One of the most renowned biologists of the nineteenth century, Alfred Russel Wallace shares credit with Charles Darwin for developing the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace ultimately rejected Darwinism on scientific grounds in favor of an understanding similar to modern intelligent design (ID), and yet that part of Wallace’s remarkable life and career has been completely ignored until now.
A new short documentary film, Darwin’s Heretic delves into the life and adventures of Wallace and explains how he came to his views on the natural world. The film will premiere at the Washington State History Museum on Tuesday, May 24th at 8pm. This event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. Go to www.darwinsheretic.com/events or contact Donna Scott (206-292-0401 x128) to reserve your space.
The film is based on the new biography, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life, by University of Alabama science historian Michael Flannery and shows how Wallace grew disenchanted with natural selection as a theory capable of explaining life’s complexity. Eventually Wallace concluded that many features of living organisms could best be explained as the product of design by a “directive Mind.” Following the film there will be a short Q&A session with Flannery.
Wallace was an English-born naturalist and a vocal opponent of pseudo-scientific racism and eugenics throughout his long career, and he is often referred to as the father of biogeography. He conceived of his version of natural selection in 1859 while Darwin was still sitting on his own unpublished theory. On contacting Darwin and sharing the idea with him, Wallace threw Darwin into an upheaval, forcing the other man to go public with his theory so as not to be scooped by Wallace. Tension increased between the two after 1869 when Wallace publicly revealed his doubts about Darwinian evolution. He elaborated his mature theory of intelligent evolution, culminating in his magnum opus, The World of Life (1910).
Along with the book and film, Wallace’s ideas are the subject of a brand-new website, www.alfredwallace.org, which features educational resources, including videos, book excerpts, and additional biographical information about Wallace.
A Rediscovered Life
For years Alfred Russel Wallace was little more than an obscure adjunct to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Remembered only for prompting Darwin to write On the Origin of Species in 1859 by writing his own letter proposing a theory of natural selection, Wallace was rightly dubbed by one biographer “the forgotten naturalist.” In 1998 Sahotra Sarkar bemoaned Wallace’s “lapse into obscurity,” noting that “at least in the 19th century literature, the theory of evolution was usually referred to as ‘the Darwin and Wallace theory’. In the 20th century, the theory of evolution has become virtually synonymous with Darwinism or neo-Darwinism.” While the complaint still has a ring of truth, a decade of recent interest in Wallace has done much to bring him back from history’s crypt of forgotten figures. This shouldn’t suggest unanimity of opinion, however.
Some regard him as a heretic, others as merely a misguided scientist-turned-spiritualist, still others as a prescient figure anticipating the modern Gaia hypothesis. Perhaps Martin Fichman’s phrase hits closest and most persistently to the truth—“the elusive Victorian.” Can the real Wallace be found? If so, what might we learn in that rediscovery? The provocative thesis of this new biography is that Wallace, in developing his unique brand of evolution, presaged modern intelligent design theory. Wallace’s devotion to discovering the truths of nature brought him through a lifetime of research to see genuine design in the natural world. This was Wallace’s ultimate heresy, a heresy that exposed the metaphysical underpinnings of the emerging Darwinian paradigm.
Michael A. Flannery is Professor and Associate Director for Historical Collections at the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Prof. Flannery has published extensively in medical history and bioethics, winning the prestigious Edward Kremers Award in 2001 for distinguished writing by an American from the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy and the 2006 Publications Award of the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences.