Evolution and Morality

A private conversation on this topic turned into a really good discussion, and we thought we might share it with everyone else. This will be a moderated topic, with @ho_idiotes, @AllenWitmerMiller, @Puck_Mendelssohn, and myself leading off to recreate that discussion here. Once we get through that phase, the topic will open up for others to participate.

Specific Rules for this topic:

  1. I may move or delete comments from others posted before we get thru the opening phase.
  2. Instances of Godwin’s Law may be removed unless referenced very carefully. This came up in the original discussion and we decided we would be better off without.
  3. I ask that all comments and questions be thoughtfully considered. Single short sentence remarks and tit-for-tat responses may be removed at moderator discretion.

Finally, I ask for patience while we recreate the opening remarks. We have four people operating on different schedules, so this might takes several days.

So with no further ado, take it way, Matt!

I recently came across a couple of arguments from someone I know that relate to evolution and morality. Basically the idea boils down to saying that if there is no God and evolution is true then the holocaust would have to be seen as a good thing. I should stress, the person I was speaking to does not believe it is good, they see each of us having value through being made in the image of God. Despite this assertion of our common value, the argument treads on seriously sensitive issues including racism and is one I would like to work better to counter in the future.

Basic statements by this friend:

If there is no God, then Hitler would be better than other people because he implemented evolution on a grander scale

If there is no God, it is good to get rid of the weaker parts of the species. The Jews killed in the holocaust were weaker than other people, therefore it would be good to kill them

The argument seems to fail in a number of ways and I would be interested in people’s thoughts on this from a philosophical perspective and also where misunderstandings of evolution have crept in

Premise 1 – for the sake of argument, there is no God

Premise 2 – in such a world, there is no objective morality. This is something that I am not comfortable with but can’t see a way around it – I am not a philosopher.
Some thoughts I have on relevant information about this are as follows:

  • On this view people may adhere to or construct theories of morality, but there is no absolute standard of good and evil that can be appealed to so as to justify these. For someone to be better than another implies an approach towards a standard. If that standard is not a universal one, they can only be called better in one of a few ways
    • The person is more capable than another at doing something
    • The person is better at adhering to a subjective standard of morality
    • The person is closer to a subjective standard that cannot be said to be “THE” standard universally applied. This means one person is not a “better” person than another outside a subjective standard.

Premise 3 – for the sake of the argument, the theory of evolution is true
Some thoughts on relevant information I have for this are as follows:

  • Evolution as described by the theory itself is a change of characteristics in a population inherited across generations [citation needed]. This change is caused by mutations in genes that are impacted by multiple processes; these include natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, gene flow, lateral gene transfer, recombination, neutral mutations.
  • Evolution as a process acts on large population sizes in part to maximise fitness in a given environment. In these population sizes the effect of genetic drift is reduced. Fitness does not relate to the organism becoming “better” in some universal sense, only that their reproductive success in a given environment is improved compared to other organisms in that population. Features leading to increasing fitness in one environment may lead to decreased fitness in another environment. This means that evolution is not a linear process with a goal where an organism is “better” than another in general, it is context dependent. For this reason genetic diversity is the sign of a healthy population, with bottlenecks causing increased genetic drift and possible maladaptive traits
  • Evolution as specified by the theory works on small changes across time to create large changes. Changes in the distribution of features or alleles across a population do not necessarily achieve fixation. Fixation relates to a feature becoming universally present in a population such that all members of that population have it. Without fixation it is possible that a change in an allele will not last in the long term.

Premise 4 given by the person stating the argument - The Jewish people were weaker than those around them. In such a world as proposed above it would be good to get rid of them. As stated here, possible responses

  • The term weaker is not defined here. If it were to mean less able to respond to being killed by Nazis then they were not less fit in terms of reproductive fitness in the environment before the decision to kill them.
    • If the Jews were not genetically weaker prior to the decision to kill them, the choice to kill then cannot be deemed good, even if good were defined as the increase of reproductive fitness in the population
    • Evolution in nature can discriminate socially where access to sexual partners can be restricted based on social hierarchy. Such a scenario may act as a form of genetic bottleneck and thereby increase the proliferation of non-adaptive traits through genetic drift. This is also not a universal pattern across all species and therefore cannot be singled out as “good”

Proposed conclusion by the person I was speaking with – in such a world it would be good to kill Jews as they were weaker than other people

For this conclusion to be correct a number of responses are available.

  • The conclusion that the proposed truth of the evolutionary theory leads to moral consequences is deriving a moral standard from a natural process; it is unclear how this is can be supported
  • The argument as stated brings in an objective standard when such has been rejected in the premises. Rather than saying “one possible way that people might create an ethical view is that it would be good to kill jews”, it states this as a given – it is good to kill them.
  • The proposed ethical theory on which it is good to kill Jews would need to be elaborated on and shown to be superior to alternatives to commend it to others. For an ethical theory to be complete more than just one parameter (remove weakness from the population) should be expected. Competing values such as respect for human life may override such considerations. Not being able to show the theory to be superior to others does not seem to negate it as a possible way of looking at ethics if there is no subjective standard, it would merely show that perhaps the view proposed is not to be held to too tightly.
  • An ethical theory based on “it is good to remove weakness from the population” has logical consequences that might not commend this theory to others, namely where does this stop. Unless a criteria can be supplied against which to choose what constitutes weakness and what level of weakness is acceptable then it could be inferred that the process could continue unabated and arbitrarily. Such a consequence would not prove the theory to be wrong, it would show that it is not a theory based on evolutionary principles if those principles are interpreted as evolution being a progression towards fitness. Just as with the ethical theory as a whole, the rationale for accepting the definition and standard would need to be provided. None is currently provided

I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of others on how to counter this kind of reasoning, and to correct me where I am wrong

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Basic answers: This person is trying to make a sort of guilt by association argument. Aside from the obvious flaws there, such claims always ignore the long history of European anti-Semitism. This strikes me as a form of Holocaust denial, and such claims ought to be rejected on that basis alone. It’s still a good point for launching a discussion about evolution and morality, and I we can leave the ugly stuff out.

I think objective morality is an ideal. Striving to be the best person one can be is a worthy goal IMO, but practically speaking it’s hard to achieve. We might summarize Christianity as “Striving for an ideal that we know we cannot achieve.”
Someone may criticize me for that, and I will deserve it. :wink:

I think this one falls apart under the slightest scrutiny, but I’ll leave that for others.

AND clearly the person you were interacting with did not have any interest in thinking through those consequences. You have done the heavy lifting for them, but they probably care more about insulating themselves from such thoughts than in reaching understanding.


Quite apart from problems with the premises of this claim, the conclusion appears to be making the naturalistic fallacy – just because evolution occurs in nature does not make it morally good.

The Holocaust would appear to be an act of Artificial Selection, not Natural Selection (and therefore not evolution). Artificial Selection can select for any arbitrary trait, even ones that reduce fitness – as is quite frequently seen in dog breeding. Therefore the fact that they were subjected to the Holocaust cannot be taken as evidence that the Jewish people were weaker.

There seems to be a form of circular reasoning at work here – that they were killed is taken to be evidence that they were weaker, that they were weaker is taken as evidence that it was ‘right’ to kill them. The same logic could be applied to a decision to eliminate any arbitrary genetic trait, or genocide any arbitrary population.

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This argument is common in apologetics, and the intention is to present a moral conclusion so monstrous that the evolutionary premise must be itself be rejected. There are various flaws in this thinking, but the first among them is that the holocaust undeniably happened, and the question is not where was evolution, but where was God? Evolution is indeed amoral and does not claim to be all powerful, all knowing, and all good, so the problem of theodicy is much more severe for theists such as myself.


My response to this is that even in a world with God there still isn’t an objective morality. There is nothing that makes it an objective fact that God(or any fact about God or any attribute of His) is the standard of morality.

I can just ask, who says? If you’re going to respond that you have defined God to be the standard (by defining God to be goodness itself, for example), then that is just a subjective act. You have acted to define the concept of God in that way. There isn’t anything that makes it so that God must be or just is the standard, or that we should or must define God to be that.

Another counter, just as good:
If all it takes for there to be an objective morality is for someone to define something as being the standard, then clearly there can be an objective standard without God. We can just define something else, instead of defining God, to be that standard.

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I always find it laughable when an ancient people who have survived constant harassments and attempted extinction events for many centuries and have flourished and preserved their culture and ancient language (and even won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes) is dubbed “weaker parts of the species.”

You’ve probably seen this or something like it:

If it doesn’t mention it, be sure to check out the Nazi ban on evolutionary biology teaching in the library publication of that era, Die Bucherei. Hitler hated Darwin because evolutionary biology directly refuted his claims that Jews were a different species and the Aryans were a divinely created super-people.

God Himself had, in fact, created the Aryans as the most perfect men, both physically and spiritually.4

Click on that “4” footnote for sources in Mein Kampf.


Agreed. Very arbitrary definition of “weaker” being “there are people in a social position to be able to persecute and commit genocide against someone”. This is something Tim also seems to have picked up on

Artificial selection is the term I was trying to think of when I was pointing out that there seem to be arbitrary definitions. Thanks for that.
I think there is a danger of conflating evolutionary processes / drivers with evolution itself. Despite the situation given by my friend being artificial selection, it could still be argued to produce evolution - depending on how that is defined.

Thanks for the thoughts here. I agree that the reasoning here is flawed. It basically comes down to “I don’t like, therefore it isn’t true”. I may not like the implications of many things; that doesn’t mean I reject them as being true. If there is a danger that people may take an approach to morality based on the truth of evolution, it seems to me to just require careful thinking and planning on how to reduce that risk. Potential pushback might be “why try to reduce the risk” and that falls back to my concern about there being no objective morality - the best I can do is to say “I want to reduce suffering, because I don’t like it”
I tried to avoid issues of theodicy as I am kinda trying to meet the issue on without attacking religion itself, just show why the position espoused doesn’t cause a problem for evolution and atheism. Also, I am not convinced that the problem of evil is as much a problem as it is sometimes made out to be. Something for a different topic

Hitler was an evolutionary failure, because he had no offspring. Hitler did not attempt to implement evolution (which he rejected), but germ theory - he cited Koch, not Darwin. Hitler’s extermination policy was based primarily on social constructs, such as religion, not on physical ones. Evolution, like other sciences, describes what the outcomes of actions will be, and not what actions we shoul take.

The arguments presented show ignorance of both evolution and history. They have been concocted solely to disparage evolution by associating it with Nazism, with no regard to truth.

They have no place on a ‘peaceful’ forum.


I think you misunderstand what is meant by “objective morality” here. It is the claim that their is an objective moral standard (generally taken to be the morality that God expounds in the Bible), not that Christians (who generally fail to perfectly model the moral system contained in the Bible) are objectively moral.

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Hey Roy, I initially approached Dan on a private conversation about this to get thoughts as I had reservations posting such a sensitive topic publicly. During the course of that conversation with him and a couple of others it was thought it could be posted here and may produce fruitful conversation. Apologies if you feel that decision was incorrect.

Certainly no one here is supporting those claims. I understand it may be disturbing even to consider them. All the same, perhaps I should move this off the public facing side. [Done, but I’ll need to moderate more closely]

The OP seems to me to be a tour de force of non sequiturs and motivated reasoning that I won’t address. The use of the Holocaust to make the invalid points in the OP probably should have precluded our consideration of the arguments, since (my opinion here) it is unnecessary and grotesque.

Those curious about how the Nazis themselves employed bullshit Darwinian “reasoning” in their atrocities, should read “The Most Unkindest Cut of All” by Stephen Jay Gould (in Dinosaur in a Haystack) and then perhaps The Wannsee Protocol (which the essay is about). I’m not comfortable discussing/quoting their evil but will expand what @RonSewell might have meant above which is: the Holocaust, especially seen in light of the evil fulminations of Martin Luther, is to me more valuable as a refutation of the moral value of the Christian god.

It is difficult to fathom how somebody can even come up with logic this demented. Did they fail to notice that the Nazi’s LOST the war, and that the Jewish diaspora fought with the Allies who in fact prevailed? But that is not the issue, as killing Nazi’s also serves no evolutionary justification. Fitness is not a matter of strength versus weakness, it is about adaptation to the environment. But that is not the main issue either. Ethics is about how we ought to live, and evolution is a biological process unguided by any sense of “ought”.

Nation scale historical wars are not decided by any difference in quality of the gene pool, but by a complex ever changing matrix of history, economics, culture, technological priority, and emergence of fortuitous leadership. It is easy to see from history that none of these factors are heritable, and can be lost in a generation.


The argument from my friend, or my thoughts about the problems with it?

It’s not disturbing, it’s offensive.

Linking the Nazis and the Holocaust to evolution and atheism is like linking Christianity to [1], but with far less justification. The Nazis expelled atheists.

  1. “We’re recording tonight , so I’ll have to leave this line out” ↩︎

I do. Misrepresentation and falsehood rarely lead to fruitful conversation. Antisemitism even less so.


I messaged Dan about shutting this down following the feedback.
I would like to stress that I never intended to give room for antisemitic arguments but wanted to see how best to counter this view and persuade people that it is wrong when I encounter it again. I started it as a private chat to ensure that we gave no room for people who believe it a platform here; the decision to make public was obviously a misstep on my part so I apologise to those I have offended with it.


The argument from your friend. I honestly think it’s mere politeness to call it an argument. It’s both preposterous and offensive, and likely achieved the opposite of what was intended: it makes the notion that “morality comes from god” seem even less credible. (Since I find that notion non-credible, as in zero, this probably doesn’t apply to me.)

I am unsure about whether this should ever have been posted. @Roy is right about how offensive the whole thing is, and it’s hard to overstate just how disgusting the linkage to the Holocaust really is. Like @Roy (if I’m reading him right), I’m surprised to see this on the forum and would recommend that it not happen again, as a matter of policy. On the other hand – and this might sound sardonic but I’m serious – there might be value in exposing the kind of nonsense that travels under a banner of “let’s discuss evolution and morality” in Christianity.