Silenced Partner: Two Books on Alfred Wallace

by Terry Scambray


A review of:

Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s Theory of Life Challenged Darwinism by Michael A. Flannery (Erasmus Press, 2008.  216 pp.) Includes an abridged version of Wallace’s The World of Life, with an Introduction by Flannery and a Forward by William A. Dembski.

Alfred Russel Wallace; A Rediscovered Life by Michael A. Flannery. (Discovery Institute Press, 2011. 152 pp.)

In April 1869, as Charles Darwin finished reading an article by Alfred Wallace, he scratched an emphatic “No!!!” in the margin. Wallace, as the co-discoverer of evolution along with Darwin, had written that natural selection could not produce something as complex as the human mind; some other cause, namely an “Overruling Intelligence” must have played a role.

So why was Darwin upset that Wallace saw limits to the power of natural selection?

This is the question that Michael  Flannery answers in his two deceptively slim but revealing and learned studies, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s Theory of Life Challenged Darwinism and Alfred Russel Wallace : A Rediscovered Life.

For Dr. Flannery, a professor at the University of Alabama, Wallace’s challenge to Darwin is not a mere historical footnote. It is a challenge that goes to the heart of the origins debate. And beyond that, Flannery makes a persuasive case that Wallace’s wide experiences and definitive scientific observations made him an early and convincing advocate of what is now called intelligent design.

Flannery’s complementary goal is to undermine the belief that Darwin’s mind was a blank slate when he began his career in science and even as late as when he set sail on his consequential voyage around South America on HMS Beagle.

Make no mistake, there is a lot riding on this picture of Darwin as the dispassionate scientist. For one thing, his career is relentlessly hailed as a personification of the Enlightenment version of mankind’s development :  man first made sense of the world through myth & superstition (religion); then he ascended upward to reason (the ancient Greeks); finally he reached the highest plateau, science, the crowning glory of modernity. As one can see, this is the progressive reading of history most of us have imbibed.

But Flannery discredits this idealized version of Darwin by showing that he began with a materialistic assumption and stuck with it even when the facts contradicted it.

In support of this, Flannery marshals persuasive evidence that the seeds for Darwin’s materialistic world view were planted and nourished in a family atmosphere that was skeptical of the Bible and Christianity.  His grandfather, Erasmus, an incipient evolutionist, was described by the oxymoronic phrase, ‘free thinker’, as if anything as demanding as ‘thinking’ ever comes ‘free’.

Apparently though, Erasmus’ free thinking led him to believe, among other things, that a cat’s habit of cleaning  itself and the migratory patterns of birds were self taught attributes, learned over vast periods of time using the trial and error method of natural selection!

Also Charles’ father, Robert, was a deist. Charles as a failed teenage medical student at the University of Edinburgh attended meetings of the Plinian Society, itself a group of free thinkers.

On Darwin’s development as a scientist, Dr. Flannery quotes the late Stanley Jaki, historian, physics professor and Benedictine priest who wrote :

The publication in full of Darwin’s Early Notebooks [individual notebooks were published with the complete compilation issued by the British Museum and Cambridge University Press in 1987] forces one to conclude that Darwin consciously lied when he claimed that he slowly, unconsciously slipped into agnosticism. He tried to protect his own family as well as the Victorian public from the shock of discovering that his Notebooks resounded with militant materialism. The chief target of the Notebooks is man’s mind, the ‘citadel’, in Darwin’s words, which was to be conquered by his evolutionary theory if its materialism were to be triumphant.

This is compelling evidence and Flannery brings in other sources to further erode one of modern science’s iconic depictions: Darwin as the unflinching observer of nature who is grudgingly forced to detestable, materialistic conclusions.

Wallace, on the contrary, found that a materialist account of evolution could not explain the great discontinuities in nature, like the unbridgeable gap separating dead matter from life and the profound differences between plants and animals and the impassable chasm separating man from the rest of the animal kingdom, including man’s unique pursuit of love, beauty and truth.

In The World of Life, Wallace explained why he thought this about man:

Some of man’s physical characters and many of his mental and moral  faculties could not have been produced and developed to their actual perfection by the law of natural selection alone,because they are not of survival value in the struggle for existence. [his italics]

Wallace sounds modern in his understanding that “the problem of the origin of life was essentially a problem of the cell” as Flannery puts it. And Wallace had this insight during the late 19th century when the cell was thought to be merely “an accretion of protoplasm”.

Then like now, many individuals also thought that they had resolved the problem of life’s origins by insisting that organisms could self-organize because “life has a built in organizing power” or “the world is just that way.” Wallace rightly saw these as “verbal suggestions” and “useless tautologies” in that such assertions merely repeat what they are purporting to explain.

The traditional argument against design and teleology has always been: If the world is designed, why is it imperfect and weighed down with pain and suffering?

Darwin was firmly in that tradition as are modern Darwinists. And, tragically, both Darwin and Wallace suffered through the agony of seeing children of theirs die. But each responded to pain differently. As Flannery summarizes: “Darwin simply found suffering a by-product of the vicissitudes of materialistic chance; for Wallace, used to privation and inured to struggle, pain was a necessary and sometimes instructive thread woven into a complex fabric of life.”

Picking up the story of Darwin and Wallace in the 19th century, Flannery guides the reader down the similar paths that both men took and explains how each arrived at similar yet radically different final destinations. Both men shared the adventuring spirit as well as the penetrating interest in nature of the Victorians. Yet a cultural divide existed between Darwin who was born in 1809 into an upper class, influential Victorian family, and Wallace who was born in 1823 into a “struggling and declining middle class” family. These circumstances of birth both helped and hindered them in their careers.

Darwin was a reluctant student but his father, seeing his son’s abiding interest in nature, grudgingly financed Charles’ legendary five-year voyage on HMS Beagle, an excruciating rite of passage.

Wallace, for his part, lived for years among the natives in South America and Malaysia where he collected specimens and wrote articles and books all of which he sold for a living. And a relentless collector he was. For during his eight years in Malaysia, Wallace had amassed a veritable Noah’s Ark-sized collection of 125,660 specimens, including 8,050 birds, 13,100 butterflies, 97,000 insects, the vast majority of which were killed and mounted.

Wallace’s experience in the wilds gave him a keen understanding of the relationship of organisms to their environment and for this he is often called “the father of biogeography”.

Darwin, on the other hand, after his difficult and even treacherous voyage onHMS Beagle, spent the rest of his life south of London in Kent where he observed nature in more sedate surroundings. During this time, he was deeply impressed by the changes that animal breeders could invite within populations of dogs and pigeons, changes which Darwin thought could accumulate over time to form more complex organisms.

But Wallace knew that domestic breeding was a dead end, literally; for breeding animals to bring out certain traits often made them unfit for actual survival in the wild. Besides, the “artificial selection” of animal breeders was, in effect, “unnatural selection,” more comparable to intelligent design, the opposite of the totally naturalistic evolution that Darwin thought was being demonstrated.

However, the downside of Wallace’s prolonged and intense field experience was that he had little time to ruminate about his experiences. As it was, only bad weather or bad health gave him the opportunity to consider the wider implications of his work. Thus during the rainy season in the Malaysian peninsula in 1855, he had the opportunity to write an article which included his so-called Sarawak Law: “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.” He had hit upon the idea of the common ancestry of all life, an idea that had crystallized in Darwin’s mind much earlier in 1838.

When Charles Lyell, known as the founder of modern geology, read the article in 1856, he was rattled both because he himself was a skeptic of evolution and also because he wanted his friend, Darwin, to gain rightful credit for discovering the theory. Nonetheless, despite Lyell’s urgency, Darwin remained unperturbed.

Again in February of 1858, when Wallace was down with malarial fever, he thought of Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, a book that also profoundly influenced Darwin. Through the prism of Malthus, Wallace saw the principle of struggle and death played out before his eyes. This epiphany caused him to ask, “Why do some live while others die?” Then Wallace hit upon the idea of “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that he took from his friend Herbert Spencer and later suggested to Darwin which Darwin then used in the fifth edition of his hot selling book, On The Origin of  Species.

This time when news of Wallace’s idea reached Darwin, he knew that he must announce his idea or risk losing credit for his discovery. A hasty meeting of the Linnean Society of London was called. At this July 1, 1858 meeting, the papers of both Darwin and Wallace were read. Afterwards Darwin was given the credit due him as the first to offer a theory as to how species divided into different creatures over long periods of time.

Though Darwin had more influence in London than the sojourning and lower class Wallace, Flannery sees no conspiracy in Darwin gaining credit for what, after all, was his original idea.

Nonetheless, what is of enduring interest is Wallace’s idea of “intelligent evolution” as opposed to Darwin’s idea that life was self-generated by unintelligent, purposeless forces.

In the environment of Victorian materialism, as Flannery rightly indicates, anyone who thought that there was design in nature was marginalized. And to an extent this was understandable. Scientific reductionism, the application of physics and chemistry to agriculture, transportation, and disease control was producing monumental successes. But Wallace early on saw that reductionist, materialist explanations would be unproductive when it came to explaining life.

For Wallace, evolution was a fairly obvious chain. But he was “convinced that there was a definite act of creation, that from that moment 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 guidance and purpose can only come from a “Mind” as Wallace put it, not accretions of mud as the materialist evolutionists think.

Talking with the same conviction that he had as a younger man, Wallace said when he was 87 years old:

Is it more consonant with reason to say that the blood does its work by itself and without meaning to do it, or that it is intelligently controlled to its purpose by a conscious direction? Which is the saner theory? My contribution is made as a man of science. And the conclusion that I reach is 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.”

A version of this review first appeared in the May/ June, 2012,  issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (

©2012 Terry Scambray

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