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Hyper-evolutionism, Scientism, and the Mythical Wallace of Michael Shermer

It would seem appropriate to provide some definition of intelligent design if, to paraphrase Michael Shermer, associating Alfred Russel Wallace with ID is a perilous misjudgment. Shermer's term "Intelligent Design creationism" signals his own misjudgment in the matter, namely, that ID is creationism. Stephen Meyer gives an accurate definition of ID as the theory that "holds that there are telltale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause -- that is, by the conscious choice of a rational agent -- rather than an undirected process." And that's it -- no less and certainly no more.

Having clarified what ID is, we may fairly proceed to ask, did Wallace meet these minimal requirements? Shermer says no because Wallace rejected the supernatural. He further concludes that, because Wallace incorporated intelligent agency as a necessary part of the laws of nature, Wallace's worldview was therefore one of scientism. Wallace's true heresy, for Shermer, was "hyper-selectionism" which had "nothing to do with God or any other supernatural force."

How accurate is this view? An important clue rests in Wallace's view of miracles. Wallace offered a scathing reply to David Hume, arguing that the famed skeptic's definition of a miracle was false, contradictory, and contrary to human testimony. For Wallace a miracle is not some Humean "violation of the laws of nature," instead it "supposes an intelligent superhuman agent, either visible or invisible. It is not necessary that what is done should be beyond the power of man to do." Wallace defined miracle as "Any act or event necessarily implying the existence and agency of superhuman intelligences."

William Dembski has pointed out that ID does not require miracles in the Humean sense. Miracle simply means wondrous. Echoing Wallace, Dembski argues, "No physical process need be violated for nature to display the effects of intelligence. . . . Natural forces and intelligent agency can act together without one violating the other." Dembski even suggests that some design could be front-loaded. Remarkably, two years before his formal break with Darwin, Wallace alludes to similar front-loading in his 1867 essay "Creation by Law." Challenging the Duke of Argyll's idea of special creation, Wallace interestingly rejected not the operations of a Creator but instead Argyll's theory of "continual interference" that placed an undue limitation upon the Creator who should be free to operate by and through natural laws. More importantly those laws did not erase the discernible intelligent agency behind them.

Wallace makes this most abundantly clear in The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose (1910). For Wallace, "beyond all the phenomena of nature and their immediate causes and laws there is Mind and Purpose; and that the ultimate purpose is (so far as we can discern) the development of mankind for an enduring spiritual existence." Wallace insisted that evidence was "becoming more clear every day, not for blind laws and forces, but for immanent directive and organizing MIND, acting on and in every living cell of every living organism, during every moment of its existence."

In an interview with the Daily Chronicle Wallace declared unequivocally, "Materialism is as dead as priestcraft for all intelligent minds. There are laws of nature, but they are purposeful. Everywhere we look we are confronted by power and intelligence." Shermer, however, throws up a red herring by pointing out Wallace's rejection of a first cause in nature. The real issue for Wallace (as indeed for modern ID) was (and is) not a discernible first cause but discernible intelligence.

Wallace surely meets the minimal criteria of ID and then some. His World of Life was written largely to demonstrate that evolution is not blind but intelligent -- that it is directed, detectably designed, and purposeful common descent -- and he spend some 400 pages doing so!

I agree with Shermer that spiritualism was not Wallace's worldview, but neither was it scientism. Wallace understood the limits of science. "The beauty of birds and insects," he insisted, "has no explanation in the evolutionary theory. Even Huxley was puzzled by the beauty of his environment. While evolution is a sound hypothesis and every new discovery tends to confirm it, it is not all; it by no means explains everything. It does not explain beauty, for beauty is a spiritual mystery." These are hardly the words of a "hyper-evolutionist," a man lost in the cul-de-sac of scientism.

What was Wallace's worldview? Like the nature he observed, it too evolved and was as expansive as the long life he lived. In a letter written at the end of his life to James Marchant he said, "The completely materialistic mind of my youth and early manhood has been slowly molded into the socialistic, spiritualistic, and theistic mind I now exhibit."

But perhaps it really doesn't matter. Shermer believes Wallace's misguided "hyperselectionism" places him in Darwin's shadow. This is actually a rehash of what Stephen Jay Gould considered Wallace's "fatal flaw." Because I've already addressed this in "Gould's Fatal Flaw," I'll add no more except that the "problem of incipient stages" was never adequately addressed by Darwin. Shermer's example that bird wings started out as thermoregulators is actually a reprise of Gould's "Not Necessarily a Wing" argument in which he praised Joel Kingsolver and M. A. R. Kohl's 1985 article as the most "elegant experimental confirmation of Darwin's solution."

What "solution"? Thermoregulation is just one of several speculations proffered for Darwinian wing development. More recently a team headed by Robert Dudley thought of a better story. Examining bird flight, they postulated "progression within an arboreal context from jumping to directed aerial descent," adding that insects "likely followed a similar sequence" (see "Gliding and the Functional Origins of Fight"). The authors confess, however, that the problem remains "unresolved paleontologically" (code for "no real evidence"). What happened to proto-wing thermoregulators? Lacking hard evidence, one guess is as good as another.

In short, the "scientistic" Wallace whose "heresy" was "hyperselectionism" is a myth. Wallace's real heresy was his rejection of materialism and his embrace of an intelligent evolution. As for "the problem of incipient stages," Darwin never provided a satisfactory answer and neither has anyone else.