"When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [i.e. biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you," - Ben Stein.Stein's comment is taken from an excerpt of an interview with Paul Crouch Jr. which John Derbyshire brought to light at NRO. For more of Derbyshire's thoughts on Stein and his Intelligent Design documentary and overall distaste for science, read this piece.
Science, Derbyshire contends, is part of the great tradition and unique vitality of Western Civilization. I very much agree. And I agree that blaming pure science, or evolution in particular (Darwinism) on the Holocaust is nonsense--though evolution plays a part in eugenics, and in Nietzsche's "Übermensch" and thereby in the mechanics and philosophy of the Nazi Party. The question is whether Hitler and co. could have drawn the same philosophical conclusions without the foundation of Darwin's work. Would they still have tried to rid the German race of "impurities" and craft the ideal Arian people?
I imagine so. After all, humans were breeding dogs and horses long before Darwin and Mendel were born.
Eugenics just gave them harder science with which to spin their hatred--and technology gave them the ability to carry it out with unprecedented swiftness and efficiency. Derbyshire, whose own views on evolutionary development are quite controversial, has plenty of ground to dismiss Stein's statement as "shameful."
But I think we shouldn't dismiss Stein's overall thesis so quickly. While I disagree with it in tone and extremity, I find some real wisdom in this train of thought. Perhaps it is my background in science fiction that gives me such a mistrust of science and technology--and scientists whose work have political and human consequences, and deep moral implications. Derbyshire rightfully claims that science is one of Western Civilization's greatest achievements. But uncoupled with our other great achievements--Western ethics and Christianity, a sense of long-term consequence--science becomes bereft of guidance, a cold intellectual apparatus. All good science fiction warns of the dangers should science fall into the wrong hands. It is a weapon, after all, not merely a tool. Good sci-fi warns of a science that disrupts and usurps our other traditions,, a subtle coup. Huxley's Brave New World is a critique of both modern medicine and eugenics. 2001: A Space Odyssey brought about themes of intelligent machines that turn against humans--a recurring theme in the genre, before and since.
Science without ethics and morality, without a larger sense of civilization and history, becomes a cold and dangerous thing. It can easily be turned to such use as eugenics or human cloning or the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Artificial Intelligence, despite its hypothetical consequences, is an emerging reality. The difference between medicine and poison is very slight, and the miracle cure lives only a block away from the super-virus.
So I do worry that in this current culture of materialism and excess, this empty-headed generation and its frivolity, with its lack of a sense of respect for Western civilization and tradition; the death of God and the commercialism of religion; the death of History; the leveling of all things, moral or otherwise; and the glorification of consumerism above all things--this dilapidation of society could very well lead us to a cold and immoral use of our science. This is the symptom of moving forward into history without a sense of where we have set out from.
Modern conservatism glorifies the free market and rampant individualism, while modern liberalism denies the value of our history as a civilization, "ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms." Both have flaws and merits, but neither erects a blockade against the tyranny of abstract reason or cold, hard science in the hands of a dispassionate or malevolent power. Neither promises to keep the barbarians out--and as Derbyshire rightly notes, they are at the gates, or perhaps within them. Ben Stein has every right to worry.
Where he strays is to imply that the problem lies with the science, which is merely the tool--Raskolnikov's axe, as it were.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves...