At approximately 9:30 a.m. on November 7, 1913, Alfred Russel Wallace passed away quietly at his home “Old Orchard,” Broadstone, Dorset; so ended the life of England’s last great Victorian naturalist. It was quite a life: co-discoverer of natural selection; naturalist/explorer in two hemispheres, first in South America and then on the other side of the world principally in Melanesia; author The Malay Archipelago (1869), perhaps the greatest scientific travel narrative in the English language; inspirational influence on novelist Joseph Conrad; prophet of an ecological awareness that would not be matched until Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; father of modern biogeography; and architect of intelligent evolution, an intrinsically directed, detectably designed, and purposeful common descent that anticipated the modern intelligent design movement.
This date prompts a question: What would surprise Wallace the most were he to be transported to this world 98 years later? At least seven things come to mind.
First, and perhaps foremost, Wallace would be astonished at the investigational tools available to scientists today, tools that confirm his inference more than a century ago that certain features of nature are best explained by intelligent design. Modern genetics, information theory, molecular biology, neurology, and cognitive studies confirm conclusions that Wallace could only draw using observation and logic. Yet his arguments for intelligent evolution based upon the complexity of cell, the design of the bird’s wing and feather, and the limitations inherent in natural selection predicted Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and Edge of Evolution, and James Le Fanu’s Why Us?.
Second, he would also be quite pleased to see modern astronomy and space exploration provide even stronger evidence for his argument in Man’s Place in the Universe that far from humankind being an insignificant and inconsequential speck in the universe, Homo sapiens appears to be unique and indeed special in the cosmological scheme of things. More than a century later, Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards’s Privileged Planet would have gratified Wallace with its scientific confirmations of his original thesis.
Third, despite these major vindications of Wallace as a prescient thinker and scientist, the sage of “Old Orchard” would be shocked at the polarization over evolution today. The cordial civility marked by Darwin and Wallace’s lifelong relationship — even in disagreement — seems absent today. Related to this he would likely be appalled at the trenchant name-calling, finger pointing, hand-waving, and vilifying that substitutes for argument in these discussions.
Fourth, while Wallace witnessed the rise of militant materialism and its connection with Darwinian theory (hence his extended corrective with The World of Life), the degree to which evolutionary theory hidebound by methodological naturalism has become synonymous with “science” itself would greatly disturb him. The evolutionary campaign to control all the relevant nomenclature — so that Darwinian materialism = science, intelligent design = creationism, science = “fact” and reality, religion = feelings and preference along with similar mischaracterizations — is nothing new. Seventy years ago Jacques Barzun astutely observed that
the ordinary educated man of today sees no third choice between the ‘scientific ideas’ of the late nineteenth century and the ‘obscurantism and superstition of the Middle Ages.’ One can imagine him saying [and indeed it is said]: ‘You are not a Darwinist — You must be a Fundamentalist’ . . . ‘Not a materialist? — You must be an idealist.’ The implication is that if you are all of the latter things you must be on the side of ignorance, folly, and ‘reaction.’ And since these are justly dreaded evils, any critique of scientific materialism must be an attack on right reason. The reply is simple: the evil world we live in is not a world which has been denied access to the science of Darwin . . . .
Barzun points out that had Darwin “truly solved the riddle of the Sphinx, no obscurantism could subsist . . .” (Darwin-Marx-Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, p. 15). But alas the riddle remains, suggesting the “obscurantism” that may in reality be found in the proffered solution.
Fifth, this relates directly, of course, to the nature of man, something Wallace insisted was inexplicable in terms of natural selection or any purely naturalistic process. Nevertheless, Wallace would surely understand the remaining riddle in the face of such intransigent scientific materialism. Noam Chomsky admits, “The nature of the ‘human capacity,’ as some researchers now call it, remains a considerable mystery,” and that the disagreement between “the two founders of the theory of evolution [over these very issues] . . . have not disappeared” (Language and Mind, 3rd ed., p. 176). Wallace would likely agree with Thomas Nagel — in fact he anticipated him — when the NYU philosopher observed that
The Darwinian theory of natural selection, assuming the truth of its historical claims about how organisms develop, is a very partial explanation of why we are as we are. . . . The possibility of minds capable of forming progressively more objective conceptions of reality is not something the theory of natural selection can attempt to explain, since it doesn’t explain possibilities at all, but only selection among them. But even if we take as given the unexplained possibility of objective minds, natural selection doesn’t offer a very plausible explanation of their actual existence. . . . An evolutionary explanation of our theorizing faculty would provide absolutely no confirmation of its capacity to get at the truth. Something else must be going on if the process is really taking us toward a truer and more detached understanding of the world (The View from Nowhere, pp. 78-79).
Sixth, Wallace would be amazed at how Darwinism in all of its materialistic permutations has come to function as a secular religion. We likely have the so-called “New Atheists” to thank for some of this, especially their high priest Richard Dawkins. But, like the species of Newspeak described in #4, this too is not new and was noted also by Barzun. Darwin’s evolutionary theory “satisfied the first requirement of any religion by subsuming all phenomena under one cause. . . The scientific quest and the religious wish, both striving for unity, were thus fulfilled in one stroke” (p. 65). It was more than just whim that prompted Thomas Henry Huxley to call his lectures “secular sermons,” and his “agnosticism” allowed him, as Lenin once commented, to “hide his materialism under a fig leaf.” Nonetheless, “Others who claimed for themselves the freedom of agnosticism or atheism,” notes Barzun, “were in fact just as deeply committed to dogma — the infallibility of the new church — as any prince of the old” (p. 66).
Seventh, perhaps the final and most startling development for Wallace would be the sheer power to endure of the materialistic view that has now straightjacketed science itself. It would be disconcerting for Wallace to read physician James Le Fanu a century after him noting that
We no longer appreciate what at one time seemed self-evident: the extraordinariness of possessing a mind whose powers of reason can distinguish truth from falsehood. There is nothing remotely scientific in denying the most certain thing we know, our sense of self; but ‘On maps provided by contemporary science,’ writes Bryan Appleyard, ‘we find everything except ourselves.’ . . . It is only by recognising the narrow confines of the materialist view that it becomes possible to move on, comments the philosopher Roger Scruton, ‘to replace the sarcasm which knows that we are merely animals, with the irony that sees that we are not.’ The time has come to break the silence and restore a coherent, balanced view of ourselves and our world by putting aside biology’s foundational evolutionary theory and embracing the dual nature of reality (pp. 251-252).
Wallace would no doubt wonder what is taking us so long.