Word of the Day: Genetic and Ad Hominem Fallacies

Christian apologetics in the big bookThe Heartland Institute recently put up a series of billboards featuring Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Charles Manson (a cult leader), and Fidel Castro (a dictator).  The text read: “I still believe in Global Warming.  Do you?”

These are examples of the genetic fallacy.  We’re asked, “How plausible can the claim of global warming be if these nutjobs accept it?”  A genetic fallacy ignores any actual evidence or argument and looks instead at the origin (think genesis) of the argument.  It’s a fallacy because it offers no relevant argument.

Another example would be, “You’re a vegetarian?  Don’t you know that Hitler was a vegetarian?”

But consider this: “You can’t tell me that those new phosphorescent zucchinis are safe!  Don’t you know that the research that supports that claim was funded exclusively by MegaCorp, the company that patented that vegetable?”

This claim is more compelling.  Though it is genetic, it does more than make a simple origins claim.  Compare that with “Don’t tell me that phosphorescent zucchini are safe!  MegaCorp says they’re safe.”  Stripped of the evidence, it becomes an example of a genetic fallacy.  (Of course, the evidence about MegaCorp could be false, but with it the claim at least avoids the genetic fallacy.)

Now consider these claims: “Christianity was influenced by myths of dying-and-rising saviors; therefore, the resurrection of Jesus must also be a myth.”  Or, “The Noah flood story came from a society influenced by neighboring flood stories like that of Gilgamesh; therefore, the Noah flood story is a myth.”

These are (1) genetic, since they make conclusions based on origins, (2) unsubstantiated, since these claims will need lots of supporting evidence, and (3) fallacies.  I would argue that these aren’t genetic fallacies, however.  They fail in my mind because the unequivocal conclusion (“… must also be a myth”) can’t be built on evidence that simply points in that direction.

The fallacy vanishes when we make a conclusion that could follow from the evidence: “Christianity was influenced by myths of dying-and-rising saviors; therefore, we must consider that the resurrection of Jesus may also be a myth.”  We still have work to do to establish that Christianity was influenced as claimed, but the fallacy is gone.

The genetic fallacy is the term for any argument that points solely to origin as its evidence, but there are many subsets based on the specific origin.

  • Ad hominem: attacking the person rather than the argument.  “Senator Jones wants to raise taxes, but he beats his dog; therefore, raising taxes is a bad idea.”
  • Tu quoque: saying, in effect, “Oh yeah?  Well you do, too!”  This argument tries to respond to a problem by claiming that the other person suffers from it also.
  • Argument from authority fallacy: using an authority as a relevant source when that person is not an authority in the field at hand, rejects the consensus view (if any), or is biased.
  • Credential fallacy: rejecting an authority because that person doesn’t have the right degrees.
  • Ad feminam: rejecting an authority because that person is a woman.

And so on.

Avoid making thoughtless charges of these fallacies.  Not every attack on a person is an ad hominem fallacy.  “Just ignore that fire alarm; that’s nutty Mrs. Smith” may be a fallacy, but “Ignore that fire alarm; that’s Mrs. Smith, and she’s phoned in a false alarm about every week for over three years” isn’t.  (It may not be the safest response for the fire department, but it’s not a logical fallacy.)

And as seen above, not every genetic (origins) argument is a fallacy.

Photo credit: Simon Varwell

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Nazi Soldiers Indoctrinated with Darwin? How Convenient.

1871 image of a monkey with Charles Darwin's headWhy were the Nazis so disagreeable?  Because they were force-fed evolution, of course!  Christian podcaster Greg Kokul thinks he’s uncovered the Nazi/evolution connection.

In a recent Stand to Reason podcast (starting at 5:00), Kokul spoke of being informed that German soldiers during World War II were issued two books, Goethe’s Faust and a German translation of The Origin of Species.  And it was Hitler himself who insisted that they get them.

(Wow—right out of the gate we’re embracing Godwin’s Law!)

About the logic behind Hitler’s assigning these books, Kokul says:

It’s because the ideas in The Origin of Species served [Hitler’s] purposes well, and if a person actually believed what Darwin taught, then they would make good Nazis.

My first complaint is that Kokul accepted the story uncritically.  This story nicely supports his worldview that evolution is both harmful and wrong, so he passes it on with no fact checking.  I do my best to take the opposite approach: when I find a delicious story that skewers an opponent (either a person or idea), I want to make sure that I have strong evidence so that I don’t look ridiculous after passing on flawed hearsay.

In doing my own research on books issued to German soldiers, the only page I came across was a post in another atheist blog (IAmAnAtheist) who’d heard the podcast and asked the very same question.  That blogger raised a great point: Why issue those two books and not Hitler’s own Mein Kampf?

That Origin was a central part of Nazi thinking seems unlikely.  The official Nazi library journal in 1935 listed twelve categories of banned books.  One category was:

Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism.

(If anyone comes across evidence for this books question either way, please add that to the comments.)

Now let’s move on to critique Kokul’s ill-informed ramblings on evolution.  One of Kokul’s favorite ploys is to try to tie eugenics with evolution.

First off, Darwin himself rejected eugenics.  In The Descent of Man, he said, “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that [not culling the inferiors] must be highly injurious to the race of man.”  Creationists enjoy quoting just the paragraph that contains this sentence and ignoring the very … next … paragraph where he overturns this argument.

Darwin rejected eugenics, Greg.  Of course, you’ll be quick to backpedal and argue that Darwin’s own personal opinions say nothing about the validity of evolution.  Agreed!  Which is why whether or not Hitler kept his copy of Origin under his pillow says nothing about the central issue here: Is evolution the best explanation of why life is the way it is?  Which is why this entire conversation is simply mudslinging.

“Hitler was bad, and Hitler and Darwin were BFFs!  And Darwin was ugly!  And … and he probably ate babies!  And didn’t recycle!”  Whether true or not, it’s irrelevant.

This is what one does when one doesn’t actually have a real argument.

Science is not policy.  Evolution is science (the domain of scientists), and eugenics is policy (the domain of politicians).  Any scientist who advocates eugenics has left the domain of science and jumped into policy.  Eugenics isn’t science, and criticism of eugenics is no criticism of science.

Which brings up the last point: Did Hitler base his eugenics policies on evolution?  Kokul seems to imagine a kind and gentle Adolf Hitler, picking up litter and helping little old ladies cross the street, being turned to the scientific Dark Side® after reading Darwin.  But wasn’t there plenty of anti-Semitism around already?  Didn’t Martin Luther himself write the violently anti-Semitic On the Jews and Their Lies?

This bypasses the issue: Is evolution correct?  Bringing up eugenics is not only flawed but irrelevant.

It’s the white flag of surrender.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Related articles:

  • The Stand to Reason podcast archives are here.  The podcast referenced here is from August 21, 2011.
  • “Six Things in Expelled That Ben Stein Doesn’t Want You to Know…” Scientific American, 2/11/09.
  • Full-text version of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man available here.
  • “Hitler was a True Christian™,” Pharyngula blog, 10/27/11.