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Alfred Russel Wallace, in Anticipating Intelligent Design, Did Not Reprise Paley

Michael Flannery

Editor’s Note: Discovery Institute Fellow Michael Flannery spoke on November 30 at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati, one of the most distinguished private libraries in the United States with important collections in the natural sciences. Flannery delivered a slide presentation on the life and legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection. Chronicling Wallace’s contributions to biology, biogeography, anthropology, and cosmology, the lecture was followed by a screening of John West’s documentary Darwin’s Heretic, and the evening concluded with a Q&A session followed by a book signing of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life and the recently revised Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution. ENV asked Mike for his comments on the event, especially the Q&A.
Hello, ENV readers. Well, my audience at the Lloyd Library was certainly attentive and there was a sizeable contingent of faculty from area universities. While most were appreciative and even fascinated, some faculty registered dismay and consternation at Wallace’s adherence to intelligent design. The usual conflations of ID and creationism came up as well as the all too typical use of Darwin as a synecdoche for all of science. One charge was leveled against Wallace that deserves some extended comment. At one point a particularly exercised biologist in the audience accused Wallace of simply reverting to the “old Paley argument.”
The accusation misses the mark. William Paley’s natural theology reigned supreme as young Charles Darwin attended Cambridge and Darwin claimed devotion to Paley even as he began his voyage on the Beagle. I pointed out that Paley in fact drew a logical inference: that a watch discovered in the wilderness suggests the existence of a watchmaker. This inference to design was echoed by authors of the Bridgewater Treatises, published between 1831 and 1837. Paley (and his colleagues) argued for special creative acts in which each species was uniquely and wonderfully made, perfectly adapted to its environment and circumstance.
The argument seemed sound and reasonable to many at the time, but it did not really address the problem of imperfections in nature. Also, natural theologians of this period had a tendency to see intelligent design everywhere in nature. Of course today we know, as William Dembski has demonstrated, that in inferring design complexity is not enough: it must specify something, as in the genetic code. And if Paley and the Bridgewater writers were unable to draw the line between those features of the natural world explicable by self-acting natural processes and those requiring intelligent design, we must realize that they had no access to the molecular biology that would allow Michael Behe to establish a clear Edge of Evolution.
As Cornelius G. Hunter points out in Darwin’s Proof: “Natural theology [under Paley and the Bridgewater authors] was lopsided. Yes, the world is amazing, but the natural theologian’s happy view of nature could hardly be justified in light of the real world. It is easy to see why this version of natural theology supplied a ready source of material for its opponents.” Indeed, its most formidable opponent became Darwin himself.
So I told my audience that Darwin’s wholly naturalistic theory was able to triumph at least in part not because of “good” science but because of bad theology. Forgetting what Paul wrote in Romans, Paley and his colleagues overlooked the fact that nature had been “subjected to futility,” that it “groans” for deliverance. In short, nature is imperfect.
Not being a Christian, Wallace was not interested in reconciling nature with Genesis or any part of Scripture, and he was fully aware of the special creation argument. Nevertheless, he was also keenly aware that natural selection was incapable of explaining the orders of magnitude of complexity he found in the natural world. Wallace openly rejected Paley’s notion of special creation and argued instead for common descent that was directed, detectably designed, and purposeful. He gave specific examples from nature that he felt reflected this intelligent evolution, examples presaging Michael Behe’s observations of irreducible complexity.
Wallace also recognized the need to explain a benevolent teleological world in the face of pain and suffering. He therefore devoted an entire chapter of The World of Life to the question, “Is Nature Cruel? The Purpose and Limitations of Pain.” In the end, Wallace offered a refurbished natural theology capable of handling any challenge from modern evolutionary theory, the very theory he helped establish. It was instrumental in influencing a number of theologians such as James Orr and John Magens Mello. Whatever else may be said of Wallace, his intelligent evolution was no reprise of William Paley. From the very beginning evolutionary theory never demanded the materialism of Darwin. Wallace gave a real and convincing alternative.
I don’t know that I answered the charge to my questioner’s satisfaction, but it must have satisfied many. Book sales were happily brisk with at least half of the audience purchasing copies of both books. I am very appreciative of my hosts at the Lloyd Library who allowed Wallace’s story to be told.

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.



Alfred Russel WallaceDarwinistsHistoryintelligent designJason RosenhouseJerry CoyneLloyd LibraryMichael FlanneryPZ Myers