Alfred Russel Wallace, Co-Discoverer of Evolution by Natural Selection -- and "Creationist" - Evolution News & Views

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Alfred Russel Wallace, Co-Discoverer of Evolution by Natural Selection -- and "Creationist"

Despite repeated explanations that intelligent design is not creationism, Lauri Lebo at Religion Dispatches and others persist in equating the two. There's a lot of bandying about of terms without defining them. One possible definition of "creationism" is the attempt to make scientific assertions regarding the natural world and/or the origin of life based upon a literal reading of Genesis. Yet with intelligent design, as David Klinghoffer points out, even if the source of the intelligence were identified as a deity, that wouldn't make it creationism in this sense of Genesis literalism. In short, when it comes to speaking of "creationism," there is a need for much greater clarity of thought and expression.

I can think of no better illustration of the point than Alfred Russel Wallace. In a 1910 interview previewing Wallace's forthcoming book, The World of Life, Harold Begbie asked about his explanation for the origin of life. Wallace said this:

Well, it is the very simple, plain, and old-fashioned one that there was at some stage in the history of the earth, after the cooling process, a definite act of creation. Something came from the outside. Power was exercised from without. In a word, life was given to the earth. All the errors of those who have distorted the thesis of evolution into something called, inappropriately enough, Darwinism have arisen from the supposition that life is a consequence of organization. This is unthinkable. Life, as Huxley admitted [Wallace elsewhere attacks many of Huxley's notions], is the cause and not the consequence of organization.

Admit life, and the hypothesis of evolution is sufficient and unanswerable. Postulate organization first, and make it the origin and cause of life, and you lose yourself in a maze of madness. An honest and unswerving scrutiny of nature forces upon the mind this certain truth, that at some period of the earth's history there was an act of creation, a giving to the earth of something which before it had not possessed; and from that gift, the gift of life, has come the infinite and wonderful population of living forms.

Then, as you know, I hold that there was a subsequent act of creation, a giving to man, when he had emerged from his ape-like ancestry, of a spirit or soul. Nothing in evolution can account for the soul of man. The difference between man and the other animals is unbridgeable. Mathematics is alone sufficient to prove in man the possession of a faculty unexistent in other creatures. Then you have music and the artistic faculty. No, the soul was a separate creation.

I should point out that, for Wallace, man's "ape-like ancestry" did not mean that man was in any sense related to the ape. Wallace always pointed out that the imbuing of man with a soul made him substantively different, a change in kind not degree. Wallace never agreed with Darwin's Descent of Man.

Wallace was not a Christian by any measure. So here we have the co-discoverer of natural selection clearly espousing a version of "creationism" according to Lauri Lebo's expansive definition. And how did Wallace come to this? Certainly not from Scripture but from Darwin's own principle of utility, the idea that no organism will develop an attribute unless it affords it some survival advantage.

Wallace concluded that those things that make us most human -- our ability to reason, to enjoy art, music, and so on -- were inexplicable on Darwin's own principle. So what precisely do we mean by creationism? Lauri Lebo needs to clarify. In fact, a reading of Wallace above makes it clear that strictly speaking evolution (meaning simply common descent and change through time) need not exclude "creationism" and certainly not intelligent design. What Wallace's "creationism' does rule out is Darwinian materialism. The point is, Steven Pinker notwithstanding, the human mind remains as unexplained by Darwinian principles as when Wallace raised these issues. The repeated failures of materialistic explanations for the human mind and for the origin of life must keep "creationism," in Alfred Russel Wallace's sense, viably on the table for discussion.