“Puttering with barnacles”
Over a month ago John M. Lynch posted (on his aptly titled blog “a simple prop”–need I say more) a rant against my book, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution, making a number of charges that warrant reply. Since his promised part 2 has never materialized, I’ll remain silent no longer lest he delude himself into thinking that no answer implies anything close to a concession. Therefore, I begin with what I have–his ramblings part 1.
With an eagerness reminiscent of Barney Fife’s effort to display his prowess at marksmanship, Lynch begins by getting the bullet out of his pocket and firing an impetuous “gottcha” at William Dembski. Claiming that Dembski’s foreword “doesn’t start off well,” his vapid reading takes issue with the fact that when a shocked Darwin received Wallace’s Ternate letter outlining natural selection in 1858, the Down House dawdler was prompted into action to release his long-labored production Origin and could no longer (in Dembski’s words) “putter with barnacles.” Darwin “hadn’t ‘puttered’ with them in over four years,” Lynch wails. Like Barney’s errant proficiency with firearms and overly enthusiastic commitment to the letter of the law, Lynch’s shot falls wide of the mark as does his misguided application of historical accuracy. Here’s why.
First of all, it is true that Darwin’s active research on barnacles ceased after 1854. Nevertheless, Darwin did continue to concern himself with barnacles long after the issue of these works. Indeed extant letters between Darwin and a variety of correspondents show an ongoing interest in–and indeed puttering with–barnacles. In a letter to W. B. D. Mantell on June 5, 1856, for example, Darwin looked forward to seeing the barnacle specimens to which Mantell referred in the British Museum even though he was no longer actively “working” on them; in December of that year he wrote to Huxley with a fairly detailed discussion of barnacle reproduction, and in January of ’57 he’s assisting Huxley with barnacle identification and promising to return the specimen “when next I come to London”; on November 29, 1857, Darwin wrote to C. S. Bate showing keen interest in barnacle reproduction and asking for more information from Bate, and that same day he wrote to Asa Gray that confirmation of an aspect of barnacle reproduction was “a load off my mind.” Inquiring into barnacle behavior, soliciting more information on their reproduction, identifying specimens and returning them, confirming certain speculations on barnacles, fretting over them–if that’s not puttering, what is?!
Apparently Lynch objects to the word puttering because it “resulted in four volumes that are still useful to modern systematists and taxonomists.” But Darwin himself referred to his own projects as his “hobby-horses,” would that term make Lynch feel any better? Regardless, the term “puttering” raises questions that historians have long asked and that Darwin must have even asked himself. Commenting on Darwin’s obsession with the sexual characteristics of barnacles (noting in one letter that “an hermaphrodite species must pass into a bisexual species by insensibly small stages”), the late Stanford professor William Irvine asks:
But were even such facts worth eight years? “I do not doubt,” wrote Darwin somewhat ruefully, “that Sir E. Lytton Bulwer had me in mind when he introduced in one of his novels a Professor Long, who had written two huge volumes on limpets.” In later years he was inclined to agree with the citicism implied, but at the time he seems to have thought the barnacles worthwhile (1).
But Dembski’s phrase fits on a broader level. It relates to this whole period in Darwin’s life. Darwin wrote a lengthy draft of his inchoate theory of “transmutation” in 1844. Generations of historians have wondered why it took him so long to publish. (See, for example, Robert J. Richards, “Why Darwin Delayed, or Interesting Problems and Models in the History of Science,” J. Hist. Behavioral Sci. 19 [Jan. 1983]: 45-53; and Lucy Odling-Smee, “Darwin and the 20-Year Publication Gap,” Nature 446 [29 March 2007]: 478-479). One might have thought his draft would have been polished up into final manuscript form in a year or two, but fourteen years (I rather forgivingly date the lapse not from his return from The Beagle voyage but rather from his 1844 draft to the publication of the paper outlining his theory by the Linnean Society in 1858) seems to call for an explanation. While Darwin may have had his reasons, Rebecca Stott, in Darwin and the Barnacle, admits that Darwin’s “eight-year voyage into barnacle darkness” was the product of curiosity, obsession, and “an instinct for postponement” (2). Thus from his 1844 draft to 1858, more than half were spent puttering with barnacles. When the Ternate letter arrived arguably sometime in June of ’58 Darwin must have mentally kicked himself for his dilatoriness. Even Janet Browne notes that Darwin quietly fumed over Wallace’s letter and the apparent loss of his priority. “Had it all been a waste of time?,” she has Darwin ask. “Those years he had spent labouring over barnacles, the deterioration of his physical health, the endless attention to notes and letters, and the huge manuscript so close to completion?” (3).
In fact, the use of the phrase “puttering with barnacles” nicely captures the juxtapposed careers of Darwin and Wallace upon receipt of the latter’s Ternate letter. As Ross A. Slotten has pointed out quite accurately, “Barnacles taught Darwin what Wallace would learn from his experiences as a field biologist . . . .” (4). Its is a fact worth more than a little notice that Wallace had considerably more actual field experience than Darwin. While Wallace communed with nature and lived with the indigenous peoples of South America and later the Malay Archipelago studying everything from beetles and butterflies to parrots and orangutans, Darwin was at home cutting his biological teeth on barnacles. Indeed Dembski’s phrase fits the context and the period–puttering with barnacles ably suits Darwin’s condition upon receipt of the Ternate letter, and it nicely characterizes this curious fourteen-year period. After all, in June of 1858 Darwin’s principal biological achievement was one thing–barnacles. In short, it is a phrase that displays Dembski’s deeper historical knowledge of the men themselves. Receipt of a letter from the other end of the planet at comfortable Down House showed Darwin in bold relief–here was Wallace the man of nature suffering from a malarial fever on a remote island writing to the comfortably domesticated Darwin about a theory that the Down House patriarch coveted as his and his alone, a member of Victorian high society who (except for his five-year voyage on The Beagle) had little first-hand experience with species save for his precious barnacels. All told, Wallace would accumulate twelve years of intimate intercontinental field experience, more than twice Darwin’s.
Lynch’s accusation ultimately reflects badly on himself. Lynch apparently doesn’t understand that biography is composed of more than a bibliographical checklist of titles and publication dates. Men and women write and publish on topics that have a way of lingering on in their lives well past the mere citation date. Darwin was no exception. Browne underscores this point by observing generally that “Darwin’s hobby-horses never really came to a halt in so definite a manner” (5). Lynch’s charge of historical “error” unfortunately only redounds to his own ineptitude at appreciating historical narrative. Lynch’s specific error is a form of what historian David Hackett Fischer calls “the chronic fallacy.” This is a “misplaced temporal literalism” that betrays the mistake of becoming “overly obsequious to the tyranny of time” (6). Instead of being incisive Lynch’s complaint winds up looking simply inane. But then again, it was one of Lynch’s many “Barney Fife moments” in that bizarre sit-com nether world he calls “a simple prop.”
There’s “theistic” evolution and then there’s Theistic evolution
Lynch continues his hypercritical effusions (part 1) by digging his own hole deeper, this time claiming that if Wallace was a theistic evolutionist–and ID proponents are typically opposed to theistic evolution–then “Flannery & Dembski cannot have it both ways.” This comment demonstrates a complete inability to distinguish types of theistic evolution. ID’s opposition to theistic evolution is of the Ken Miller variety in which evolution is cast in thoroughly Darwinian terms with merely a divine add-on. In fact, evolution of this brand is more properly termed Darwinian theism (i.e., an oxymoronic, naturalistic evolution with a superfluous “god” thrown in). As Dembski has written, “Theistic evolution places theism in an odd tension. If God purposely created life through Darwinian means [Miller’s position], then God’s purpose was ostensibly to conceal his purpose in creation. Within theistic evolution,” Dembski adds, “God is a master of stealth who constantly eludes our best efforts to detect him empirically” (7). Of course, Wallace’s form of theistic evolution–what I call intelligent evolution–is nothing of the kind. Wallace specifically, and with carefully chosen examples, demonstrated how features of the natural world were intelligently designed without denying common descent. If anything Wallace’s position broadly parallels that of Michael Behe. All Lynch’s comment reveals is the necessity and value of my book in clarifying Wallace’s position.
Lynch asks, “Of what possible relevence to modern ID is it if Wallace held some teleological views regarding the human mind?” Well first of all, Wallace held to teleological views that clearly went beyond the human mind alone. Wallace also insisted that Darwin’s naturalistic mechanisms–especially natural selection–were incapable of explaining the origin of life and sentience in animals; here too Wallace calls upon theism for an explanation. Wallace’s World of Life makes this very clear, but it was presented at length much earlier in Wallace’s Darwinism (8). The relevance to modern ID is three-fold: 1) it is possible to believe in evolution without subscribing to the materialistic commitments of Darwinism; 2) ID is not (nor was it from the beginning) biblical creationism (Wallace was certainly no Christian) and to conflate the two is inaccurate in both historical and contemporary contexts; and 3) ID (albeit in preliminary form) was derived from scientific observations more than a century ago by the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. If Lynch would read instead of rant he wouldn’t have to ask such questions. Again, he merely points up the need for the book.
Wallace’s “wide-ranging” selectionism?
But wait, there’s more! Lynch’s whine-fest continues and this time he manages to gallimaufry an important aspect of nineteenth-century evolutionary thought into a quite a muddle. He writes:
“Dembski makes much of the contrast between Wallace’s selectionism (which was even more wide-ranging than Darwin’s) and what he terms ‘Darwin’s inflated view’ omitting to mention that the difference was largely to do with Wallace–for spiritualist reasons–not believing that the human mind could be a product of natural selection.”
I’ve already pointed out that Wallace believed natural selection was incapable of explaining other biological phenomena besides the human mind, but Dembski’s characterization is quite accurate. If , after all, Wallace limited the applications of natural selection, wouldn’t that make Darwin’s view by contrast “inflated”? Lynch is apparently attempting to make a point by claiming that Wallace’s “acceptance of the efficacy of natural selection to a degree that outstripped Darwin’s own claims” makes Dembski’s charge somehow null and void. Lynch is referring to what George John Romanes called (most inappropriately I might add) “ultra-Darwinism.” This is actually a misnomer and Lynch’s suggestion that Wallace’s natural selection views “outstripped” those of Darwin is disingenuous. Actually this refers to a controversy that raged over the extent to which natural selection could explain evolutionary phenomena. Wallace, siding with August Weismann, concluded that natural selection was sufficient alone; Romanes, siding with Darwin, claimed that the inheritance of acquired characteristics (pangenesis) also accounted for evolutionary phenomena.Weismann’s rejection of neo-Lamarckianism was prescient. While Weismann’s experimental proof (the amputation of successive generations of rat tails) was unnecessary and rather silly, he did appreciably help refute an old idea that wouldn’t die. As Slotten points out, “Wallace was among the first to recognize Weismann’s genius and actively promote his ideas” (9). Of course it would take genetics to finallyadminister the coup de grâce to Darwin‘s pangenesis theory, leaving Romane’s misguided support on the cutting floor of biological history.
But the important point here is how this played out in the application of natural selection to biological phenomena. Wallace’s “selectionism” was not really more “wide-ranging,” it was more sharply focused and specifically applied. Guided by the principle of utility that Wallace described as “no organ or attribute can exist in a natural species unless it is or has been useful to the organisms that possess it,” Wallace’s application of natural selection was self-sufficient to explain most but–and this is critical to appreciate– not all (the three important exceptions previously noted) of the biological world. Darwin added pangenesis, but it was natural selection that remained central to his theory. Because Darwin was hidebound to methodological naturalism he, in effect, had to make natural selection do far more work than did Wallace. David Quammen is quite right when he says of Darwinian evolution, that the purposeless, impersonal and blind process of “natural selection isn’t the sole mechanism of evolutuionary change. But it’s the primary mechanism. It’s the lathe and the chisle that shape adaptation. It’s the central concept of Darwinism, whatever else Darwinism might be taken to include. It’s the starting point for understanding how evolution works” (10). Nothing this strong could be said of Wallace’s concept of evolution. For Wallace, natural selection was limited and constrained by profound teleological forces and factors. Thus, Dembski is correct again: Darwin did apply natural selection more indiscriminately to virually all aspects of nature whereas Wallace limited and targeted its application. “Ultra-Darwinism,” a phrase Romanes coined in the heat of argument, misleadingly implies that Wallace’s application of natural selection was more “wide-ranging” when, in fact, just the opposite is true. The correct phrase should be more “self-sufficent and specifically applied” not more “wide-ranging.” There is a profound difference. Dembski is correct–Darwin tried to make natural selection do too much. Wallace knew when to stop. Since it is clear that Lynch is in need of some boning up on this controversy, I suggest the references listed below (11).
So for now Lynch has put his gun back in holster and the rest of us can come out from cover. But wait–is he reloading?! Who knows where his errant bullets may land in round 2 of Lynch’s potshot mayhem! I’ll keep you posted.
1. William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians: A Joint Biography of Darwin and Huxley (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1955), p. 69.
2. Rebecca Stott, Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Breakthrough (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), pp. xxii-xxiii.
3. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 15.
4. Ross A. Slotten, The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 151.
5. Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 151.
6. David Hackett Fischer, Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), p. 152.
7. William A. Dembski. Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 110.
8. Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection With Some of Its Applications (London: Macmillan, 1889), pp. 474-476.
9. Slotten, p. 411.
10. David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), p. 231.
11. Fern Elsdon-Baker, “Spirited Dispute: The Secret Split Between Wallace and Romanes,” Endeavour v. 32.2 (2008): 75-78; Slotten, pp. 401-416; and Jean Gayon’s Darwinism’s Struggle for Survival: Heredity and the Hypothesis of Natural Selection, trans. Matthew Cobb (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 147-153.