How evolutionary theory’s other discoverer could heal the Darwin divide

By David Klinghoffer The seemingly ineradicable opinion divide on evolution calls to mind Mark Twain’s quip that everyone talks about … Continued

By David Klinghoffer

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”.

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  • CalP

    Is there really a great divide? Does evolution really eliminate the pobability of creation?The evolution of living man cannot ever explain earlier life of the blue-gren algae that appeared billions of years before pre-historic man, nor the other forms of life that preceeded the appearance of homo-sapiens. Does one evolve from nothing? There must be something to evolve from. Until evolution can explain the origin of the first life forms on earth, it cannot rule out creation!If we consider all the planets in our own universe, we certainly have empirical evidence of events that precede man’s creative intelligence and technology that permitted the placing of objects into orbit around our world. These objects often require some tweaking and maintenance to remain in orbit. However, the planets and other celestial bodies in our solar system have been there for billions of years and remain in orbit without any known maintenence or alterations. They represent a superior design and technology than man can achieve today. Our technology and science occur because of human creativity. It suggests a superior creativity must be responsible for the planets, etc., in our solar system.

  • WmarkW

    This is what Richard Dawkins calls The Archbishop’s Explanation, and it won’t satisfy anyone.Why did life take 3 billion years to add a second cell?How did homo sapiens start having an immortal soul when homo erectus didn’t.This article is right down the alley On Faith just about always takes — aren’t religions so wonderful, and we’d all get along beautifully if we just understood each other better.

  • Sajanas

    Wallace was a coward, and that’s why Darwin is remembered better (and also his book is a tremendously impressive marshaling of all the evidence for evolution at the time). His ‘self acting agency’ is just another person who has to have humans be special. Rather than try and explain why humans are different, he just pushes the explanation off to some mystical lala. It is not science, and it never will be science. Darwin saw that we are just another animal, and to quote him “there is a grandeur in this view of life.” Our future is our own making, we are our own judges, and we are responsible to each other. He correctly saw that while he couldn’t explain every facet of our inner lives, it was not unexplainable. And it is being explained currently. To use Wallace view is a disservice.And you do a bit of slander to Darwin. Certainly the European civilizations thought themselves better than non-Whites for a long time before theory of Natural Selection, and were trying to justify it with all manner of pseudo-science. Modern science has done quite a lot to detract from the specter of race in the last 50 years. The genes responsible for racial traits are a tiny percentage of what we share, and we differ genetically more within our own ‘races’ than we do between them.

  • Sajanas

    Oh wow, a Discovery Institute guy?

  • Rongoklunk

    Darwin’s discoveries persuaded him that no god was necessary to account for life on this planet. He stopped being religious – because religion no longer made sense to him. He became a nonbeliever – so compelling was the evidence for evolution – and how it contradicted the bible’s ‘teachings.’No matter what conclusion Wallace came to on other matters, he played an important role in discovering how species evolve. If he had a tendency to be superstitious – well nobody’s perfect. In those days even brilliant people believed in fairies, and trying to get in touch with dead loved ones through spiritual seances was a popular pastime, even though today we laugh at such foolishness.Stick with Darwin – he had the better hunch.

  • acebojangles

    “There is no religious special pleading here, no surreptitious right-wing agenda.” I’m sure you fine fellows at the Discovery Institute can change that. Nothing like lying for Jesus! or Yahweh, I guess.

  • RickK101

    The Discovery Institute is a fundamentally dishonest organization. It is funded by conservative (often radically so) Christians with the explicit mission to chip away at “materialist science”, particularly evolution. A few years ago, an alert copy center clerk exposed the Discovery Institute’s plan to use mass publicity, lawyers and lobbyists to promote “design theory” as a pseudoscience to get the public to insist that supernaturalism (specifically, the Christian God) be accepted as a valid scientific explanation. This document is called “The Wedge” – google it for yourselves.While the Discovery Institute goes to great pains to never mention “God” in the materials they create for schools and for general distribution, their internally agreed motive as stated in the Wedge is:”To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.”The Discovery Institue wields science in EXACTLY the same way that Big Tobacco wielded science back when they were trying to convince people that smoking isn’t dangerous. Big Tobacco, by their own admission in internal memos, built a strategy to market doubt in science. And the Discovery Institute, by their own admission, is doing exactly the same: marketing doubt in science to further the fundamentalist Christian agenda of their financial backers.So the question is: why is the Washington Post giving commentary space to an organization devoted to lying to the American public? Why is Sally Quinn promoting the agenda of a bunch of lawyers and lobbyists who are working fervently to make our children more ignorant of our natural world and more distrustful of our natural sciences?Yes, it is appropriate to give people of different beliefs an opportunity to speak. But the Discovery Institute’s mission is fundamentally one of deception – to use vast advertising dollars and a mantle of pseudoscience to sneak Genesis back into the classroom.Why are the Washington Post and Sally Quinn assisting in this deception?

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    May I respectfully suggest you get away from the Christians, David?You will wind up in a literalist mire that Judaism has shunned for two thousand years.Remember this: Christian hermaneutics did not begin until the Protestant Reformation, at which point Judaic interpretation had been underway for way more than one thousand years.Ours interpretative culture has manifested itself through our enormous accomplishments (Diasporic!), in the sciences, music, jurisprudence, etc, whilst being genocided by the Christians.Leave them their manGods, their gods plus sons, uncles, cousins, angelic others.Read Heschel. Get away from them.Perhaps, our greatest anti-literalist, Maimonides, attempted discourse with the Christians, recall, imagining he could communicate with them as he had always done with the more monotheistic Muslims.What happened, David? What did Rambam write?Did he not flee from them? Did he not recognize their practices as evil?FLEE, David. Run, and do it now.

  • itsthedax

    Evolution, as explained by Darwin, is a natural process. Mr. Klinghoffer is now trying to insert a supernatural cause into this natural process. Essentially, he’s trying to turn evolution into an artificial mystery in order to give creedence to his religion – which is just another artificial mystery.Let’s sharpen up Occam’s Razor for a moment. Why is it necessary to complicate natural selection and evolution with a supernatural cause?

  • WilfordTerris

    The article ignores a few significant facts. First, in his original work, Wallace did not shy away from claiming that humans, as well as all other species, were subject to natural selection. Darwin did not directly address this issue in his first publications because he realized that 1) it followed naturally from the other premises of the theory, and 2) he wanted to give society time to adjust its thinking before tackling human evolution, which he did in a later work. Wallace, on the other hand, became increasingly interested in spirituality – consulting mediums, etc. – and also seems to have become enchanted by the work of Herbert Spencer, who was largely responsible for the confusion of social and political philosophy and biological evolution. It is this trend, rather than Darwin’s – who was always skeptical about the extent to which the theory could be extended to human society – that contributed to the rise of eugenics. It is absolutely false to claim that Darwin’s work was responsible for eugenic thinking, which is based on a complete misunderstanding of heredity and genetics; it’s even more false to claim that Darwin was more responsible than Wallace. Modern science has continually confirmed that the biology of humans and their brains have undergone – and are still undergoing – evolution, along the same principles as animals. So while David’s article has a sort of subtle charm, its history is flawed, and the agenda behind it is not conciliatory. Accepting his conclusions would require a leap of faith that, sadly, undermines the basic premises of the theory. Wallace is a fascinating figure; however, he committed the same mistake

  • WilfordTerris

    Another comment on Wallace. Late in life he wrote, “If a material element, or a combination of a thousand material elements in a molecule, are unconscious, it is impossible for us to believe, that the mere addition of one, two, or a thousand other material elements to form a more complex molecule, could in any way tend to produce a self-conscious existence.” The same flawed argument could be made about any complex biological structure (such as the eye), and it could even be used when talking about human machines: “If a starter motor is unable to drive down the road, it’s impossible to believe that adding parts to it could ever be used to construct something that drives down the road.”

  • WilfordTerris

    One last question for those proponents of intelligent design: Suppose that every biochemical reaction in our cells (trillions or more per second) were, in fact, to reveal evidence of some sort of design. What eliminates the possibility that each individual event has its own, independent designer? Here’s where the argument always breaks down, revealing that those who promote ID are actually promoting some sort of specific religious viewpoint, and always one that has “evolved” within the past few years, rather than engaging in any type of science.

  • GaryHurdPhD

    Lies, Damn Lies, and CreationistsDavid Klinghoffer is an intelligent, and well educated man. That is why he has been given lots of money by the far-right, creationist Discovery Institute. He earns this money by misdirection and lying. I would not call him a liar if I thought he was stupid, or ignorant. An excellent example is his 2/22/2011 editorial for the Washington Post. Klinghoffer begins by the false premise that Darwin is the key figure in modern evolutionary theory, or that what we feel emotionally about Darwin should have more than rhetorical value. He also wants us to ignore that for 30 years there has been a steady increase in the percentage of Americans who understand human evolution, and that this is equally taken away from biblical literalists, and “undecided.” What has been fixed is the ~38% of theistic evolutionists who acknowledge evolution, including humans, and attribute this to God’s will. This is the accepted standard of the Catholic church, and most mainline Protestant churches. There is another appropriate saying of Mark Twain’s, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”But the misdirection builds higher. He wants us to ignore that it is the biblical literalists who have a religiously motivated rejection of not only evolution, but all sciences. To follow Klinghoffer’s request to ignore literalists, is to ignore that there is a conflict at all. (There are a tiny number of pantheist, neo-pagan, and other creationists. But, taken all together, they couldn’t fill a stadium). But, Klinghoffer’s pay rate as a Discotute depends on promoting Intelligent Design creationism, and their opposition to science. And it is all of the sciences that are rejected by mystical thinkers because scientific theories are exclusively materialist, and they really work. As Klinghoffer’s fellow Discotute, Wiliam Dembski wrote, “…but let’s admit that our aim, as proponents of intelligent design, is to beat naturalistic evolution, and the scientific materialism that undergirds it, back to the Stone Age,” April 14, 2004. Klinghoffer then switched to hyping a book by another Discovery Institute hack about Alfred Russle Wallace. Wallace was a pantheist, and spiritualist, positions just as objectionable to Klinghoffer’s paymasters as Darwin. What does appeal to them is that Wallace can be misrepresented as an opponent to Darwin. This is a 2 for 1 lie; Wallace never viewed himself as opposed to Darwin, plus both Darwin and Wallace are very distant for evolutionary biology as taught today. So, Klinghoffer has done his best for creationism, and earned another paycheck. The unresolved question is why the Washington Post facilitated him? Will we see commentary from Ken Ham, or Fred Flintstone next?

  • eclair1

    @GaryHurdPhd. Who’s the lying one? You are a very good reason not to necessarily respect the Phd anymore. That many Americans “understand” evolution (and the human aspect of it) does not mean they accept it. From what I can tell, most people do not understand it very well. The “documentaries” I’ve seen aired don’t even seem to understand it well. And to say that the Catholic church accepts theistic evolution really misunderstands their true stance, I believe; the last Catholic speaker I heard on the subject talked against it and explained, somewhat, the Catholic Church’s “public” stance. Most of the Protestants I know do not adhere to theistic evolution either, nor are they young earth creationists. Many are progressive creationists; probably most don’t know what to make of it all at this point. I don’t, except that I believe God created and however it works, He made it so. I don’t feel the need to pin it down like a dead bug. In any case, what is so bad about Klinghoffer wanting some reconciliation? There is so much hate here. “They hated me without cause” rings just as true today as in the time Jesus actually lived. If what is being discussed is a scientific theory, why are some so astonishingly and nastily defensive of it? Why all the name-calling, bullying, pit-bull type of behavior? Sure doesn’t seem like just a scientific theory being “discussed.”