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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Darwin-Wallace Debate: Natural Selection and its Implications

A Reply to Elliot Benjamin

David Lane

I think the fundamental difficulty Wallace saw and attempted to address was his inability to imagine that unconscious processes could over time produce conscious self awareness.

I am grateful that Elliot Benjamin watched my little film on evolution and that he has taken the time to focus on Alfred Russel Wallace’s contribution to the subject of natural selection. It is one of those nice coincidences that for the past few days I have been re-reading one of my favorite biographies of Wallace entitled, The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace by Ross A. Sloan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), which I highly recommend since it sheds light on many of Elliot’s points.

First, I should address the issue over whether my small film should have been entitled “Evolution in Five Minutes” instead of “Evolution in Four Minutes”, as Benjamin and others have pointed out. My reasoning for opting for the latter is fairly simple. The first 33 seconds of the film I regard as merely prefatory credits as it just lists the title and the movie’s overall purpose and with the chosen music sets a certain tone. The narration (or when the “explaining” part begins) starts at approximately 34 seconds and then ends at 4:36, with the last part of the movie being filled with a quote and music. Thus, arguably, I decided to opt for the Four Minute versus the Five minute title since the essence of the movie--the narration, the explanatory part--lasted roughly 4 minutes and a few seconds (depending on precisely on how one measured it: 4 minutes and 2 seconds or 4 minutes and 3 seconds, etc.).

Now the meat of Elliot Benjamin’s objection to my film focuses on my inclusion of Alfred Russel Wallace and how he is being portrayed, particularly as it relates to the idea that natural selection being a blind force without any intelligent guidance. In the film, which is more about explaining how evolution by natural selection works than a biography of its reputed co-founders, has only two sentences which mention Wallace and each time it is conjoined with Darwin’s. Here they are:

  1. “Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace co-discovered ‘Natural Selection’ in the mid-part of the 19th century and it is the key mechanism behind how and why our unique genetic book is so configured.”
  2. “We are, in sum, the end result of a ‘blind watchmaker’. Darwin’s and Wallace’s great discovery was that rich complexity can arise naturally without any intelligent guidance whatsoever.”

Benjamin first wants to raise the issue (though apparently not too contentiously) about whether in “actuality Wallace—not Darwin—was the true originator of the theory of evolution.” Now to be clear neither Wallace or Darwin were the “originators of the theory of evolution” since the idea of evolution has a long and fruitful history going as far back in recorded history to the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander of Miletus (610–546 B.C.E.). Even early Chinese philosophers, including Zhuangzi of the 4th century B.C.E., argued for the fluidity of species.


No, what Wallace and Darwin co-discovered was the mechanism behind how species evolved over time and this became more commonly known as “natural selection.” In Wallace’s famous February 1858 paper, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type” (which we republished in magazine form for the MSAC Philosophy Group several years ago: go here for the free PDF download, this process is explained as,

“The numbers that die annually must be immense; and as the individual existence of each animal depends upon itself, those that die must be the weakest--the very young, the aged, and the diseased,--while those that prolong their existence can only be the most perfect in health and vigour--those who are best able to obtain food regularly, and avoid their numerous enemies. It is, as we commenced by remarking, ‘a struggle for existence,’ in which the weakest and least perfectly organized must always succumb.”

As to the question of who discovered natural selection first, it is certainly true that Alfred Russel Wallace’s letter to Charles Darwin dated October 10, 1856, which included the article “On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species,” clearly prompted a crisis of conscience in Darwin. Why? Because Darwin for some twenty years had been writing extensively, but privately, on the same subject as Wallace. Indeed, Darwin had even finished an early manuscript on evolution in 1844 which he wanted his friend, Charles Lyell, to edit. Eventually, though, an agreement was hashed out by Joseph Hooker and Lyell to have both Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers jointly submitted and read by the Linnean Society in London, England, which was hurriedly done on July 1, 1858.

Understandably there is still some debate over who deserves priority for the discovery of natural selection. Nevertheless, most scholars agree (and Darwin’s notebooks clearly back up this assertion) that Darwin had written about natural selection many years before receiving Wallace’s unexpected letter and article. Perhaps most tellingly, Alfred Russel Wallace himself felt that Darwin rightfully deserved the credit he received. As Wallace’s sympathetic biographer, Ross A. Slotten, admits, “Wallace considered it a ‘most fortunate circumstance’ that he had initiated a correspondence with Darwin on the subject of ‘varieties’ and thus caused Darwin to move up the publication date of part of his researches. He had no doubt that Darwin’s views were more complete than his own and secured the right to claim priority.”

Wallace himself wrote 1858 that “It would have caused me much pain and regret had Mr. Darwin’s excess of generosity led him to make public my paper unaccompanied by his own.”

Later after the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species in 1859, Wallace (after reading the book five times) would go on to lavish unabashed praise about what Darwin had achieved. Writes Wallace,

“I really feel thankful that it has not been left to me to give the theory to the public. Mr. Darwin has created a new science and a new philosophy, and I believe that never has such a complete illustration of a new branch of human knowledge been due to the labour and researches of a single man. Never have such masses of facts been combined into a system, and brought to bear upon the establishment of such a grand and new and simple philosophy!”

So, in essence, what is natural selection? It is quite simply, an explanation of how organisms evolve over time due to differential reproductive successes and how such advances, preserved over time, tend on average to convey an adaptive character fitted for longer survival and thus suitable for increased fecundity. Or, as Alfred Russel Wallace himself explained it in a letter to Nature in 1891, “If there were no selection constantly going on, why should it happen that the kind of variations that occur so frequently under domestication never maintain themselves in a state of nature? Examples of this class are white blackbirds or pigeons, black sheep, and unsymmetrically marked animals generally. These occur not unfrequently, as well as such sports as six-toed or stump-tailed cats, and they all persist and even increase under domestication, but never in a state of nature; and there seems no reason for this but that in the latter case they are quickly eliminated through the struggle for existence--that is, by natural selection."

It is important to notice, however, that when Wallace describes how natural selection works he does not interject anything metaphysical whatsoever. That is precisely why it is called “natural” selection and not something else.

Ironically, for many years Wallace was considered a stronger advocate of natural selection (almost exclusively) than even Charles Darwin. Where Darwin and Wallace parted company over natural selection is when it came to the evolution of the human mind in Homo sapiens, specifically how consciousness arose from unconscious molecules. Wallace strenuously argued that natural selection could explain how complexity arose from simpler forms. To wit my quote, “Darwin’s and Wallace’s great discovery that rich complexity can arise naturally without any intelligent guidance whatsoever.”

However, even though Wallace was a strong advocate of the persuasive power behind natural selection, he felt that human consciousness specifically was of such a high order of organization (and apparently unlike anything else arising in nature by physical and natural processes) that natural selection was insufficient to explain it. This led Wallace to a somewhat “abstruse” (to cite the exact description by his biographer) model of the human mind and its interaction with nature at large. He did this while he still defended that natural selection was operative even if it cannot explain the “entirety” of the human mind. Although Wallace resisted being labeled a dualist, his explanations provide ample evidence for it.

Of course, Darwin was taken aback by Wallace’s views as first published in 1864. As Darwin chided Wallace,

“But I groan over Man--you write like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist, and you the author of the best paper that ever appeared in Anthropological Review! Eheu! Eheu! Eheu! . . . I defy you to upset your own doctrine.”
'To say that our brains were made by God, and our lungs by natural selection, is to really exclude the Creator from half His creation.'

Going to the jugular of Wallace’s inconsistencies, Jean Claparede wrote in a French journal the following critique, “While Mr. Wallace demands the intervention of a superior force to explain the foundation of the human races, and to guide man in the path of civilisation, he altogether denies the existence of such a force as assisting to produce the inferior races of animals and plants, which attributes entirely to the operation of Natural Selection.” Later the journal Nature would summarize the critiques of Wallace’s not so veiled dualism with a series of biting and ironic remarks including,

“To say that our brains were made by God, and our lungs by natural selection, is to really exclude the Creator from half His creation, and natural science from half of nature. . . . To fall back for explanation upon the primary efficient cause of their existence [as Wallace does] the design with which they were framed, is only to confuse two distinct branches of inquiry.”

To Wallace’s great credit, he responded to the Nature lambast with a very succinct and telling rejoinder which greatly clarified his increasingly controversial views,

“I maintain . . . that man is descended from a lower animal form, but I adduce facts which go to prove that some other law or power than Natural Selection has specially modified him. If Darwin is not anti-Darwinian in admitting, as he does, the possibility that animals and plants may not have had a common ancestor, I may surely deny that I am anti-Darwinian when I show that there are certain phenomena in the case of man that cannot be wholly explained by Natural Selection.”

I think the fundamental difficulty Wallace saw and attempted to address was his inability to imagine that unconscious processes could over time produce conscious self awareness. Wallace captures this when opines that

“It is impossible for us to believe, that the mere addition of one, two, or a thousand other material elements to form a more complex molecule, could in any way tend to produce a self-conscious existence.”

Wallace’s use of “impossible to believe” is quite revealing here, since that was the same objection that had been given for years against his own theory about how species mutate over time due to varying environmental conditions. Darwin, of course, saw things quite differently than his friend and didn’t think it was at all impossible to imagine how far reaching natural selection could be both in the past and in the future. As Darwin pointed out, “We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

While I applaud Benjamin’s desire to provide a richer and fuller context in which to understand Wallace’s understanding of evolution with regard to human beings (and their self-reflective consciousness), we shouldn’t forget that Wallace himself is responsible, in part, for the idea that rich complexity can arise from simpler materials without invoking a metaphysical intervention. It is only when we come to human beings that Wallace balks and feels that some other force is necessary to explain his self-reflective awareness--a point, which as we have pointed out, with which Darwin quite strenuously disagrees.

So while I can readily agree that Wallace has a different view on how human consciousness evolved, I don’t think that necessarily detracts or takes away from his “great discovery” concerning how natural selection works. In other words, Wallace gave birth to the idea of how evolution could work without invoking intelligent design and thus it would be amiss not to acknowledge his parentage. As Stephen Montgomery explains, “Darwin was clearly a bit perplexed by his former ally’s new views and at one point wrote to Wallace pleading with him not to kill ‘our baby’.”

For instance, some atomic theorists who worked on the atomic bomb may wish that they could distance themselves from their horrific invention, but as we all know their respective names to its building cannot be so easily erased. Likewise, even if Wallace later wanted to distance himself from his original discovery and its attendant implications (or to introduce a new metaphysical force for human consciousness), there is no getting around the fact that he was himself responsible for introducing a purely naturalistic explanation for why evolution occurs. That is why I included his name along with Darwin’s when I said “Darwin’s and Wallace’s great discovery was that rich complexity can arise naturally without any intelligent guidance whatsoever.” To leave his name out would, at least in my mind, be akin to deleting a parent’s name on a birth certificate. But lest I be accused of over stating my case, I fully acknowledge and deeply appreciate Elliot Benjamin’s essay which brings up a more nuanced view of Wallace’s views on human evolution specifically.

Finally, and in appreciation for Elliot Benjamin’s contribution, I think it might be useful to make a little movie on the differences Darwin and Wallace had over how human consciousness may have arisen. I find it deeply revealing that a 19th century argument over what matter can ultimately produce is still being hotly debated in the 21st century. The theme of my next movie will center precisely on what one could call the “Wallace paradox.” Ross A. Slotten in The Heretic in Darwin’s Court provides us with the guiding theme in our yet to be created movie script,

“There was no escaping this dilemma; either all matter was conscious, or consciousness was something distinct from matter. If it was something distinct, then conscious beings were independent of what was termed ‘matter’”

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