The seemingly ineradicable opinion divide on evolution calls to mind Mark Twain’s quip that everyone talks about the weather, mostly to complain, but nobody does anything about it. Pro-Darwinian educators were frustrated this week to find that most public high school biology instructors in their teaching do not wholeheartedly endorse evolution. The teachers reflect a stubborn division across American culture. For the past three decades, Americans have been locked into a basically unchanging split of views on the subject, with only about 16 percent believing in Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution.
Charles Darwin would have turned 200 in 2009. Will we still be having the same argument when he turns 300? Not, perhaps, if we take a lesson from evolutionary theory’s founder. Or rather its other founder — Darwin’s less famous co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). The Welsh-born naturalist and adventurer could hold the key to dissolving much of the fractious furor over evolution.
Religious preferences or worldview commitments drive much of that debate. Putting Biblical literalists to one side, Darwin’s materialism is the main philosophical objection to evolutionary theory. In its Darwinian version, evolution denies the possibility of discovering evidence that a supreme being guided life’s history with a purpose in mind. The same is not true of Alfred Russel Wallace’s understanding.
Darwin and Wallace went public with their theory of natural selection in 1858. Wallace spooked Darwin into doing so earlier than he wished when Wallace, the younger and less privileged and well connected of the two scientists, sent his senior colleague a letter from the Indonesian island of Ternate. In a swoon of malarial fever, Wallace had penned a brief outline of the evolutionary idea that Darwin had assumed would be his own exclusive claim on scientific immortality. Darwin received the missive, and panicked. Anxious that he not to be scooped, Darwin’s well-heeled friends arranged for a joint presentation of the two men’s formulations before the Linnean Society in London.
Lately Wallace’s renown has enjoyed a revival with a spate of new biographies, most recent among them “Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life” by University of Alabama science historian Michael Flannery (who’s also a colleague of mine with the Discovery Institute). Yet Wallace’s thinking remains unfamiliar to most people. That’s too bad because he wonderfully transcends the familiar, tiring and false dichotomy pitting evolution versus creationism, science versus religion.
Wallace never backed off from his original insight about how natural selection works. However, culminating in 1910 with his magnum opus, “The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose,” he illuminated his own picture of evolution. The title of the book says it all. Wallace perceived that the world must be permeated by life and intelligence not perceptible directly to our senses but whose existence may be inferred from the biological phenomena that it shapes — human consciousness above all, but also the intricate functioning of the living cell and the hemoglobin molecule, bird wings and feathers, butterfly coloration and insect metamorphosis and much more.
Beyond the “self-acting agency” of undirected evolution, he argued, there must be some “creative power,” a “directive mind,” and an “ultimate purpose.” Wallace was not speaking about God. He rejected Christianity and all religious orthodoxy. He wrote, “To afford any rational explanation of [life’s] phenomena, we require to postulate the continuous action and guidance of higher intelligences; and further, that these have probably been working towards a single end, the development of intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.”
After Wallace’s death in 1913, his ideas were largely eclipsed, though they reflected more of the advanced science of their day than Darwin’s did. Wallace lived for 30 years after Darwin died. Unlike Darwin, he survived to see dramatic advances in microscopy and cellular science that influenced his scientific perspective. In fact, from the middle 20th century on, fields as diverse as genetics, biochemistry, paleontology, taxonomy and cosmology have yielded their secrets and Wallace seems in the process of being vindicated.
His thinking seems more modern in other ways. While Darwin supplied a basis for later pseudo-scientific racism, inspiring eugenic movements in Europe and America, Wallace grew up poor and lived for years with supposedly primitive “Third World” peoples, praising their cultures as in some ways superior to European civilization. Wallace emphasized the dignity of all men and, as a committed socialist, agitated for political freedom and equality.
His view is not Biblical literalist creationism, certainly, nor intelligent design — at least as the latter is portrayed by its critics. Professor Flannery calls it “intelligent evolution.” There is no religious special pleading here, no surreptitious right-wing agenda. Wallace argued for evolution but of an altogether more enlightened and attractive kind than in Darwin’s treatment.
His version, most importantly, allows human beings the hope that their physical lives bear the stamp of some eternal meaning. No one can claim to know the future of the argument about evolution. But if Wallace’s conception were on the table, openly and explicitly, it would be a very different argument, more fruitful, less bitter and maybe less protracted.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of “The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy” and other books. His new book, with Sen. Joe Lieberman, is “The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath”.