolution Connected to Natural Resource Management?

(Here is Part II of the article I wrote concerning the relationship of natural resource management with evolution (. Remember, it was written with a general audience in mind. Commenters on Part I have already pointed out some of the glaring errors of IDT, but my intent was to start with the premise that IDT is valid and then ask the question later, IF it is valid, THEN it should have some bearing on basic aspects of every day science such as determining whether land management agencies use prescribed fire or "thin from below". This is part where I start to show that the emperor has no clothes...).


Was Darwin Right? And Should the Forest Service Care?

Part II: How is Darwinian Evolution Connected to Natural Resource Management?

There can be no mistake that natural resource management is based on Darwinian evolution. Pick up any major scientific journal covering forestry ecology and management issues and it becomes readily apparent that the contents are imbued with Darwin’s ideas, although the connection may not be obvious to the lay reader. Terms like “natural selection” and “evolution” are likely to be absent, and even Darwin’s name will be missing from most articles. In several randomly picked articles from recent (2005 or in press) issues of Forest Ecology and Management, I noted that the terms “Darwin”, “evolution” or “natural selection” occur only three times. However, terms like “adaptation”, “competition”, “differential reproduction”, “variability”, “mutation”, “mortality” and “survival” are mentioned in abundance. These are principles of evolutionary biology and depend on the broader concepts of Darwinian evolution in order to make sense. “Adaptation”, for example, has no biological meaning outside of an evolutionary context. I found these evolutionary principles further codified in more colloquial management language that also frequents research articles on which agency officials depend: “shade tolerant”, “fire-dependent”, “historical trajectory”, “best fit to existing conditions”, “trajectory of forest types”, “selective harvesting”, “fires favor the largest trees with the thickest bark”. The list goes on. These are clearly describing management applications of variability, competition, differential survival and reproduction, all bedrock principles of evolutionary theory. The language of forest management belies its Darwinian framework.

In an effort to be fair to IDT advocates I limited my perusal of resource management articles to those that had clear management implications and did not already clearly invoke evolutionary principles in their titles or abstracts. In reality, it is difficult to find examples of forest management research that do not explicitly invoke evolutionary assumptions. My point is that research articles not explicitly stating their evolutionary framework are clearly still assuming Darwinian principles to discuss management practices that would give us healthier forest resources. The research and management arms of the USDA Forest Service and other agencies tasked with land and species management cannot escape Darwin’s legacy.

But what of IDT as an alternative to Darwinian evolution? If IDT is a scientifically valid theory on a par with evolution, as its advocates insist, then what implications would this idea have for forest management? What mechanisms does IDT purport to offer as replacements for evolutionary theory? The problem is divining what IDT really is. Even allowing IDT the benefit of the doubt as a scientific proposal this is no easy task. Amongst ID proponents there is no consistent definition as to what IDT looks like as a scientific endeavor. Components of IDT are often criticized as a “moving target”, and clearly with justification. IDT proponents seem to generally accept the idea that species have a history and have changed through time; however, this position is not always clear. Many IDT advocates accept this premise for some species but are uncomfortable applying it to others (there seems to be no problem that camels exhibit an evolutionary trajectory, but there appears to be some discourse over whether the same can be said for humans). Some reject it outright. There is also some suggestion that this component of IDT is largely a fa├žade, made to make IDT more palatable as a scientific idea and to avoid entanglements with religious ideas of creationism that are rejected by the court system.

Assuming IDT accepts Darwin’s concept of “descent with modification”, what it probably does not accept is its mechanism, although here again IDT is a moving target. IDT proponents appear to largely reject natural selection as a mechanism driving species change, suggesting that life particularly at the cellular level is too complex to have been derived by “natural” mechanism such as Darwinian selection. Many biological structures are considered “irreducibly complex” in that if one component is removed the system completely stops functioning. Given the apparent complexity of some biological structures, natural selection would have had to create the entire sequence with all of its parts in a single event. Or so the argument assumes. Clearly, they argue, natural selection is incapable of such a feat. Instead they suggest creation of species is guided, at least at some level, by an undefined Designer, and not through Darwinian natural selection. If natural selection is inherently flawed, as IDT proponents suggest, then concepts of adaptation, competition, and variability have no useful application under IDT. Natural resource management strategies essentially become nothing more than “shot in the dark” efforts.

IDT advocates would probably counter that some combination of natural selection mechanisms and IDT principles is possible, but again they offer nothing more than another moving target, against which it is impossible to draw testable hypotheses. That still begs the question of exactly where in the natural system mechanisms are thwarted by intelligent design imposed from above. IDT may or may not accept a historical relationship between species and it may reject natural selection as a mechanism driving species change, but either way IDT cannot describe functional relationships among living organisms that exist in absence of natural selection. IDT proponents are not specific about the instances, locations and conditions under which Darwinian mechanisms are overridden by Designer intervention, because the idea is immune from testable propositions.

Instead, IDT’s main argument falls on criticism of evolutionary theory. They constantly repeat the mantra: many biological features are irreducibly complex and cannot be the product of natural selection; the Cambrian explosion indicates the sudden occurrence of major animal body plans that cannot be explained by Darwinian principles; and no transitional fossils exist in the paleontological record to indicate species change as the result of an accumulative process like natural selection. Irreducible complexity seemed to initially catch the evolutionary research community off-guard when it was proposed in the early 1990s, but only for a moment. Solid research has since demonstrated time and again that supposed irreducibly complex systems can be reduced further and easily explained by natural selection. Components of supposed irreducible biological systems are now found to function quite well without some parts of the system, find “short-cut” pathways to accomplish the same function, or simply serve other functions. IDT activists have covered up the paleontological reality of the Cambrian explosion to give the impression that birds, reptiles, mammals, fish and insects arose suddenly some 500 million years. Not only did the so-called “explosion” last for tens of millions of years, but new research in the Pre-Cambrian period is showing a steady rise of complex features in organisms. Further, IDT advocates purposefully (or ignorantly) misuse the term “body plan”: no birds, no mammals, no insects, no reptiles and no fish are to be found in the Cambrian. These “groups” as we know them today all arise much later in time, their fossil histories marked in many cases by clear transitional steps. The suite of transitional fossils familiar to paleontologists in all areas of research belies the claim made by IDT advocates that none exist. The pine tree forests managed by the Forest Service are just such an example. The fossil record shows transitional steps from their origin in the Jurassic some 150 million years ago. Their slow accumulations of characters adaptive to drier (and more fire prone) ecosystems is clear. The fact that managers today take advantage of those adaptive characteristics is testament to the fact that evolutionary theory offers practical applications for ecosystem restoration and restoration of “healthy” forests. In contrast, IDT offers resource management nothing of practical value.

I have attempted to give IDT the benefit of the doubt as a scientific endeavor on a par with evolutionary theory as its advocates would like. It is clear, however, that IDT proponents cannot answer basic questions about their supposed theory, because there is nothing about ID for which one can form testable hypotheses. It violates a primary requirement of theory: that it generate testable hypotheses to determine its ability to explain natural phenomena. Its proponents will cry foul and claim a bias against IDT bordering on abject prejudice, simply because it has religious connotations. But the reality is that IDT is not science. IDT exists not because it has advanced scientific knowledge but because its proponents have waged a successful public relations campaign (much like astrology). It has used popular dislike of evolution and manufactured “controversies” in evolutionary theory to camouflage its lack of a scientific approach and inability to offer anything of scientific value.