Yesterday, ENV spoke with Michael A. Flannery about his new book Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press). While credited as evolution’s co-discoverer, Wallace fell away from the Darwinian faith and came to espouse a view remarkably suggestive of intelligent design. Now, the rest of the interview.
ENV: Scientifically, how does Wallace’s culminating work, World of Life, stand up today as compared to Darwin’s Origin of Species?
MAF: That’s a complex question. Darwin’s Origin is really a metaphysical treatise supported by some biological speculations and those speculations give it the appearance of science. The thing that makes this question so difficult to answer is that for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was Thomas Henry Huxley’s brilliant public relations campaign on behalf of Darwin’s theory, Darwinism has lodged itself as the reigning biological paradigm and Origin is its magnum opus. All this means is that everyone has probably heard of (if not read) Darwin’s Origin, but few would even know who Wallace is, much less know his World of Life. That’s a big reason I wrote this book in the first place.
But that said, Darwin’s book had major problems from the start. For one thing, the title simply doesn’t deliver. It purports to be a book on the origin of species but tells us nothing of the origin of life itself, the very root of origins. Nevertheless, the book has had an influence far out of proportion to its actual value in moving science forward. For example, I can’t think of a single medical advance that is dependent upon it. In fact, Louis Pasteur, who exploded the old view of abiogenesis (biological life from nonliving matter), proved biogenesis — namely, that life must come from life — and gave us germ theory of disease, was a vocal opponent of evolution. Most of the so-called evolutionary “advances” in science we hear about have nothing to do with Darwin’s central theory of macroevolution, that random mutation eventually would produce speciation; they are really just examples of microevolution (species variation) which was wholly uncontroversial even in Darwin’s day. We could have gotten that from Wallace’s World of Life.
In contrast, Wallace’s book is a more complete and comprehensive work. It assumes common descent but argues that it is guided and infused with design. Its principle thesis presents what I call intelligent evolution, the idea of common descent based upon natural selection strictly bounded by the principle of utility in which nature is viewed as having design and purpose within a theistic context. Wallace understood that the origin of life could be addressed more simply as a problem of cellular complexity. Haeckel, an early and ardent Darwin supporter, had a very simplistic idea of the cell as merely a mass of protoplasm. Darwin held similar reductionist views. But Wallace knew better; the cell was a far more complex and intricate system. Wallace discusses this at length in The World of Life, thus making it far more prescient than the Origin.
In fact, I’d say that Wallace’s understanding of nature as comprising many biologically complex designed mechanisms is being vindicated in the literature. Indeed, the problem of understanding the human intellect in merely Darwinian terms, the issue that initiated Wallace’s disagreement with his elder colleague, is increasingly heading towards Wallace’s solution. In an April issue of Nature just this year, Johan Bolhuis and Clive Wynne asked, “Can evolution explain how minds work?” While they’re careful not to call for an abandonment of the Darwinian paradigm, they admit that recent “findings have cast doubt on the straightforward application of Darwinism to cognition.”
Let me conclude by pointing out something very important when considering their respective theories. Darwin came to his “science” (his theory of evolution) by way of his metaphysic; that is to say, he developed his theory from a preconceived materialistic philosophy. Wallace, on the other hand, came to his metaphysic (his teleological worldview) by way of his science; that is to say, his theory led him to seek deeper understanding of the natural world through a transcending, purposeful theism. Why? Because a purely materialistic explanation like natural selection was unequal to the task of answering for the complexity of nature. It remains so.
ENV: In World of Life, Wallace sought to explain the problem of natural evil and ended up anticipating arguments C.S. Lewis would later make about the problem of pain. You write fascinatingly about Wallace’s and Darwin’s contrasting attitudes to pain and discomfort. Darwin was a hypochondriac and complainer. The pain of losing his daughter Annie confirmed him in his religious unbelief. Wallace lost his son Bertie and this seemingly confirmed him in his spiritual convictions. Are these biographical coincidences, or do they relate to the worldview implicit respectively in Wallaceism and Darwinism?
MAF: I think Wallace was much better at handling adversity because he had to face it throughout his life. At one point Wallace lost most of his precious specimens and notes on his return from the Amazon in a shipwreck and spent ten days and nights in a lifeboat before being rescued. His response was not to rail against his misfortune, but, as he writes in his autobiography, My Life, “to bear my fate with patience and equanimity.” Wallace had to earn his living and when he married Annie in 1866, and when they started a family he had the additional burden of providing for them. These were responsibilities wholly unknown to Darwin.
By contrast Darwin lived something of a pampered lifestyle of wealth and privilege. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into emotional stability for Darwin. He was beset by skin rashes, stomach cramps, debilitating nausea, and flatulence, and he used his illness to dodge unwelcome or difficult situations and responsibilities. In short, Darwin didn’t handle adversity well and used his illness as a shield.
At some level I think Darwin’s problem emanated from an obsession with notoriety and recognition, something he saw his theory could provide. But it literally ate him alive. It didn’t help to have only materialism — the here and now — as a comfort. Add to that his wife Emma’s fervent Christian belief and Darwin was a lonely man. When his daughter died, that was it. She was gone.
But Wallace knew Bertie had moved on and that his brief life here on earth was a temporary sojourn toward greater spiritual realms. So I would say that their very different responses to the problem of evil or pain in this world was a product of their backgrounds and their belief systems.
ENV: Wallace became a devotee of spiritualism, in ways that will strike many a modern reader as flaky. Does that invalidate his version of evolutionary theory in contrast with Darwin’s?
MAF: Not in the least. Wallace was a man of his times and in Victorian England (America too for that matter) spiritualism was not considered an illegitimate topic. Some of the best scientific minds on both side of the Atlantic believed it to be a valid — and indeed testable — hypothesis. In England the noted physicist William Crookes, anthropologist Andrew Lang, and philosopher Henry Sidgwick were spiritualists; in America there was Henry Bowditch, Dean of the Harvard Medical School and Simon Newcomb, head of the Smithsonian, to name just a few who actively promoted spiritualism.
I would also add that Wallace’s evolutionary theory was in no way dependent upon his belief in spiritualism. His theory was derived from what he believed to be the inherent limitations of natural selection. Had Wallace never expressed a belief in spiritualism, if he had never written one word on the subject, his theory of evolution would remain unchanged and intact.
ENV: Thank you for your time. Your book is a fascinating contribution!
MAF: Thank you, David, for your interest and this opportunity.