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Gould’s Fatal Flaw: The Thirtieth Anniversary of Wallace’s Encounter with Darwinian Newspeak

Precisely thirty years ago this month the late Stephen Jay Gould published an article in volume 89 of Natural History purporting to demonstrate Alfred Russel Wallace’s “fatal flaw.” Wallace, who co-discovered natural selection in his now-famous Ternate Letter of 1858, first startled Charles Darwin and then prompted him after years of ponderous delay to finally complete his Origin of Species and rush it to press. By November of the following year his magnum opus was in the hands of the English public. But Wallace would break with Darwin over the source of the human intellect. While Darwin thought man and animal different in degree not kind, Wallace felt that the special attributes of the human mind, its facility for abstract reasoning, mathematics, music, even wit and humor was inexplicable by Darwin’s own principle of utility, namely, the idea that no attribute in any species would arise and be maintained unless it afforded it a functional advantage in its struggle for survival. Admitting that none of these most human of traits promoted survival, Wallace instead suggested that these qualities were explicable only through some “Overruling Intelligence.” Darwin and his disciples have been horrified ever since. Pointing to Wallace’s insistence that natural selection can only “fashion a feature for immediate use,” Gould issued his indictment: Wallace’s so-called “fatal flaw” was his “hyperselectionism.” But does this charge hold up?

Gould’s claim of hyperselectionism is odd. Gould notes that Darwin did not adhere to natural selection as the sole engine of evolution. True, it was the primary one, but pangenesis and sexual selection increasingly became subsidiary mechanisms in response to the limitations of natural selection. Wallace rejected both these ancillary notions, and he has subsequently been vindicated in his assessment as pangenesis has been replaced by modern genetics and sexual selection has come under devastating criticism in the current peer-reviewed literature. So, Wallace’s strict adherence to the principle of utility as the cornerstone of natural selection (the alleged source of his “hyperselectionism”) turns out, in fact, to have been a prudent position.

More importantly, Gould’s claim is inaccurate and misleading. It is clear that there is really no hyper in Wallace’s selectionism because he strictly limited the operations of natural selection. While it explained a lot, it did not, for Wallace, explain the origin of life, sentience in animals, or the intellect of humankind. The only reason Gould labels it “hyper” is that those limitations don’t count for Gould. Instead he tries to explain them away.

Gould argues that Wallace failed to understand Darwin’s “subtler view” and “misunderstands the nature of organic form and function.” Natural selection can, according to Gould, create organs for specified functions the very complexity of which can “perform many other tasks as well.” His example is a factory that implements a computer to process pay checks. Gould points out that “such a machine can also analyze the election returns or whip anyone (or at least perpetually tie them) in tick-tack-toe. Our large brains may have originated for some set of necessary skills in gathering food, socializing, or whatever,” he adds, “but these skills do not exhaust the limits of what such a complex machine can do.”

Gould’s reasoning is flawed on several levels. First, his example of the computer actually makes Wallace’s case. The computer possesses versatility precisely because some “overruling intelligence” (in this case a computer programmer) gives it the instructions to perform these different tasks. In order for Gould’s example to fit appropriately to his point, the computer would have to randomly or by some process of necessity within itself just spontaneously attain the capacity to generate pay checks, analyze election returns, or play games. Thus his point falls wide of its mark. Furthermore, Gould’s hand-waving about how our “large brains” might have started out (food gathering, socializing, or “whatever”) is the essential question at hand! Species of wide ranging levels of intelligence are perfectly capable of acquiring food for survival, and sociability is not unique to Homo sapiens. Bonobos and meerkats, for example, are very different animals who both live in highly complex social groups. If sociability spawned our intellectual complexity, why did this not occur with other species? Gould’s explanation winds up being only a series of unsubstantiated speculations.

So the charge of hyperselectionism is simply wrong. In fact, if anything it was Darwin who was the hyperselectionist. After all, in the face of growing anomalies with his own mechanism of natural selection it was he, not Wallace, who called upon another type of selectionism, sexual selection, to fill in the gaps.

The consequences of Gould’s allegation have been unfortunate, a mischief greatly facilitated by Michael Shermer’s In Darwin’s Shadow (2002). Shermer takes Gould’s notion of hyperselectionism and uses it to create a biographical portrait of Wallace that distorts him beyond recognition. Shermer turns Wallace’s imputed hyperselectionism into scientism, which, in a sad dismissal of 44 years labor, actually negates most of the naturalist’s work after his break with Darwin in 1869.
One is reminded of Orwell’s newspeak where words are created to ratify and promote the ruling ideology. Here Wallace’s check on natural selection through design and intelligence is called hyperselectionism, while Darwin’s genuine hyperselectionism is dubbed the “subtler view.” In perfect Orwellian fashion, evolutionary biologists and their minions not only manage to “create a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [i.e., Darwinism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” In this instance Wallace’s teleology is quickly disposed of in a word, hyperselectionism.

What they do not want you to know is that Gould’s charge is a product of poor logic, buttressed by analogies that make precisely the opposite point, filled in with stories that fail to rise to the level of anecdote. This typifies the Darwinian narrative and remains even in death Gould’s fatal flaw.