To judge from previews, the new Darwin biographical movie Creation will emphasize the challenge Darwinian theory posed from the beginning to religious belief. Yet the life of evolution’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, suggests that properly understood, and that’s a major proviso, evolution needn’t upset faith at all. On the contrary, Wallace reasoned from what he knew about life’s history to a belief that an “Overruling Intelligence” guided life’s development, much as intelligent design (ID) does today. Science historian Michael A. Flannery calls Wallace’s evolutionary thinking a “preamble” to ID.
An opportunity to evaluate this provocative claim is now before us in the form of Flannery’s new edition of Wallace’s great work, A World of Life (1910), which slims the dense and massive volume down to a manageable size and includes an illuminating introduction by Flannery. His book is Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press).
Wallace famously arrived at his own version of evolutionary theory while Darwin was still sitting on his. When Wallace made contact and shared his thoughts, Darwin panicked and rushed to make his theory public so as not to be scooped. Yet the two men did not formulate their ideas in exactly the same way. As Flannery writes, “Wallace emphasized the ‘principle of utility,’ namely, that ‘no organ or attribute can exist in a natural species unless it is or has been useful to the organisms that possess it.'”
This emphasis led to the increasingly rapid unraveling of Wallace’s confidence that natural selection by itself could account for the most interesting features of life: major items like sentience, the complexity of the cell and of the hemoglobin molecule, the origin of life itself, and more discrete features like a bird’s wing and feathers (evidence of a “preconceived design,” Wallace wrote) and the “unnecessarily elaborate” patterns and coloration of butterfly wings. Vladmir Nabokov — novelist, lepidopterist, and Darwin doubter — would make that same observation in the middle 20th century, as I’ve noted in this space previously.
Adding to all this Wallace’s comfort with the idea of common descent, it starts to sound like a mix of Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and William Dembski. ENV was intrigued, naturally, and caught up with Flannery to pose a few questions.
ENV: Didn’t Darwin also presuppose a “principle of utility,” if not under that name?
MAF: He did. The issue isn’t that Wallace was somehow corrupting Darwin’s principle, it’s that Darwin, in my view, had a corrupted view of nature. In other words, Darwin viewed all aspects of the natural world from a materialistic viewpoint — even thoughts were mere “secretions of the brain” and man was an animal different in degree rather than kind. If that’s your view of nature then the temptation to apply a wholly naturalistic principle (like the principle of utility) to everything becomes irresistible.
Darwin hedged a bit on his own principle, admitting that some characteristics might “reappear from the law of reversion,” but by and large natural selection operated through this principle. Underlying his principle, however, was Darwin’s belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, an old Lamarckian notion that was subsequently proven to be utterly false.
ENV: You suggest that Wallace was reluctant to stand up to Darwin in part because he was intimidated by the class difference between the two men. What was Wallace’s social background like and why would that influence him to keep his criticism in check?
MAF: Wallace wasn’t poor but his social roots could best be described as struggling “middle class.” As a child, he was comfortable but there’s a sense that money was always an issue around the house. The Wallaces were frequently moving around in search of affordable housing and financial opportunity. By contrast, Darwin was independently wealthy and came from a family of settled rank and position. Darwin attended the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge, while Wallace attended the Mechanic’s Institute at London. Wallace taught himself botany and zoology, while the young Darwin had access to some of the period’s best naturalists in England. English Victorian society was much more stratified than in America and far, far more stratified than today. Social rank defined much more than income, it defined where you were educated, who you associated with, who you married, who your children associated with, where you worshiped, and so on. Wallace would have naturally deferred to a man of Darwin’s rank, it was an assumed expectation.
But this class difference had a more practical consequence. Wallace’s famous Ternate Letter, sent in February of 1858, in which he outlined his theory of natural selection to Darwin, caused Darwin to rush On the Origin of Species to press. But it raised the obvious question, what do we do with Wallace’s paper? Darwin consulted with Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker and it was decided to read both Darwin’s and Wallace’s paper jointly at the July meeting of the Linnean Society. Thus, despite the fact that he was still thousands of miles away in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace got entry into one of London’s most prestigious scientific societies. It’s something Wallace never could have pulled off on his own. Darwin gave him access that would have otherwise been denied. I think Wallace always kept this in mind.
ENV: Wallaceism and Darwinism led to very different social and political views — for example, on the sanctity of life. How so and why?
MAF: To understand Wallace’s social and political views it’s best to start with Darwin’s to see how dramatically different they really were. Darwin was intimately tied to the rising tide of unbridled industrial capitalism and his theory expresses the harsh “survival of the fittest” mentality so intrinsic to that system. His materialistic theory easily lent itself to social application and so the term Social Darwinism is quite apt. Darwinists try to distance them from this (and for good reason), but even a cursory reading of his Descent of Man (1871) is full of principles and concepts that would later be labeled by his cousin, Francis Galton, eugenics. This would take on horrific form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminating in the Nazi atrocities of Adolf Hitler. I’m not saying that Darwin was a Nazi, I’m saying his theory of evolution, especially as it was applied to humans, contributed logically toward eugenics and Nazi biology.
Wallace was appalled by eugenics. We must remember that Darwin died in 1882 before the eugenics movement really got up and running, while Wallace lived until 1913 and could see the movement in full swing. Wallace hated such artificial manipulations of the people. Wallace called it “the meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priestcraft.” Instead Wallace believed that women needed to be freed from the constraints of Victorian convention to make free choices in marriage. The misguided attempts by the few to selectively breed their preconceived view of “the fit,” struck Wallace as artificial selection of the worst kind.
ENV: Tomorrow, more with Michael Flannery on Alfred Russel Wallace!