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Why Nature’s Prophet Had to be Written

Those who follow Evolution News are well aware of my book Nature’s Prophet. I certainly did write this book in part to refute the “science-denier” label often applied to Alfred Russel Wallace for his heterodox beliefs, especially his reintroduction of teleology in nature. In fact, probably Wallace’s greatest “heresy” was to become, after his co-discovery of natural selection, “godfather” of the modern theory of intelligent design. But as a recent review of my book in the Journal of British Studies, by Andrew Berry, reveals the “heresy” hysterics and science deniers are still among us. 

That it should come from this Harvard evolutionary biologist is not entirely surprising. After all, Harvard was the home of Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), the famed Darwinian defender and author of a largely fictitious history of the neo-Darwinian synthesis (see details here). That much better should be expected of Professor Berry is doubtful, especially given his cavalier and erroneous assessment that Wallace’s “scattershot embrace of every needy underdog under the sun smacks of dilettantism.”

Two Principal Charges

But all this is really circumstantial. I level two principal charges against Berry’s review. First, it is unfair. Berry proudly announces his discovery of “three errors of fact in the book’s first three pages.” I’ll admit to two of them. On page 2 I have Darwin writing to Charles Lyell concerning Wallace’s Ternate letter on June 1; it should have been June 18. This is not exactly an “error of fact” as much as a typo since the date of Darwin’s receipt of that letter is plainly stated earlier in that sentence. Second, the date of Wallace’s Geographical Distribution of Animals is mistakenly given as 1869 instead of 1876.

What Berry doesn’t tell the reader is that the date of Wallace’s masterpiece of biogeography is accurately given in three other places throughout the book; again, not an error of fact but a typo. But in Berry’s hands these typos (regrettable though they are) become mischaracterized and magnified into an “error-strewn” book. How three errors magnify into an “error-strewn” book of nearly 300 pages reveal Berry’s own sense of balance and proportion. In any case, these corrections are already in the editor’s file for inclusion in subsequent printings. Problem solved. 

I could pass over such nitpicking if that were all. But my second objection is more substantial; it is that Berry’s review is inaccurate. Berry claims, “There is nothing remotely Christian about Wallace’s teleology.” This is nonsense. I plainly point out throughout the book that Wallace was not a Christian. Nevertheless, Wallace never disavowed Christianity generally, only Christianity of a particular kind, namely, a Paleyan interventionist view that had God tinkering with nature at every hand. I make this point in reference to Wallace’s reply to the Duke of Argyll’s Reign of Law (p. 50). Wallace instead saw nature as guided by an “infinite number of intelligent beings who may exist in the universe between ourselves and the Deity.” He added, “Call them spirits, angels, gods, what you will; the name is of no importance.”

Christians of Wallace’s own generation understood this. That includes most particularly the Anglican vicar John Magens Mello (1836-1914), who explicitly compared these spiritual intermediaries to angels and whose essay, “The Mystery of Life and Mind with Special Reference to The World of Life,” discussed in Nature’s Prophet on pages 116-117 and reprinted in its entirety in my Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution. And it includes Catholic astronomer-mathematician Francis Wegg-Prosser (1824-1911), who wrote a lengthy and laudatory review of Wallace’s World of Life in which he called upon his fellow Christians to follow Wallace’s lead in seeing design and purpose in nature. 

An Ignorance of Church History

In fact, Berry’s claim that Wallace’s teleology wasn’t “remotely Christian” reveals his own ignorance of Church history. As I point out, “Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (ca. 1265) wrote that he believed God governs many things through His angels, and that this allows for a sharing of the causality inherent in God’s nature — the First Cause. Dominican priest Aidan Nichols has noted Wallace’s compatibility with Aquinas’s teaching ‘that God governs inferior things through superior ones. . . . The First Cause gives being; secondary causes determine it’” (p. 72). Moreover, “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (circa fifth century) presented the idea of an ordered ranking of angels “whose obedience and ministry God employs to execute all the purposes which he had decreed,” and this was taken up by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and numerous divines for over a thousand years” (p. 115). Wallace’s hierarchy of spirit beings is hardly different from these. 

The Whole Story?

When Berry isn’t attacking me he is attacking Wallace. Berry insists that “it remains difficult to see how Wallace was able to reconcile jarringly discordant perspectives” between science and spiritualism, almost gleefully referring to Wallace’s “defense of Henry Slade, a medium who had been unmasked as a fraud by E. Ray Lankester, a student of T. H. Huxley (on the witness stand, Wallace called Slade an ‘earnest inquirer after truth’).” 

But this is not the whole story. As a matter of historical accuracy it should be pointed out that Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), himself a spiritualist and author of the classic two-volume The History of Spiritualism  (1926), considered the trial a travesty. The magistrate hearing the case, for example, refused to take into account any testimony supportive of Slade (shades of Kitzmiller v. Dover?), claiming he was bound to base his decision on “inferences to be drawn from the known course of nature.” In other words, he would consider only evidence conforming to his a priori assumption of methodological naturalism. Now Slade did engage in some chicanery, but spiritualism was never an all-or-nothing proposition. Fraud on some occasions could seem legitimate at others. All the leading investigators knew this. 

A different, more balanced view of Slade, is offered by Stephen E. Braude. The Seybert Commission, which supposedly exposed Slade’s fraudulent slate writing, according to Braude, “is itself suspicious, for reasons similar to those in the case of Eusapia Palladino’s American investigations — namely, intentionally loose controls supervised by inexperienced investigators determined to expose fraud. Slade had produced some spirit writing on a slate for members of the Commission, and he left his demonstration feeling that he had been treated courteously and fairly, and in fact that he had done rather well. But when the Commission’s report came out, Slade discovered that his manifestations had been considered ‘fraudulent throughout’.” Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters explains the problem: “The message seemed clear enough. Investigating supernatural events was off limits to scientists, unless the findings proved fraud. Those who [like Wallace] chose to ignore that rule — unspoken but strictly enforced — would find themselves off limits as well.”

My point here is not to vindicate spiritualism. The religious side of me would suggest that C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was right when he opened The Screwtape Letters with, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils [or spirits]. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” 

But the scientist cannot so readily dismiss the ubiquitous human experience of spirit phenomena, and here I think physicist Freeman Dyson said it best:

I should here declare my personal interest in the matter. One of my grandmothers was a notorious and successful faith healer. One of my cousins was for many years the editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Both these ladies were well educated, highly intelligent, and fervent believers in paranormal phenomena. They may have been deluded, but neither of them was a fool. Their beliefs were based on personal experience and careful scrutiny of evidence. Nothing that they believed was incompatible with science. [See The Scientist as Rebel, p. 332.]

My point is certainly not to take up Wallace’s crusade for spiritualism, but neither is it to place a historical dunce cap on his head and proclaim him a fool. If my approach to spiritualism is something other than Berry’s dismissiveness, it is only because its history demonstrates that it has suffered from the prejudice that is the modus operandi of an unwarranted positivism, namely, the notion that scientists must invoke only natural processes functioning via unbroken natural laws in non-teleological ways. Even a skeptic like Deborah Blum was moved by her investigations, as she wrote:

I still don’t aspire to a sixth sense, I like being a science writer, still grounded in reality. I’m just less smug than I was when I started, less positive of my rightness.

What changed? I had the pleasure and privilege of spending three years in the company of genuinely brilliant thinkers — William James and his colleagues who questioned and explored possibilities so acutely that it was impossible not to reevaluate my assumptions. I participated in a slightly unnerving ESP experiment. I read reports by psychical researchers that I couldn’t explain away. I thought all over again about the shape of the world, about science, about the limits of reality and who set them, illuminated by history, philosophy, theology as well as science. There were days when I could feel the hinges of my brain, almost literally, creaking apart to make room for new ideas.

Rusted Shut

But Berry’s brain is rusted shut with neo-Darwinism. He ends his attempt at a review with an ad hominem attack on my association with Discovery Institute. He writes, “That Flannery’s previous book on Wallace, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (2011), was published by the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, is telling. Wallace’s particular appeal to proponents of intelligent design creationism is that very strand of teleological thinking that Romanes condemned for its ‘incapacity and absurdity’.” 

First of all, neither Wallace nor Discovery Institute is “anti-evolution.” Indeed, Wallace is an author of the theory of evolution! But they both oppose the very reductionism evidenced in Berry’s review, a reductionism borne of Darwinian scientism. If I am to be branded “absurd” for believing that certain aspects of the natural world and the universe bear the unmistakable signs of guidance and control toward a definite end then, along with Wallace, we are both guilty as charged. We can be known by the company we keep. 

But what about Berry who co-authored with James D. Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life (2003)? While I’m sure Berry would not endorse the extremist views of Watson, it is nonetheless true that his co-author is a known racist who was forced to apologetically step down in 2007 from his position at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I only mention this because Berry himself opened the door to this “guilt by association” strategy, and I’ll take Discovery Institute’s honest search for truth and support for open inquiry over the bigotry of Watson any day. 

Up from Ideology

And one last point. Berry’s quoting of George Romanes (1848-1894) and his reference to Wallace as a man of “incapacity and absurdity” demonstrates precisely why Nature’s Prophet needed to be written. It was written in the hope that we could get past this ideological campaign against Wallace’s metaphysical views. That Berry could quote verbatim those same accusations from more than a century ago shows how needed Nature’s Prophet really is. What is particularly unfortunate is that nowhere does Berry seriously engage any of my detailed investigations into Wallace’s unique understanding of natural selection, evolution, science, cosmology, or the intellectual atmosphere that produced them. Instead he eschews scholarship and analysis for smear and invective that is unfair and inaccurate. Just when I thought real progress was being made, in wanders Berry to prove that Jonathan Wells is right, the zombies linger on. 

Although no amount of intellectual penetrating oil is apparently sufficient to open Berry’s mind, others are more flexible. If you’d like a second opinion of my book, I recommend you go to Patrick Armstrong’s review in Metascience.

Photo: Alfred Russel Wallace, by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (active 1855-1922) (First published in Borderland Magazine, April 1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.