Alfred Russel Wallace and Intelligent Evolution

Alfred Russel Wallace and Intelligent Evolution

In a previous article
I discussed the influences bearing upon Charles Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution. Here attention is directed toward Alfred Russel Wallace, the principal subject of my recent book, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism.

Unlike Darwin, Wallace likely needs an introduction. He was born on January 8, 1823, in Monmouthshire (UK) to parents of modest means. As a naturalist he was largely self-taught. Obtaining some inexpensive books on botany, young Wallace traipsed across the English countryside identifying plants and making observations on the flora and fauna he encountered. It was during these hikes that he “experienced the joy which every discovery of a new form of life gives to the lover of nature.”1 But the fields and forests of his homeland couldn’t contain Wallace’s passion for exploration, and in April of 1848 he left for South America where he would visit and live among the natives along the Uaupés River in the Amazon Basin. He would not arrive back in England until October of 1852, his passion for the exotic still unextinguished. His next voyage took him to the Malay Archipelago and the Far East from 1854 to 1862. This, as Wallace put it, “constituted the central and controlling incident of my life.”2

Indeed it was, for while on the island of Ternate (or, some say the nearby Gilolo) he wrote the famous “Ternate Letter” titled, On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type. Composed during a malarial fever, he sent it to Darwin in February of 1858. In essence it said:

There is a tendency in nature to the continued progression of certain classes of varieties further and further from the original type—a progression to which there appears no reason to assign any definite limits [an idea he would later reject]—and that the same principle which produces this result in a state of nature will also explain why domestic varieties have a tendency to revert to the original type. This progression, by minute steps, in various directions, but always checked and balanced by the necessary conditions, subject to which alone existence can be preserved, may, it is believed, be followed out so as to agree with all the phenomena presented by organized beings, their extinction and succession in past ages, and all the extraordinary modifications of form, instinct, and habits which they exhibit.3

Darwin was shocked—he was about to be scooped on the theory of natural selection he had been working on for years! Quickly consulting with his friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, they decided to read both papers jointly at a meeting of the Linnaean Society and on July 1 modern evolutionary theory was born.

Just sixteen months later Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was released. Wallace knew the important effect his letter had had on his senior colleague, admitting, “I was the unconscious means of leading him to concentrate himself on the task of drawing up … the great work he had in preparation.”4 Wallace throughout his life took his second fiddle status in stride, always referring to himself as a “Darwinist.”

Unfortunately, this sequence of events has led to considerable confusion. In truth Wallace had always formulated his theory of natural selection differently from Darwin. Most importantly, Wallace came to see Darwin’s own principle of utility (i.e., that no morphological [structural] feature of a natural species can exist or come into being unless it is useful to that species’ survival) as a significant limiting factor to natural selection. Moving beyond those limits Wallace developed a teleological theory of descent best called intelligent evolution. Yes, he suggested, common decent happens but not in a wholly random way; it is directed and guided.

Signs indicate that this idea had been brewing for some time. Although Wallace’s early years were largely agnostic, he had not been imbued with Darwin’s radical materialism. As early as 1856, while still exploring the Malay Archipelago, he noted that certain plant and animal features appear to offer little or no survival advantage and can exist quite apart from any immediate utilitarian function. “Naturalists are too apt to imagine,” he chided his colleagues, “when they cannot discover, a use for everything in nature: they are not even content to let ‘beauty’ be a sufficient use, but hunt after some purpose to which even that can be applied by the animal itself, as if one of the noblest and most refining parts of man’s nature, the love of beauty for its own sake, would not be perceptible also in the works of a Supreme Creator.”5

Finally, in an 1869 issue of the Quarterly Review of a work on geology by Charles Lyell, Wallace announced that the special attributes of humans simply couldn’t be explained through wholly naturalistic means. Yes, certain laws both known and unknown to man were at play, but those laws were guided and designed to bring about a higher purpose. Wallace concluded

…that in the development of the human race, a Higher Intelligence has guided the same laws for nobler ends… . Let us fearlessly admit that the mind of man (itself the living proof of a supreme mind) is able to trace, and to a considerable extent has traced, the laws by means of which the organic no less than the inorganic world has been developed. But let us not shut our eyes to the evidence that an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.6

While some ascribe Wallace’s “defection” to his belief in spiritualism, his 1856 article demonstrates that a teleological worldview had been at work in him for some time (he didn’t attend his first séance until the summer of 1865). And, he had always made his case for intelligent evolution on the empirical grounds of science and logic.

The reaction of the Down House Sage, however, was nearly hysterical. Darwin marked his copy of the Quarterly with an emphatic “NO!!!” and sent a letter off to Wallace wailing, “But I groan over Man—you write like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist, and you the author of the best paper that ever appeared in the Anthropological Review [a reference to Wallace’s “On the Varieties of Men in the Malay Archipelago,” November, 1863]. Ehue! Ehue! Ehue!—Your miserable friend, C. Darwin.”7 This was more than an attempt at reconciling Darwinism and religion; this was a real competitor. As historian Janet Browne observes, Wallace’s view “comprehensively collided with Darwin’s innermost beliefs.”8

Wallace never recanted. Although he always referred to himself as a Darwinist, others (including Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley) knew better. Novelist Samuel Butler and Dutch zoologist A. A. W. Hubrecht called it Wallaceism, which is important to note because for Wallace “Darwinism” often means something quite different from the Darwinian materialistic notions we’ve become used to.

By whatever label, Wallace continued to elaborate and expand upon his theory of evolution. He disagreed with Darwin’s suggestion in The Descent of Man (1871) that human moral, spiritual, and intellectual characteristics were derived from the lower animals, a conclusion he felt wholly unwarranted by “many well-ascertained facts.”9 Wallace countered that the origin of life, sentience in animals, and humanity’s special intellectual, moral, and spiritual attributes could not be explained by natural selection; this could only come from “the unseen universe of Spirit.”10

Wallace was a prescient figure in this regard. Readers of this site will be familiar with the fine-tuning of the universe so thoroughly set out by Hugh Ross in The Creator and the Cosmos (1993). Wallace anticipated Ross by ninety years. Writing in 1903, Wallace noted that the exacting tolerances of light, gravity, temperature, chemical composition, and many other factors were all organized and concatenated precisely for life on earth. Wallace further suggested that Homo sapiens is indeed alone in the universe and dismissed the notion that this was merely a “fortunate coincidence,” insisting instead that “the universe was actually brought into existence for this very purpose.”11

But this was just a long preface for his grand synthesis, The World of Life, written three years before his death on November 7, 1913. Here Wallace argued for intelligent design in particular features of nature. Deriding atheistic German philosopher Ernst Haeckel’s notion of a vague, mechanistic “cell-soul” as ridiculous, he anticipated Fazale Rana’s The Cell’s Design (2008) by explaining that the intricacies of the cell could only have come about through an intelligently designed—engineered—process. He applied similar arguments to insect metamorphosis and the bird’s wing. Of course writing nearly a century ago, Wallace could not possibly apply the sophisticated analyses of Ross’s astrophysics or Rana’s cytochemistry, but he remains an important historical figure who in many ways served as intelligent design’s prophet.

For Wallace, life in all its varied abundance could only be explained by the actions of higher beings—”Call them spirits, angels, gods, or what you will; the name is of no importance,”12 he once said—who used laws known and yet unknown to man for humanity’s ultimate betterment. Vastly expanding his original limited theistic evolution, Wallace concluded,

I now uphold the doctrine that not man alone, but the whole World of Life, in almost all its varied manifestations, leads us to the same conclusion—that to afford any rational explanation of its 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…13

Though one might wonder about a cosmology without Christ, the Reverend John Magens Mello, vicar of Mapperley, Derbyshire, found Wallace’s theism reconcilable:

We must all of us admit, if we do not set aside the teaching of Holy Scripture, that there are in the Universe Spiritual Intelligences besides Man; Being over and over again referred to in the Bible; and we are there taught that by God’s appointment they have special duties and work to perform in connection with this World and with us Men. Our Lord Himself speaks to us in no uncertain terms of the Ministry of Angels, and of the interest they take in Human life.14

Alfred Russel Wallace was clearly a bold and uncompromising thinker working within the highest of Victorian science circles. Though no creationist and with more than twice the field experience of his more famous colleague, he came to profoundly disagree over the extent and power of natural selection to explain the most important features of biological phenomena.

Wallace came to his metaphysic by his science. Today critics ask, is intelligent design science? Wallace proves it always was.

Michael A. Flannery

Mr. Michael Flannery received his Master of Science in library science degree from the University of Kentucky in 1989 and his Master of Arts in history at California State University at Dominguez Hills in 1994.

  1. Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life (London: Chapman & Hall, 1908; New York: Elibron Classics, 2005), 104.

  2. Ibid., 174.

  3. Originally published in the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society, August 1858, Wallace’s letter has since been widely republished. This and Wallace’s other writings are available in full-text at The Alfred Russel Wallace Page. Most notably, it was reissued in an important edition of Wallace’s collected works cited here as Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection: A Series of Essays (London: Macmillan, 1871; Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan University Library, 2005), 43-44.

  4. Wallace, My Life, 194.

  5. Alfred Russel Wallace, “On the Habits of the Orang-utan of Borneo,” Annals & Magazine of Natural History 17 (July 1856): 26-32.

  6. Alfred Russel Wallace, “Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates and the Origin of Species,” Quarterly Review 126 (April 1869): 359-94.

  7. Quoted in James Marchant, Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (New York: Harper & Brother, 1916), 206.

  8. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 319.

  9. Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection with Some of Its Applications (London: MacMillan, 1889), 461.

  10. Ibid., 478.

  11. Alfred Russel Wallace, Man’s Place in the Universe: A Study of the Results of Scientific Research in Relation to the Unity and Plurality of Worlds, 3rd ed. (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1904), 314-15.

  12. Interview with Alfred Russel Wallace, New York Times, October 8, 1911.

  13. Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution, 113-14.

  14. J. M. Mello, The Mystery of Life and Mind: With Special Reference to The World of Life By A. R. Wallace (Warwick: Henry H. Lacy, 1911), 18-19.