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For Alfred Russel Wallace, Natural Selection Opened the Door to Teleology

Michael Flannery

Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome the new book Nature’s Prophet by science historian Michael Flannery with a series of excerpts. Here, Professor Flannery explains how Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, identified Darwin’s principal failing in developing his version of the theory. Flannery is a Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. 

Nature’s Prophet is currently on sale here for $26, a substantial saving from the list price of $44.95.

Charles Darwin always recognized to some extent the problem of removing all vestiges of intelligent causation from evolutionary processes. Darwin had to straddle design on the one hand against chance on the other, and to get the necessary building processes woven into his life-expanding and life-diversifying actions of natural selection. He told Asa Gray, “I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.” 

Darwin could claim victory over special creation, but at what cost? “The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered….There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.” Arguing for design out one side of his mouth and for chance out of the other, Darwin seemed always confused, conflicted, or both. 

The Metaphors Didn’t Help

The metaphors he often alluded to didn’t help, and he knew it. He admitted to using teleological language when speaking of natural selection but claimed it was no more than astronomers who spoke of gravity controlling planetary movements or agriculturalists making special breeds through their selection. Such “selection” was merely acting upon circumstantial variability and not truly purposeful. Admitting to have personified Nature, he clarified that “I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws — and by laws only the ascertained sequence of events.”

Darwin struggled with this almost from the beginning. In the Origin, natural selection is depicted as “daily and hourly scrutinizing” and sorting out the “bad” (destructive) from “good” (preservative) in nature and “working” towards the developmental improvement of each organism. But how can the “law of higgledy-piggledy” (to borrow Whewell’s phrase) “scrutinize”? Wallace recognized this problem, and in a lengthy letter to Darwin suggested Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” as a better, more descriptive term. Wallace believed the sense of selecting was liable to misunderstanding and that Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” would avoid this pitfall. 

For Wallace, the term simply meant two things: 1) the retention of favorable variations over unfavorable ones, and 2) the resultant change would eliminate the unfit. Wallace urged Darwin to add survival of the fittest to discussions of natural selection or in many cases to replace it altogether. The suggestion detracted from Darwin’s domestic breeding analogy, but if it calmed the criticisms he was getting from Richard Owen, John Duns, Heinrich Bronn, Adam Sedgwick, Charles Lyell, the Duke of Argyll, Henry Tristram, and, yes, Wallace himself for not seeing the obvious intentionality in the breeding of domestic stocks, it was worth it. Darwin adopted the phrase in his next book, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication in 1868 and then in the fifth edition of the Origin published one year later.

An Odd Recommendation

This appears an odd recommendation coming from Wallace, who seemed to be taking an increasingly teleological view of evolution. But a few observations will make it more understandable. First of all this letter was written in July 1866, nearly two years before his formal break with Darwin. An even earlier letter is revealing, written when Wallace had barely been back in England four months from his overseas odyssey. He was already wondering about the apparent loss of utility and inutility of certain features of animals and its implications for natural selection. Why did ostrich “wings even become abortive,” he asked, “and if they did so before the bird had attained their present gigantic size, strength, and speed, how could they have maintained their existence?” 

Wallace cut to the heart of the matter: “[H]ow, if they once had flight, could they have lost it, surrounded by swift and powerful carnivora against whom it must have been the only defense?” Darwin’s reply is unfortunately given in an incomplete letter, but he simply makes reference to swift-running bustards, considered some of the largest flying birds known, and doesn’t appear to address Wallace’s “difficulty.” Of course flight could have been lost and become vestigial if an alternate trait — for example, running — was found to have greater utility.

Questions About Utility

But questions remain. Might it be risky to make utility the only animating principle of natural selection? If flight offered the ancient ostrich his chief selective advantage in the struggle for survival, how was it ever lost? Moreover, should utility in nature be the only feature worth noting in the development of the natural world? Surely these and similar questions were crowding Wallace’s mind as he wrote this letter to Darwin. Hereafter the matter seems to have been dropped to no definite conclusion.

These questions about utility in nature were not new to Wallace. Just ten months earlier his Sarawak Law paper showed that he had already worked out a general scheme for descent with modification, though, of course, his mechanism — natural selection — lay well in the future. But in an insightful essay on the habits of the orangutan, an animal he had studied so carefully and even kept as a pet during his time on Borneo, Wallace speculated about the massive canines of these great apes (called “Mias” by the natives). What possible use could they have for an animal that lives largely on fruits and soft vegetables, and that when under attack defends itself not with its teeth but with its powerful arms and legs? The question caused Wallace a series of interesting metaphysical ruminations.

Might Beauty Be Sufficient?

Wallace argued that requiring a utilitarian purpose for every aspect of plant and animal life ignores certain holistic aspects of nature. If we do not see an immediate need for a particular feature of an organism, why must we feel compelled to invent one? Might not beauty be sufficient in itself? If we could appreciate it, why couldn’t a Supreme Creator? Hadn’t William Whewell, in his Plurality of Worlds (1854), suggested “a general plan” that extended beyond “the special adaptation of each animal…subservient to an intelligible purpose of animal life”? Maybe the orangutan could instruct us against our own hubris. Darwin insisted that our sense of being special — our regard for our own intellect — was nothing but a form of arrogance, “our admiration of ourselves.” But what if the opposite were true? What if we were merely imposing our insistence that every adaptation must have a material and physical use for every animal or plant as an arrogant presumption that all causes are mundane reflections of survival characteristics that we attribute to them? Ignoring our special abilities to appreciate beauty or power in nature implied a certain imposition against the supreme creator that imbued us with those attributes in the first place.

Clearly Wallace was calling upon higher than proximate causes in explaining nature. Slotten admits it was “audacious” to come to such a “radical speculation” on the basis of orangutan dentition, but it demonstrates Wallace’s keen eye for anomalies in nature and his fearless and unconventional quest for their resolution. Fichman is absolutely correct in insisting that this early essay would mark a lifelong effort “to explore, without prejudice, a wide range of causal agencies in human, as well as nonhuman, evolution.” This would ultimately develop into the teleological cosmology culminating in Man’s Place in the Universe (1903) and The World of Life (1910). It is no exaggeration to see this 1856 essay, written in the wake of his Sarawak Law paper the year before and ahead of his famous Ternate letter, as an early creedal statement. It would mark the emergent tenets of his inchoate teleological worldview, which consisted of the following: a non-reductionist, holistic view of nature; an admission of inutility in the plant and animal kingdoms and this given as reasonable evidence of higher and even intelligent causation in nature; a special place for humankind in the appreciation of features beyond mere survival utility such as beauty of form, color, and majesty; and the allowance that all of this may be the intentional expression of a theistic presence or force. 

An Imputation of Higher Causes

Viewed in this light, we can see why Wallace could admonish Darwin for using deceptively teleological language in reference to a principle that was itself by definition rooted in the organism’s utility. It was an imputation of higher causes for proximate causes where none were intended. Much later, Wallace’s consistent advocacy of natural selection would develop under the maturation of his natural theology into a more deeply broadened scope and efficacy. But in the 1850s and most of the 1860s these ideas were still tentative. While they were clearly there, they awaited the empowerment of the full force of Wallace’s teleological vision. In the end, even natural selection itself would become slave to his intelligent evolution.

The contrast with Darwin is striking. While Wallace could ultimately resolve — at least to his satisfaction — the more abstruse aspects of the natural world by calling upon Mind or mind-like forces, Darwin found himself dogged by the vexing problem of eliminating teleological and metaphysical language from his descriptions of what he insisted were strictly material, law-based processes governed by chance and necessity. The problem was exacerbated by Darwin’s seeming inability to see the role of intentionality in analogies unless it was repeatedly pointed out to him, and even then it was more by acquiescence than acceptance. He failed to distinguish design or forethought of the breeder from the blind processes of natural selection, and shortly after publishing the first edition of the Origin he thought of another analogy — that of an architect.

A New Analogy

This came to him in a letter to Hooker in June 1860. He went public with the architect analogy in Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication in 1868. The introduction of chance into natural selection made many uncomfortable with its theological implications. The adoption of the architect analogy was presumably to deflect and allay these concerns, although it did so by addressing the issue of distinguishing the cause of modification in species demographically and the cause of variation within individuals, which, of course, missed the point of whether or not “higher” powers needed to be called on to do so. 

Darwin unquestionably wanted to avoid invoking anything of the sort, but it is difficult to see how the addition of an “architect” helped. Darwin noted, “as, in the construction of a building, mere stones or bricks are of little avail without the builder’s art, so, in the production of new races, selection has been the presiding power. Fanciers can act by selection on excessively slight individual differences, as well as on those greater differences which are called sports. Selection is followed methodically when the fancier tries to improve and modify a breed according to a prefixed standard of excellence; or he acts unmethodically and unconsciously, by merely trying to rear as good birds as he can, without any wish or intention to alter the breed.” But Darwin’s preferred chance is now sacrificed to design. The breeder’s act to simply improve his birds is not a random or chance endeavor; simply calling it “unconscious” doesn’t remove the intentionality of the breeder or cancel the design of the “builder’s art.” By “unconscious” Darwin only meant selection unintended to create a new breed; some intentionality was involved even to maintain the existing form. Breeding the “best” birds unconsciously is an oxymoronic use of either the word best or unconscious; if breeders were truly unconscious of their selection they would have no concept what the “best” birds were. 

Again, Darwin analogizes:

If our architect succeeded in rearing a noble edifice, using the rough wedge-shaped fragments for the arches [of fallen stones], the longer stones for the lintels, and so forth, we should admire his skill even in a higher degree than if he had used stones shaped for the purpose. So it is with selection, whether applied by man or by nature; for though variability is indispensably necessary, yet, when we look at some highly complex and excellently adapted organism, variability sinks to a quite subordinate position in importance in comparison with selection, in the same manner as the shape of each fragment used by our supposed architect is unimportant in comparison with his skill.

Darwin apparently thought that making the raw materials of the architect just randomly fallen pieces of stone less teleological in implication. But now the analogy had an even greater reliance upon an intelligent selector. As if struggling to extricate himself from quicksand, the more Darwin strained against intentionality and design the deeper he got sucked in.

“An Omniscient Creator”

Darwin deals with the obvious question of “an omniscient Creator” by acknowledging on the one hand what he quickly denied on the other. While he admitted that such a Creator “must have foreseen every consequence” of the laws he imposed, he then asserted that it cannot “be reasonably maintained” that there is any design on the Creator’s part. For Darwin, this equivocation is not based in confusion but in an effort to blunt criticisms of rank materialism; nonetheless, his emphasis is away from design and on chance variation. Here again Darwin’s attempt to fashion a coherent analogy for natural selection only finds itself mired in its own contradiction. To facilitate understanding of a purposeless process, purpose is repeatedly called upon.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini capture the essence 0f Darwin’s dilemma when they observe that “what is most problematic…is something…that Darwin announced frequently in The Origin of Species: that artificial selection…is an appropriate model for natural selection. Adaptationists often say that this is just a harmless metaphor, but we’re going to argue, to the contrary, that the putative analogy to artificial selection actually bears the whole weight of adaptationism. It’s much like the arches and the domes [in the architect analogy]; take the one away and the other collapses.” And it is relatively easy to take one away in the comparison because architects (and breeders) have minds and evolutionary processes do not. Unlike deterministic, robotic selection in nature, Darwin’s hypothetical breeder or architect does not have a human mind and therefore lacks the capacity to pose and resolve potential problems or speculate about counterfactual solutions or propose what might happen or make informed choices with intentionality and tacit knowing and still maintain a valid comparison. As Wallace tried to point out to Darwin, natural and artificial selections are fundamentally different. This inadvertent dichotomy launched some spirited correspondence battles, first with Lyell and later with Asa Gray.

A Foreshadowing of Teleonomy?

It might be argued that Darwin’s problem in this regard was really a foreshadowing of the term coined by Colin Pittendrigh (1918-1996) in 1958, teleonomy, where biological function and goal-directedness are treated as purely mechanistic, only giving the appearance of purposive design. It has more recently been given expression by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose [but, in fact, have not],” although he has rather confusingly and unnecessarily introduced “archeo-purpose” for apparent purpose and “neo-purpose” for apparent purpose and “neo-purpose” for intentional purpose. The use of the term teleonomy is controversial, but labeling “purposeful appearing” features of nature as teleonomic simply begs the question. Chance most certainly is not purposeful, and in terms of Darwinian evolution it is hard to see how acknowledging the ontological tension resolves it, as if because we can name a disease we have now cured it. 

For Wallace there was no contradiction, no tension. It is hard not to see Fichman’s “supreme irony” in this. While natural selection was Darwin’s naturalistic drive train, Wallace found that natural selection opened the door to teleology. Where utility failed, teleology entered. The exaggerated forms that Wallace alluded to in his 1856 essay on the orangutan and the wonderful colors and plumage of some birds were perhaps just beauty for beauty’s sake. But Darwin had no room for such a notion. He answered with a subsidiary source of evolutionary change in sexual selection. The peacock’s tail became Darwin’s favorite example. “Ornaments of all kinds, whether permanently or temporarily gained,” he insisted, “are sedulously displayed by the males, and apparently serve to excite, or attract, or charm the females….All naturalists who have closely attended to the habits of birds, whether in a state of nature or under confinement, are unanimously of [the] opinion that the males delight to display their beauty.” Wallace rejected this as anthropomorphism. But that was not all. If natural selection was primarily the elimination of the unfit, then existing species could only be culled not really created. Where was nature’s building process?

Wallace’s Heresy

Wallace’s answer was to find causes beyond the empirical and material. Wallace’s heresy against Darwin’s positivism had been brewing for a long time, but the more immediate explanation for his break came in a letter to his appalled colleague: “My opinions on the subject have been modified solely by the consideration of a series of remarkable phenomena, physical and mental, which I have now had every opportunity of fully testing, and which demonstrate the existence of forces and influences not yet recognised by science.” Those “remarkable phenomena” were found in spiritualism, and it sent Wallace on a theistic trajectory triggered by his utilitarian critique of the explanatory capacity of natural selection. Both would combine to form the twin pillars upon which his natural theology would be built.

Photo: An orangutan, by entrecon, via Pixabay.