Some Thoughts on Alfred Russel Wallace 99 Years Later
Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection, died on the morning of November 7, 1913, at 90 years of age. It was the end of a remarkable career that was intimately connected with evolution on the one hand and boldly emblematic of a vocal dissent against materialistic scientism on the other.
In a recent article here at ENV David Klinghoffer featured Terry Scambray's reviews of my books on Wallace (Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution and Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life) and said that compared to Darwin it is Wallace who emerges the most "thoroughly modern" of the two. Klinghoffer is right in noting this brilliant naturalist's prescient anticipation of ID with his own manifestly un-Darwinian intelligent evolution.
But in reflecting on Wallace's passing nearly a century ago, I would like to add to David's observations by pointing out another way that Wallace spoke to modernity, namely, his appreciation of August Weismann (1834-1914). Weismann was one of the first scientists to accurately describe the intricacies of cell division and the role of the chromosome based upon the work of Walther Flemming (1843-1905), Theodor Boveri (1862-1915), and others. It was Weismann who suggested the so-called "Weismann barrier" that put an authoritative end to Lamarckian notions of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
One of the 20th century's leading evolutionists, Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), declared, "We now know that Weismann's basic idea -- a complete separation of the germ plasm from its expression in the phenotype of the body -- was absolutely correct" ("Weismann and Evolution", J. Hist. Bio. 18 [Autumn 1985]: 295-320). Mayr considered Weismann second only to Darwin in importance to the development of evolutionary theory. Wallace himself appreciated the importance of Weismann's contribution to the understanding of inheritance and cell complexity. As Ross Slotten puts it in his biography, The Heretic in Darwin's Court:
Weismann's rejection of "soft" inheritance was received with great hostility by neo-Lamarckians -- the majority of evolutionists at the time -- and was not universally accepted for fifty years. Although Weismann did not arrive at a correct idea of the precise means of inheritance -- that would have to wait until the rediscovery, at the turn of the twentieth century, of Gregor Mendel's work; the subsequent identification of the genetic material; and James Watson and Francis Crick's discovery in 1953 of the replicating mechanism -- his general views on the segregation and transmission of genetic material are still valid. Wallace was among the first to recognize Weismann's genius and actively promote his ideas (p. 411).When Theodosius Dobhanzsky (1900-1975), J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), Julian Huxley (1887-1975), R. A. Fisher (1890-1962), and others forged the neo-Darwinian synthesis -- Mendelian and population genetics wedded to natural selection -- it was upon the shoulders of Weismann that they stood.
But that melding together, now more than half a century old, is showing itself just as threadbare as Darwin's old neo-Lamarckian pangenesis. Wallace's embrace of Weismann actually suggested a newer and more viable synthesis: a merging of intelligent evolution with modern genetic theory understood not as a stochastic process but as information -- the language of life. Wallace accepted Weismann's ideas without the German's materialistic presumptions. Wallace's chapter on "The Mystery of the Cell" in The World of Life relied heavily upon Weismann, but called upon an intelligent cause to explain the complexities of the cell itself. Indeed Wallace saw the answer to the immense complexities of nature and the universe as absolutely requiring purposeful intentionality and forethought, in short, "a Mind." Wallace understood the problem of the cell quite clearly, even more clearly than Weismann himself:
The cell is now defined as "a nucleated unit-mass of living protoplasm." It is not a mere particle of protoplasm, but is an organised structure. We are again compelled to ask, Organized by what? Huxley . . . tells us that life is the organizing power; Kerner termed it a vital force; Haeckel, a cell-soul, but unconscious, and he postulated a similar soul in each organic molecule, and even in each atom of matter. But none of these verbal suggestions go to the root of the matter . . . . To do all this, I submit, neither "life" nor "vital force" nor the unconscious "cell-soul" are adequate explanations. What we absolutely require and must postulate is, a Mind far higher, greater, more powerful than any of the fragmentary minds we see around us, a Mind not only adequate to direct and regulate all the forces at work in living organisms, but which is itself the source of all those forces and energies, as well as of the more fundamental forces of the whole material universe (pp. 337-338).As molecular and cell biologist Ray Bohlin pointed out in a recent presentation in Birmingham, Alabama, titled "Intelligent Design in Biology," what we know today corresponds compellingly to a language of life as it were, the "origin of biological information": nucleotides correspond to letters, condons/amino acids correspond to words, genes and proteins to sentences, and chromosomes represent a book. These features of nature (of which Weismann and Wallace had only an inkling) with the advantages of modern molecular biology now look to confirm Wallace's insistence upon intelligence rather than some random processes of chance and necessity to explain the finely tuned intricacies of the cell on up to the universe itself.
So now 99 years after Wallace's passing it seems reasonable to suggest that the co-discoverer of natural selection appreciated the potential for what would become a new synthesis of genetics with evolution quite unlike that of Darwin's. Wallace's evolutionary scenario is intelligently designed and revealed in genetic code, itself an expression of the language of life, and if we know anything we know that language doesn't spring from monkeys banging on typewriters.
The old synthesis that gives too much to the power of natural selection asks us to believe that complexity springs from chaos, that the genetic code is itself the result of a law that John Herschel (1792-1871) derided as "higgledy-piggledy," that from all we know about obviously designed structures -- books, poetry, works of art and music, buildings, machines, automobiles, computers, etc. -- that in this case even greater examples of specified complexity have, in fact, no intelligent source.
Wallace insisted, "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."
In contrast, the old synthesis that has tried to explain the diversity of life by invoking blind law-like principles seems more akin to magic than science. It now appears that Wallace's was the more forward looking theory, the more scientific view. The only alternative is to resurrect spontaneous generation (and indeed the high priests of Darwinism are trying), but what next -- Galen's humoral pathology, Stahl's phlogiston, Blondlot's N-rays? Better to draw a logical inference to the best explanation than to engage in the rabbit-out-of-a-hat prestidigitations of the Darwinists.