Chapter I

1.5 Dissing Darwin

Darwin and Wallace in the religious badminton game antievolutionists need to play.

This issue of how we fit into the natural evolutionary picture has drawn Alfred Wallace posthumously into the current Darwin-bashing fray. Wallace differed from Darwin in many non-scientific ways, notably Darwin the politically conservative landed gentry versus the radical socialist Wallace. Though they had very different backgrounds, Browne (2002, 23-33) noted there were many parallels in their lives (especially regarding an abiding fascination with nature and a keen observational sensibility). I find Wallace very likable, and a man of admirable modern sensibilities in many ways—for instance, in 1865 he criticized John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) for his curious opposition to general use of the secret ballot, Slotten (2004, 222).

Regarding the deep questions of religion, both were largely agnostic, Edey & Johanson (1989, 74, 91) and Brooke (2010). Wallace’s reading of Thomas Paine made him skeptical of Christianity specifically as a teenager, and later characterized one 1840s naturalist’s attempt to reconcile the Bible with science as “ridiculous,” Slotten (2004, 12, 21). Darwin’s path was more circuitous, falling away from Christianity around age 40, after the death of his father and before the death of his daughter Annie in 1851 (surviving scarlet fever, she probably had tuberculosis also, poorly understood in those days), Quammen (2006, 56-57, 113-120). He appears to have arrived at a full-blown Wallace-style skepticism about popular religion later in life, when he expressed “startlingly harsh views of Christianity” in his Autobiography, Browne (2002, 431-434).

Some of this process appears to have been eased by the change in his relationship with his wife. While initially there had been a “painful void” between them on religion, as Quammen put it, Browne’s account of Darwin’s religious uncertainty noted that Emma’s tolerance for differing views had also grown over the years, perhaps owning to her own far from conservative theological inclinations, Ruse (2013, 216) noting: “Emma used to attend the local Anglican parish, although she refused to take communion (because she did not think Jesus to be divine).”

Religion couldn’t help but come up for thinking people trying to relate to a world where all aspects of it were pervaded by religious concepts and rituals. Neutrality was thus not an option, unless you could squirrel yourself away in the country and create a world of your own where it didn’t really matter whether the Pope in Rome or the Queen at Windsor was the true head of the church, or whether there was any true church to begin with. That’s how Darwin apparently whiled away the years at Down House. Quammen (2006, 165) probably summed up Darwin’s focus best: “Work was his opiate, and science was his religion.”

While a contemporary skeptic like Wheeler (1889, 97-98) was content to peg Darwin as an agnostic, some religious apologists might prefer Darwin to be an atheist to keep their opposing turf more clearly defined. One curious episode was recounted by Glenn Branch (2014ao-ap) where Darwin’s autobiographical characterization of himself as having been “a Theist” when younger was turned by several 1920’s antievolutionists into him having being an “atheist” based on a misprinted secondary account of one of William Jennings Bryan’s antievolution speeches.

Where Wallace departed most from Darwin did not involve the central role of natural selection acting on variation to generate the physical structures of life. Both had similar concepts of natural variation, though Bowler (1976) noted Darwin and Wallace arrived at them by somewhat different paths, and if anything Wallace gave natural selection a preeminent position that Darwin didn’t even allocate for it—a technical fine point that Flannery (2010) couldn’t get a grip on when flailing Stephen Jay Gould posthumously, or Flannery (2012a) jousting with Michael Shermer (2012a).

It was Darwin who didn’t think natural selection covered everything—for instance, that it played no role at all in what are now called the isolation mechanisms that help fission species, Slotten (2004, 234-235). Darwin would eventually even flirt with Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, something easier to do in the pre-genetic days when no scientist actually knew how anything really ended up inherited. Given Wallace’s firm rejection of Lamarckian inheritance, his conceptualizing of what Mayr would eventually characterize as the “biological species concept” that involved successful breeding as the defining feature of natural species, and even seeing a distinction between what would now be called stabilizing vs. directional selection, Kutschera & Hossfeld (2013) regard Wallace as an early proponent of the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis version of evolutionary theory developed by Mayr and others in the 20th century—ironically, exactly the model that ID opponents are most strenuously opposed to.

Where Wallace divided with Darwin most were on the level of selection, and of course the role of “superior intelligence” at either end of the process (the origin of life long ago and the far more recent appearance of self-aware minds like us to wonder about it all).

Regarding the first, Browne (2002, 18, 57), Quammen (2006, 158) and Ruse (2013) have variously noted that Wallace thought selection operated more at the group level, not winnowing individuals primarily in the way Darwin thought (this issue has remained a hot one in evolutionary thinking to this day, as will be explored in later chapters). Wallace also downplayed Darwin’s highlighting the similarity between artificial and natural selection—Wallace deemed artificial human selection as less an analog because it dealt with animals removed from their natural environment, a point he drove home from the start, in the 1858 piece that ended up in the Darwin & Wallace (1858) Linnean presentation—though Wallace did mellow somewhat on this point after Darwin died, Gregory (2009a, 7). Wallace definitely couldn’t accept Darwin’s idea that sexual selection (animals selecting a mate independent of how well this affects their adaptive fitness) could play out along with natural selection, especially regarding human evolution, Slotten (2004, 256-258, 261-262, 288-297, 353-356) or Quammen (2006, 213-216.

Having given up belief in Christianity as a teen, Wallace never invoked traditional religion as a designer explanation for the Mind meddling every so often in what was functionally a “survival of the fittest” Neo-Darwinian framework—incidentally, British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) originated the “survival of the fittest” term before Origin of Species, and Wallace adopted it as a catchier phrase than “natural selection” and recommended Darwin use it too. Wallace was attracted instead to the new seemingly observable (and hence more “scientific”) spirit mediums, mesmerism and phrenology cluttering Victorian society. Initially skeptical of spiritualism, he was drawn to it after his sister Fannie got into it, and attended his first séance in the 1840s while himself on the rebound from a failed love affair. His convictions about spiritualism wavered, especially after his sister died, but was reassured after he heard from her via a medium.

This personal connection is fairly common among spiritualist believers, and Wallace shared his interests with a lot of prominent figures, from chemist and physicist William Crookes (1832-1919)—with whom Wallace collaborated on psychic research in the 1870s concerning the medium “Dr.” Henry Slade (1835-1905)—to pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) and American railroad magnate Leland Stanford (1824-1893). An effort in 1876 to get the British Association for the Advancement of Science involved to investigate spiritualist claims scientifically fell flat (a move oddly reminiscent of Intelligent Design efforts for legitimization today). There was also a class issue, as spiritualism was very much a working class movement (Crookes was self-educated much as Wallace was). Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911), statistician nerd and originator of making better people through eugenics, was also interested in spiritualism, as was Vestiges author Robert Chambers, but Darwin himself, his son George, and Huxley were far less impressed. See Desmond & Moore (1991, 538, 647), Milner (1996; 2009, 348-349, 389-390), Shermer (2001, 159-198) and Slotten (2004, 5-7, 230-248, 305-314, 326-351, 384-385, 396-397, 459-450) for plenty of back and forth on the Darwin-Wallace spiritualism issue.

Though discredited fairly quickly, phrenology (the boneheaded idea that human moral and intellectual characters were reflected in the physical contours of the skull) was deemed a respectable pursuit in the early 19th century, permitting Wiker (2009a, 4) to briefly note Robert FitzRoy was “a casual devotee” of it—Wiker did not mention that Wallace was too. Indeed, even in 1896 Wallace was still insisting phrenology would eventually be accepted as a scientific description of the mind, Slotten (2004, 451). Way to go, Alfred.

The FitzRoy side of things brings to mind another topic: the political and cultural context of who believed in phrenology and why. Wallace was an agnostic socialist, but as Desmond & Moore (2009, 69-72) noted—a source Wiker cited elsewhere, remember—the phrenology believing FitzRoy objected to Darwin joining the Beagle expedition initially on political grounds: Darwin’s liberal Whig background clashed with FitzRoy’s conservative Church of England convictions (unsuccessfully bucking the reformist Whig tide, the captain lost a bid to win a seat in Parliament as a Tory).

For Wiker (2009a, 51-52), though, the context of belief was simpler: “Phrenology was the most advanced science of the materialists of the time.” That argument would have seemed much more tenuous had Wiker acknowledged non-materialist Wallace firmly believed in it too, linking the brain with the mind for the first time, and attached as well to issues of working class reformist politics, Slotten (2004, 203-205). To see that phrenology might not be a simple analog for “materialism” Wiker might again have consulted Desmond & Moore (2009, 43), concerning Darwin’s exposure to the issue when studying medicine in Edinburgh: “The tension was evident between the shackling determinism of phrenology which allowed little personal or racial improvement, and the liberating Enlightenment evolutionism with its faith in change and perfectibility.”

It was Wiker’s own pigeonholing that transformed the determinism of skull bumps into a rejection of some nonmaterial geist operating underneath. The decidedly non-materialist Quakers were also attracted to phrenology, as was Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), who helped found 19th century racial “physical anthropology,” again duly reported by Desmond & Moore (2009, 45-48). As Morton (raised a Quaker but later an Episcopalian) believed the Bible supported his separately created-and-not-equal version of human races, “materialist” presumptions were by no means the only contributors to 19th century pseudoscience.

All of which rains a mite on the Discovery Institute parade of Wallace’s mummy as a prescient harbinger of Intelligent Design, tracked by The Sensuous Curmudgeon (2008h; 2011b-c) blog. Launched by Michael Flannery (2008), Casey Luskin (2008k) and David Klinghoffer (2009q-r), Denyse O’Leary (2010a) soon harrumphed that Wallace had been drummed out of the Darwinist camp even though he “was a much better naturalist than Darwin.”  

The Wallace v. Darwin hall of mirrors show continued in the Discussion Guide for the 2010 God & Evolution book edited by the DI’s Jay Richard, as Faith & Evolution (2011, 11) further attenuated O’Leary’s take with a leading study question: “Why, according to Denyse O’Leary, was Wallace neglected and ridiculed, but Darwin lionized?” Meanwhile, at the Discovery Institute proper, Flannery (2011c) trumpeted his own new pro-ID Wallace book, Flannery (2011a), published by the DI, news of which duly reverberated in Klinghoffer (2011b) and Evolution News & Views (2011a) at the self-same Discovery Institute.

This wasn’t the first time that Wallace performed the role of shuttlecock in a creation/evolution competition, by the way. Levit & Polatayko (2013) noted that Tsarist-era Russian evolutionists were just as skeptical of Wallace’s appeal to “superior intelligence” as a way of accounting for the big issues of the origin of life and human intelligence, and Wallace was readily recruited by Russian Orthodox antievolutionists much as American Judeo-Christian Intelligent Designers would a hundred years later.

Given the conservative political activism of the Discovery Institute (to be explored more fully in subsequent chapters, from whence cometh their funding to their current “scientific” skepticism about global warming) and the demographic reality that the bulk of DI authors are conservative Christians, it is a sign of a tortucan tunnel vision that Wallace’s overt spiritualist socialism was seldom on display. Flannery (2011c) stands out for ricochet acknowledgment of just how wide-ranging Wallace’s iconoclasm was, when he took a potshot at Quammen (2008) for noting Wallace’s “crank” side. Though interestingly, it was regarding just one paragraph culled from Quammen’s extended article in National Geographic, Flannery ignoring all the remainder where Quammen stressed what an extraordinarily gifted scientific observer Wallace was—getting so carried away in his umbrage that Flannery forgot to put a second quotation mark to tell where Quammen had left off and the Flannery riff began.

Wallace’s socialist proclivities were fully understandable given the grinding poverty he knew firsthand permeated Victorian capitalism. As Slotten (2004, 365-373, 378, 387, 436) recounted, Wallace grew more politicized in the 1870s, embracing complete land nationalization along with demanding “reciprocity” in free trade and fretting over the impact of British trade deficits with France and the United States on the working poor. By 1885 his book Bad Times had written capitalism off as a failure, and in an 1887 speech Wallace flatly disapproved of all inherited wealth (which didn’t go over all that well to his well-heeled American audience), and was a fully committed socialist by 1889. All of which suggests that were Wallace alive today he’d have been tenting out among the Occupy Wall Street 99% protestors (in his day 536 landed peers owned 20% of Britain)—about as far as you can get from the Heritage Foundation groupies extolling the Intelligent Design brand favored by the commerce-friendly Discovery Institute today.

One of the more curious sides of Wallace was his dedicated opposition to smallpox vaccination as a dangerous delusion that was absolutely useless. Quammen’s brief allusion to this “crank” episode in his National Geographic article drew the ire of Flannery (2011c), who sought to deflate Quammen’s point by invoking a later analysis by Thomas Weber (2010) of Wallace’s anti-vaccination campaign to accuse Quammen of “not properly telling the complete story.”

But does “the complete story” undermine Quammen’s point much?

Weber had focused primarily on the dispute over applying statistical methods to vaccination data, of relevance to his audience at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but did not address all aspects of Wallace’s involvement in the controversy, such as ones noted at length in Slotten (2004, 317, 422-436)—a book Weber listed in his references. Much like Weber, Slotten traced how Wallace’s opposition evolved over time: a complex mix of scientific objections, spiritualist connections (they were largely anti-vaccination) and political considerations stemming from the 1853 compulsory vaccination law in Britain (replaced by an even stiffer 1867 act that mandated prosecutions for failure to comply and thus hitting the poor most).

Slotten noted that Wallace’s antipathy towards standard medical practice might have been affected by the death of his eldest son (aged 7) in 1874, and unsafe procedures (such as unclean lances) contributing to genuine health concerns initially. Though like Darwin and quack medicine, Slotten (2004, 449, 452) spotted comparable quirky episodes when it came to Wallace’s health regimen: giving up his vegetarianism for a meat diet on the recommendation of a sculptor friend to cure his asthma (it appeared to help), but taking up smoking cigarettes too, then being recommended as a remedy for poor respiration!

The underlying biology behind vaccination was only poorly understood—the work of Pasteur and Robert Koch (1843-1910) wouldn’t clarify the role of germs and viruses until the 1880s, and the role of antibodies wouldn’t be discovered for many decades (the antibiotic issue will be covered further starting in section 1.7 below). Ironically, another factor was the improved reporting of cases that made it appear that there had been a rise in smallpox 1871-1880, fueling the conviction that vaccination didn’t work. All of this controversy and uncertainty initially attracted Wallace’s attention, but soon broadened to the appealing social activist issue of its violation of individual rights.

All well and good, but even as vaccination techniques improved, Wallace acknowledged none of it, and failing eyesight in older age led to a rather sad episode where the tables he prepared for an 1890 commission on vaccination were riddled with errors. By 1898 Wallace’s position had entrenched to ranting how “vaccination is a gigantic delusion” that “has never saved a single life.” This later phase of Wallace’s anti-vaccination campaign covered by Slotten was not addressed by the Weber paper, but would be relevant in assessing the full range of Wallace’s opposition to vaccination. One may note here Wallace’s own assessment of his temperament (reminiscent of the controversy-loving Darlington mentioned earlier), remarking late in the 19th century how he flourished most when fighting “an uphill fight in an unpopular cause,” Slotten (2004, 455).

Any critical assessment of Wallace would need to consider whether, however honest and insightful the scientist could be in so many ways, whether every now and then he might also veer off the methodological rails during one of his uphill fights—his great credulity (shared by Crookes and many other otherwise scrupulous scientists) regarding the spirit medium Slade’s parlor trick shenanigans would certainly be relevant here. That is, if “telling the complete story” really was the goal.

Such admixtures are alive and well as I discovered in 2013 whilst staffing a table our local secular societies have at two of our regional county fairs. A hyper-skeptical (and non-religious) visitor dropped by our booth at the Idaho fair, firmly believing evolution and vaccination were unproven notions, and also doubting that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus. It turned out his grounding for these convictions rested on a few websites that were somehow immune to his otherwise blanket skepticism when it came to the stuff actually published in science literature and which he had never bothered to read.

Regarding Wallace’s resurrection as avatar of Intelligent Design, fine details like those noted above regularly get lost in the march to the broader conclusion of assailing “materialism.” The conservative DI fellow Klinghoffer (2011b) reflected this: “Anticipating modern intelligent design theory, Wallace was not speaking here about God in any traditional sense,” without ever identifying what Wallace was speaking about—and as though “modern intelligent design theory” had ever defended anything but a very specific Judeo-Christian designer (as we’ll see explicitly with Phillip Johnson and William Dembski).

Michael Flannery (2009b) trod the same path, distinguishing Wallace’s views from creationism as it was not “even Biblical at all.” In a chapter devoted to the “clash of worldviews,” Flannery (2011a, 76-81, 85) explored Darwin’s religious views at length, while alluding to Wallace’s spiritualism without elaboration. Flannery (2011d) more obliquely referred to Wallace’s “non-Christian theistic creationism,” but Flannery (2013a) did not bring up the issue at all when he insisted Wallace was remembered less than Darwin today because of “Darwin’s power of promotion not the power of his facts” proving more congenial than Wallace’s “intelligent evolution” when offered to “an age groping toward secularism.”

So just what was Wallace’s non-creationism and did it match well with the modern vision of Intelligent Design as embodied by Michael Flannery’s current iconic trio of Gonzalez & Richards (2004), Behe (2007b) and S. Meyer (2009a)? As Slotten (2004, 147) put it, Wallace “had discovered a true natural system, one without a predetermined balance, teleology, or divine plan.” Wallace’s growing spiritualist convictions eventually overlaid that foundation, carefully tracked by Slotten (2004, 268-270, 281-282, 284, 359, 382, 393-395, 409-418). When Wallace first voiced his view that the origin of human consciousness resided outside the bounds of natural processes, in 1869, it was informed totally by his spiritualist convictions, not Christianity in any guise (or appreciation of neurobiological data, for that matter, little of that being known in the 19th century).

By 1886, when he embarked on a lengthy American lecture tour, Wallace was dropping allusions to a guiding spiritualist-based Mind that gave a teleological frame for human evolution, embracing life after death as a balm to transcend the social inequalities so visible in the physical world. All this talk of some “higher intelligence” guiding human evolution to a loftier moral plane sounds a lot like the sort of vague blather of New Age believers today, and it could be argued that Wallace’s views here were simply a spiritualist twist on traditional religious hope for “pie in the sky by and by when you die”—a karmic Get Out of Jail Free card, dressed up in the new scientific guise of his socialist spiritualism.

But at no time did Wallace ever claim that his proposed “will-force” in any way negated the sweeping relevance of natural selection for the origin and development of physical species via shared common ancestry (the big issue of Darwinian evolution that Intelligent Design advocates bristle over today). He affirmed it in his 1888 book on Darwinism, and would continue to all the way down to Wallace (1909, 411): “that the theory of Darwin is the only one that is in accordance with Nature herself.” In this respect, the belief in natural common descent, Wallace was exactly as “Darwinian” as Darwin. This is why Norman Geisler (1983b, 14) of the Dallas Theological Seminary felt obliged to sideswipe Wallace as having surpassed Darwin “in replacing God with evolution.”

Rolling around in the disingenuous nadir of Wallace-napping we may conclude with the succinct O’Leary (2010a): “Wallace’s only serious crime was not to be a materialist atheist”—implicitly cordoning off all “Darwinism” as inherently atheistic while letting Wallace into the club even though most of Wallace’s evolutionary views matched up with Darwin, and none of his non-Christian spiritualist beliefs would ever be allowed through the front door of the Christian denominations that comprise the bulk of ID defenders. Wallace admirer George Beccaloni (2010) spotted the glaring anomaly in the whole Wallace co-opting campaign: “How ironic that spiritualist beliefs should be used to support Christian ones!”