Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life
reviewed by Terry Scambray
In April 1869, as Charles Darwin finished reading an article by Alfred Russel Wallace, he scratched an emphatic “No!!!” in the margin. Wallace, as the co-discoverer of evolution along with Darwin, had written that natural selection could not produce something as complex as the human mind; some other cause, namely, an “Overruling Intelligence” must have played a role.
Why was Darwin upset that Wallace saw limits to the power of natural selection? This is the question Michael Flannery answers in his slim but revealing study, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life.
For Flannery, a professor at the University of Alabama, Wallace’s challenge to Darwin is not a mere historical footnote but goes to the heart of the origins debate, with Wallace entering the lists as an early advocate of intelligent design. Flannery’s complementary goal is to undermine the belief that Darwin’s mind was a blank slate when he began doing science, and even less so when he sailed around South America in the Beagle.
Deep significance is commonly attached to the story of Darwin as the dispassionate scientist. He is regularly hailed as a personification of the Enlightenment view of mankind’s development (which many of us have imbibed): that man first understood the world through myth and superstition (religion), that he next ascended to reason (the ancient Greeks), and then finally reached the highest plateau, science.
Flannery, however, avers that this heroic portrait of Darwin is inaccurate, agreeing with the late physicist, historian, and Benedictine priest Stanley Jaki, whom he quotes:
Wallace, by contrast, found that a materialistic account of evolution could not explain the great discontinuities in nature, particularly the chasm separating man from the rest of the animal kingdom. As he explained in his book, The World of Life: “Some of man’s physical characters and many of his mental and moral faculties could not have been produced and developed by the law of natural selection alone, because they are not of survival value in the struggle for existenceî (p. 114, his italics).
Two Theories of Evolution
Then as now, the argument against design and teleology was this: If the world is designed, why is it imperfect and burdened with pain and suffering? Tragically, both Darwin and Wallace suffered the agony of seeing children of theirs die. However, “Darwin simply found suffering a by-product of the vicissitudes of materialistic chance; for Wallace, used to privation and inured to struggle, pain was a necessary and sometimes instructive thread woven into a complex fabric of life” (p. 94).
Though Darwin had the courage to make the five-year voyage in the Beagle, in what was an excruciating rite of passage, Wallace lived for many years among the natives in South America and Malaysia, where he collected specimens and supported himself with his writing. And he was a relentless collector: during eight years in Malaysia, he amassed a veritable Noah’s Ark-sized collection of 125,660 specimens. He developed a keen understanding of the relationship between organisms and their environment, and for this came to be called “the father of biogeography.”
Darwin, on the other hand, spent most of his post-Beagle life in the more sedate region of Kent, south of London, where he became impressed by the changes that animal breeders could introduce into populations of animals, changes that Darwin thought would accumulate over time and lead to the formation of more complex organisms. But Wallace recognized that domestic animal breeding was a dead end for evolutionary theory—literally—because such breeding diminished animals’ capacity to survive in the wild. Besides, breeding was comparable to intelligent design, the exact opposite of natural selection.
Although Wallace’s fieldwork generally left him little time to ruminate, he used the idle time imposed by the rainy season of 1855 to reflect on Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, and to regard the struggle and death being played out before his eyes through the prism of Malthus. This caused him to ask, “Why do some live while others die?” For an answer, he hit upon the notion of “the survival of the fittest,” a phrase that Herbert Spencer coined, though Darwin originated the theory behind it.
When news of Wallace’s idea reached Darwin, the latter knew that he must publicly announce evolutionary theory as his own idea or risk losing credit for it. So a hasty meeting of the Linnean Society was convened in London on July 1, 1858, during which the papers of both men were read. Afterwards, Darwin was given the credit due him as the first to offer a theory of how species multiply. Regardless, what is of enduring interest on Wallace’s account is his idea of “intelligent evolution,” as opposed to Darwin’s idea that life is driven by purposeless forces.
A “Gigantic Foolishness”
This took some courage to maintain, for in the environment of Victorian materialism, anyone who saw design in nature was marginalized. To an extent, this was understandable, because scientific reductionism had already been monumentally successful in the areas of agriculture, transportation, and disease control. But Wallace understood that reductionist, materialistic theories were insufficient to explain life, even though he thought evolution itself obvious. As he wrote:
Michael Flannery has done a service in bringing Wallace back to our attention.
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“Silenced Partner” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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