Alfred Wallace and Human Evolution (with Shafir Sabbag)

An online friend named Shafir Sabbag sent me three questions about Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution independently of Charles Darwin. I found the questions thought-provoking, and after writing my answers, decided it might be worth posting on this blog. Shafir agreed. Here they are:

Question #1:
Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently co-discovered the theory of evolution, criticized Darwin´s extrapolation of the findings that evolution by natural selection could have been responsible for the evolution of man (humans). Do you have a position on Wallace´s criticisms?

Answer #1. I should first state that my knowledge of Wallace’s views is not anywhere near expert or even good enough to make academic style arguments. I do know that he disagreed with Darwin’s ideas on the evolution of humanity extending to cognitive and moral behavior. Darwin’s views in The Descent of Man are reflected by modern day reductionists and anti-idealists. He not only assigned all human behavioral characteristics to the same process of natural selection, but also wrote “ the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind”.

While this remains a popular idea among atheist reductionists, there is a great deal of philosophical and biological reasons to disagree. Thus, Wallace’s view that there was another source of human exceptional mental states is perfectly consonant with one segment of modern opinion (including my own).

Wallace initially agreed with Darwin about human mental attributes being sufficiently explained by the selective advantages that advanced cognition and certain behavioral traits would confer on individuals and groups. But in an 1869 paper, he radically changed his mind, based on his experience living with uncivilized tribes. He found they had the same mental faculties as the “higher” civilized races, and that led him to wonder how such people who he believed (unlike Darwin and nearly everyone else at the time) were equal to the Europeans in mental abilities, could have  been subjected to selection pressure regarding things like math, musical talent etc. He wrote “I must believe that some other power caused that development – and so on with every other especially human characteristic.”

I completely agree with this statement, and like Wallace (also a Christian), reject the attempts to force fit natural selection into an explanation for human genius, creativity, moral attitudes, consciousness, and cognition.

Question #2:

When Wallace and Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection, they exclusively used abductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning was not possible as empirical evidence was absent, during the 19th century. If someone would limit natural science to only the experimental, the theory of evolution would not have been classified as scientific during the 19th century! Why do you think many people in the popular culture think that natural science has to be strictly deductive, experimental or empirical? 

Answer #2. As a matter of fact, at the end of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th century, Darwinism had gone into decline as a scientific theory for pretty much the reasons you cite. This was exacerbated by the rediscovery of Mendel’s experimental work on the genetics of pea plants. When Mendel’s data on the nature of the genetic mechanisms were disseminated at the turn of the 20th century, most scientists thought it dealt a death blow to Darwinism, since it appeared that the concept of dominant and recessive alleles made natural selection impossible. It was thought that recessive alleles would simply go extinct. A decade or so later, two mathematicians Hardy and Weinberg showed that in fact, recessive traits are in equilibrium, and that no such alleles would be lost unless natural selection played a role. The Hardy Weinberg equilibrium rescued Dawinism.  As experimental genetics enjoyed a renaissance, the 1920s and 30s saw the blossoming of the New Synthesis combining genetics and evolution, and Darwinism became once again a respectable science.

The idea that science must be strictly experimental and empirical was baked into the definition of the new concept of science at its origins with Francis Bacon and the other scientific pioneers of the scientific revolution. The reason was that before that, natural philosophy or just philosophy, which was the standard path to knowledge of the natural world, relied heavily on historical scholarship, the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and others, and various views from religious, political, social and moral sources. Science and scientists deliberately decided to exclude from their work any such “non-scientific” influences, and focus only on what could be shown to be true by undeniable evidence. This attitude only increased in intensity during the 18th and 19th centuries, and can still be found today among many scientists, and the majority of atheists, and reductionist materialistic philosophers. 

Most scientists today, however, recognize that the methods of science have expanded to include observational studies, statistical and theoretical mathematical analysis and computer-based simulations and other techniques. In some fields of social science, even subjective assessments  are permitted to reach certain kinds of conclusions. However, changes in scientific viewpoints among scientists take a long time to filter down to the popular culture, and as a good example, while many non-scientists continue to argue about “neo Darwinism”, actual evolutionary biologists and population geneticists know that neo Darwinism has long been modified out of recognition, and is not longer the mainstream scientific viewpoint.

Question #3:

Why do you think Wallace and his contributions to the theory of evolution, is virtually forgotten in the popular culture? In Chris Prescott´s Oxford Science Study Dictionary, only Darwin is cited as discovering the theory of evolution. Is Wallace forgotten because he was a confessional Christian, perhaps?

Answer #3. I think there are several reasons, one of which might be his outspoken belief in the reality of spiritual forces, which strongly went against the grain of early 20th century science. I don’t think his being a Christian specifically played a major role; after all, most scientists were Christians at the time, including Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming and Lord Kelvin. Also Darwin’ s great supporter Asa Gray was a devout Christian The problem was more related to Wallace’s later embrace of magical spiritualism, which was the early 20th century analogue of New Age beliefs. Wallace lost a great deal of credibility as he was outspoken about his views on the reality of spiritualism, phrenology, and other ideas that were much further outside of the scientific realm than traditional Christianity.

On the other hand, in today’s intellectual climate, many in academia and intellectual circles have come to view Christianity and all religious beliefs as contrary to a sound scientific world view of truth, and it might be that today, Wallace’s exclusion from the pantheon of groundbreaking scientists, might very well be at least partially related to his faith.

Darwin himself, despite his disagreement about human cognitive evolution, was a big fan of Wallace, and they maintained a vigorous correspondence throughout the 1870s, including a letter I found in the British library discussed in the post: “My greatest Discovery”.

I believe that Wallace was a major scientific figure, and truly deserves credit for clearly demonstrating that the biological theory of evolution by natural selection is in no way contradictory to the tenets of Christianity.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Alfred Wallace and Human Evolution (with Shafir Sabbag)

  1. Arnold says:

    To me, seeking God suggests God seeks me. He’s evident in my thinking and I care not why. “I AM THAT I AM.” However, I also think I’m able to analyze such thoughts away because generally I don’t want to be subject to anything over and above me. And so begins relationship with God as revealed by the bible writers’ characters. After all, the bible is our thoughts of God, and his perceived thoughts of us.

    So my interest in any category exploring the existence of God is subject to God himself. For example, to me he eclipses evolution, even Creation etc: my interest is here and now, today. And in Christ-come-in-the-flesh (my flesh!) I presently know him. Christians do have the answer- we are born of God’s Spirit, his eternal life. And yet still we can analyze him away for an indefinite spell, relative to how close we want to be. He leaves it up to me.

  2. dgilmanjm says:

    I used to believe in the evolution theory until it was being taught to me. Actual observations very often contradict the theory, so it cannot be used to reliably predict anything. For instance, they say that the Mexican blind cave shrimp populations separated from the surface population and each other over 3 million years ago, but they are all the same species. I am certain that the same is true of the blind Jamaican cave shrimp.

    A big part of my rejection was that everything I read convinced me that no multicellular creature has a unicellular ancestor.

    Also, Carl Woese’s paper showing that the three domains each arose separately (none are descendants of any other domain) reinforced my rejection of the theory..

  3. Ineke says:

    So interesting again, thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s