Another century-late review

41jdmVneAALFollowing my custom of busting the myths that are spun about previous generations by reading the original sources, I finally got round to reading some Alfred Russel Wallace, in the form of his last (1910) book on a biological subject, The World of Life.

Just to remind you of Wallace’s role, he was the co-discoverer of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection, published in the 1858 paper On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. By CHARLES DARWIN, Esq., F.R.S., F.L.S., & F.G.S., and ALFRED WALLACE, Esq. Communicated by Sir CHARLES LYELL, F.R.S., F.L.S., and J. D. HOOKER, Esq., M.D., V.P.R.S., F.L.S, &c.

In his lifetime Wallace was as honoured as a scientist and naturalist as Darwin (who regarded him as the go-to guy for solving problems with the theory). Bill Bailey, (intelligent) comedian and musician, a champion of Wallace, suggests why that has changed now:

In the late 19th and early 20th century natural selection as an explanation for evolutionary change became very unpopular, with most biologists adopting alternative theories such as neo-Lamarckism, orthogenesis, or the mutation theory. It was only with the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s that natural selection became the widely accepted mechanism of evolutionary change. However, by then the history of the discovery had largely been forgotten (there was a new generation of biologists) and when interest in the theory revived many wrongly assumed that the idea had first been published by Darwin in his book The Origin of Species.

Thanks to the ‘Darwin Industry’ of recent decades Darwin’s fame has been rising exponentially, overshadowing the important contributions of his contemporaries, like Wallace.

Now there is much in the book, which includes a semi-popular account of the world’s biology, and of natural selection and supplementary theories as an account of it, summarising his lifetime of work. It’s all interesting, and Wallace was clearly an outstanding field-biologist as well as theorist. Interestingly I found the weakest part of his work to be his evolutionary explanations, which bear all the hallmarks of the speculative “Just So” stories so familiar to us now: “It’s not impossible this is what happened, so it undoubtedly did”. As in Darwin’s work, this is comes into sharpest relief in cases where the speculation has since proven wrong.

NPG 1765; Alfred Russel Wallace by Thomas SimsBut I want here to concentrate on just one thing – the purpose of the book, which is is overtly stated in the full title: The World of Life; A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. The overall genre of the book is a straight natural theology apologetic, directly comparable to William Paley’s, only written with the bias of a biologist rather than a theologian. Another fruitful comparison is with Arthur Eddington’s 1927 Nature of the Physical World, which I reviewed here, in that both are by leading scientists arguing vehemently against materialism from their own fields of expertise.

Before I get to detail, it’s interesting how “skeptic” (or rather “production-line materialist”) Bill Bailey deals with Wallace’s spiritual approach. He takes the now standard line that Wallace fell from an original pure materialism into muddle – his scientific wheat needs to be separated out from the chaff of his wandering with the fairies in later life.

It’s much the same story as the dismissal of Antony Flew’s shift from atheism as a sign of senility (the latter’s book There is a God being, in form, similar to Wallace’s or Eddington’s, only from a philosophical angle). “Fairies” is almost literally the accusation Bailey makes, in that Wallace was a spiritualist with a strong anti-traditional line. But if one reads him charitably, it’s clear that his personal “theology” of a pleroma of spiritual beings is just a detail in the broader case he makes for one supreme and good God, subordinate spirits appearing only the last chapter in any form. It’s also clear that his spiritual metaphysics developed with, and informed, his science, even in the decade in which he was independently discovering natural selection.

I want to consider Wallace’s apologetic in relation not to materialism, whose only possible replies are exactly those of Wallace’s contemporary detractors, but according to my own interests with modern theistic evolution, with which it is directly comparable and contrastable. To be blunt, BioLogos needs to engage with the arguments of Wallace as much as they do those of Darwin or Warfield, or moderns like Polkinghorne. In particular they need to realise than in condemning design arguments as unscientific they are criticising the founder of evolutionary theory, who argued against materialists like Haeckel and Huxley that they are scientific.

And so it is that after detailing the wonders of avian feathers and lepidopteran scales in almost Behean terms, Wallace talks positively about the explanatory theories of Spencer, Darwin and Weismann, but then adds:

Each of them, especially the last, helps us to realise to a slight extent the nature and laws of heredity, but leaves the great problem of the nature of the forces at work in growth and reproduction as mysterious as ever … But of the forces at work, and of the power which guides those forces in building up the whole organ, we find no enlightenment. [Modern physiologists] will not even admit that any such constructive guidance is needed! (p295)

It’s important to see how Wallace includes his own work as explanatorily incomplete. The next page or two consists of a thought experiment about an alien race watching human industry, but for some reason unable to perceive any living beings. They can provide, eventually, a complete material account – but to any amongst them who suggested there must be an intelligent agent at work they would say; “You are wholly unscientific; we know the physical and chemical forces at work in this curious world, and if we study it long enough we shall find that known forces will explain it all.”

It’s clear that to Wallace, all conceivable scientific processes are mere instruments of his “organising Mind.” They are not autonomous. This is a straight design argument – he is specifically calling for mind to be regarded as prior to matter, and for a completely teleological view of life notwithstanding his descriptions of the struggle for existence and natural selection (and various additional mechanisms) as scientifically valid.

Where this takes him in relation to the general character of the world is interesting. After suggesting possible evolution/heredity explanations for extravagant colours in organisms, he affirms that whatever their use for those particular forms of life, they additionally serve an intended role for man and his spiritual development:

And even now, with all our recently acquired knowledge of this subject, who shall say that these old-world views were not intrinsically and fundamentally sound; and that although we now know that colour has “uses” in nature that we little dreamt of, yet the relations of those colours – or rather of the various rays of light – to our senses and emotions may not be another, and more important use which they subserve in the greater system of the universe. (p310)

Undaunted by knowing that materialist scientists regard this as “a strangely gratuitous hypothesis” he goes on to argue for it by arguments from biology. These needn’t concern us here (you can read them), because it’s the failure of modern theistic evolutionists to think beyond ateleological evolutionary materialism, and consider things in these terms of God’s greater purposes, that seems most significant for our interests, in today’s climate.

On p328 this idea of nature’s intended benefit for man is applied to detailed examples like the various types of wood, of coffee or of rubber. By linking these directly to “the highest organising intelligence” it’s clear that his view of providence is very strong. This is nothing like semi-Deism or free-process: there is a teleological direction of even the minutiae of the species that were produced by his own scientific theory.

You’ll realise that this is close to the “providential naturalism” espoused on The Hump. It’s admittedly not “classical” in the sense of being theologically orthodox, though his conception of God is not far from philosophical “classical theism”. In fact, even his heterodox spirit-beings confirm an utterly non-deistic conception: in his view, this multitudinous heirarchy of “angelic entities” happily do the supreme God’s exact bidding, bringing the exact results he desires. Classical Christianity differs in seeing creation as God’s sole work, in Christ and through the Spirit. But the net result is the same, and it is one that would have many theistic evolutionists tut-tutting about interference with nature’s dignity, the role of the random, and so on.

Few people knew Darwin better than Wallace, and on p333 he argues that Darwin always admitted natural selection’s limitations, but that even his more speculative supplementary theories provided, at best an exact representation but not an explanation. He goes on to say how even materialists like Haeckel were forced to attribute “mind, soul and volition” to every organic molecule, let alone every cell, before retreating from the “unscientific” by qualifying them as “wholly unconscious” – which Wallace points out as being an incoherent concept… as I’ve been saying for years! I’d love to see him engage Karl Giberson!

Lest one think that new molecular discoveries, such as DNA, have rendered his arguments irrelevant, Wallace has a very good chapter, for its time, on the mysteries of the cell. Once more it is clear that he knows enough of the mechanisms that, had he lived to appreciate the more detailed picture we now perceive, it would not have diverted him one inch from the view that they are only mechanisms, requiring a guiding Mind. He is no more advocating a God of the Gaps than ID is: it is the inherent incapability of materialism to provide a whole class of causation – teleology and meaning – that he identifies.

I’ve mentioned affinities to William Paley’s Natural Theology. World of Life is also reminsiscent of Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny in its examination of the physical and chemical properties of the universe, for example the properties of water. It even anticipates Fred Hoyle’s assessment of the universe as a “put up job” in discussing carbon chemistry and the relative frequency of the elements necessary for our existence and well-being.

This, of course, was the pre-Big Bang era. Materialists then appealed to the claimed eternity of the Universe as a substitute for Mind, just as now they have learned to appeal to an eternal Multiverse. But like Thomas Aquinas before him (if not such a gifted philosopher or metaphysician as Aquinas), Wallace dismisses this:

It will be seen that this alleged explanation – the eternal material universe – does not touch the necessity, becoming more clear every day, not for blind laws and forces, but for imminent directive and organising MIND, acting on and in every living cell of every living organism, during every moment of its existence. I think I have sufficiently shown that without this, life, as we know it, is altogether unthinkable.

There speaks the co-founder of evolutionary theory as we know it. It’s really no mystery why materialists and atheists dismissed his arguments then, as they would now were they more exposed to them. To them, Wallace just has to join the ranks of the scientifically compromised, the good boys gone bad, along with the Newtons, Maxwells, Heisenbergs, Lovells and Prances whose faith is airbrushed out of the cartoon-portrayal of science.

But thoroughgoing materialists apart, how many leading theistic evolutionists would be willing to affirm that last quotation without qualification or obfuscation? How many Intelligent Design advocates, even? I hope the Spiritualists don’t end up as the most orthodox ones left standing.


A few of Wallace’s mimicry specimens

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 Another century-late review

  1. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    No comments, I see, so I’ll add a codicil instead.

    At one point in the book Wallace expresses his distaste for the failings of “traditional” religion, and says that only science can, perhaps, lead to more perfect religious insight. This is a naive and scientistic view (though typical of Victorian rationalism), though it largely accords with historical accounts of his progress from materialism – he followed the evidence where it led. But this does show three things that are more easily seen with historical hindsight:

    (1) Positively, evolutionary biology does not, as claimed by the current generation of socially-conditioned “skeptics”, lead necessarily to the conclusion of atheism.
    (2) Despite his avowal of scientific methodology, he ends up with a religion easily identifiable as nineteenth century English “Christian” spiritualism. This doesn’t make him a bad scientist, but rather confirms the findings of later philosophers of science like Kuhn who recognised that science always arises from the social context, not as an objective source of truth. Darwin’s agnostic/deist theory likewise follows from his own social and spiritual position.
    (3) Inasmuch as one can trace Wallace’s theological conclusions as following from scientific observation, his God is pretty much that minimal concept which scholastic theology (or Intelligent Design theory) says is knowable about God without special revelation; ie that of which Paul speaks in Romans 1.20.

  2. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Sorry about the dearth of comments …. doesn’t mean it wasn’t read with interest.

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