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Alfred Russel Wallace’s Bicentennial Year: A Cause for Celebration and for Sadness

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).

Editor’s note: This year, 2023, marks the bicentennial of the birth of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection. And tomorrow is the anniversary of the publication of his book The World of Life, on December 2, 1910. Unlike Darwin, Wallace thought that biology, chemistry, and cosmology proclaimed clear evidence of intelligent design. This fall we have been celebrating the life and achievements of Wallace, who can be regarded as one of the godfathers of intelligent design. To find out more about him, we are featuring two special offers: You can download a free short book about Wallace by historian Michael Flannery; and you can get a hard copy of Flannery’s in-depth academic book about Wallace, Nature’s Prophetat a large discount.

Alfred Russel Wallace was born near the small Welsh village of Usk on January 8, 1823, making this the bicentennial year of the man who would spend the next ninety years earning the title I believe best fits him — “Nature’s Prophet.” In the book bearing that title, I pointed out an important fact: “Wallace’s understanding of the natural and metaphysical worlds eventually became one — an integrated whole of scientific, social, political, and metaphysical thought — through the latter half of his life, forming a revised natural theology over the moribund special creation of William Paley.” I further explained, “How Wallace’s embrace of spiritualism and libertarian socialist views functioned synergistically with his scientific, moral, and ethical worldviews” to form a coherent cosmology of guidance and purpose, otherwise termed intelligent evolution, “a theory of common descent based upon natural selection strictly bounded by the principle of utility (i.e. the idea that no organ or attribute of an organism will be developed and retained unless it affords it a survival advantage). Where utility cannot be found in a known organ or attribute, some other cause — an intelligent cause — must be called upon. In sum, intelligent evolution is directed, detectably designed, and purposeful common descent.” (For more on Wallace and his ideas, go here).

Reason to Celebrate

This seems cause for celebration, for Wallace — co-founder of natural selection — provides something new, a thorough account of a teleological modern evolution based upon the key principle outlined in famed Origin of Species (1859) yet in stark contrast to the materialist reductionism associated with Darwinism. So almost from the very beginning species diversification by means of natural selection need not be based upon wholly random stochastic processes. Darwinian evolution may be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” according to Richard Dawkins, but it was never the only show in town and not even the “greatest.” That is Wallace’s lasting legacy.

But we mustn’t get too exuberant. The main historiography surrounding Wallace tells a very different story. In fact, James T. Costa’s recent biography of Wallace, Radical by Nature, offers in one very elegantly packaged presentation, the story of Wallace the materialist/reductionist. In fact, he opens his book with this curious statement, “He [Wallace] was a committed materialist who came to see the physical world as incomplete, sensing a divide separating the material from a kind of spiritualistic promised land beyond” (x). So, then, he wasn’t a “committed materialist” after all. In any case, Costa tells the reader that for all the great scholarship completed on Wallace by Michael Shermer, Peter Raby, Ross A. Slotten, Martin Fichman, Andrew Berry, Charles Smith, George Beccaloni, and others (of those Slotten’s Heretic in Darwin’s Court and Fichman’s Elusive Victorian are best), a new biography is needed. It might be added as an aside that Costa relies too uncritically on Michael Shermer’s book, In Darwin’s Shadow (2002), in building his case for Wallace’s “heretical” personality. Costa’s infatuation with what he calls an “excellent” and “compelling” book is at odds with reviewers like John van Wyhe and Thomas Söderqvist who consider Shermer’s effort a failure, Söderqvist even calling it “profoundly unhistorical.” This noted skeptic/atheist attempted to build a “scientific” psychoanalysis of Wallace based not on history but upon the speculations of psychologist Frank Sulloway, an effort that Jim Endersby summarized thus: “unfortunately Shermer feels compelled to serve up each factual morsel on a bed of psychological theorising. This is doubly irritating because, despite his scientistic rhetoric, Shermer offers no evidence for many of his comments.”

Building on a Weak Foundation

Costa insists that given all the recent work on Wallace — newly uncovered notebooks and manuscripts, the Wallace Correspondence Project, and other fresh Wallace discoveries since 2013 — an “updated story of his life” is needed. If so, then one would anticipate finding a great deal new in this book compared to his last effort nearly ten years ago. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Although I will not reiterate all his errors and misunderstandings, many of which I covered in an EN review of his Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species, those mistakes committed in 2014 remain in Radical by Nature. The only difference here is that Costa adds more details than in his earlier effort. Though a fatter and fancier tome, it is no better than that produced almost a decade ago.

I will give just a few examples from Radical by Nature. Treating Wallace as if he suffered from a personality disorder, Costa writes, “Wallace’s personality was such that the fringe nature of spiritualism attracted him all the more. Ever the iconoclast [harkening to Shermer’s thesis], the more it was dismissed and attacked by mainstream scientists, the more Wallace dug to defend it — just like transmutation. This led him down more than a slippery slope—he went slip-sliding into quite the rabbit hole” (300).  So Costa is apparently claiming that Wallace’s attraction to transmutation or evolution was due to its avant-garde — even scandalous — nature. But this doesn’t accord with the facts, especially since Hull, Tessner and Diamond pointed out long ago that three-quarters of the scientists they studied had accepted evolution by 1869.  So Wallace’s continued support of evolution, as demonstrated in his Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870), The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), Tropical Nature (1878), Darwinism (1889), The Wonderful Century (1898), and many other works, belies this contention. Maybe he supported evolution because he thought it was the best explanation for life’s diversity, not because it ruffled feathers! Costa’s Wallace-as-heretic-personality theme could be indulged if he didn’t build so much of his book around it. And as for spiritualism, at that time many scientists and philosophers — including famed Harvard psychologist/philosopher William James, chemist William Crookes, physicists William Fletcher Barrett and Nobel Laureate Lord Rayleigh, and physician-turned-novelist Arthur Conan Doyle — all shared Wallace’s “rabbit hole.” Did all these men suffer from “heretic” personalities? 

For Costa, Wallace’s teleology was driven by his spiritualism — a common refrain in Wallace historiography. However, I have argued otherwise: 

While spiritualism may have forced his [Wallace’s] abandonment of materialism, it was never a very dogmatic materialism to begin with. Wallace’s spiritualism was not the driving force of his teleological views; it was related to his own theory of natural selection. Wallace’s teleology can easily be read completely apart from his views on spiritualism [which didn’t begin until his first séance on July 22, 1865 at the earliest] and any detailed analysis of his writings will demonstrate that the invocation of intelligences was due largely to the limiting factor of the principle of utility embedded within natural selection itself. Further-more, there is evidence that Wallace’s mature worldview did not represent a mid-life conversion to spiritualism; [if spiritualism is defined more broadly as a belief in something beyond this physical plane rather than just séances, ghosts and spirit manifestations] it was implicit in some of his earliest writings. In 1856 he wrote an essay on the orangutan, one of which he had kept as a pet while in living near the Simunjon River on the island of Borneo, and which elicited his fascination and wonder, causing him to remark on the marked similarities and yet profound differences between these apes and “the ‘human form divine’.”

Yet Costa Ignores This

His handling of Wallace’s interaction with his pet orang is compared to Darwin’s fascination with the orangutan Jenny in the London Zoo. According to Costa, “Wallace and Darwin saw the human qualities in these orangs through the lens of ancestry and common descent” (164). But this misses an important point and distinction. Belying Wallace’s own reference to the “human form divine,” Darwin’s answer was to show that man and beast were different only in degree but not kind (see his Descent of Man [1871]). For Wallace, the human/animal distinction posed (in his word) an “unbridgeable” difference, and his chapter XV, “Darwinism Applied to Man” in Darwinism (a confusing if not misleading title), published seventeen years after Descent, was written to demonstrate this very point. Costa relegates this uncomfortable chapter to a brief mention in a note hidden on page 486, saying only in the main text, “He [Wallace] may have broken with Darwin over the evolution of human and mind, but other than that, he was fully committed to gradual stepwise evolutionary change through natural selection” (382). But what an “other” that is! In point of fact, Wallace argued for three distinct areas insufficiently explained solely on the basis of natural selection: the origin of life (or the “change from inorganic to organic”); “the introduction of sensation or consciousness” (or the development of sentient organisms); and finally, the special attributes of human beings — abstract reasoning, mathematics, artistic and musical creativity, etc. Again, this is passed over by Costa.

Costa wants to suggest that Wallace’s move toward theism — which Wallace later in life freely acknowledged — was due solely to the influence of spiritualism of the ghosts and goblins variety, but I have written elsewhere that “Wallace held a disposition toward the teleological and the spiritual almost from the beginning. Indeed, among his first literary efforts at around twenty years of age, Wallace showed a metaphysical side that would presage his later interests in progressive moral development beyond the worldly when he asked revealingly, ‘can any reflecting mind have a doubt that, by improving to the utmost the nobler faculties of our nature in this world, we shall be the better fitted to enter upon and enjoy whatever new state of being the future may have in store for us?’ This was a question Wallace would spend the rest of his life answering.” It’s a question Costa fails — or refuses — to address. 

Costa is, in fact, silent on a great deal in his continued attempt to fashion Wallace in Darwin’s image. He does so by offering a 500-page biography that is highly selective in its references. For example, he fails to comprehensively cover all of Wallace’s writings (and not insignificant ones either!). One will find scant mention of his Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1874), sloughed over briefly and then only to support his “two Wallaces” theme — the so-called “legitimate” Wallace, the man of science and reason, and the “other” Wallace, the kooky spiritualist/iconoclast chasing after ideas beyond the pale. Man’s Place in the Universe (1903), Social Environment and Moral Progress (1913), and Revolt of Democracy (1913), are all passed over quickly in chapter 14, “Onward and Upward.” The biggest lacuna of all, Wallace’s more than 400-page grand evolutionary statement, The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose (1910), is not mentioned at all. This amounts to a total of 1,289 pages of essentially uncovered Wallace material! To call such an obvious oversight an incomplete examination of the man and his work seems an understatement.

The “Two Wallaces” Mythology

One last point is worth bringing out in greater detail. Costa perpetuates the so-called “two Wallaces” mythology, a leitmotif running through the Wallace historiography that was hinted at by the editors of The Lancet in 1876, but fully developed and spread with Darwin’s ultra-defender, George Romanes, in 1890. Costa is proud of perpetuating this nonsense, proclaiming, “I am far from the first to portray these seemingly contradictory sides of Wallace as ‘two Wallaces’” (471). True, but that hardly justifies it. Therefore, his Chapter 12, “A Tale of Two Wallaces?”, need not have been framed as a question. The question mark was undoubtedly inserted because Costa wants to portray a very Darwinian Wallace in which that “second” Wallace doesn’t really matter. Wallace perpetuated some of this by admitting that he was, as some like Romanes had suggested, “more Darwinian than Darwin himself.” But he only meant by this that he felt natural selection was necessary to explain evolution, not that it was sufficient to explain it. Wallace objected to Darwin’s insertion of subsidiary naturalistic factors such as sexual selection and pangenesis used to help or bolster natural selection. Wallace always felt this was unnecessary. This “two Wallaces” view is actually a device used to strategically marginalize his metaphysical views further and present a more “sanitized” Wallace stripped clean of all those pesky ideas about teleology in nature. Thus we have with Costa a “purer” Wallace with all those embarrassing metaphysical dalliances pushed to the side and out of the way. In reply to Costa, I invite readers to peruse my own answer to this question in Nature’s Prophet, Chapter 5, “Wallace’s Integrated World.” As Laurence Talairach, reviewing for The British Journal of the History of Science, observed, “Flannery’s elegantly written, clear and insightful book forcefully challenges the mythology of the ‘two Wallaces’.” Too bad, then, that the “two Wallaces” fiction persists in spite of it.

Despite Costa’s gaps and blind spots, his book is destined for greatness. Jennie Erin Smith with the Wall Street Journal calls it “an expansive and insightful biography”; Kirkus Reviews considers it “outstanding” and “superb”; Janet Browne, Darwin’s celebrated biographer, praises Costa’s “glorious detail” in capturing “Wallace’s life in all its brilliance, originality, and complexity”; and Andrew Berry calls Radical by Nature “masterful.” All this hyperbole shows the fix is in — Wallace has been made safe for scientism and Darwinian reductionism. The academy can breathe easy.

But the truth is hidden in plain sight. Those interested are invited to read my Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (2011), Nature’s Prophet: Alfred Russel Wallace and His Evolution from Natural Selection to Natural Theology (2018), and Intelligent Evolution: How Alfred Russel Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (2020). For Wallace’s interesting medical views, see my article, “Wallace’s Medical Libertarianism: State Medicine, Human Progress, and Evolutionary Purpose.” In keeping with Costa’s selective coverage of Wallace, none of this is referenced in Radical by Nature. And yet his will likely become the standard biography of Wallace. I suppose the assumption is that if this body of work is ignored, it will go away.

Mourning and Sadness

I, therefore, leave Wallace’s bicentennial with a sense of mourning and sadness — he remains as misunderstood and obscured as ever. The take-home lesson is clear: if Costa’s new biography tells us anything it is that George Orwell’s prediction in 1984 has come to pass, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” We may regretfully add Wallace to the Party’s list of obfuscating revisions. The good news is that the truth is still available for those who want to know.