In a new conversation for ID the Future with fellow historian of science Michael Keas, Michael Flannery makes an unexpected and quite moving point about Charles Darwin and his break with intelligent design “godfather” Alfred Russel Wallace.
Darwin and Wallace, co-discoverers of the theory of evolution by natural selection, split ultimately on the question of whether unguided evolution and other unintelligent forces can explain all of what Wallace called, in his magnum opus, the “World of Life.” Darwin thought such forces were sufficient. As Flannery recounts in his revelatory new book, Nature’s Prophet, Wallace came to the conclusion that a source of intelligent agency must also be involved.
If such a break happened today, whether in scientific or other contexts where passions are intense, you would expect career reprisals, icy dismissal, denunciations through social media or various backchannels, an unending feud, etc. Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me, and almost all ID proponents have experienced it if they have gone public with their views.
Darwin’s response was much different. True, their relationship changed. Darwin was disturbed by Wallace’s turn in the direction of natural theology. But as Professor Flannery points out, the two remained friends. Darwin successfully sought out a government pension for Wallace. And when Darwin died in 1882, among his pallbearers was none other than Alfred Wallace. What a sweet and inspiring story.
Darwin disagreed strongly with someone over something he cared about deeply, that in fact was the basis of his claim to fame as a scientist — without assuming the other man must now stand revealed as a bad person. Wow! Even if Darwin’s theory is in the process of being superseded by better science, his character and gentleness remain a model, perhaps more urgently needed now than in his own time.
Image: Charles Darwin, by OpenClipart-Vectors, via Flickr.