I received so many great responses to Monday's column that I've only now finished reading them. Here's one I think correctly points out the crux of the dispute: The contention that a fully naturalistic worldview precludes any source of morality. This reader believes that it does – and that the element of chance inherent in evolution influenced not only Hitler but serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer:
Your article examines whether Hitler was influenced by the theory of evolution, argues that Richard Weikart (who accepts , as I do, the theory of evolution as a valid, if incomplete, scientific theory) is trying to connect Darwin and Hitler to promote creationism, and suggests that science explains it all.
Of course, the fundamental question raised by your article is whether or not life has any meaning or purpose. You quote Richard Weikart as saying, "If everything is a product of chance - purposeless - which is widespread in biology textbooks ... then I don't think you have any grounds to criticize Hitler." You say, "Those are fighting words", leading the reader to think that others have challenged the statement. But what follows is Robert Richard's belief that Hitler was not a Darwinian. How does Professor Richard's position on whether Hitler was a Darwinian "fight" Weikart's statement?
If there is no point to the Universe (as physicist Steven Weinberg and others believe), and if evolution and life have no purpose (as the late Stephen Jay Gould believed, and Richard Dawkins and others believe), then, on what possible grounds could we criticize Hitler or anyone else for their actions? As "philosopher"/murderer Jeffrey Dahmer put it so well: "If it all happens naturalistically, what's the need for a God? Can't I set my own rules? Who owns me? I own myself."
Constructing a more informed and less rigid morality from a pointless, purposeless world? Finding inspiration in the element of chance and the preciousness of life from countless accidents? The ideas have an austere nobility about them. But Hitler, Stalin, Dahmer and others have already shown us what their versions of morality look like. And if everything is a product of chance – purposeless, then there is nothing wrong (or right) with their actions.
This reader also argues, perhaps correctly, that sources quoted in my column never completely refuted this point of view. I think the most concise refutation comes from Swarthmore College biologist Scott Gilbert, who addressed the question in an e-mail to me. Instead of quoting him in the column, I devoted a blog post to his entire letter earlier this week, but I think these sentences capture the moral issue best:
According to the agnostic Thomas Huxley, humans evolved as the animal who would fight against natural selection. Indeed, for Darwin's greatest proponent, the goal of "purpose" was to transcend natural selection and to make a just society.
But to do this, does one need an old man giving laws from his celestial throne (or as Haeckel called Him, "the heavenly gaseous vertebrate"?) Huxley and the secularists after him claimed that humans must take on the adult task of forming laws and purposes. Nature has no purpose, but humans can make purposes. We have grown up and no longer need a father-figure to reward us when we're good and threaten us with Hell if we're bad. Humans have to make a just society ourselves, thought Huxley and others, and we've evolved wonderful capacities for so doing.
Finally, this reader gave one of the cleverest pieces of evidence that Hitler can't possibly have understood Darwin: