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Alfred Russel Wallace, Co-Discoverer of Evolution by Natural Selection — and “Creationist”

Despite repeated explanations that intelligent design is not
creationism, Lauri
Lebo at Religion Dispatches
and others persist in equating the two. There’s
a lot of bandying about of terms without defining them. One possible definition
of “creationism” is the attempt to make scientific assertions
regarding the natural world and/or the origin of life based upon a literal
reading of Genesis. Yet with intelligent design, as David
Klinghoffer points out
, even if the source of the intelligence were
identified as a deity, that wouldn’t make it creationism in this sense of
Genesis literalism. In short, when it comes to speaking of “creationism,” there
is a need for much greater clarity of thought and expression.

I can think of no better illustration of the point
than Alfred Russel Wallace. In a 1910 interview previewing Wallace’s
forthcoming book, The World of Life,
Harold Begbie asked about his explanation for the origin of life. Wallace said

Well, it is the very simple, plain,
and old-fashioned one that there was at some stage in the history of the earth,
after the cooling process, a definite act of creation. Something came from the
outside. Power was exercised from without. In a word, life was given to the
earth. All the errors of those who have distorted the thesis of evolution into
something called, inappropriately enough, Darwinism have arisen from the
supposition that life is a consequence of organization. This is unthinkable.
Life, as Huxley admitted [Wallace elsewhere attacks many of Huxley’s notions],
is the cause and not the consequence of organization.

Admit life, and the hypothesis of
evolution is sufficient and unanswerable. Postulate organization first, and
make it the origin and cause of life, and you lose yourself in a maze of
madness. An honest and unswerving scrutiny of nature forces upon the mind this
certain truth, that at some period of the earth’s history there was an act of
creation, a giving to the earth of something which before it had not possessed;
and from that gift, the gift of life, has come the infinite and wonderful
population of living forms.

Then, as you know, I hold that
there was a subsequent act of creation, a giving to man, when he had emerged
from his ape-like ancestry, of a spirit or soul. Nothing in evolution can
account for the soul of man. The difference between man and the other animals
is unbridgeable. Mathematics is alone sufficient to prove in man the possession
of a faculty unexistent in other creatures. Then you have music and the
artistic faculty. No, the soul was a separate creation.

I should point out that, for Wallace, man’s “ape-like
ancestry” did not mean that man
was in any sense related to the ape. Wallace always pointed out that the
imbuing of man with a soul made him substantively different, a change in kind
not degree. Wallace never agreed with Darwin’s Descent of Man.

Wallace was not a Christian by any measure. So here we have
the co-discoverer of natural selection clearly espousing a version of
“creationism” according to Lauri Lebo’s expansive definition. And how did
Wallace come to this? Certainly not from Scripture but from Darwin’s own
principle of utility, the idea that no organism will develop an attribute
unless it affords it some survival advantage.

Wallace concluded that those things that make us most human
— our ability to reason, to enjoy art, music, and so on — were inexplicable
on Darwin’s own principle. So what precisely do we mean by creationism? Lauri Lebo
needs to clarify. In fact, a reading of Wallace above makes it clear that
strictly speaking evolution (meaning simply common descent and change
through time) need not exclude “creationism” and certainly not
intelligent design. What Wallace’s “creationism’ does rule out is Darwinian materialism. The point is, Steven
Pinker notwithstanding, the human mind remains as unexplained by Darwinian
principles as when Wallace raised these issues. The repeated failures of
materialistic explanations for the human mind and for the origin of life must
keep “creationism,” in Alfred Russel Wallace’s sense, viably on the
table for discussion.