You knew it would happen. Word is getting out, disseminated in scholarly and even media culture, that evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer ultimately abandoned Darwinian evolution in favor of a way of thinking remarkably consistent with intelligent design. Darwinists could not let this go and must inevitably take action to reclaim Alfred Russel Wallace for their own side.
In a recent book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, environmental author Tim Flannery turns Wallace into a prophetic exponent of chemist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. According to Lovelock, Earth and her population of living creatures form an evolving, tightly integrated whole, self-regulating according to a system of cybernetic feedback without the need of intelligent, purposeful guidance. Flannery drafts Wallace to serve as a hero of his book, which paints a menacing picture of our planet’s environmental prospects.
Faced with this attempt at intellectual larceny, Michael Flannery (no relationship to Tim Flannery) strikes back. Taking to the peer-reviewed pages of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History (MIT Press), our friend and colleague Professor Flannery delivers a rich, entertaining and devastating review of the other Flannery’s book. Michael Flannery, a science historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is a real scholar of Wallace’s writing and the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) among other books. He knows what he’s talking about.
To be fair, Tim Flannery may simply be ignorant of Wallace’s work. His focus seems to have been on style over substance, generating an atmosphere of woo, with plenty of distracting quasi-mystical talk and eccentric speculation: “At times, Here on Earth assumes the character of an arcane Paracelsian text or the mystical Tabula Smaragdina. The frequent use of such suggestive language becomes a serious distraction from beginning to end.”
For eccentricity, you can hardly beat some of the material on offer here. Confronted with a planetary ecosystem in crisis, Flannery calls for reconstructing the genome of the woolly mammoth. This is supposed to be a vital precondition of restoring the “Earth’s productivity and resilience,” bringing it “back to the level that would most benefit our living planet, and thus ourselves.”
Science-fiction schemes aside, the problem with enlisting Wallace in support of Gaia is that Lovelock and his influential supporter Lynn Margulis (yes, that Lynn Margulis) were emphatic that their thesis precluded the possibility of any Mind at work directing the development of the Gaian system. By contrast, Wallace himself grew increasingly insistent that the evidence of biology could not be accounted for without reference to just such a purposefully acting Mind: “Wallace clearly likened the transcendent force that directed his teleological world to a real ‘Mind,’ not some self-directed automata.”
By 1913, Wallace declared himself unapologetically for theism:
The completely materialistic mind of my youth and early manhood has been slowly molded into the socialistic, spiritualistic, and theistic mind [emphasis added] I now exhibit. . . . The whole cumulative argument of my “World of Life” is that in its every detail it calls for the agency of mind . . . enormously above and beyond any human mind . . . whether this Unknown Reality is a single Being and acts everywhere in the universe as direct creator, organizer, and director of every minutest motion . . . or through “infinite grades of beings,” as I suggest, comes to much the same thing. Mine seems a more clear and intelligible supposition . . . and it is the teaching of the Bible, of Swedenborg, and of Milton.
Michael Flannery concludes by fully agreeing that Wallace anticipated many contemporary concerns about environmental spoilage: “In appreciating the impacts of deforestation, the looming problem of anthropogenic species extinction, and the dangers of urban blight, Wallace was indeed prescient.”
Alfred Russel Wallace was a forward-thinker, more so than his colleague Charles Darwin: no one can deny that. But to rope him into “proto-cybernetic and proto-Gaian formulations” obviously does a giant disservice to the historical truth. Even so, and Michael Flannery’s valiant efforts notwithstanding, I’m sure this is not the last time we will find Darwinists raiding Wallace for their own purposes.