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Discovering Alfred Russel Wallace

Michael Flannery

Alfred Russel Wallace

Editor’s note: The new book Nature’s Prophet: Alfred Russel Wallace and His Evolution from Natural Selection to Natural Theology is officially out now! Nature’s Prophet is currently on sale here for $26, a substantial saving from the list price of $44.95.

Wallace was the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection. He later broke with Darwin over the question of teleology. We asked the author, science historian Michael Flannery, how he “discovered” Wallace, arguably the founding father of modern intelligent design theory.

Reconstructing my “discovery” of Wallace is fairly clear. It was around 2006 and I first encountered Wallace by finding his book, The World of Life, in the special collections at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where I served as Associate Director. Its subtitle, A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose, seemed compellingly like a proto-ID statement. I noticed it because I had already read Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1993), Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996), and William Dembski’s Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (1999). 

Wallace’s World of Life, written in 1910, immediately struck me as his own “bridge between science and theology” and, moreover, it seemed remarkably ID-like in its approach. Recognizing that this was coming from the co-discoverer of natural selection intrigued me further. It seemed to me that today’s reading public needed to be introduced to Wallace’s World of Life. So I suggested this to Bill Dembski who encouraged me to pursue the project of providing a new abridged edition of that work with an appropriate introduction for historical context. 

Dembski provided an illuminating forward to what was published as Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution. This was in 2008, and it was reissued again in a revised edition in 2011, this time with a rare but fascinating commentary written by the Rev. John Magens Mello (1836-1915), The Mystery of Life and Mind, with Special Reference to The World of Life  (1911). I also completed a general biography, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life, which was published by Discovery Institute Press in 2011.

Although my discovery of Wallace occurred quite unexpectedly, I most certainly wouldn’t have recognized its full significance if I had not already been introduced to ID by reading Johnson, Behe, and Dembski. Nevertheless, I cannot claim to have introduced Wallace to the modern ID community. That distinction, as far as I’ve been able to tell, belongs to the Discovery Institute authors of Traipsing into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Decision (2006), but dates at least to 2005 largely under the auspices of Jonathan Witt and John West. Wallace is highlighted and quoted on page 18 of Traipsing, but to my knowledge no other detailed analyses have been carried out by ID proponents on Wallace other than my own. 

That said, it has been John West who has been most consistently supportive of my ongoing work. John has always understood the importance of history and the humanities to ID, well attested by his own Darwin Day in America

To me, the implications are clear: Wallace’s “intelligent evolution,” as I call it, resonates strongly with ID concepts. This means that to characterize ID as “anti-evolution” is historically inaccurate as it is also wrong to simply view ID as a cover for Christian conservatives. Wallace was neither Christian nor conservative; he was an avowed socialist.

For those who wish to caricature ID in these terms, Wallace becomes a very inconvenient historical figure. Yet, as I said, his metaphysical views and his approach to science resonate in many ways with modern intelligent design.

Photo: Ariel toucan (Ramphastos ariel), by Ana Cotta [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.