Wallace and [Gromit’s] Spirit’s World of Invention

It would be mean-spirited of me not to cash in on the centenary of Alfred Russell Wallace’s death, and the opportunity was given by the BioLogos token-atheist Lou Jost the other day on this thread. He was putting down Roger Sawtelle with a post of the standard “You just don’t understand the theory of evolution” genre:

Roger, you still do not understand the basic insight of Wallace and Darwin. Chance can indeed lead to order. I suggest you try reading about evolution more.

I knew enough about Wallace to remember he had parted company with Darwin on such matters, and a Google search turned up the transcript of a news interview from just three years before his death, from which I posted this quote:

“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.” (Alfred Russell Wallace, Daily Chronicle, November 1910)

Lou replied:

Well, that does shut me up!!! Wallace, later in life, did indeed become a famous spiritualist, being fooled by many 19th century mediums, and he said that humans were not the product of natural selection. I did not know that at this stage of his life he also felt that everything was guided.

Indeed, the standard spin on Wallace is that he went a little loopy after his creative period and started believing in the wee folk. But by this time I was interested enough to chase things up a little, because it seemed to me, spiritualism aside, that there was a comparison to be made between Russell and the first generation of Christian theistic evolutionists whose story I told in this post and the following five. Just to fill out the 1910 picture a little, here are some more extracts from the interview:

“But, in any case, you believe that there is purpose in creation?”

“It meets me everywhere I turn. I cannot examine the smallest or the commonest living thing without finding my reason uplifted and amazed by the miracle, by the beauty, the power, and the wisdom of its creation. ….

“I believe it to be,” he said, “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. It may not be possible for us to say how the guidance is exercised, and by exactly what powers; but for those who have eyes to see and minds accustomed to reflect, in the minutest cells, in the blood, in the whole earth, and throughout the stellar universe–our own little universe, as one may call it–there is intelligent and conscious direction; in a word, there is Mind.”

The spiritualism of Wallace, then, is a version of animism, or even of panpsychicism. But this co-founder of evolution by natural selection is attributing “the very smallest operations of nature” to “Purpose and a continual guidance and control” by “intelligent and conscious direction.”

Filling in detail, then, he says:

“… we must enlarge our vision. We must see more beings in the universe than ourselves. I think we have got to recognise that between man and the Ultimate God, there is an almost infinite multitude of beings working in the universe at tasks as definite and important as any that we have to perform on the earth. I imagine that the universe is peopled with spirits–that is to say, with intelligent beings, with powers and duties akin to our own, but vaster, infinitely vaster. I think there is a gradual ascent from man upwards and onwards, through an almost endless legion of these beings, to the First Cause, of whom it is impossible for us to speak. Through Him these endless beings act and achieve, but He Himself may have no actual contact with our earth.”

So Wallace’s picture is of a spiritual hierarchy leading up to a distant, and effectively inactive, “Ultimate God,” which is clearly a world apart from the orthodox Christianity of those like Gray, Kingsley and Warfield. And yet for all the vast difference in theology, the physical result is the same as for them: a bisophere that, far from being unguided, is thoroughly intentional. Does this mean he has abandoned the evolution he pioneered with Darwin in favour of the spirits?

“Nevertheless, of course, evolution is a sound hypothesis?”

“Every fresh discovery in nature fortifies that original hypothesis. But this is the sane and honest evolution, which does not concern itself at all with beginnings, and merely follows a few links in a fairly obvious chain. As for the chain itself, evolution has nothing to say. For my own part, I am convinced that at one period in the earth’s history there was a definite act of creation, that from that moment evolution has been at work, guidance has been exercised. The more deeply men reflect upon what they are able to observe, the more they will be brought to see that Materialism is a most gigantic foolishness. And I think it will soon pass from the mind. At first there was some excuse. Into the authoritative nonsense and superstitions of Clericalism, evolution threw a bomb of the most deadly power. Those whose intelligence had been outraged and irritated by this absurd priestcraft rushed to the conclusion that religion was destroyed, that a little chain of reasoning had explained the whole infinite universe, that in mud was the origin of mind, and in dust its end. That was an opinion which could not last. 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. The future will be full of wonder, reverence, and a calm faith worthy of our place in the scheme of things.”

“And greater knowledge?”

“Oh, yes, we are only at the beginning of the puzzle.”

There could be no clearer rejection of Darwin’s naturalist worldview in favour of a completely teleological one, even combined with distinct acts of creation (like Warfield, Wallace believed that the creation of man, as a spiritual being, was unique). But I want you to note the denigration of orthodox faith, such as Warfield’s, as “priestcraft”, which leads us into some interesting territory. The article I’ve quoted was put up by Charles Smith, evidently a disciple and scholar of Wallace. He has also written an essay about Wallace’s spiritualism in relation to his science, and comes to the conclusion, unlike the scientific myth trotted out by Lou Jost, that far from being a late aberration it was (in an undeveloped form) integral to his science.

Long before his collaboration with Darwin, the essay shows, Wallace was rejecting orthodox belief in God without regret, largely from his commitment to empiricismn:

Belief had no intrinsic merit; only a continuing unbiased examination of the facts pertaining to any given question resulted in values that were progress-serving.

Yet in his own mind that evidential search also led to the conviction that there was more to nature than utilitarianism. From 1856:

Naturalists are too apt to imagine, when they cannot discover, a use for everything in nature: they are not even content to let “beauty” be a sufficient use, but hunt after some purpose to which even that can be applied by the animal itself, as if one of the noblest and most refining parts of man’s nature, the love of beauty for its own sake, would not be perceptible also in the works of a Supreme Creator. The separate species of which the organic world consists being parts of a whole, we must suppose some dependence of each upon all; some general design which has determined the details, quite independently of individual necessities. We look upon the anomalies, the eccentricities, the exaggerated or diminished development of certain parts, as indications of a general system of nature, by a careful study of which we may learn much that is at present hidden from us…

Note here the use of the “design” word, also beloved of the early theistic evolutionists, as I showed in my six-part series, here signifying an overall, wise, plan from which the details necessarily arise – though in Wallace’s view, not directly. Smith concludes:

The “Supreme Creator” is here viewed as being both: (1) further removed from the efficient cause of each modification than was assumed by Creationists [sic]; and (2) more encompassing in its operation than were it merely acting to meet the immediate material needs and/or conscious desires of each individual organism (i.e., both the material structure of lower organisms and the conscious/emotional faculties of higher ones fell within its influence, whether such influence could be perceived as operating or not).

Smith points out that, even if the “Supreme Creator” phrase is being used metaphorically:

…the implication, allegorical or not, is that there are causes further removed from the immediate results of nature than those that can be expressed in proximate terms alone. In a note at this point in the essay he refers approvingly to “the talented author of the Plurality of Worlds [William Whewell],” quoting the following passage from that work: “In the structure of animals, especially that large class best known to us, vertebrate animals, there is a general plan, which, so far as we can see, goes beyond the circuit of the special adaptation of each animal to its mode of living; and is a rule of creative action, in addition to the rule that the parts shall be subservient to an intelligible purpose of animal life.”

To complete the historical picture, Wallace finally committed to spiritualism in 1863, not, as is often said, because he was bamboozled by spectacular frauds at seances but because he was persuaded by his careful appraisal of the scientific evidence. And that’s less surprising than it seems given the dislike of traditional religion by many scientists then – remember that the creator of fiction’s most scientistic detective Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle – was also taken in by it. Of course, no scientist today could possibly be misled into believing in imaginary entities…

The point I want to make is that the theologies of the early TEs and Wallace could scarcely have been more different, though all accepted the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution. They were biblical Christians of various denominations: he was a rejector of “priestcraft” who believed in a distant and aloof “First Cause” and a world populated with spirits doing the donkey work. Yet theology aside, their utter conviction of a world in which every detail was under intelligent control and direction was pretty much identical, though in Wallace’s case it actually preceded his adoption of a specific belief-system.

My conclusion? That specific theological conviction cannot have been the main, or only, factor in their perceiving design in nature; the conviction of purpose was explained, after all, by completely different types of agent.

On the other hand, although Wallace’s spiritualism, he said, was an integral part of the scientific views he developed, it is hard to justify the suggestion that design was a purely scientific conclusion. That is because, although Gray was a botanist, neither Kingsley nor Warfield were working scientists, and yet their views on the guidance of nature were just as strong.

I deduce that, for good or ill, the capacity to see purpose in living things particularly, and in the world more generally, is an inbuilt feature of all, or at least some, people, as fundamental as the power of reason itself (and, if Alvin Plantinga is correct, as the awareness of God’s existence). I do suspect “all” is more accurate, but that it is possible for this sense to be suppressed, or in Wallace’s words, “can persuade itself to believe that the whole thing is a blind and unintelligent accident.” Darwin’s ongoing “muddle” on the matter is a case in point. Warfield’s essay on Darwin’s loss of faith is still a masterful study of the decay of spiritual sensibility, although Warfield’s contemporaries were unaware of the importance of the loss of his daughter to his agnosticism.

Why so many nowadays lose this sense is a difficult question, although the persuasive nature of the materialistic teaching of Darwinian evolution throughout our culture must play a part. Whatever the reasons, it seems to have affected, most tragically, the sensibilities of a good number of modern theistic evolutionists, to the extent that some, like Wallace, see God’s providence as completely removed from the actual process of evolution. Unlike Wallace, though, they seem blind to the wisdom and purpose that he saw in the world, and attributed to his intelligent spirits instead of their true Creator. Rather, they see accident, error, waste and “bad design” – or no design at all.

That is a dreadful spiritual malaise that even an unbeliever like Wallace was spared, but we live in evil times.

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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2 Responses to Wallace and [Gromit’s] Spirit’s World of Invention

  1. seenoevo says:


    I didn’t get through all of this essay, but from what I did read, there were a couple Wallace quotes, which you said revealed his un-orthodoxy, which I did NOT see as unorthodox.

    Here’s an example:

    Wallace: “I think there is a gradual ascent from man upwards and onwards, through an almost endless legion of these beings, to the First Cause, of whom it is impossible for us to speak. Through Him these endless beings act and achieve, but He Himself may have no actual contact with our earth.”

    You: “So Wallace’s picture is of a spiritual hierarchy leading up to a distant, and EFFECTIVELY INACTIVE, “Ultimate God,” which is clearly a world apart from the orthodox Christianity of …”

    But Wallace doesn’t say God’s inactive, he says He MAY have no actual contact with the earth. This brought to mind how very many times in Scripture the ANGELS DO GOD’S WORK (e.g. Genesis 16; Genesis 22; Exodus 14; 1 Kings 19; Matthew 1; Luke 1; Acts 5; Revelation 1).

    Your essay is in need of spell check.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Too busy answering Gregory yesterday to spell check.

    I did actually toy with the comparison between Wallace’s spirits and the Lord’s angel host, but I’m pretty sure he would discount the comparison – the angels are a separate creation and intimately linked to heaven, but as a spiritualist Wallace would have seen departed humans as the same kind of beings as spirits aiming to get to heaven eventually (and of course would communicate with them at seances – not orthodox!).

    Even C S Lewis, though, plays with a similar comparison in his fantasy/Sci Fi novel “that Hideous Strength”, briefly picturing dryads etc as the angels that Maleldil (his Christ figure) appointed to manage the minor tasks of earth. Risky kind of speculation, though. And I think the actual differences between Wallace and Christian evolutionists is genuine enough to make my point – which was at the end of the piece, as conclusions tend to be.

    I take the point about the difference between a distant and an inactive God, though. Possibly poorly-worded. My aim was to suggest that, in his thought, the hierarchy was acting on a combination of endlessly delegated authority and their own creaturely initiative, God being the One we can’t even speak about.

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