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Wallace Would Be an Intelligent Design Advocate — and a Prescient Figure in the History of Science

Michael Flannery

The resolution that Michael Shermer and I are debating yields four possible replies: 1) as stated it is counterfactual and consequently cannot be answered since we cannot place Wallace into our world; 2) Wallace would not be an intelligent design advocate; 3) Wallace would be an intelligent design advocate and consequently earned the marginalization and obscurity that history has accorded him; and 4) Wallace would be an intelligent design advocate and thus becomes a prescient figure in the history of science. While I will address each in their turn, I unequivocally support the last position. My reasons will become plain in due course.
For the first position little need be said. The historian is charged with examining the past and ferreting out the connections and patterns found therein. To shun questions of this kind on the basis that it is “counterfactual” and/or we cannot “know for sure” would have a stultifying effect on historical inquiry and reduce it to irrelevant antiquarianism.
The second position rejects the Wallace/ID association by claiming he adhered to a proto-Gaia hypothesis or some type of anthropic principle, both of which are either non-teleological or minimally so. This argument is advanced in several essays appearing in Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace (2009). My primary objection to this position is that it simply ignores (or worse, distorts) the last 44 years of Wallace’s life and work. While Wallace secured a place in history as co-discoverer of natural selection by sending his famous Ternate letter (“On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type“) to a startled Charles Darwin in 1858, he also broke with Darwin in 1869 over the capacity of that theory to explain the unique attributes of humans. For Wallace this required an “Overruling Intelligence.” From that point on he continued to develop his theory of directed, detectably designed, and purposeful common descent.
Imbued with teleology, his view bears little resemblance to the self-regulating/self-sustaining Gaia hypothesis or a minimally or non-teleological version of the anthropic principle. An examination of Wallace’s Man’s Place in the Universe and his World of Life demonstrates his commitment to a cosmology and biology intrinsically teleological and operating through intelligent agency. The very subtitle of The World of Life makes this abundantly clear: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. Given that ID merely proposes that certain features of the universe and the biological world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected one such as natural selection, arguing against Wallace’s ID advocacy seems untenable.
The third position readily acknowledges Wallace’s affinity with ID, but insists it also represents a source of his marginalization and obscurity in history because his views have been shown to be demonstrably false. A recent version of this argument comes from evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker who, in a PNAS article published in May 2010, claims to have convincingly solved Wallace’s problem of the human mind with the “cognitive niche.” Since I’ve addressed Pinker’s argument in “A One Hundred Year-Old Challenge,” I needn’t repeat it here.
Nevertheless, the general objection I have to this position is that it commits a variant of Herbert Butterfield’s Whiggish history, what David Hackett Fischer calls “the fallacy of the prevalent proof” (see his Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, pp. 51-53). This third position is unduly dismissive of Wallace and assesses his views on the basis of majority rule. Simply because the consensus opinion is that most of the major biological questions that Wallace raised — e.g., the mind of man, sentience in animals, the origin of life — are satisfactorily answered with Darwinian doses of methodological naturalism doesn’t mean they’re settled at all. The fallacy of the prevalent proof instead begs the question and substitutes a careful and unbiased addressing of these persistent questions for a straw poll approach to factual verification. It is simply a more sophisticated version of Fischer’s example of the Kuba tribe, “for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.” Indeed promotion of the prevalent proof to a methodological standard does not engender confidence that the powers of critical and objective thinking have been applied to these matters. No wonder Alvin Plantinga has called Darwinian evolution “an idol of the contemporary tribe.”
Finally there is the case that Wallace’s ID advocacy represents a prescient and positive link with current ID theory. York University professor Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian (2004) makes an explicit connection between Wallace and ID in a strictly historical context. Fichman points out that Wallace “saw theism, in terms of intelligent design, as providing an account of the emergence of those human traits he deemed inexplicable by natural selection and necessary for the possibility of human progress” (p. 301). Wallace would spend the last half of his life greatly expanding upon this theme.
While many have dismissed Wallace’s later works (e.g., Darwinism [1889], The Wonderful Century [1898], Man’s Place in the Universe [1903], The World of Life [1910], Social Environment and Moral Progress [1913]) as increasingly speculative and perhaps even muddle-headed, Fichman correctly notes, “These later works were not the eccentric musings of a declining mind but powerful syntheses of late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century intellectual currents. They incorporated and influenced the thoughts and activities of members of elite and popular cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. Figures as eminent as [Charles Sanders] Peirce and [William] James recognized the significance of Wallace’s efforts to formulate a proactive evolutionary theism” (p. 132).
But if Wallace’s ideas were a positive force in his own day, might they not be so today? I believe that they are. It matters little that Wallace went beyond the invocation of a “Mind” or intelligence to explain certain aspects of the natural world to suggest the nature of that agency; the minimal conditions have been met. We may or may not continue on with our guide beyond the immediate destination, namely, that features of our world and our universe require intelligent design.
The parallels between the thoughts of natural selection’s co-discoverer and current ID theory are compelling. In Man’s Place in the Universe Wallace notes the many conditions absolutely requisite to the emergence and maintenance of life — close tolerances of temperature range and variation, adequate solar light and heat, water, an atmosphere of proper density with all essential gases for organic life, consistent alterations of day and night, appropriate planetary mass and position in the solar system and galaxy, planetary obliquity, etc. — and concludes that the coming together of all these requirements in one time and place exceeds mere “coincidence.”
Rejecting the notion that these are simply accidents of nature, Wallace concludes that such material processes must be “mind-products” (Man’s Place, p. 319). Today Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards’s The Privileged Planet (2004) gives striking parallels and shows how modern astronomy, probability theory, and other findings in current science confirm Wallace’s double-edged thesis that complex life is likely unique and not likely explicable solely by processes of chance and necessity. Celestial tinkerers and magical transgressions of physics needn’t be invoked here; as Gonzalez and Richards point out, “design . . . is embedded or encoded in the laws and initial conditions themselves” (p. 306).
The World of Life went a step further and unified the author’s cosmological views with biology in a grand synthesis premised upon the absolute requirement of intelligent agency. Here Wallace declared that “all life development — all organic forces — are due to mind-action” and postulated “not only forces, but guidance; not only such self-acting agencies as are involved in natural selection and adaptation through survival of the fittest, but that far higher mentality which foresees all possible results of the constitution of our cosmos. That constitution, in all its complexity of structure and of duly co-ordinated forces acting continuously through eons of time, has culminated in the foreseen result. No other view yet suggested affords any [other] adequate explanation” (p. 197). Wallace surely believed in the uniformity of natural laws but, anticipating his modern-day cosmological colleagues Gonzalez and Richards, he believed that “beyond all the phenomena of nature and their immediate causes and laws there is Mind and Purpose” (p. 277).
Wallace’s views resonate with other current ID proponents. For example, molecular biologist Michael Behe has made a compelling case that certain features of nature (e.g., blood clotting, photosynthesis, the bacterial flagellum, cilium in eukaryotic cells, etc.) are irreducibly complex (see Darwin’s Black Box [1998]). That is, all component parts are needed in order to make the thing itself functional, thus calling into question Darwin’s slow step-by-step incremental evolutionary process. Wallace makes an argument similar to Behe’s in describing the bird’s wing and its feathers, which he regarded as “proofs of an organizing and directive life-principle” (see chapter XIV of The World of Life). Showing the detailed, interlocking mechanisms of the bird’s wing-feather, he asserted that “the bird’s wing seems to me to be, of all the mere mechanical organs of any living thing, that which most clearly implies the working out of a preconceived design.” Insect metamorphosis was another example of design in nature for Wallace (pp. 297-304), forging another link with current ID (see Metamorphosis: The Case for Intelligent Design in a Nutshell Chrysalis).
Perhaps the most profound connection between Wallace and modern ID is in the complexity of the cell. Wallace devoted Chapter XVII of The World of Life to “The Mystery of the Cell.” Calling Ernst Haeckel’s insistence that the cell could be explained entirely by its “chemical constitution” a “mere verbal suggestion proving nothing,” Wallace demonstrated that such coordination of function and organization required an intelligent cause. Information theory, DNA genetic coding, and specified complexity now seem to confirm Wallace as demonstrated in Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (2009).
Meyer presents his case for “The Quiet Cause,” namely, that “evidence for the causal adequacy of intelligence is all around us both inside and outside the lab. Clearly, we all know that intelligent agents can create specified information and that information comes from minds” (p. 340). These properties are manifest in the cell and echo through time, recalling Wallace’s own words: “It may not be possible for us to say how the guidance is exercised, and by exactly what powers; but for those who have eyes to see and minds accustomed to reflect, in the minutest cells, in the blood, in the whole earth, and throughout the stellar universe . . . there is intelligent and conscious direction; in a word, there is Mind” (“New Thoughts on Evolution“).
In those conjoining thoughts Wallace spans the century and emerges from Darwin’s shadow, leaving Darwinian “explanations” looking less like progress and more like — to borrow Wendell Berry’s phrase — “leapfrogging into the dark.”

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.



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