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Terry Scambray: A review of Mike Flannery’s book, Nature’s Prophet, on Alfred Russel Wallace

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(Wallace, Darwin-s co-theorist, was a working-class stiff whom Darwin’s set elbowed out. He was not a materialist (naturalist) and he thought evolution could be consistent with meaning and spirituality. Darwin abhorred such ideas. This review was originally published at New Oxford Review.)


Nature’s Prophet: Alfred Russel Wallace and His Evolution from Natural Selection to Natural Theology, Michael Flannery. The University of Alabama Press, 2018. 260 pages.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In apprehension how like a god!” Thus Shakespeare described the sublime uniqueness of humans. For Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution, the obvious uniqueness of humans caused him to disagree with Charles Darwin’s explanation that material causes alone produced human beings as part of the scheme of evolution.

Nature’s Prophet, Michael Flannery’s rich and readable book demonstrates that Wallace’s disagreement was not a mere intramural quarrel but rather a reflection of the profound divide that exists within science down to our own day.

That longstanding divide became most pronounced in the 19th century when the Western intelligentsia, primed by the discrediting of the Bible and the rumored death of God, accepted Darwin’s hunch about the origin of life. But in one of science’s great ironies, Alfred Wallace, who gave Darwin the idea of natural selection as the creative force of evolution, repudiated it as inadequate to account for sentient life and the “higher intellectual nature of man.”

Wallace certainly thought that the weeding out process of natural selection could account for the growth and development of life. But to claim that natural selection could have come up with the specialized nature of the human speech organs as well as the human hand, and both of them as inseparable extensions of the creativity of the human mind – this was a bridge too far for Wallace. Because of this, he argued that the only way to span the irreducible discontinuity separating the lower animals from man was with the support of “a Higher Intelligence.”

Part of Darwin’s argument for evolution was based on a comparison between “natural selection” and “artificial selection,” or as the latter is commonly called, animal and plant breeding. Though breeding was an ancient practice with a history of conferring impressive though limited changes in organisms, Darwin thought that given more time, small changes would become big changes, fish scales could change into birds’ feathers and so on.

But Wallace, like others, saw that comparing artificial selection to natural selection was an example of the apples to oranges fallacy – though apples & oranges have more in common than the two types of “selection,” a word itself that anthropomorphizes nature. Indeed, Flannery points out how Darwin, like contemporary Darwinists, inevitably fell into using teleological language; that is, Darwin’s descriptions suggested that natural selection is purposeful. As Flannery writes, ”To facilitate understanding of a purposeless process, purpose is repeatedly called in, [but] chance most certainly is not purposeful.”

Flannery shows how even contemporary Darwinists like Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in their book, What Darwin Got Wrong, point to this contradiction though they don’t resolve it any more than Darwin did because they are also wedded to a completely materialistic explanation for life.

Yes, some argue that Darwin was making “a heuristic comparison,” merely suggesting a way of understanding natural selection. Flannery shows, however, that Darwin saw the comparison as literal; that the breeder was nature writ small. Wallace went in the other direction, seeing breeders as comparable to “the Higher Intelligence” necessary for the creation of sentient life. Though some saw Wallace’s view as anachronistic, a make-work program for God in creation, Wallace claimed that science, not religion, drove him to this conclusion.

Wallace went on to write that recognition of this reality “is the direction in which we shall find the true reconciliation of Science and Theology” not only on the issue of creation but of the entire discipline of science.

Though science developed from theology in 13th century Christian Europe, a schism between the two erupted in the 19th century led by influential thinkers like Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Darwin. Flannery, a University of Alabama at Birmingham historian, shows that Alfred Wallace, though seemingly overshadowed by these individuals, was actually a harbinger of the great 20th century scientists who worked to restore the symbiotic relationship between science and theology, nature and God.

Flannery reviews those who claim that Wallace in his more encompassing view of science “tried to shoehorn his experiments in spiritualism into his larger scientism.” Some even portray Wallace as a herald of the Gaia hypothesis, a theory of a self-sustaining universe; or tie him to “process theology” in which God offers possibilities for evolution which can be rejected or accepted. Still others see Wallace as a believer in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA), a separate but equal doctrine, suggesting that if science and religion remain in their respective neighborhoods peace will ensue.

Flannery demonstrates that Wallace would consider each of these models reductionist and flagrant contradictions to his idea of a “Supreme Mind” working through nature.

Nature’s Prophet concludes by tying Wallace to several thinkers who sustain his legacy of liberating science from behind the Berlin Wall of materialism. One is Steve Clark, a research fellow at Oxford, who points out that the supernatural has been the basis for scientific discovery from its beginning. Another is the iconic Fred Hoyle who wrote: “we shall need to understand why the mysterious sanctity described by Wallace persists within us.” Hoyle’s conversion to theism came when he realized that the universe looked like a “put-up-job” which is the thesis of his 1983 book, The Intelligent Universe.

Jay Richards & Guillermo Gonzalez go further in their 2004 book, The Privileged Planet, in which they argue that we are situated to know that we are unique and that nature “discloses itself in ways that we cannot anticipate.” With this realization, they continue, “the thought creeps up: The universe whatever else it is, is designed for discovery.”

So also Flannery sees humans as “participative creatures in the panoply of human history.” He developed this thesis in tandem with the historian, John Lukacs, who also recognizes that the universe is made for our discovery. Echoing his Hungarian predecessor, Michael Polanyi, Lukacs proclaims, “we are at the center of the universe” and saying so is not arrogance but, paradoxically, recognition of our human limitations.

Michael Denton, physician, geneticist, agnostic, and author of the compelling Evolution: A Theory in Crisis accepts a directed evolutionary process in accord with Wallace. In his earlier writing, Denton mentioned Wallace as an influence on his criticism of Darwin. In his latest work, he returns, for example, to marveling at the uniqueness of the feather and cites Wallace who also saw it “as one of the adaptive wonders of nature,” a completely novel feature with no antecedents in nature.

Flannery concludes with some of Wallace’s writings, one of which contrasts with Bertrand Russell’s famous 1903 tract on materialism. Russell’s rhetoric soared as he wrote that man is “the outcome of the accidental collocation of atoms” and all his monumental achievements “are destined to extinction in the heat death of the universe” which itself is a near certainty.

In the shadow of such fin de siècle triumphalism, Wallace wrote, “As contrasted with this hopeless and soul-deadening belief [in materialism], we accept the existence of a spiritual world as a grand, consistent whole adapted in all of its parts to the development of the noblest faculties of man.”

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