Don't Mess with Alfred Russel Wallace - Evolution News & Views

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Don't Mess with Alfred Russel Wallace


Why must Wallace suffer the insults of entomologist George Beccaloni? My question is prompted by Beccaloni's purportedly Wallace-"friendly" web site where he makes the following pronouncement. (He's the fellow pictured above, center, between David Attenborough and Bill Bailey.)

Q. Did Wallace come to believe in Intelligent Design (ID)?

A. Well, he was never a creationist and he certainly was not a Christian! The notion that the spirit world guides evolution (which Wallace developed when he was a very old man) is scientifically untestable and therefore falls outside the realm of Science. It is curious that believers in Christian Intelligent Design have adopted Wallace as their guru, even though Wallace was a pagan, "table rapping" Spiritualist! My question to these people is: Why, if you think that Wallace was correct in believing that evolution is guided by spirits, don't you go the whole way and accept the mechanism he believed ran the system -- and thus become Spiritualists rather than Christians?

See Wallace scholar Charles Smith's answer here and Michael Shermer's answer here.

These remarks are reminiscent of the very charges leveled by a few against Wallace's magnum opus, The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose, when that book first appeared over a century ago. One anonymous critic in Nature dismissed this magisterial work by patronizingly asserting that Wallace's "tendencies to unbridled speculation seem to have reached an extreme limit in the twilight of a noble life." Likewise, Beccaloni kicks aside Wallace's major work on what should truly be called intelligent evolution as the production of "a very old man." The implication here is that we shouldn't take Wallace's views seriously regarding intelligent design because they were the musings of a man in his dotage. Beccaloni believes all spiritualistic beliefs (including Wallace's teleological thesis) to be "untestable" and "outside the realm of Science."

Beccaloni goes on to glibly refer to Wallace as "a pagan, 'table rapping' Spiritualist." According to Beccaloni Wallace couldn't have believed in ID because "he certainly was not a Christian!" Where Beccaloni himself stands in this matter is quite clear, for earlier on the same web page he refers to theism as belief "in an imaginary deity (= God)."

Now Wallace was a man who, though not a Christian or a member or any faith, was respectful of religious belief. As for dismissing his work as the product of old age, Wallace was quite able to defend himself. My question is this, if Beccaloni wants to establish himself as a leader in restoring to public awareness the life and work of this great naturalist, why do so amid insults to the ideas to which Wallace devoted half his life?

Let's address the three questions raised by Beccaloni: 1) Was Wallace's belief in intelligent evolution the product of senility?; 2) What really is intelligent design and did Wallace believe in it?; and most importantly 3) Is Beccaloni being true to Wallace's life and work?

Was Wallace belief in intelligent evolution the product of senility?

The foundation on which Wallace built his teleological and ultimately theistic view of nature and the cosmos was first expressed in 1869 when he declared the following:

Neither natural selection nor the more general theory of evolution can give an account whatever of the origin of sensational or conscious life. They may teach us how, by chemical, electrical, or higher natural laws, the organized body can be built up, can grow, can reproduce its like; but those laws and that growth cannot even be conceived as endowing the newly-arranged atoms with consciousness. But the moral and higher intellectual nature of man is as unique a phenomenon as was conscious life on its first appearance in the world, and the one is almost as difficult to conceive as originating by any law of evolution as the other. We may even go further, and maintain that there are certain purely physical characteristics of the human race which are not explicable on the theory of variation and survival of the fittest. The brain, the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of man, offer some special difficulties in this respect . . . . This subject is a vast one, and would require volumes for its proper elucidation, but enough, we think, has now been said, to indicate the possibility of a new stand-point for those who cannot accept the theory of evolution as expressing the whole truth in regard to the origin of man. While admitting to the full extent the agency of the same great laws of organic development in the origin of the human race as in the origin of all organized beings, there yet seems to be evidence of a Power which has guided the action of those laws in definite directions and for special ends. . . . Such, we believe, is the direction in which we shall find the true reconciliation of Science with Theology on this most momentous problem. Let us fearlessly admit that the mind of man (itself the living proof of a supreme mind) is able to trace, and to a considerable extent has traced, the laws by means of which the organic no less than the inorganic world has been developed. But let us not shut our eyes to the evidence that an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature. (Alfred Russel Wallace, Article III, Quarterly Review v. 126, n. 252 (April 1869): 359-394)
Wallace never wavered from this position. True, he continued to build on this view throughout his long life and eventually would supply "the volumes for its proper elucidation" in Man's Place in the Universe (1903) and The World of Life (1910). However Beccaloni's claim that Wallace's ideas in this regard weren't developed until he was "a very old man" is just silly. He pronounced them at age 46!

By every measure Wallace was lucid and clear up to the very end of his life. Just a few months before his death in the fall of 1913, Wallace told Sir William Barrett during a visit to his home Old Orchard,

Just think! All this wonderful beauty and diversity of nature results from the operation of a few simple laws. In my early unregenerate days I used to think that only material forces and natural laws were operative throughout the world. But these I now see are hopelessly inadequate to explain the mystery and wonder and variety of life. I am, as you know, absolutely convinced that behind and beyond all elementary processes there is a guiding and directive force; a Divine power or hierarchy of powers, ever controlling these processes so that they are tending to more abundant and to higher types of life. (James Marchant, Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences vol. 2 (1916; reprinted, BiblioBazaar, 2008), pp. 263-264)
These are not the words of a man who has succumbed to the abuses of time, but the considered and sober reflections of a man who spent some seventy years in intimate conversation with nature.

What is intelligent design really and did Wallace believe in it?

Beccaloni's chief misconception here is that one must be a Christian to be an advocate of intelligent design. Let's be clear on what ID really is: As Stephen C. Meyer has indicated in his landmark book, Signature in the Cell, "intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale 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 by an undirected process." Beccaloni's confusion could have been corrected simply by consulting the Discovery Institute website where he would have found that "Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." He would have also found that ID is not the same as creationism. Michael Denton, for example, is not a Christian creationist but finds considerable merit in ID theory, as did non-Christian astronomer/mathematician Fred Hoyle in his Intelligent Universe.

However, ID obviously does have profound theological implications. True, Wallace wasn't a Christian but he did believe that life arose through the creative action of an outside intelligent force. When asked about his understanding of the origin of life, Wallace replied,

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. (A. R. Wallace, "New Thoughts on Evolution")
What Christian "creationist," so called, would say otherwise? So now Beccaloni has an answer to his arrogantly presumptuous question for Christians, "Why, if you think that Wallace was correct in believing that evolution is guided by spirits, don't you go the whole way and accept the mechanism he believed ran the system -- and thus become Spiritualists rather than Christians?" The short answer is that many have accepted Wallace's "mechanism." Beccaloni's problem is with his concept of spirit guidance. While it is true that Wallace believed in the possibility of communicating with human spirits departed from this earth, he never claimed that these same spirits guided the cosmos or nature. He attributed this guidance to higher intelligences. When, in the same interview, he was asked about the nature and character of these intelligences, Wallace replied,
I believe it to be the guidance of beings superior to us in power and intelligence. Call them spirits, angels, gods, what you will; the name is of no importance. I find this control in the lowest cell; the wonderful activity of cells convinces me that it is guided by intelligence and consciousness. I cannot comprehend how any just and unprejudiced mind, fully aware of this amazing activity, can persuade itself to believe that the whole thing is a blind and unintelligent accident.
So there we have it: any theist who has room for angels has room for Wallace's intelligent evolution. Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr (ca. 1844-1913) certainly did in his essay, "Science and the Christian Faith," in volume 4 of The Fundamentals, as did Wallace's friend and biographer the Reverend James Marchant (1867-1956). A French diplomat, poet, and devout Catholic, Paul Claudel (1868-1955) deeply admired Wallace's theistic vision and called upon Man's Place in the Universe in his 1910 "Lettre sur Coventry Patmore" along with embracing the angelic creation of Wallace's World of Life in his Corona benignitatis anni Dei (1915).

But perhaps most revealing is the reaction of the Reverend John Magens Mello (1836-1915), vicar of Mapperley, Derbyshire to Wallace's World of Life. So captivated and convinced by Wallace's book was Mello, himself a geologist of some note, that he wrote a detailed commentary on it. Mello believed that Wallace's spirit-guided world was wholly compatible with Christianity.

To whatever extent any may be disposed to accept or reject the views upon Creation [in The World of Life], we must all of us admit, if we do not set aside the teaching of Holy Scriptures, that there are in the Universe Spiritual Intelligences besides Man; Beings over and over again referred to in the Bible; and we are there taught that by God's appointment, they have special duties and work to perform in connection with this World and with us Men. (See the complete transcription of this 1911 work, "The Mystery of Life and Mind," reprinted in Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace's World of Life Challenged Darwinism, rev. ed., 2011)
Is Beccaloni being true to Wallace's life and work?

This is the most disturbing feature of Beccaloni's attempt to distance Wallace from ID. Selectively referring to his fellow traveler Charles H. Smith and then to only a portion of my debate with Michael Shermer, he makes his preference for disingenuous spin over scholarship apparent. Those wishing to read the whole of my exchange with Shermer should go here and here.

If Beccaloni wants to dismiss the faith of the world's nearly four billion Christians, Jews, and Muslims by glibly referring to as being staked "in an imaginary deity (= God)," that is his prerogative in a society willing to bear such hubris with longsuffering magnanimity. But why visit this insult upon Wallace by mischaracterizing the intelligent design that he embraced? Wallace didn't subscribe to Becalloni's stark scientism and he didn't adhere to the epistemic prison of methodological naturalism. Wallace came to his views by inference and logic (abductive reasoning), the same processes that anthropologists, archeologists, and forensic pathologists use to detect intelligent causes in those respective fields. He said:

My contribution is made as a man of science, as a naturalist, as a man who studies his surroundings to see where he is. And the conclusion I reach in my book [The World of Life] is this: That everywhere, not here and there, but everywhere, and in the very smallest operations of nature to which human observation has penetrated, there is Purpose and a continual Guidance and Control.
Yet Wallace also knew that science was unable to explain the "spiritual mystery" of beauty. "Materialism," he declared, "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."

Beccaloni claims that Wallace's position is "scientifically untestable," but he should realize that his own position -- an apparent commitment to methodological naturalism -- is itself not "provable" by any scientific measure. "What is striking about methodological naturalism is that it is a philosophical, not a scientific, viewpoint," insists William Lane Craig. "It is not an issue to which scientific evidence is relevant; it is about the philosophy of science. As such it is notoriously difficult to justify" ("Naturalism and Intelligent Design," in Intelligent Design, p. 67).

Beccaloni is free to disagree with the man he claims to so admire, but he should be held to some standard of accuracy in portraying that man's views. Wallace deserves better than Beccaloni's superficial and dismissive treatment. To denigrate Wallace's beliefs while at the same time claiming to be "Wallace's Rottweiler" -- his fiercest defender -- is simply disingenuous. It is unfair to Wallace and, frankly, unfair to Rottweilers. Fortunately, a more honest portrayal of Wallace is available at I invite readers to examine both sites and make up their own minds.

Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.

Photo credit: Jan Beccaloni/Wallace News Blog.