Editor’s note: Readers looking for resources appropriate to the celebration proposed by Professor Flannery could not do better than Flannery’s superb biography, which he is too modest to mention, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life, as well as the short video exploration of the great man’s legacy, Darwin’s Heretic.
Darwin Day (or Days, sometimes two days’ worth!) is celebrated on February 12, Darwin’s birthday, with an abundance of programs around the country and indeed around the world. Many of these programs center on important topics that seem, however, a bit humdrum in the context of such a celebratory occasion: such things as regional biodoversity and ecosystems, which have little or nothing to do with the macro-evolutionary metaphysics of Charles Darwin. Why include them? Because participants are thereby deluded into thinking that Darwinism is perfectly compatible with a whole range of solid, uncontroversial subjects in the life sciences.
In fact, most of these topics are better suited to a “Wallace Day” celebration honoring Alfred Russel Wallace — which is exactly what I would like to propose, each year on April 14. That of course is today. Why this date? Well, we have several options. Besides Wallace’s birthday on January 8, which seems a little too obvious, there is the date of Wallace’s famous Ternate letter in which he conveyed to Darwin his theory of natural selection — or there is (this would be my preference) early April, the date of Wallace’s public break with Darwin over the issue of teleology in nature.
The date of the Ternate letter is problematic. The original letter seems not to have survived (though we have the version published by the Linnean Society, which Wallace never disputed). Some, like John van Wyhe, insist the letter was sent on April 5, 1858, but Wallace’s own recollection was that it was sent on March 9, and Charles H. Smith has noted some important details exacerbating the dating problem. The other date is a bit easier to nail down. It came with Wallace’s review of Charles Lyell’s tenth revised edition of his Principles of Geology in the April 1869 issue of the Quarterly Review. In this, Wallace proclaimed:
Let us fearlessly admit that the mind of man (itself the living proof of a supreme mind) is able to trace, and to a considerable extent has traced, the laws by means of which the organic no less than the inorganic world has been developed. But let us not shut our eyes to the evidence that an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.
Darwin received his copy and sent his objection to Wallace in a letter dated April 14, 1869. So I’d say let’s have a Wallace Day on April 14 to celebrate — Darwin’s objections notwithstanding — the historic reintroduction of the idea of intelligent design. This would be a fitting celebration of reuniting science with the time-honored tradition of seeing purpose in nature, and a statement opposing the straightjacket of methodological naturalism!