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How Darwin and Wallace Split over the Human Mind

Neil Thomas
Image: Alfred Russel Wallace, attributed to John William Beaufort (1864-1943) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker begins with the grand claim that “our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but … it is a mystery no longer because it is solved, Darwin and Wallace solved it.” Leaving to one side the fact that this statement is a prime example of what writer and satirist Tom Wolfe has dubbed the temptation to “cosmogonism — the compulsion to find the ever-elusive Theory of Everything.”1 The statement is, at best, only half true. For Alfred Russel Wallace as early as the mid 1860s had parted company with Charles Darwin on the subject of the human mind, with its staggering complexity and unique language facility. For him, on more mature reflection, no simple ape-to-human progression was any longer tenable and he could no longer assent to the ontological equivalence of humans and nonhuman animals proposed by Darwin — and later subjected to a reductio ad absurdum by the philosopher Peter Singer, best known for his Animal Liberation (1975) and for his (seriously proposed) advocacy for a normalization of sexual relations between humans and animals.

Marvelously Free of Racism

Wallace had given much thought to his change of heart. Marvelously free of any racist prejudice even at the height of the colonial era, he had noted in his more than a decade of fieldwork in far-flung locations of the globe that primitive tribes were intellectually the equals of Europeans, even if not (yet) their equals at the technological level. “Savages” were, however, required to operate only in the context of simple activities where their great brainpower was redundant given the simplicities of their daily rounds. So, what was the point of their great mental powers and, more importantly, how had it evolved? After all, natural selection would not have been “called on” to enable them to perform cognitively challenging tasks for which there was presently no need. By extension, what was the survival value of musical and mathematical abilities for Europeans? These were patently not brute survival skills. How could they have been promoted by natural selection which favors only immediate utility since, as Darwin himself repeatedly stated, it had no power of foresight? Wallace eventually answered that question (to his own satisfaction) by claiming that “an influx of a higher life” had supervened to accompany the arrival of Homo sapiens on the world’s stage — a volte-face which disappointed Darwin and made Wallace the target of some opprobrium from Darwin’s supporters. 

Wallace and Natural Theology

In his older years Wallace came to reject natural selection as an explanation for the unfurling of all human and even animal life. By then he had transitioned towards the espousal of a form of natural theology; but his initial and gravest misgiving in the 1860s was focused four-square on the mystery of how the human brain could have evolved according to Darwinian lines of explanation. For Wallace it had become so clear that an additional power must have played a role that he thenceforth felt constrained to bid adieu to material modes of explanation. Rather like the adherents of the modern intelligent design trend, Wallace could not see how what is now termed “irreducible complexity” could have been thrown together by the only marginally discriminating forces of natural selection.

It is not difficult to sympathize with Wallace’s doubts. As Michael Ruse recently put it, “mind is the apotheosis of final cause, drenched in purpose … irreducibly teleological.”2 At the same time, however, Ruse puzzlingly and to me somewhat contradictorily contends, “Why should the evolutionist be expected to explain the nature of consciousness? Surely it can be taken as a given, and the evolutionist can move on … leave the discussion at that.”3 Wallace was certainly not prepared to accept such cherry-picking evasions and “leave the discussion at that.” And despite Dawkins’s transparent attempt to airbrush Wallace’s “apostasy” out of the historical record, the latter’s century-and-a half old question about natural selection’s inability to create the human mind has been maintained as a live issue by professional philosophers.

On Darwinian Principles

Wallace’s point was reprised by philosopher Anthony O’Hear who objected that evolutionary theory was inadequate to account for the emergence of the human mental and moral faculties. On Darwinian principles there was simply no source from which human morality and other higher faculties could have originated (all the less so if one believes that we as a species represent essentially a congeries of “selfish genes”):

How is it conceivable that consciousness should develop from unconscious precursors? There is no explanation to date and only those who believe that the difference between a cabbage or an automaton and a sentient human being is of small account will minimize the significance of this incomprehension.4

In other words, Darwinism simply cannot explain human nature to anything like its fullest extent. Both O’Hear and philosopher Richard Rorty have pointed to the plethora of “non-Darwinian motivations” in humankind, including that non-selfish moral compass which exists in all bar the most abject psychopaths. Hence O’Hear attacked the argument of Richard Dawkins when the latter insisted it was possible for humans to resist their selfish biological endowment in order to achieve more morally accountable human societies. Such moral resistance would not be logically possible if one holds to the strict doctrine of biological determinism. For given such a scenario, what resources would people have to draw on in order to escape the adamantine bonds of the deterministic straitjacket they were born into? There is then clearly a fatal logical contradiction in claiming that ethical behavior could be salvaged from the unyielding toils of biological determinism.5

As Anthony Flew once put it, “No eloquence can move pre-programmed robots.”6 It is therefore difficult to make a rationally justified case for the human mind having had the form of evolutionary history commonly imputed to it. Furthermore, the philosophical conclusion towards which Wallace was an early contributor has also come to be buttressed by an empirical discipline unknown in Wallace’s time — that of neuroscience, which throws valuable light on this philosophical issue, even, I would suggest, for those who publicly disdain the discipline of philosophy.

Philosophy and Neuroscience

Neuroscientist Donald Hoffman, who once worked with DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick in attempting to crack the problem of human consciousness, recently conceded that the nature and origins of consciousness remain “completely unsolved” and may best be termed an eternal mystery.7 The brusque and decidedly no-nonsense Crick was in the event fated to meet his Waterloo when it came to the subject of consciousness, explains Hoffman. Crick had at first attempted to explain it somewhat airily as nothing but an “emergent” property which “naturally” arose when matter reaches a certain level of complexity. However, he was at length obliged to withdraw that vacuous contention, conceding that there is nothing about conscious experience that is relatable to the physical stuff or material of the brain. Consciousness simply lies beyond our empirical perception and cognitive reach.

Hoffman develops the point further: “At the most microcosmic level the brain consists of subatomic particles which have qualities like mass, spin and charge. There is nothing about these qualities that relates to the qualities associated with consciousness such as thought, taste, pain or anxiety.”8 To suggest otherwise, continues Hoffman, would be like asserting that numbers might emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb. The bottom line seems to be that we are not only ignorant but, alas, prostrate in our ignorance of the brain’s arcana.9 Theoretically, of course, there may yet emerge an as yet undiscovered materialist explanation for the brain and human consciousness. But to date we must conclude that today’s science cannot with integrity support such a claim on the evidence presently available.

Both Hoffman and Crick were finally forced to conclude that all purely physicalist theories of consciousness had failed to provide illumination and that the state of consciousness could not be explained in neurological terms, a conclusion powerfully endorsed for more than three decades by distinguished British neuroscientist Raymond Tallis in his long opposition to what he terms “Darwinitis.”10 In short, consciousness is simply not derivable from physical laws but remains an inexplicable phenomenon of the human endowment which we are simply left to wonder at. To suggest otherwise, writes philosopher David Bentley Hart, is to fall into the trap of a “misapplication of quantitative and empirical terms to unquantifiable and intrinsically non-empirical realities.”11 This indicates that vague, would-be Darwinian attempts to imagine consciousness arising as an “epiphenomenon” of other physiological processes are misconceived. In fact, not being able to identify the precise biological pathway leading to the claimed “epiphenomena” disqualifies this contention as a bona fide theory and relegates it to the status of little more than magical thinking (which I define as postulating an effect without an identifiable agent or cause).

Deconstructing Darwinian Postulates

It cannot be denied that there are philosophers content to follow the Darwinian line and even to become Darwinian apologists (and indeed cheerleading eulogists — such as Daniel Dennett). But there are very many more who feel a vocational duty to deconstruct Darwinian postulates and unmask their debatable pretensions. Remarkably, Richard Spilsbury felt so strongly on this point that he took to task an older generation of philosophers for being cowed by materialist confirmation bias into not addressing the problem. His remarks were directed at the logical positivist philosophers, in the orbit of Sir Alfred Ayer and his famous Language, Truth and Logic of 1936, for what he saw as their culpable silence on Darwinism.

As a matter of historical record, no group of thinkers was more inclined to denounce propositions for being “non-sense” (in the philosophical sense of not having sufficient logical stringency to merit serious discussion) than the logical positivists. Yet no criticism of Darwinism issued from within that group. Spilsbury’s explanation for the omission seems all too plausible: “It is rather surprising that they [Darwinists] have largely been left alone by logical positivists in search of new demolition work. Perhaps neo-Darwinism has been saved from this [demolition] by its essential contribution to the world view that positivists share” 12 (i.e., materialism). Given that the underlying aim of the Ayerian philosophy was broadly speaking to make the world a safe place for positivism, by discouraging any form of mysticism or metaphysics, I find Spilsbury’s explanation entirely convincing. Nonsense can apparently be exempted from critique when it supports the materialist cause. 

It is uncertain how future generations will react to theories without evidential foundation, simply at the paternalistic direction of scientists riding high on materialist hobbyhorses. Common experience suggests that many persons today are inclined to resist unsubstantiable theories in favor of their own tried-and-tested observations of reality. And the rise of intelligent design thought may be understood as a manifestation of this more precise, empirical mode of thinking. It cannot therefore be stressed strongly enough that inferences to a designing power (of some sort) is not, pace Dawkins, always anchored in an adherence to a particular revealed faith. People now are considerably less swayed by deference and 19th-century fideism (believing on trust). In fact, the (historically) paradoxical truth is that for growing numbers of people today it is science that points in the direction of an “unmoved mover” more than any “positive” or revealed religion — hence Anthony Flew’s well-publicized defection from non-theistic rationalism to a form of deism which he dubbed his “pilgrimage of reason.”

Inference to the Best Explanation

In that remarkable philosophic odyssey, the erstwhile president of the British Rationalist Society finally arrived at an understanding of the world as disclosed to him by natural theology, the multitudinous signatures of which he interpreted as empirical markers for a design which, pace Lucretius, David Hume, Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Lawrence Krauss could not have arisen “autonomously” without a designer. For Flew as a professional logician, such a position simply represented the inference to the best explanation. He came to reject chance in the sense of the fortuitous configurations and re-configurations of matter postulated by Lucretius (and, mutatis mutandis, by Darwin with reference to the organic world). He found his a more rational explanation than that offered by those of Darwin’s intellectual heirs who seem to be more interested in cooking the books to protect materialist assumptions from theistic incursions than in facing up to the inadequacies of a science which dramatically contradicts their own philosophical case. For such ideologically tainted denials can sometimes seem to represent little more than a covert desire to throw a protective cordon sanitaire around the theory of a purely material genesis for the biosphere and so stifle further debate.

In Wallace’s Footsteps

The acceptance and promotion of what is strictly speaking non-discussible nonsense (in the Ayerian sense)13 by groups of people supposedly devoted to the truth wherever it leads provides a disquieting specter of intellectual integrity playing second fiddle to ideological commitment. In fact, the attempt by more doctrinaire scientific materialists to bounce lay persons into gainsaying their own rational judgments results in a truly incongruous situation. That is, when big science brings forward a host of findings which might most fairly be glossed as prima facie proofs of a higher agency, but thereupon proceeds to deny the most intuitively logical import of its own discoveries, unbiased men and women prove unsurprisingly resistant. That resistance arises from their ability to appreciate the true existential implications of said findings and their entirely consequential determination to cry “Foul!” to the scientists for trying to mislead them. Such persons are in effect following in Wallace’s footsteps, without of course in most cases being fully aware of the historical recapitulation. And this in turn furnishes a very good argument why Wallace should not be erased from the Darwinian narrative. Indeed, welcome historical revisions have been set in train in the last decade, much of that from the pen of Michael Flannery.14

What is impressive about Wallace’s testimony is the without-fear-or-favor intellectual independence it reveals. He suffered no disabling sense of self-consciousness about doing his U-turn from his earlier opinions. He simply accepted the unexceptional fact that persons’ opinions will change over time according to how they come to revisit evidence on more mature reflection. Wallace was, as Frank Turner once put it, primarily a disinterested student of life with no interest in orthodox posturing, even after numerous honors had been bestowed upon him later in life.15

Darwin, on the other hand, found himself in a very different situation, being oppressively aware of the luster of the family name, especially as it pertained to his grandfather, Erasmus. His insistence that his theory had to be true for the sake of personal and family honor may do much to explain his state of obdurate denial when coming up against the many counter-indications to it which he encountered, even from close colleagues such as Thomas Huxley. His intransigence in facing opposition seems to have stemmed from a form of duelist’s point d’honneur. This attitude of mind had already been detectable in the way that he had worked at a break-neck pace to produce the manuscript of the Origin for publication when, after receiving Wallace’s famous Ternate Letter in 1858, he sensed a competitor snapping at his heels.16 It was clearly important to him to be able to have the Darwin imprimatur embossed on his evolutionary ideas. In that way he could both underscore his own status amongst his peers and also be seen to be consummating the glorious tradition of evolutionary speculation inaugurated by his grandfather. For Darwin was for all his adult life concerned with a peculiarly familial construction of reality the truth-value of which he never questioned. He framed his life’s work as a consummation of his grandfather’s endeavors to prove evolution — which was why he was so gratified to be able to advance what he took to be a mechanism to account for evolutionary ideas first advanced by Erasmus Darwin. 

No Intellectual Pedigree

By contrast, Wallace had no intellectual pedigree to live up to. Natural selection was only one part of his life as a naturalist and intellectual17 and he was well able to keep things in perspective. That was all the more so since he had no grand family tradition to live up to. Family piety was simply not a consideration for him since his grandfather had not been a famous naturalist pushing the envelope ever further in quest of illumination of the unknown. For that reason, I find that there is more trust to be placed in Wallace’s cool-headed testimony than there is in Darwin’s desperate denials that there “could be any other explanation.” Wallace was his own man and this bestowed on him the inner strength to follow the evidence where it led him without feeling the need to trim his position in apprehension of how others might react. He seems not to have felt anything like the need shown by Darwin to impress public opinion or pose as a Great Man of Science. And this, I would argue, makes his testimony concerning the fatal weakness of the theory of natural selection all the worthier of heed.

Notes

  1. Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016), p. 20.
  2. On Purpose (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2018), p. 182.
  3. On Purpose, p. 182.
  4. Beyond Evolution Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Speculation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), p.65.
  5. Beyond Evolution, pp. 213-14.
  6. There IS a God (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), p. 81.
  7. Donald D. Hoffman, The Case against Reality: How Evolution hid the Truth from our Eyes (London: Penguin, 2020), pp. 1-21, citation p. 6.
  8. The Case against Reality, pp. 60-61.
  9. See also on this general point Steve Taylor, Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World (London: Watkins, 2018).
  10. See for instance Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Durham: Acumen, 2011).
  11. Atheistic Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven/London: Yale UP, 2009), p. 7.
  12. Providence Lost, p. 21.
  13. I repeat that I am using this term in the strict philosophical sense of a proposition admitting of no form of rational analysis which could form a legitimate part of discursive practice.
  14. See his Nature’s Prophet: Alfred Russel Wallace and His Evolution from Natural Selection to Natural Theology (Alabama: Alabama UP, 2018). 
  15. Frank M. Turner, Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1974), pp. 72-3.
  16. Wallace had dispatched a letter to Down House laying out very similar evolutionary ideas to those hit upon by Darwin himself, and this essentially bounced Darwin into publishing his Origin of Species only one year later (on November 24, 1859).
  17. Wallace lived well into the early 20th century when he made a considerable name for himself by his contributions to cosmology and in a broader sense to debates in the capacity of what we would now term a public intellectual.