Did Alfred Russel Wallace believe in Intelligent Design?

THERE IS CONSIDERABLE CONFUSION exhibited by the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids). Our favorite among their bloggers, Casey Luskin, has just written this: Alfred Russel Wallace: Celebrating the Early Days of Natural Selection or Intelligent Design?

Excerpt, with bold added for emphasis:

But few seem to remember that, contrary to Darwin, Wallace actually believed that it was possible to detect design in nature. As Wallace wrote:

[Quoting Wallace:] “[T]here seems to be evidence of a Power which has guided the action of those laws [of organic development] in definite directions and for special ends. And so far from this view being out of harmony with the teachings of science, it has a striking analogy with what is now taking place in the world…”

Well! The Discoveroids are suggesting that Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, actually — deep down — went for Intelligent Design. It’s sometimes difficult to know what the Discoveroids are saying, but their article seems to hint that were Wallace around today, he might actually be a Discoveroid. Is this true about Wallace? (Note: it doesn’t really matter, because evolution is based on facts, not the speculations of its early discoverers; but we’ll get to the bottom of this.)

As the Wallace quote comes from the Discoveroids, we searched for it ourselves, and found that it’s part of a review Wallace wrote in 1869 about Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which review is found here, in which Wallace was lavish in his praise of Darwin, saying:

Darwin, on the other hand, is at all events clear and intelligible. He calls in the aid of no ‘tendencies’ or ‘principles,’ which he does not clearly explain, and he supports every position by an appeal to the facts of nature. More than this, he appeals to all the facts, and applies his theory to the explanation of the most varied and the most complicated phenomena; and he is ready to give up his whole system if one fact can be found absolutely irreconcileable with it.

But does Wallace say what the Discoveroids claim he said — that he “actually believed that it was possible to detect design in nature”? In the style of the time, Wallace gradually eases himself into that subject:

In adopting the views of Mr. Darwin, Sir Charles Lyell [the geologist whose book Wallace was reviewing] carries them out to their legitimate results, and does not shrink from the logical necessity, of the derivation of man from the lower animals; and he has written a very interesting chapter on the ‘Origin and Distribution of Man.’ Into this subject, however, we cannot now enter, except to remark briefly on some aspects of the question which all who have hitherto written upon it seem to have neglected.

Ah, what’s that neglected question? Be patient, as we indulge Mr. Wallace’s Victorian prose:

It would certainly appear in the highest degree improbable, that the whole animal kingdom from the lowest zoophytes up to the horse, the dog, and the ape, should have been developed by the simple action of natural laws, and that the animal man, so absolutely identical with them in all the main features and many of the details of his organization, should have been formed in some quite other unknown way.

Okay, so far, so good. (The Discoveroids didn’t quote that, did they?) Wallace continues:

Neither natural selection nor the more general theory of evolution can give any account whatever of the origin of sensational or conscious life.

Ah, Wallace stumbles at the nature of consciousness. And where does he go with that?

But the moral and higher intellectual nature of man is as unique a phenomenon as was conscious life on its first appearance in the world, and the one is almost as difficult to conceive as originating by any law of evolution as the other. We may even go further, and maintain that there are certain purely physical characteristics of the human race which are not explicable on the theory of variation and survival of the fittest. The brain, the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of man, offer some special difficulties in this respect, to which we will briefly direct attention.

Wallace has lots of questions. But the Discoveroid blog claims that Wallace “actually believed that it was possible to detect design in nature.” Does Wallace say that? He says this, but with no factual backing for his assertion that brain power ought to be limited:

Natural selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.

Having indirectly insulted his colleagues, Wallace further says that we have other characteristics that seem (to Wallace) to be more than mere survival would require. In fact, at this point he’s actually babbling (bold added for emphasis):

The same line of argument may be used in connexion with the structural and mental organs of human speech, since that faculty can hardly have been physically useful to the lowest class of savages; and if not, the delicate arrangements of nerves and muscles for its production could not have been developed and co-ordinated by natural selection. … An instrument has been developed in advance of the needs of its possessor.

He might have said that man gradually developed his capabilities, and those who were better at it became the ancestors of those who followed — a purely evolutionary process, but let’s not debate with the man.

It’s after that when he says what the Discoveroids picked up on. The Discoveroids’ out-of-context quoted material is in red, so please note the un-colored text which they omitted:

While admitting to the full extent the agency of the same great laws of organic development in the origin of the human race as in the origin of all organized beings, there yet seems to be evidence of a Power which has guided the action of those laws [Discoveroids inserted “of organic development”] in definite directions and for special ends. And so far from this view being out of harmony with the teachings of science, it has a striking analogy with what is now taking place in the world, and is thus strictly uniformitarian in character.

The “quote” given by the Discoveroids isn’t quite exact, but we’ve come to expect that. They left out the start of the sentence, in which Wallace acknowledges the evolutionary origin of man, and they left out that “strictly uniformitarian” remark, which smacks too much of science for the Discoveroids, who prefer a Designer who indulges in whimsical tinkering.

But there’s no denying that Wallace had a wild streak. Darwin wrote to him about that review, before he read it, saying:

I shall be intensely curious to read the Quarterly. I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.

That can be found here: The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online . That source also informs us that after Darwin read Wallace’s review:

This passage is marked in Mr. Darwin’s copy with a triply underlined “No,” and with a shower of notes of exclamation. It was probably the first occasion on which he realised the extent of this great and striking divergence in opinion between himself and his colleague.

But Wallace did have an interest in supernatural phenomena. He attended seances and imagined he communicated with spirits. That side of Wallace is discussed here, in the New Yorker.

So what do we make of all this? First, the Discoveroids were over-the-top in claiming that Wallace “actually believed that it was possible to detect design in nature.” Wallace had questions and speculations, nothing more. Second, the Discoveroids are sloppy, as is customary with creationists, when reporting what are supposed to be quotes. Third, we’ve learned that Wallace had less of a scientific mind than Darwin. And fourth, although Wallace hinted at some weak form of ID regarding a few of man’s characteristics, he definitely accepted evolution.

Darwin’s lasting fame is deserved, while Wallace’s relative obscurity is no injustice.

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One response to “Did Alfred Russel Wallace believe in Intelligent Design?

  1. longshadow

    Take a bow! [Wild applause ensues…]