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The Centennial of Alfred Russel Wallace’s The World of Life: The Co-Discoverer of Natural Selection Proposes Intelligent Evolution!

Everyone seems to remember that Alfred Russel Wallace co-discovered the engine of modern evolutionary theory, natural selection, with his famous Ternate letter sent to Charles Darwin in early March of 1858. The receipt of that letter prompted an astonished Darwin into action to finally unveil his own theory and the rest is history. Or is it? Forgotten in the glare of Darwin’s preeminence is that Wallace went on to craft his own theory, a theory imbued with intelligent design. First announced in April of 1869, Wallace would go on to develop a theory of directed, detectably designed, and purposeful common descent best described as intelligent evolution.

Wallace would continue to develop his ideas. On December 2, 1910, the London publishing house of Chapman and Hall released his World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose, the culmination of more than forty years of research, investigation, and thought on the subject. Without the aid of molecular biology or modern information theory, Wallace saw specific features of biological complexity as clear and demonstrable evidences for intelligent design. Some thought that Wallace had overstepped the line and committed heresy in such assertions, but Wallace was quick in his own defense: “I also wish to point out that, however strange and heretical some of my beliefs and suggestions may appear to be, I claim that they have been arrived at by a careful study of the facts and conditions of the problem. I mention this because numerous critics of my former work [on cosmology]–Man’s Place in the Universe (to which this [The World of Life] may be considered supplementary)–treated the conclusions there arrived at as if they were wholly matters of opinion or imagination, and founded (as were their own) on personal likes or dislikes, without any appeal to evidence or to reasoning. This is not a method I have adopted in any of my works.”
Not surprisingly, some still branded–and indeed still continue to brand–Wallace a heretic. Nevertheless, his biographer James Marchant, offered a more reasonable assessment when he wrote in 1916, “Yet we may intimate his boldness and ask whether he was not, perhaps, in advance of his age and whether his heresies were not shrewd anticipations of some truth at present but partially revealed.”
The issues Wallace raised with regard to the unique properties of the human mind and biological complexity remain with us today, but with perhaps clearer answers being offered along some of the lines suggested by him a century ago in The World of Life.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.



Darwin's Dilemma