Wallace without Grommit (but not without a designer)

I was interested to hear about Michael Flannery’s 2011 book Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life. I’ve not read it yet, but some chapters are online here. The book is published by the Discovery Institute, clearly because it makes the case that Wallace, the co-founder with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection, was a forerunner of the Intelligent Design Movement. DI is not the first to make such a claim, though, Stephen J Gould having written an essay to that effect in Panda’s Thumb.

Naturally not everyone agrees. A discussion in Socialist Review, for example, blames Wallace’s inadequate socialism rather than any kind of theism for his suggestion that natural selection could not explain everything. But it cannot be denied that Wallace pointed to the higher faculties of the human mind, in particular, as being beyond the power of evolution without the designing activity of a higher power, and it was this claim that put him at odds with Darwin from then on.

What Flannery’s book appears to do is to rehabilitate the naturalist from the revisionist claims of Darwin’s supporters over the years that it was a failure of Wallace’s science that led to his “heterodoxy”. Instead he is shown to have had every bit as much grasp on the science as Darwin, the differences being, in the end, the difference between their philosophies.

One might think that there’s little value in deciding what Wallace’s real views were, or even Darwin’s for that matter. Perhaps it’s no more relevant than Darwin’s fictional deathbed conversion – what matters is the science we have now, not how the ideas were introduced to the world. I think that’s probably naive considering Darwin’s mythic status nowadays, but it’s a fair point.

What I think is of significance is the reminder that scientists shown to be of equal status – in this case the pair who jointly presented evolution to the Linnaean Society – can interpret the data so differently because of their underlying worldview. Wallace was a Spiritualist, but it was the evidence that led him as a strict selectionist (unlike Darwin, who toyed with a number of additional mechanisms) to limit evolution’s explanatory power.

There is a parallel here with B B Warfield, whose Calvinism by no means closed his mind to evolution as God’s “natural” means of creation, but rather gave him the perspective to recognise where evolution had passed the bounds of plausibility. It was not better science that marked those of his generation who accepted Darwinism as a total explanation, but their naturalist presuppositions.

In the context of science and faith this should give pause to those theistic evolutionists who  exclude all supernatural agency in the process of life’s development. They will often say that it is the adequacy of the science that makes consideration such an agency unnecessary. Yet I have noticed, as I have frequently mentioned, a tendency to rewrite their theology to match mainstream Neodarwinism’s universal claims – and those claims are underpinned by the same naturalist philosophy that Darwin owned.

But even from the viepoint of the evidence itself, the exclusion of the supernatural in advance puts such theistic evolutionists at a considerable distance from some of the best minds of the past who have pondered the matter. These include the co-founder of the theory, now shown to give nothing away to Darwin in terms of astuteness and knowledge. Wallace found his doubts within the science, as some secular scientists do now.

But Christian evolutionists ought in addition to bring theology to bear on what the limits of evolution are, as Warfield did. Where the scientific doubts and the theological insights concur, they ought to draw a line in the sand between themselves and the secularists. That may not lead them to embrace the intelligent design project, but it should make theistic evolution more distinctive than it tends to be, and therefore more of a challenge to the status quo.

 If theism draws the same conclusions as secularism does about the world, it must cast doubt on how one or the other is being applied.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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