Professor Michael Flannery explains how the theory of evolution was hijacked, and why Alfred Russel Wallace had it right all along.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with author, historian and evolution theory expert, Professor Michael Flannery. During the interview Flannery explains how Charles Darwin’s data collection methods led to his ideas about survival of the fittest:
Alex Tsakiris: This idea about competition, and how competition occurs, and how it affects the evolutionary process seems to be at the core of what this theory turns into. Explain the differences between Darwin’s view of competition and Wallace’s view of competition?
Professor Flannery: Wallace tended to view competition occurring among groups in a demographic sense. Darwin tended to view it as individual competition.
Alex Tsakiris: Again, we’re hitting notes that come up over and over again — class, collectivism versus individualism… to me it seems obvious that Wallace was right. I mean, when it comes to competition for food supply, and what would make a certain species go extinct, it’s primarily a group collective kind of thing. That just rings true.
Professor Flannery: Right. And it’s an expression of how they collected. Remember, I said Darwin collected individual species and would examine them in great, great detail — maybe just a few different species — whereas Wallace was collecting huge numbers, 125,000 species. He’s collecting demographically. So he’s taking a look at how it was that certain plants and animals were found in some places and some zones and not in others. Darwin didn’t have anything near that level of sophistication.
Today we welcome Michael Flannery to Skeptiko. Professor Flannery is Associate Director for Historical Collections at the Lister Hill Library at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He’s here to talk with us about evolution, Darwinism, and his book, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life.
Professor Flannery, thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Professor Flannery: Thanks for inviting me.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, as I was just mentioning before, I really have enjoyed learning about some of the wonderful things you’ve discovered about Alfred Russel Wallace. The breadth of your knowledge is really impressive. I was particularly drawn to, I have to say, some of the critiques and reviews you’ve written on Amazon to many of the books that have been published in this area. You’ve done a great service to all of us there just in helping sort out this very complicated and interesting part of history. So thanks for that.
Professor Flannery: Well, thanks, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: But I have to start with the real question that we all want to know, Mike, and that’s how do you think Noah got all those dinosaurs on the boat?
Professor Flannery: [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: I’m kidding, obviously. I feel like I have to start there and it’s frustrating because in researching this show I’ve listened to really smart scientists. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dawkins and all these other ones, and yet they beat this crazy Creationist scare tactic thing to death. And so as I ask that question kind of tongue-in-cheek, I also want to slip in the real question. That’s do you think the situation would be different, would I still be asking that ridiculous question if Alfred Russel Wallace’s ideas about evolution had won out?
Professor Flannery: That’s a very good question and I think the obvious short answer is no. You know, Wallace had his own view. I guess it might be helpful for your audience to sort of step back and review what Alfred Russel Wallace really did because certainly by comparison to Charles Darwin, he is more-or-less the unknown entity.
So let me just start off by saying that Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of natural selection, so he was very much involved with the early thinking along the lines of evolutionary theory. In fact, he’s the one that actually finally prompted Charles Darwin to rush his work to press after Darwin received his letter from the Spice Islands. He was all the way in the Malay Archipelago on the Ternate Island and sent him this letter that really laid out a series of natural selection.
However, Alfred Russel Wallace soon diverged or departed from Darwin’s theory in proposing what I have referred to as “intelligent evolution,” which is actually directed, detectably designed and purposeful common descent. In other words, there is teleology involved in certain aspects of evolution.
Alex Tsakiris: Now, hold on right there because I think this is obviously there’s all these landmines in this discussion and you’ve just stepped on one of them. That’s intelligence and then you want to throw design—anywhere close to that other word and we have this other thing. So I want to, if I can, put a pause on that for a second and talk about history.
You really deconstruct this history so beautifully and it’s a complex history. And it’s been made even more complex with some of the recent books that have come out and have revealed this deep conspiracy about Darwin and all that, some of which I think have merit. So let me, if I can, put a pause button on that and I want you to elaborate on a scene that you just sketched out there a minute ago.
It’s 1858. Charles Darwin receives this paper from Alfred Russel Wallace and it’s one scientist to another, seeking assistance. Can you flesh out what’s going on there in 1858 with this letter from Wallace to Darwin?
Professor Flannery: Yeah, in February of 1858, Wallace is suffering from a malarial fever. There are only two things that would give a naturalist like Wallace time to speculate—either bad weather or bad health. In this case he had bad health. He was suffering from malarial fever and he pauses to sketch out this theory of natural selection. Now he sends it.
It’s commonly known by historians simply as “the Malay Letter.” It was actually headed with the title, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From Their Original Type.” So it’s not exactly a title that rolls off the tongue. Often times historians will just refer to it as the Ternate Letter.
Darwin had been working on a theory of natural selection for some time. He had an approximately 230 page draft, the same as the 1844 sketch, that he had been working on and had been keeping under wraps. He hadn’t really done anything with it. The only people who really knew about this were Emma, his wife, and his two closest confidantes, Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker. Now, he gets this letter.
You have to remember, Darwin has been working on some form of what was called then, “transmutation.” We would call it today “evolutionary theory.” It was all kept under wraps. He discussed it with close friends and confidantes but not much more than that. He gets this letter from Wallace and he says he gets it on June 18, 1858.
According to his diary, he receives the Ternate Letter and he is astonished. He realizes that what he has in his hand is essentially a theory that would form the drive-train of evolutionary theory. He realizes if he doesn’t do something, he’s going to be scooped.
Alex Tsakiris: Now, scooped matters. It matters a lot, right?
Professor Flannery: Sure. In science the first is everything, very often. So he’s very concerned about that. Now, he calls together Lyell and Hooker, as you would expect. I would do the same thing. I would call my closest confidantes and say, “What do I do? I got this letter.” Well, Hooker and Lyell say, “Look, we’re all members of the Linnean Society.” The Linnean Society was one of the most pre-eminent scientific societies in London at the time. “What we’ll do is at the very next Linnean Society meeting, we’re going to put a program together and we are going to unveil your theory along with Wallace’s.”
So modern evolutionary theory by natural selection is unveiled to the world at a Linnean Society meeting on July 1, 1858. And here’s how it goes down. The very first thing that is read that evening is portions of Darwin’s 1844 sketch. Then, an 1857 letter between Darwin and Asa Gray, the famous American naturalist, is read in which some more of his theory is sort of developed. Then at the end of the long evening to what must have been a bleary-eyed and by-the-way, a poorly attended audience, they have the Ternate Letter read.
So in effect, the idea at this meeting was to make it very clear that priority belonged to Darwin. But they did not, to their credit, keep Wallace’s letter under wraps. They unveiled it to the public. So both Wallace and Darwin became known as more-or-less the co-discoverers of natural selection, although Darwin at that point of course, realized that he didn’t have a lot of time to simply rest on his laurels. He had to get the rest of his theory out and out in a hurry. So he pretty much got his notes together and then rushed to press on The Origin of Species, which came out in November of 1859.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Now let me just interject there, and correct me if I’m wrong, but they go on to become publicly recognized as the co-discoverers, if you will, of evolution for really the next 100 years, more-or-less, right?
Professor Flannery: Oh, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: So it’s only recently that we’ve attributed evolution and attached Darwin solely to it. When did that change happen?
Professor Flannery: I suppose it really happened with the Neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1930s when basically Darwin’s theory became synonymous with the theory of evolution. What I think is even more problematic is Darwin’s theory of evolution became synonymous with science itself.
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly.
Professor Flannery: And so there are a lot of conflations that go on here. But certainly at least in the immediate sense, certainly for the generation who knew both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, they clearly understood this and very often referred to it as the Darwin-Wallace theory.
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s actually kind of an aside because as you so astutely point out in some of your writings, to make too big of a deal of this academic one-upmanship in terms of whose name is on the top of the paper really sidetracks us from the important differences between Darwin’s view of evolution and Wallace’s view. So that’s where I’d like to bring us next. I’d like to talk particularly about this survival of the fittest which becomes associated with Darwin’s idea versus Wallace’s idea of the survival of all but the least fit.
Professor Flannery: When you look at the dividing lines and you start looking at Charles Darwin’s theory, Charles Darwin was—and I think this is the key ingredient to understanding Darwin’s theory—Charles Darwin’s theory was really a mechanism, I think, that really was designed to support and explicate naturalism. More specifically, methodological naturalism and the idea that a scientist must invoke only natural processes functioning via unbroken natural laws in non-purposeful ways.
Alex Tsakiris: So are you saying he started with naturalism and then looked for the mechanism to explain our world from a naturalistic viewpoint?
Professor Flannery: I believe he did. I believe he did because he had already been introduced to materialism as a philosophy as a 17-year-old member of the Plinian Society at the University of Edinburgh. He knew William Browne, William Gregg; he became a close companion and confidante of Robert Edmond Grant, who was, I believe, 16 years his senior but was a thorough-going evolutionist and a thorough-going materialist.
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on, because this is really an interesting point and it’s one of these subtle points that a lot of people are going to miss because the traditional, if you will, storybook story on Darwin is, hey, he’s this good Christian guy who’s marching along with everyone else who is then overwhelmed by the evidence that he receives on the Galapagos Islands. He has this “Aha moment” and he says, “Oh my gosh, as hard as it is for me to accept this as a scientist, this must be really the way that we all came to be.”
Professor Flannery: And Alex, I can understand why people believe that because that’s essentially what Darwin wanted us to believe in his autobiography. That’s exactly the way Darwin sketches out how he came to his own theory of evolution. However, when you start digging and start looking into his life, you find out that that doesn’t quite match up with his own autobiographical statements.
In fact, when we talk about Robert Edmond Grant, Desmond and Moore did what I think is a very good biography on Charles Darwin. It came out in the ‘90s, Adrian Desmond and James Moore. They in effect more-or-less were supporters of Darwin so they don’t have an axe to grind but they make this interesting comment. I think it’s very important to understand this.
They refer to Charles Darwin and Robert Edmond Grant’s meeting as “decisive.” They say, “Darwin was coming under the wing of an uncompromising evolutionist. Nothing was sacred for Grant. He saw no spiritual power behind nature’s throne. The origin and evolution of life were due simply to physical and chemical forces all obeying natural laws.” Now this is the person that the young, teenaged Charles Darwin would go on quiet, personal strolls with through the countryside.
Alex Tsakiris: This is amazing because it just mirrors so many of the modern-day cases that we hear about where someone has a particular belief and it’s shaped at an early age when they first go to college and they come under the influence of a professor and that then shapes them until they die. They hold onto some certain idea. I just think that’s such a fascinating portrait that you draw there.
Professor Flannery: Well, I’m pretty convinced that’s what happened. Now, I’m not suggesting at this point that Charles Darwin was in any sense let’s say an evolutionist per se at this point. What I’m saying is, he had acquired a template through which he would look at the world around him. So from the moment he stepped on the H.M.S. Beagle, where he made his five year, around the world voyage in which he was amassing all his data, he already had that materialistic template in place.
Alex Tsakiris: And what about Wallace? How does his worldview match that?
Professor Flannery: Well, it’s different. It’s very different. In fact, you have to understand something about Wallace and Darwin when you look at them as historic figures. Charles Darwin was pretty much a made man. I mean, he was wealthy. He came from a family of doctors. His father, Robert Darwin, had been a very successful physician.
His grandfather before him, Erasmus Darwin, who by the way, wrote one of the early transmutationist texts called, Zoonomia which came out in 1794, which Charles Darwin read avidly and took notes on, was also a physician. So Darwin really never had to work. That’s neither here nor there but it actually does come into play as to how they developed their evolutionary theories. At any rate, Darwin did not have to struggle for an existence.
He didn’t have to make a living, per se. He had good investments; he was a member of the upper classes of Victorian society. So most of what he did, admittedly he engaged in it with a passion but it was, by comparison to Wallace, a hobby.
What Wallace did, Wallace came from a different side of the tracks. He came from a struggling—I won’t say he came from a poor family but he came from a family that was in what we might call middle class decline. He had no formal education other than attending the Mechanics Institute of London for a while, in stark contrast to Darwin’s Cambridge University. He spent some time as a land surveyor with his brother, but then gets a botany field manual and is absolutely captivated by nature. So he becomes this self-taught botanist and then zoologist.
He decides to go off with Walter Henry Bates, a friend of his, off to the Amazon. He spends four years in the Amazon, from 1848 to 1852. He comes back; he has a terrible experience there. His ship sinks, it catches on fire and he’s at sea for about 10 days before he’s picked up. He loses all of his specimens and everything, so he never really completes his work. He winds up looking for another place to go. He then spends eight years in the Malay Archipelago, from 1854 to 1862.
So all this to say the field experience of these two naturalists is also very different. Darwin has five years on the H.M.S. Beagle, 1831 to 1836. Wallace you’ve got 12 years of field experience, four years in South America in the Amazon River Basin and the Rio Negro and Uapes River Valley, and eight years in the Malay Archipelago, where he goes across scores and scores of islands in that island chain.
Alex Tsakiris: Why do you think that’s important, Mike? What can you put your finger on where you see where that crops up in terms of…
Professor Flannery: Well, there are a couple of things. It made the collecting very different. When Darwin collected, you have to realize, what’s Darwin doing? He’s basically skirting the coast with Captain FitzRoy, okay? He has time, at leisure, to examine individual species at great length, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing. But he is under no specific pressure to amass or accumulate large numbers of specimens.
Wallace did. The reason Wallace did was he was sending those back through an agent in London and selling them. This was how he was making his living. So if he didn’t amass enough specimens to return, he wasn’t going to put any food on the table. Or he wasn’t going to have any income. It also forced him to collect twice. He had to collect once for himself and once for his agent in London, okay? So by the time he gets done, he amasses over 125,000 specimens. Darwin doesn’t amass anything like that.
So what I’m saying is this actually affected in a sense how their theories differed in some ways. I’ve always argued that there are some people who want to suggest that Darwin stole Wallace’s theory. My problem with that theory is you have to assume if it’s going to be real plagiarism, genuine theft, that the theories are identical, and they’re not. If you really look at their theories, they’re different.
I mean, it’s true, both of their theories were principles based upon constantly changing environments along with very small variations that affected individual survival and response, the environmental pressures that would result in differential death rates. And then species held a propensity to form new perpetuating varieties. In that sense they’re the same.
However, Darwin and Wallace read Malthus differently. Darwin considered the food supply had to be on average constant with the increase of population geometric and Wallace saw the growth or depletion of a population due to available food and the ability of a given species to exploit it. So in other words, Darwin felt competition was taking place between individuals while Wallace saw competition as taking place between populations.
Alex Tsakiris: Really, really important difference. We’re going to have to draw that out. But let me back you up a little bit and come a little bit more big picture. That’s that we have Darwin here, and you make a very interesting case for the fact that Darwin was a materialist going into it. He had naturalism roots and he was looking for a mechanism to establish that. Wallace doesn’t have that preconceived notion. Before we get into the detail of the population thing and the food supply thing which is really interesting, where is Wallace coming from? Where are his roots?
Professor Flannery: Well, ideologically he gets introduced to some pretty radical ideas because remember when he’s in London—he actually spent some time in London at the Mechanic Institute of London. He gets influenced by some radical ideas by Robert Owen and some of those individuals. And so he has some rather unorthodox worker-centered ideas.
The way this actually plays out ideologically is a point I want to get back to in contrasting Darwin’s travel experiences with Wallace’s. I already said that their collecting experiences were different but there’s another very important aspect of this which I think relates to what their theories would become.
If you’ll recall, in Darwin’s narrative account of his travels on the Beagle, he meets the natives of Tierra del Fuego, the Fuegan Indians, and he’s absolutely aghast. “These people are like beasts,” he says. He really has a tendency to view the indigenous peoples that he encounters on some sort of benchmark based upon what a good, prim and proper Victorian would be. So he has a tendency to view some of these people as is almost beast-like.
See, Wallace doesn’t do this. Wallace actually lives with the people. He doesn’t just see them and skirt the coast. He goes into the interior and he lives in the interior of the Amazon River Basin. He goes into the interior of these islands in the Malay Archipelago. He lives for a while with headhunters in Borneo, for example. And he realizes that these native people have all the innate and inherent traits and abilities of any human being. Now we take that for granted, I guess, in our 21st century sensibilities but that was not the case in Victorian society.
Alex Tsakiris: And it sounds like maybe that wasn’t the case for Darwin completely.
Professor Flannery: I don’t think it was. Wallace viewed these people as having innate human attributes. They had the special attributes that make all humans human and unique. Abstract reasoning, a love of music, love of dance, wit. In fact, he makes a comment at one point that he actually more-or-less felt safer amongst the Dyac headhunters than he did in London.
Alex Tsakiris: Did Darwin see the natives at a different point along this evolutionary path than he was at?
Professor Flannery: He suggests that, let me put it that way. He suggests that. Now, people are going to say, “You’ve twisted what Darwin has said. He didn’t think that they were animals.”
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But I see where you’re going with that. It’s interesting. If I can take a little aside here, let’s get real. I mean, this is 1858. We can’t really blame him if he did. He didn’t have the benefit of everything that we know and he didn’t have our sensibilities.
Professor Flannery: And actually my read of it is that Wallace’s view of native people was actually unique. It was actually unique for his time and in some ways very progressive and ahead of its time. Whereas Darwin, I think, is more reflective of his generation and certainly of his class. But to carry the story a bit further and to get to where the real demarcation comes, if I may, the real split between Wallace and Darwin occurs later.
It occurs 10 years after Origin of the Species is published in 1859. It’s published in Quarterly Review in the April issue in 1869. In a review of Charles Lyell’s “Principles of Geology,” he ends his review by saying, and this is a paraphrase, but something to the effect that in effect the human beings, man, with special attributes and properties of the human mind, can only be explained by calling upon “an Overuling intelligence.” And that’s the actual phrase that he uses, “an over-ruling intelligence.”
Well, when Darwin reads that he’s aghast and he scrawls a big “No” in the margin of his copy of the Quarterly Review. He shoots off a letter to Wallace saying, “I can’t believe this is coming from you. I disagree with you most grievously,” and he ends it with “EUEUEU, your miserable friend, Darwin.” At that point, Wallace really does become in many ways, according to Ross Slotten’s biography of Wallace, a well-titled biography, he becomes A Heretic in Darwin’s Court.
They remain cordial. I will say that Darwin, to his credit, actually always has a high regard for Wallace as a naturalist, as a scientist, and late in life Darwin goes to bat for Wallace and gets him a government pension.
Alex Tsakiris: So we have this 10 year period here, very interesting. I want to break apart a little bit what happens in that 10 years, but before I get there I want to go back to your earlier point. This idea about competition and how competition occurs and how it affects the evolutionary process seems to be really at the core of what this theory turns into and particularly what it turns into in this next 10 years that we’re talking about. So can you come back and in layman’s terms explain the differences between Darwin’s view of competition and Wallace’s view of competition?
Professor Flannery: Well, again, Wallace tended to view competition occurring among groups in a demographic sense. Darwin tended to view it as individual competition.
Alex Tsakiris: And why is that important? Again, we’re hitting the note of some themes that come up over and over again. Class, collectivism versus individualism and all that. I can see where you’re drawing what is really being observed versus what is being reported, but I want to pull that apart a little bit further. What does that mean, competition among groups? And bring it down to a level of—to me it seems obvious that Wallace was right. I mean, the competition is for the food supply in terms of what would make a certain species go extinct is primarily a group collective kind of thing. That just seems to ring true to me.
Professor Flannery: Right. And the key—it’s an expression of how they collected. Remember I said Darwin collected individual species and would examine them in great, great detail. Maybe just a few different species. Whereas Wallace was collecting huge numbers, 125,000 species. He’s collecting demographically. So he’s taking a look—the other thing you have to understand about Wallace is he was one of the first to really have an appreciation of zoonomic regions of biogeography. How it was that certain plants and animals were found in some places and some zones and not in others.
Darwin didn’t have anything near that level of sophistication. And here’s an area where these two different views of how this plays out really has a practical consequence. Wallace knew that domestic animals had a tendency to revert to their original stock if they were placed in a wild environment, or else they would just die. They would perish. But it wouldn’t work in reverse. In other words, wild species variation cannot be deduced from domestic practices, which is what Darwin tried to prove in his Origin of the Species.
Alex Tsakiris: Go over that one more time, if you will, and see if you can simplify it for us a little bit. And tie it to Darwin and the dogs kind of thing.
Professor Flannery: Sure. If you look at Origin of the Species, he has a whole chapter on domestic breeding examples. He gives examples of pigeon breeding; he gives examples of dog breeding and horse breeding and that sort of thing. He says, “Hey look, look at these examples of domestic breeding and how we can get these exotic forms of special breeds of dogs and special breeds of horses and pigeons and so forth.”
Alex Tsakiris: And he says, “Great, look, here’s evolution in action,” right?
Professor Flannery: That’s exactly what he says. And Wallace says, “Poppycock! That is not evolution in action.” He says the very state of selection and then feeding and protecting these newly bred animals effectively shelters them from the effects naturally bearing upon their survival. So that’s not natural selection.
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s so obvious. Now when you hear Wallace’s argument, again it’s so obviously true. It doesn’t even fit within really as we’ve come to understand Darwinism in terms of this fight for survival. There’s no fight, right? There’s this controlling entity on top.
Professor Flannery: He says if anything, it’s unnatural selection. It’s artificial selection that has no bearing on what we would see in the natural world. So Wallace always, always chided Darwin for that example. He says those are just bad examples of evolution in action.
Alex Tsakiris: And what are the deeper implications for Wallace? How was Wallace’s view different in terms of how that really plays out in terms of the evolutionary forces in the real world?
Professor Flannery: Wallace attempts to sharpen the focus on natural selection and how it actually functions and operates in the natural world. However–and here’s the key point, here’s the important point—he limits it. He limits natural selection in three areas. He says natural selection can explain a lot but it can’t explain everything. There are three things that it simply cannot explain and shouldn’t be relied upon to explain. That is the origin of life, sentience in animals, consciousness and the mind of man. That really substantively sketches out the real dividing line between Wallace’s evolutionary theory and Darwin’s evolutionary theory.
Alex Tsakiris: And Mike, that brings us right up to 2011, if you will, which is fascinating. It’s also very humbling and maybe even a little bit depressing to think that we’re still there. You have some interesting thoughts on that. I read your commentary in Forbes recently from a couple years ago that I think makes that very point that there’s these two different worldviews and we’re still stuck arguing these two different worldviews 150 years later.
Professor Flannery: The irony is that the things that are dividing us between Wallace’s view of evolution let’s say, and Darwin’s view of evolution are still with us today. The dividing line is between a materialistic explanation for the natural world or something else. And Wallace’s work gives us the something else.
Alex Tsakiris: We pound on that so frequently in this show because materialism is just such a silly notion from any angle that you look at it. We’ve explored it from many angles of cutting-edge science. It just doesn’t make any sense, yet it’s still the predominant paradigm, the predominant worldview that we live in. So I hope that anyone listening to this show knows that materialism is kind of a dead-end street.
What I want to bring you back to is the other part of this evolution of the debate, if you will, that you were alluding to about class. About collectivism versus individualism. About capitalism versus communism, if you will, because in that 10 years to a certain extent those forces really shaped this debate, too, in terms of how this intellectual idea is going to be used. Can you speak to that?
Professor Flannery: Well, socially speaking, Wallace became a declared Socialist in 1890. He was a funny kind of a Socialist. He didn’t like coerced Socialism. He was not a great fan of communism in that sense, but he also was a great proponent of land nationalization. He didn’t like the idea of privatized land. He felt that something needed to be done to help the working class and not enough had been done to do it and that we lived in a very unequal society that would best be equalized by instituting socialistic principles.
Now that was his view, but interestingly enough the way this plays out, remember when Wallace is thinking and writing about these things. One of the off-shoots of Darwinism is Social Darwinism. It is proposed most vehemently and most vocally by Darwin’s cousin, Frances Galton. In fact, Francis Galton coins the term, “eugenics.” Actually, if you think about it, it makes sense from sort of a simplistic standpoint.
I mean, there were innumerable things that were wrong with eugenics but at the time, if you’re going to propose a theory of evolution that can be explained by using breeding examples, as Darwin did, then it certainly makes sense that when you’re talking about humans you can give evolution a helping hand, as it were, by sort of guiding it along. By encouraging so-called proper marriages by discouraging what was considered improper marriage. In many ways it’s social engineering of the worst kind, but at the turn of the century eugenics thought was considered to be cutting-edge science. It was the thing to do.
And in fact, there’s a very good book by Harry Bruinius called Better For All the World, which was published a few years ago, which is about the whole eugenics movement in America. There were some 60,000 Americans who were sterilized forcibly and sometimes unwittingly. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that book; it’s actually a very good one. But the point was that the leading eugenicists of the day, most of which were dyed-in-the-wool Darwinists, were proposing a rather in some cases large-scale program of social engineering to improve humanity. One of the states that had one of the most complete state eugenics laws was California. It started in 1909.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s really interesting because we always associate eugenics with Nazi Germany and anyone who’s a student of history knows that they just came and borrowed all of that from the…
Professor Flannery: It was here in America. But Wallace despised the eugenics movement. He called it “the meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priest craft.” He had written a whole book called, Social Environment and Moral Progress designed to combat in large measure the eugenics movement.
Alex Tsakiris: So at this point then, he already sees the battle lines being drawn in terms of how this idea is going to be used. Is that correct?
Professor Flannery: I think Wallace came to see the materialistic commitments of Darwinian evolution and increasingly backed away from it and increasingly felt the need to explicate an alternative view of evolution that was borne of those materialistic commitments. Nowhere does he do that more completely than in what I call his “grand evolutionary synthesis,” The World of Life, which he published in 1910.
Alex Tsakiris: Before we run out of time here, we do have to talk about Wallace’s encounter with spiritualism because of course the people who are hardcore materialists really want to latch onto that. I’m much more open and welcoming to some of the work that he did because, I think as the people who are really good students of that know, there’s some very good science that was done there.
There was some poor science that was done there and there was some fraud and all the rest of it that still goes on today. But there were still some observed incidents that we really have no more explanation for today than we did back then. Do you want to address Wallace’s encounter with spiritualism?
Professor Flannery: I’d be happy to because very often Wallace’s detractors will immediately point out, “Well after all, Wallace was just a kooky spiritualist and we can’t believe anything he said after his conversion to spiritualism.” Well, it’s much more complex than that.
Let me back up first and observe something that G. K. Chesterton once said, that “A fraudulent séance no more disproves spiritualism than does a fraudulent bank note disprove the Bank of London.” What he’s trying to say is yeah, there may be frauds but that doesn’t get to the issue at hand. And there were frauds; there’s no doubt about it.
You had a guest on your program a while back by the name of Deborah Blum, I believe, who did a book called, Ghost Hunters, and it’s a good book. It’s an interesting book and I would encourage any of your listeners to read it and to listen to the interview that you did with her. One of the things that that book points out, among other things, and of course I knew this before I read the book, was that in Wallace’s day there were a good number of very, very noteworthy scientists who shared a belief in spiritualism.
Chemist and physicist William Crookes who invented the vacuum tube that bears his name that was critical in x-ray believed in it. Lord Rayleigh, a pioneer in atmospheric chemistry and discovered Argon gas—he received a 1904 Nobel Prize in physics. French physician Charles Ricket, the first to explicate the process of anaphylactic shock and received a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1913. There’s the famous Harvard philosopher and psychologist, William James.
A whole host of very, very prominent physicians who wanted a serious and scientific investigation of spiritualism. In fact, Wallace himself said, “We ask our readers not for belief but for doubt of their own infallibility on this question. We ask for inquiry and patient experiment before hastily concluding that we are all of us dupes and idiots regards the subject to which we have devoted the best of our faculties and powers.”
Alex Tsakiris: Let me just interject because it’s something we’ve talked about on this show. They did investigate it. And we sometimes have an ability to look back at history, even this recent history of 100 years ago—as if you were alluding to with Darwin—as if this was a different species. As if their power of observation weren’t the same as ours. As if they couldn’t take notes and do simple experiments.
These, the smartest people of their day, I mean one just has to read William James to see the brilliance of his writing. To think that this guy was a total rube when it came to observing these things is just ludicrous.
Professor Flannery: Yeah, and let me point out that there were some mediums that after careful investigation, they simply defied explanation. Daniel Douglas Home was one of them. And Leonora Piper. Peter Lamont, of the University of Edinburgh, has written an excellent article on this. It’s called “Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis in Evidence,” and he points out that this wasn’t a crisis in faith. It was a crisis in evidence. In the end, what the scientists wound up saying was, “Well, it’s a phenomenon that’s all due to subjective experience.” And then they just sort of stopped investigating it.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. And the reason I don’t even go there is because I think the starting point has to be where we were at for this last hour, and that’s to look at the underpinnings of how we really wind up still to be stuck in materialism because the folks who are really on top of things look no further than quantum mechanics and say, “Well, quantum mechanics violates materialism right there. We live and breathe quantum mechanics with our cell phone and our GPS and everything else. So we know that strict materialism doesn’t work.”
So the part that interests me is how are we stuck in this paradigm? And I think, as you pointed out very early on, it’s because Darwinism has become synonymous with science and science has become synonymous with materialism. We kind of stuck in this endless loop. That’s why I think it’s interesting to go back and look at how we started. How the world might have been different if these other ideas had been given just a fair treatment in the court of public opinion.
Professor Flannery: I can tell you one thing. If Wallace’s view of evolution had held sway, the definition of science would be the investigation of certain truths in nature. That’s it. Period. It would not have been methodological naturalism, the idea that you must define the natural world in a materialistic way.
Alex Tsakiris: Mike, it’s been just a tremendous journey that you’ve taken us on. Tell us a little bit about what else is going on with you. Any books coming up or anything else we should be on the lookout for?
Professor Flannery: Well, we do have a website that if your listeners would like to know more about Alfred Russel Wallace, we have an extensive Q&A section on it. Just go to www.alfredwallace.org and it will answer all questions I can imagine you might have about Wallace in much greater detail than we’ve been able to cover in our limited time. But I certainly appreciate this opportunity to introduce your audience to a person I think has been neglected and misconstrued in the annals of science.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Thanks again, it’s been great.
Professor Flannery: Thank you, Alex. I appreciate it very much.