Would he suddenly remember a subsequent engagement?
Alfred Russel Wallace, co-describer of natural selection with Charles Darwin, broke with Darwin later because he knew that materialism, as espoused by Darwin and Shermer* is wrong.
Shermer says, Wallace is “the most interesting scientist in history I’d like to have a beer with.”
Wallace historian Michael Flannery replies,
Shermer would “liketo have a beer” with Wallace, but Shermer is precisely the kind of person (reductionist materialist) who indeed would have driven Wallace to drink. Shermer’s basic problem is that he tries to do history, but he is hopelessly presentist (i.e, he views the past through present eyes, privileging every current paradigm and discounting every alternative).
Flannery adds that Shermer’s book on Wallace, In Darwin’s Shadow, (free excerpt) “is aptly titled and was panned even by Darwinists.” That’s no mean feat.
He goes on to say,
Shermer talks in the piece about Wallace being on the “wrong side” of the debate on things like phrenology, vaccination, and spiritualism but these historical issues are far more complex than simplistic notions of “right” and “wrong.” For example, William Cecil Dampier defends the founder of phrenology, Franz Joseph Gall, and even acknowledges in his classic History of Science that “modern neurology is founded” upon the “solid parts of Gall’s labours.” Donald Simpson even noted more recently in the peer-reviewed journal of the Royal Australasian College of Sugeons that Gall and his protege Spurzhiem “made real contributions to the emergence of modern neuroscience” even if they “were right for the wrong reasons.” But sometimes one could be “wrong” for the right reasons, as when Wallace opposed vaccination. Thomas P Weber points out that “The Victorian vaccination legislation was part of an unfair, thoroughly class-based, coercive, and disciplinary healthcare and justice system: poor, working-class persons were subjected to the full force of the law while better-off persons were provided with safer vaccines and could easily avoid punishment if they did not comply.” (Go here for the entire, insightful article.
As for spiritualism [in which Wallace was interested], the Victorian era included numbers of eminent scientists who took its claims seriously, men like William Crookes, William James, and Nobel laureates Lord Rayleigh and Charles Richet. Rather than Shermer’s simplistic knee-jerk notions about spiritualism, spiritualism is better viewed as an effort to negotiate precisely what counted as legitimate evidence rather than as a collection of aberrant eccentrics who merely provide would-be commentators like Shermer comic relief in the otherwise serious and steady march of scientific progress. These are just a few of the reasons Shermer’s understanding of Wallace is so poor. He brings little understanding of history or of the cultural contexts for any of the issues he chides Wallace for being “wrong” about.
But that is precisely what makes Shermer a hero among Darwin’s followers, not? Who needs science or history when you have government on your side?
Today, it’s what you don’t know, suspect, or wonder about that makes your career.
*Yes, him, but never mind.