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How Microscopy Hastened the Demise of Darwinism


ARWallace.jpgAlfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolutionary theory, broke with Darwin over Wallace's increasingly pronounced conviction that blind material forces lack the power to generate intricate biological structures. Wallace pointed to, among other things, the origin of life itself as a mystery that Darwin's idea seemed incapable of resolving. Reading science historian Michael Flannery's fascinating and concise new biography, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life, I wondered about the degree to which advances in other scientific fields played a role in Wallace's dawning doubts about materialist evolutionary thinking.

After all, despite the fact that the two men announced their theory of natural selection in the same year, there was a 51-year gap between the publication of The Origin of Species (1859) and that of Wallace's magnum opus The World of Life (1910). A lot can happen in a half century. Of all the latter book's eerie foreshadowings of contemporary ID theory, eeriest of all may be Wallace's chapter on the cell, pointing the way to arguments that would later be articulated in full by Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer.

I wondered specifically about microscopy and asked Professor Flannery if, between 1859 and 1910, there was a significant advance in the power of microscopes to see into the cell that might account in part for Wallace's emphasis on the cell as evidence for ID. It wouldn't be the first confirmation we've had that intelligent design, of which Wallace is effectively the founder, gains in persuasiveness with the increase of scientific knowledge, whereas the more we know, the more Darwinism fails to persuade. Professor Flannery kindly responded:

I think the question embedded here is why or how was it that Wallace was able to have a more intricate view of the cell than Darwin. The answer is a complex one. The short answer is, yes, microscopes in 1910 were much better than in 1859. But I think the answer also has to do with advances in the whole field of cellular pathology ushered in by Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902) and cytology in general. Indeed modern pathology begins with Virchow. By the 1880s scientists like German zoologist Karl August Mobius began to delineate structures later developed and known as organelles.

At the same time microscopy was surely aided by the introduction of the microtome for making thin section and dyes for selective staining. Walther Flemming, a German cytologist, used the new analine dyes and improved microscopes to discover chromatin; these combined to form larger threads named chromosomes in 1888 by Waldeyer. Also by 1893 we got August Kohler's illumination technique that vastly improved microscopic analysis (we didn't have the electron microscope until 1931).

There is also Wallace's appreciation of the work of August Weismann (1834-1914). Weismann really laid to rest the pangenesis theory (one of Darwin's pet theories). Weismann demonstrated that genetic information cannot pass from soma to germ plasma to the next generation (known as the Weismann barrier and a key to the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis). This is mentioned on page 82 of my book. Now Weismann is highly regarded among Darwinists and indeed Ernst Mayr ranked him second only to Darwin himself. But I think where Weismann saw random mutation, Wallace saw information and order. Of course too by 1900 Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns rediscovered Mendel.

So a lot indeed happened between 1859 and 1910.