Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

He said it: Alfred Russel Wallace on the gradual evolution of his scientific and linked philosophical views


ENV reports on how there seems to be an attempt to reclaim the co-founder of evolutionary theory for the anti-design camp.

Such an enterprise is bound to fail the test of historical accuracy in light of a simple reading of Wallace’s The World of Life; as was recently republished by — we can’t make this up — Forgotten Books. Using a modern style, the book is: The World of Life: a manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. That should tell us something, but evidently not enough to satisfy the enthusiasts and champions of evolutionary materialism.

(Cf. the earlier posts here and here (video) on the suppressed/”forgotten” history of Darwin’s Heretic.)

We could read the book, which substantiates the sub-title, with particular reference to the bird’s wings and feathers as key examples among many others.

But, that is a fairly lengthy book.

We could, of course, pause to look at the recent video, Darwin’s Heretic:

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That’s recommended, but it is not in Wallace’s own voice.

A simpler, more direct approach is to listen in, as Wallace writes to his friend, James Marchant, in a 1913 letter:

 The completely materialistic mind of my youth and early manhood has been slowly moulded into the socialistic, spiritualistic, and theistic mind I now exhibit – a mind which is, as my scientific friends think, so weak and credulous in its declining years, as to believe that fruit and flowers, domestic animals, glorious birds and insects, wool, cotton, sugar and rubber, metals and gems, were all foreseen and foreordained for the education and enjoyment of man. The whole cumulative argument of my ‘World of Life’ [published in 1910] is that in its every detail it calls for the agency of a mind or minds so enormously above and beyond any human minds, as to compel us to look upon it, or them as ‘God or Gods,’ and so-called ‘Laws of Nature’ as the action by will-power or otherwise of such superhuman or infinite beings. ‘Laws of Nature’ apart from the existence and agency of some such Being or Beings, are mere words, that explain nothing – are, in fact, unthinkable. That is my position! Whether this Unknown Reality is a single Being and acts everywhere in the universe as direct creator, organiser, and director of every minutest motion in the whole of our universe, and of all possible universes, or whether it acts through variously conditioned modes, as H Spencer suggested, or through ‘infinite grades of beings,’ as I suggest, comes to much the same thing. Mine seems a more clear and intelligible supposition as stated in the last paragraph of my ‘World of Life,’ and it is the teaching of the Bible, of Swedenborg, and of Milton. [Cf. Marchant, J. 1916. Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and reminiscences, 2 vols. London: Cassell & Co., and the review here.]

And, to cap off, here is his stinging rebuke to the anti-supernatural presumption that dominated the mindset of the elites in his own day (and of the so-called “brights” of our own), in his “An Answer to the Arguments of Hume, Lecky, and Others, Against Miracles”:

It is now generally admitted, that those opinions and beliefs in which men have been educated generation after generation, and which have thus come to form part of their mental nature, are especially liable to be erroneous, because they keep alive and perpetuate the ideas and prejudices of a bygone and less enlightened age. It is therefore in the interest of truth, that every doctrine or belief, however well established or sacred they may appear to be, should at certain intervals be challenged to arm themselves with such facts and reasonings as they possess, to meet their opponents in the open field of controversy, and do battle for their right to live. Nor can any exemption be claimed in favour of those beliefs which are the product of modern civilisation, and which have for several generations been unquestioned by the great mass of the educated community; for the prejudice in their favour will be proportionately great, and, as was the case with the doctrines of Aristotle, and the dogmas of the schoolmen, they may live on by mere weight of authority and force of habit, long after they have been shown to be opposed alike to fact and to reason. There have been times when popular beliefs were defended by the terrors of the law, and when the sceptic could only attack them at the peril of his life. Now we all admit that truth can take care of itself, and that only error needs protection. But there is another mode of defence which equally implies a claim to certain and absolute truth, and which is therefore equally unworthy and unphilosophical–that of ridicule, misrepresentation, or a contemptuous refusal to discuss the question at all. This method is used among us even now, for there is one belief, or rather disbelief, whose advocates claim more than papal infallibility, by refusing to examine the evidence brought against it, and by alleging general arguments which have been in use for two centuries to prove that it cannot be erroneous. The belief to which I allude is, that all alleged miracles are false; that what is commonly understood by the term supernatural does not exist, or if it does, is incapable of proof by any amount of human testimony; that all the phenomena we can have cognizance of depend on ascertainable physical laws, and that no other intelligent beings than man and the inferior animals can or do act upon our material world. These views have been now held almost unquestioned for many generations; they are inculcated as an essential part of a liberal education; they are popular, and are held to be one of the indications of our intellectual advancement; and they have become so much a part of our mental nature, that all facts and arguments brought against them are either ignored as unworthy of serious consideration, or listened to with undisguised contempt. Now this frame of mind is certainly not one favourable to the discovery of truth, and strikingly resembles that by which, in former ages, systems of error have been fostered and maintained. [Read on here.]

His rebuttal to Hume’s dismissal of the evidential value of testimony regarding miracles is interesting, following as it does, Wallace’s correction to Hume’s evidently erroneous definition, i.e. “Any act or event implying the existence and agency of superhuman intelligences”:

We now have to consider Hume’s arguments. The first is as follows:–

    A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable that all men must die; that lead cannot of itself remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or, in other words a miracle, to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happened in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man seemingly [[p. 116]] in good health should die on a sudden; because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be an uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as an uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

    This argument is radically fallacious, because if it were sound, no perfectly new fact could ever be proved, since the first and each succeeding witness would be assumed to have universal experience against him. Such a simple fact as the existence of flying fish could never be proved, if Hume’s argument is a good one; for the first man who saw and described one, would have the universal experience against him that fish do not fly, or make any approach to flying, and his evidence being rejected, the same argument would apply to the second, and to every subsequent witness, and thus no man at the present day who has not seen a flying fish ought to believe that such things exist.

In short, we only have a proper epistemic right to demand adequate evidence, and the testimony of ordinary, reasonable and truthful men — especially where the testimony is multiple and independent — to what they have seen or otherwise experienced (and which is logically possible), and beyond living memory record fair on the face and coming from good chain of custody/repository, ought to be viewed with respect rather than dismissive prejudice. Where, Wallace probably alluded to an incident where the case of fish that fly actually came up in the British Royal court. As I recall, the King, somewhat incredulous, asked a Marine Officer standing by, on account of the vast experience of his Majesty’s Marines. The officer readily affirmed that he had seen such fish many times off Barbados — and indeed, when I lived there, on passing by market vendors, I often heard: “Fish and Sea Aiggs, Flyin’ Fish and Sea Aiggs . . . “  The officer’s testimony was taken at due weight and accepted. Rightly so.

Just so, it seems in order for us to think soberly about our own times and the popular prejudices of our day, in light of the issue that the world of Carbon-chemistry, aqueous medium, cell-based life and the observed cosmos as a whole both exhibit such functionally specific, complex organisation as we habitually associate with the action of purposeful intelligence; the latter being so ordered as to facilitate the former. END


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