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Social Darwinism: The Wallace Factor

Michael Flannery
Statue of Alfred Russel Wallace
Photo: Statue of Alfred Russel Wallace, by George Beccaloni / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).

In my previous post I noted that Jeffrey O’Connell and Michael Ruse’s new book, Social Darwinism, has many references to Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) — 35 in all! The thrust of their comments is to diminish Wallace’s importance in the history of evolutionary theory specifically and science generally. Showing their own adherence to the secular religion of Darwinism, O’Connell and Ruse make frequent references to Wallace’s “apostasy” for straying from Darwin’s hidebound materialism in suggesting a spiritual dimension to humankind and an overt teleology in the cosmological and biological worlds. They emphasize that Wallace was something of a ne’er-do-well whom they caricature as a wacky spiritualist who received for his efforts only “the horror and scorn of his fellow scientists” (32). 

This cartoon version of Wallace hardly comports with the facts of his life. Not surprisingly, it is derived from their sole source on this famed naturalist, Michael Shermer’s In Darwin’s Shadow (2002), perhaps the worst biography ever written on Wallace. The fact is, in his lifetime Wallace was well known and respected. Citation analysis shows that Wallace’s writings have been more frequently referenced than those of Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), or Richard Owen (1804-1892) (Smith, 30). In addition, Wallace’s lecture tour in America from October 23, 1886, through August 8, 1887, was immensely successful. The eminent American philosophers William James (1842-1910) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) rejected the reductionist scientific naturalism common with Darwinists and praised Wallace’s evolutionary teleology. It is fair to say that the “eclipse” of Wallace occurred after his death, surely not during his lifetime. But that eclipse has never been complete and I have outlined numerous scientific figures (some quite eminent like the Nobel laureate neuroscientist John C. Eccles [1903-1997] and famed astronomer/cosmologist Fred Hoyle [1915-2001]) from the 20th and 21st centuries who have suggested that Wallace’s views on teleology still have considerable merit (Nature’s Prophet, 140-156). In general, O’Connell and Ruse’s handling is extremely superficial and infused with their naturalistic biases.

False Equivalency and Presumption

More importantly, however, their treatment is subject to false equivalency and presumption. For example, they state, “Even if Darwin had never existed, by 1941 the science would have been around for the Nazis to use. After all, Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the ideas in 1858 and Herbert Spencer nearly ten years before that. It would be ludicrous to finger Wallace for Auschwitz” (52-53). Here a number of missteps are made. First “the science” (presumably natural selection) would not, at least in the case of Wallace, have been around for the Nazis to use because Wallace’s understanding and presentation of natural selection was different in many important respects from Darwin’s. For one thing, Wallace always rejected Darwin’s artificial selection examples of domestic breeding as applicable to natural selection, and eventually he completely rejected Darwin’s insistence that animals and humans were different in degree but not kind. Additionally, it was Darwin, not Wallace, who saw human history locked in a competitive struggle of racial hierarchies. Without these three key elements — the conflating of artificial and natural selection, the explicit abandonment of human exceptionalism, and the adherence to racial and ethnic struggle — it’s hard to see how the Nazis could have translated their “racial hygiene” into any kind of systematic eugenics program modeled around a Wallacean natural selection. In contrast, Richard Weikart has convincingly demonstrated how Hitler was able to turn his “pernicious ethic” into an official Nazi policy committed to social Darwinism based upon Darwinian concepts of selection (see his Hitler’s Ethic). 

Fingering Wallace

It certainly would be “ludicrous” to “finger Wallace for Auschwitz” because he openly and ferociously opposed any and every kind of eugenic proposal. Wallace, who knew all too well that the dark and dismal “science” of eugenics was gaining ground in England late in his life, was quite clear: “Segregation of the unfit is a mere excuse for establishing a medical tyranny. And we have enough of this kind of tyranny already.… the world does not want the eugenist to set it straight.… Eugenics is simply the meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priestcraft.”

This, of course, is not to suggest that Darwin was in any sense a Nazi or even sympathetic with those ideas. But his cousin, Francis Galton, himself a devoted Darwinist, laid the foundation in his biometrics for the eugenic perspectives that would form an appreciable link with the German infatuation with racial hygiene and their terror of so-called “mental defectives” and the “unfit.” Was Darwin a Nazi? Of course not. But did his ideas form a causal nexus via Galton to ideas that would be integrated into Nazi policy? Yes. Such a link is entirely absent — even vehemently opposed — with Wallace.

And this reveals the dramatically different Wallace factor. A factor that shows how two men intimately associated with the same idea — natural selection — could come to very different conclusions and have very different consequences (for exactly how different, see Intelligent Evolution). Ideas do indeed have consequences, but not all ideas play out the same way or weave their way in the history of ideas toward the same destination. It’s an enduring lesson that O’Connell and Ruse seem to have forgotten.