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Why Darwin Is Remembered More than Wallace

In a post at Why Evolution Is True, Greg Mayer comments on an article by Kevin Leonard writing for the BBC News asking, “Why does Charles Darwin eclipse Alfred Russel Wallace?” While Mayer demurs at the word “eclipse,” he largely agrees with Leonard that two things explain Darwin’s preeminence over Wallace: 1) the undoubted fact that, compared to Wallace, Darwin was a better promoter of the theory of evolution; and 2) the lapse of natural selection into general disfavor in the 1900s up until the synthesis of the 1930s.

On the first point, Wallace certainly had nothing like Darwin’s Bulldog defender, Thomas Henry Huxley, or Huxley’s pack of X-Club evolution hounds doggedly seeking to advance his theory. Darwin himself was a savvy promoter, courting favor when and where he had the opportunity, especially among theists like Charles Kingsley and Asa Gray. It should be clear that it was Darwin’s power of promotion not the power of his facts that mattered most. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted,

It was probably less the weight of the facts than the weight of the argument that was impressive. The reasoning was so subtle and complex as to flatter and disarm all but the most wary intelligence. Only upon close inspection do the faults of the theory emerge.

Indeed, she adds, reading Darwin’s theory required “an expenditure of effort which was itself conducive to acquiescence.” Thus, many failed to grasp the full meaning of Darwin’s theory, a misunderstanding Darwin was willing to tolerate — even cultivate — if the end result was effusions of approval.

The second point, however, is more interesting. Writing here back in November, I suggested that Wallace, not Darwin, should have survived the synthesis with genetic theory. Indeed it was Wallace who sided with August Weismann on the question of natural selection and heredity. Darwin’s old idea of pangenesis was neo-Lamarckian and reflected no appreciation of Mendelian heredity. Even Ernst Mayr, the leading evolutionary biologist of his generation, considered Weismann second only to Darwin in importance. So why didn’t Wallace come along? Why did Mayr himself use Darwin — not Wallace — as a standard of comparison? Why don’t we talk about the neo-Wallacean synthesis?

The answer to these questions is that Darwin’s theory spoke (and still in some measure speaks) to an age groping toward secularism. It is often said that Darwin knocked man off of his pedestal by making him coequal with the animal kingdom. But, in fact, what Darwin did was make man the central being of the natural world by making God superfluous. If God is absent then man answers to no one but himself. Darwinian evolution offers a rationale for the ultimate hubris, but it is a hubris that lurks behind a facade of humility. Darwin once asked himself, “Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, it [is] our admiration of ourselves.” Darwin was wrong: it wasn’t admiration of ourselves but a humble recognition of being created in God’s image. Remove that and there really isn’t much else to admire but yourself, and Darwin certainly admired his theory!
Wallace saw things differently. He found in evolutionary theory an implicit teleology. His was an intelligent evolution. By the time he wrote Man’s Place in the Universe (1903) and The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose (1910), evolution was equated with “science” and science itself was bound by methodological naturalism. Man was assumed to be different from animals by degree not kind, by presumption not by evidence. This was another legacy of Charles Darwin, with the result that Wallace, rather than getting a fair hearing, was largely dismissed.

But in a real sense the issue of Wallace’s status is not settled. The questions he raised about design and purpose in nature are unresolved — at least for now. Yet Wallace’s cosmology seems vindicated in Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards’s The Privileged Planet (2004), his biology confirmed in Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution (2007) and Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (2009). We seem poised on the brink of a new post-Darwinian synthesis, a synthesis, if it comes to pass, that promises a resurgence of Wallace’s reputation. Perhaps the real question isn’t why Darwin is better remembered than Wallace, but rather how much longer will this age of Darwin last?