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An Anthropologist Looks at Wallace and Darwin


Despite a somewhat belated discovery on my part, it's a pleasure to report on a fascinating article by Kathleen Bolling Lowrey titled "Alfred Russel Wallace as ancestor figure" in Anthropology Today. With a playful but predatory instinct worthy of natural selection itself, this perceptive Canadian anthropologist examines the intellectual supports of modern evolutionary biology and singles out the weakest among them.

The first, common origin and divergence, does indeed seem to explain our commonalities and differences as a species. However, sexual selection and the ontological certainty that this indeed is all there is -- those are a different matter. Regarding these last two points, 20th-century anthropologists have been forced to admit that Darwinian insights "were not well supported by empirical evidence accumulated through fieldwork."

These, then, are the weaklings of the herd. After all, Darwin's assumption of male superiority over women was merely a parroting of Victorian convention (even with regard to peacocks, biologists aren't buying Darwin's sexual selection story anymore). What else is one to make of a speculative biologized eros that led its proponent to assert that "Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has more inventive genius" (Descent of Man, p. 269)? As for the ontological question, Lowrey points out that shamanic traditions in cultures virtually everywhere, including the persistence of religion in our own, have prompted anthropologists to note that if indeed this material world is all there is, "no known society behaves accordingly." In certain ways, this realization has made biology and socio-cultural anthropology into estranged disciplines.

Did it have to be that way? Lowrey says no. Alfred Russel Wallace offered a different path. He was united with Darwin on issue one, but on sexual selection and the ontological question he differed markedly. Instead of Darwin's male chauvinism, Wallace was a vocal proponent of women's equality. On the ontological question, Wallace answered that the physical here-and-now is surely not all that there is. Yes, there was evolution but it was intelligent. While materialists have presented an array of counterproposals, more plentiful and creative than the changing fashions of Vogue, the field of anthropology has offered little confirmation for any of them. Indeed, admits Lowrey,

One must simply concede that during the 20th-century history of the discipline anthropologists have accumulated a huge wealth of data relating to question three [ontology] for which no plausible explanation, general theory, or provisional hypothesis exists.

In other ways, too, Wallace seems the more modern figure. His observations on the nature of man were far less racist than Darwin's. Lowrey singles out Darwin's infamous horror upon encountering the Fuegians and his association of them with "the lower animals," whereas Wallace found "good taste and elegance" in even the most "savage" of people. This shouldn't be surprising. "Wallace was by far the superior fieldworker," she observes. "He spent [four] years living on his own in Amazonia and then in the Malay archipelago [for eight more], making detailed and sympathetic observations about local peoples, practices and cultures." In contrast, Darwin spent five years largely glued to the Beagle and its Captain FitzRoy, a prescription for the "erasure of non-white participation and assistance" characteristic of many Eurocentric voyage accounts of the time.

Of course, Wallace was a spiritualist. But other leading intellectuals of the time, including Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, "have hardly been punished with ignominy over the years for the same curiosity." Perhaps it is Wallace's "heresy" on the ontology question that makes the difference, something that even some of his modern-day alleged "proponents" would prefer that we forget.

So where do we go from here? Lowrey wants to "advocate for Wallace." She notes that 20th-century socio-cultural anthropologists were right to take their stand against Darwinian sexual selection, and as for the third question on ontology she asserts:

At present I think we might make a more conscious alliance with Wallace's cause -- despite the ridicule it will bring to us, as it did to him -- in regard to question three.

This is a remarkably bold and frank declaration. But she adds a caution, asking not to be "misread by Darwin supporters who label all his critics closet creationists." She does "not mean that we should begin waving in the direction of an intelligent designer instead of crafting plausible explanations on the basis of the analysis and interpretation of the available evidence." Rather, she insists that

we ought to continue to investigate supernatural phenomena on their own terms -- which is to say, not by squashing them into one-size-fits-all ontologies that explain everything and nothing all at once. The resilience of the spirit-world to science's dismissal of it is one of anthropology's great puzzles, and it is not one we can yet congratulate ourselves for having resolved.

"Waves" notwithstanding, her position is hardly contradicted by advocates of intelligent design. No argument from ignorance, ID develops its argument on the basis of probabilistic resources (see Dembski, The Design Revolution, pp. 116-126, 213-218) along with forensic evidence and information theory to make an inference to the best explanation. It concludes "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" (Meyer, Signature in the Cell, p. 4). Whether that entails a "God," "an Overruling Intelligence" or "Mind" (as Wallace called it), or some telic agent instantiated within nature itself, ID cannot and does not say (see Dembski, pp. 44, 188-189).�

Nor is it one of Lowrey's "one-size-fits-all ontologies" (it certainly doesn't fit the materialists' ontology), but a minimalist proposition inviting more fruitful investigations into the nature of being. Wallace understood this. But Lowrey's acknowledgment of Wallace as "an ancestor figure" is not about the past, it's about recasting the future direction and course of scientific inquiry. It's a revolutionary proposal. In fact, it's courageous and pugnacious -- too bad Mr. Darwin never met Dr. Lowrey!

Image: HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego, by Conrad Martens/Wikipedia.