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Alfred Russel Wallace — Intelligent Design’s Lost Ancestor, Now Found

A few years ago, our historian colleague Michael Flannery had the opportunity to participate in the Second International Conference on Alfred Russel Wallace held in Kuching (Sarawak), Malaysia. The paper he delivered, “Alfred Russel Wallace, Nature’s Prophet: From Natural Selection to Natural Theology,” is now published in a collection of presentations by scholars from the conference, Naturalists, Explorers and Field Scientists in South-East Asia and Australasia (Springer).

Flannery casts Wallace as a “prophet,” in the Greek sense, one who reads and interprets the “text” of nature. His article is deeply informed and perceptive, which comes as no surprise if you know Flannery’s work. Above all, I was struck (not for the first time) by the degree to which Wallace — co-discoverer with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection — foreshadowed many of the main themes of the theory of intelligent design as we know it today.

Wallace’s thinking runs parallel with that of Discovery Institute biologist Michael Denton, along with, Flannery makes clear, William Dembski, physicist Bruce Gordon, Jay Richards (Privileged Planet), Michael Behe, and other figures in the ID movement. Wallace’s writings on the bird’s wing and insect metamorphosis are updated in a couple of recent ID-themed Illustra Media documentaries (Flight and Metamorphosis).

Professor Flannery masterfully tells the story of Wallace’s dramatic “evolution” as a scientist. He points out that his break with Darwin was not sudden, but rather the product of tremors in Wallace’s articulation of evolutionary theory and Darwin’s own going back to the start. However, the issue that broke the back of their intellectual partnership was what Discovery Institute’s Wesley Smith calls human exceptionalism.

Simply put, natural selection as Wallace and Darwin understood it is a strictly utilitarian doctrine. That unguided natural process can select only traits that are useful to propagating a species. Anything else, including pretty much everything that makes humans exceptional, must come from…somewhere else. Flannery explains:

When, much to the chagrin of Darwin, Wallace rejected the idea that man’s special attributes — abstract reasoning, love of music, appreciation of the numinous, empathy, etc. — could be produced solely by the processes of natural selection, and instead called upon an “Overruling Intelligence,” it was actually based upon Darwin’s own principle of utility in nature (Darwin 1859: 121), which Darwin described as variation “useful to each being’s own welfare . . . preserved in the struggle for life” by the “strong principle of inheritance.”

Wallace’s position was really rather simple. Wallace pointed to the human intellect as being too great to be produced simply by natural selection because, by definition, the principle of utility as described by Darwin himself would be an effective barrier to its development. In what sense, Wallace asked, does the ability to reason abstractly, perform mathematics, play music, create art, or any of a number of uniquely human abilities and propensities afford a survival advantage in nature? Lacking a convincing answer, some other cause or action must be invoked. That cause of action Wallace called “an Overruling Intelligence.”

The 1869 break with Darwin was not sudden. It could be seen in a line of reasoning that began with a paper Wallace read on “The origin of human races and the antiquity of man” before the Anthropological Society 5 years earlier. In this paper Wallace asked, “Can this theory [of natural selection] be applied in any way to the question of the origin of the races of man? or is there anything in human nature that takes him out of the category of those organic existences, over whose successive mutations it has had such powerful sway? There is, as a general rule [among animals],” Wallace noted, “no mutual assistance between adults, which enables them to tide over a period of sickness. Neither is there any division of labour; each must fulfill all the conditions of its existence, and, therefore, ‘natural selection’ keeps all up to a pretty uniform standard. But in man, as we now behold him,” he added, “this is different. He is social and sympathetic” (Wallace 1864: clxii). For Wallace, at some point in the distant past the hominid form, devoid of sociability, sympathy, or anything approaching human reason, acquired a brain with the capacity for all of those things, at which point natural selection ceased to operate upon human physical structures. Man was no longer slave to the capricious tyranny of natural selection but conquered it through his extraordinary mental capacities. Wallace saw in man not continuity with nature but indeed something special (Wallace 1864: clxviii).

Learning about Wallace is like making the acquaintance of a lost ancestor, whose photo bears an uncanny resemblance to your own image. Writes Flannery, “the ghost of Wallace still haunts the certainties of the most ardent Darwinian materialists because life, and especially personhood and qualia, … remains their ‘unsolved problem.'”

Lost ancestor, the ghost that haunts Darwinism, honorary founder of the intelligent design movement — this is Alfred Russel Wallace, of whose ideas Michael Flannery is our leading interpreter.