Respect for Alfred Russel Wallace: Too Little, Too Late
On the 100th anniversary of his death, Alfred Russel Wallace is getting a smattering of attention, but not nearly what Darwin gets every day. Perhaps it’s because the co-discoverer of natural selection believed in intelligent design.
In Live Science, Jesse Lewis headlined an article, “100 Years After Death, Evolution’s Other Discoverer Gains Attention.” Actually, neither Wallace or Darwin “discovered evolution,” if by that one assumes universal common ancestry by unguided processes. What they “discovered” (better, speculated about) was natural selection as a mechanism for speciation, extrapolating that mechanism into speculation about universal common ancestry. Lewis gave Wallace a moment in the limelight, mentioning his fascination with new species (Wallace explored the world far more than Darwin ever did), his letter to Darwin speculating about natural selection (though Wallace did not call it that), and a new website, The Wallace Correspondence Project, planning to post 28,000 searchable documents and 24,000 images from Wallace’s prolific writings. Lewis did not, however, mention anything about Wallace’s belief in the creation of the human soul. Neither did Science Magazine, in an August 29 article that mentioned the anniversary but focused only on Wallace’s contribution to biogeography.
Nature gave no tribute to Wallace this week. The journal did, however, publish a letter from two Russians and a German who wanted to honor Wallace a little on the centenary of his death. They pointed out that the pre-revolution Russians eagerly read Wallace’s works and actually preferred them over Darwin’s. “Many warmed to Wallace’s contention that human spiritual faculties cannot be explained by natural selection,” they said, mentioning Alexander Gusev, a theologian who used Wallace’s arguments for creation of the soul to defend Orthodox Christianity. Daring to doubt Darwin as the be-all and end-all of evolutionary knowledge, they ended:
Russia’s fascination with Wallace’s work helped to shape the debate among early evolutionists on alternative versions of Darwinism (see D. Todes Nature 462, 36–37; 2009) and opened up discussion on the uniqueness of the human soul.
Even that falls short of describing Wallace’s argument for design. Earlier this year, PhysOrg mentioned a new biography, stating, “A major new book by historian Dr John van Wyhe from the National University of Singapore has radically rewritten the story of how evolution was discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.” Its thrust appears to be an attempt to advance the evolutionary views of Darwin’s running mate (3/03/08). Darwin biographer Janet Browne summed it up, saying, “Without downplaying the impact of Darwin, van Wyhe’s book reveals Wallace as a great evolutionary thinker in his own right, who truly deserves to be considered in context.” Once again, though, nothing was stated about Wallace’s provocative anti-Darwinian views (i.e., that natural selection is incapable of explaining all of life), and his inference to a great designing intelligence from the capabilities of the human mind and spirit.
To get that information, one can read historian Michael Flannery’s book Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life, valuable for its extensive quotes from Wallace’s writings where he inferred intelligent design of the human soul. Flannery’s book is highlighted on AlfredWallace.org. In celebration of the centenary, David Klinghoffer announced on Evolution News & Views a new 15-minute survey of his life produced by the Discovery Institute, “A Rediscovered Life,” narrated by Dr. Flannery, posted on YouTube. The article also mentions that Flannery is presenting at the second annual Alfred Russel Wallace Conference in Singapore. A brief video is also embedded in an earlier entry on Evolution News & Views about “Alfred Russel Wallace, the Forgotten Man.” Earlier this year, Flannery appeared also in a short video clip in Evolution News & Views to explain why Darwin is remembered more than Wallace. See also ENV’s bibliography of Wallace articles.
Meanwhile, what about natural selection – the idea for which Darwin and Wallace are celebrated? How is it faring? In September, Science Daily reported that there are still major controversies about speciation:
Darwin referred to the origin of species as “that mystery of mysteries,” and even today, more than 150 years later, evolutionary biologists cannot fully explain how new animals and plants arise.
The article explains how two scientists from the University of Michigan are casting doubt on the contribution of “reproductive isolation” to drive species apart, as Darwin had speculated (see “Darwin Fumbles,” 9/04/13). Studies of fruit flies and birds showed no correlation between reproductive isolation and number of species. “We found no evidence that these things are related,” Daniel Rabosky said. “The rate at which genetic reproductive barriers arise does not predict the rate at which new species form in nature.” Paradoxically, Rabosky and colleague Daniel Matute pointed to extinction as more important – yet that, too, does not explain the origin of species. “While speciation is often defined as the evolution of reproductive isolation, the new findings suggest that a broader definition may be needed, Rabosky and Matute conclude.”
So for what, exactly, are Darwin and Wallace being celebrated?
Update 11/08/13: Stephanie Pain wrote a lengthy tribute to Wallace on New Scientist, providing insights into his travels, adventures and writings, but mentioning nothing about the limits of his belief in evolution, and his confidence in design of the human mind.
Wallace and Darwin were both wrong, but Wallace was less wrong than Darwin. Actually, Wallace’s theory of speciation differed from Darwin’s in significant ways (12/19/08). It must be hugely embarrassing for the Darwin industry to deal with a co-“discoverer” of natural selection who turned to intelligent design later in life. Wallace was also a more gracious and humble man than Darwin, that scheming recluse as Janet Browne portrays (see 3/03/08 commentary). Darwin worked through his X-Club (see video) to market his ideas to ensure priority, while Wallace always spoke from his heart without pretense, treating Darwin with respect, humbly deferring to him as the one worthy of recognition. When Darwin got word of Wallace’s position on creation of the soul, he sneezed his respect for Wallace out his nose (video, at 11:38 – 12:30). Jerry Bergman’s book, The Dark Side of Darwin, documents many “dark” aspects of Darwin’s character that are dishonorable, disgusting, and disturbing. With Wallace, virtue was its own punishment. He spent most of his scientific life working alone in Malaysia and South America while Darwin basked in the social circles of London. When he returned to England, Wallace, lower on the social ladder than Charlie, didn’t get invited to the same parties. He allowed the X-Club to undermine his reputation. Subsequent biographers have tried to dismiss Wallace as a nut, pointing out his interest in spiritualism, for instance. (In this, they ignore the clarity and wisdom of Wallace’s mature writings to their disgrace.) Primarily, Wallace continues to be snubbed because he refused to be a 100% secular materialist.
While we do not endorse Wallace’s views on evolution, much less on theology, everyone can agree that he had an interesting life, and that he contributed a great deal to taxonomy. His collection of specimens is legendary, his adventures extraordinary (he was the “Indiana Jones” of specimen collectors, suffering shipwreck, disease and encounters with hostile tribes). He was a keen observer. He loved the beauty of nature. He is the father of biogeography. He respected native peoples. He spoke from his heart. He published influential works, outlasting Darwin by 30 years, living to age 90. He reasoned correctly about intelligent design for parts of nature. He advanced cogent arguments for design. But for promoting the erroneous view that microevolution can be extrapolated into universal common descent, and for becoming complacent with a nebulous designer with no revelation or claims on human life, we view Wallace as another misguided Victorian purveyor of half truths (his chant is Darwin-Some-Design-Some, not DODO). He deserves a movie about his life, perhaps, but not a following. Perhaps his best legacy today is a prominent place in a long list of Darwin doubters.