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Hijacking Alfred Russel Wallace

Michael Flannery

John West’s post on David Attenborough correctly decries this Darwinist’s hysterical concern with “overpopulation” and his labeling of humans as “a plague.” Equally of note, however, is George Beccaloni’s embrace of Attenborough as “Patron” of the Wallace Correspondence Project, which Beccaloni directs. While the project itself is unquestionably a worthy endeavor, cataloguing for the public the voluminous correspondence of Alfred Russel Wallace, the control exerted by Beccaloni and his cohorts (including Attenborough) over Wallace’s memory is unfortunate, promoting distortions and half-truths.
While Beccaloni notes that Attenborough is “a great admirer of ARW,” that admiration, like Beccaloni’s, is highly selective.
Consider Attenborough’s concern with population control. Wallace specifically and vocally denounced the population regulators of his own day. In 1890 Wallace wrote an article he considered his most important contribution to the sociology of human progress, “Human Selection.” In his autobiography, My Life, he explained his dual purposes in writing it:

The article was written with two objects in view. The first and most important was to show that the various proposals of Grant Allen, Mr. Francis Galton, and some American writers, to attempt the direct improvement of the human race by forms of artificial elimination and selection [i.e. eugenics], are both unscientific and unnecessary; I also wished to show that the great bugbear of the opponents of social reform — too rapid an increase of population — is entirely imaginary, and that the very same agencies which, under improved social conditions, will bring about a real and effective selection of the physically, mentally, and morally best, will also tend towards a diminution of the rate of increase of the population.

Far from denouncing humans as a “plague on the Earth” and supporting population manipulators like the “Optimum Population Trust” as Attenborough does, Wallace thought that the real plague could be found in the social systems of inequality that were the breeding grounds of poverty, disease, and famine. Wallace wrote about this at length in his Social Environment and Moral Progress. He called for social reform rather than artificial and often coercive means of population limitation.
While Attenborough whines about Ethiopians not being able to take care of themselves, John West is more accurate and echoes Wallace when he insists,

In reality, the Earth is capable of producing plenty of food for those currently living in Ethiopia and other parts of the world, and starvation in Africa (and elsewhere) during the past century has had little to do with overpopulation and a lot to do with government corruption, incompetence, and the misuse of food as a weapon by tyrannical regimes.

So what is it that Attenborough “admires” in Wallace? Certainly not his deeply held views on social reform and human populations. But then again, despite much public posturing, George Beccaloni doesn’t seem to admire much about Wallace either. Wallace would never have supported Attenborough’s call for population control, nor Beccaloni’s dismissal of his intelligent evolution, nor Beccaloni’s infatuation with scientism. Instead Wallace would have appreciated in this context the old adage, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
We see then the extent to which Wallace’s memory has been subjected to these hijackers who give him selective praise couched in mischaracterization and misrepresentation. It comes down to an attempt to cast Wallace in their own materialistic/scientistic image. In doing so they effectively trash half of Wallace’s life and work. With friends like this, Wallace hardly needs enemies.
Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.

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.