Intelligent Evolution
or Who Is Alfred Russel Wallace?
Archived Articles

Is the name Alfred Russel Wallace familiar to you?  Have you ever heard it?  Alfred Russel Wallace is the co-founder of the Theory of Evolution along with Charles Darwin.  Even Darwin acknowledges Wallace at the co-founder of the Theory of Evolution.  Are you surprised?  With Darwin’s name being in common usage, why don’t we know Wallace? 

Afred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin were contemporaries.  They wrote back and forth to each other, sharing ideas.  They were both developing theories of evolution independent of each other.  Both were writing articles and books on their theories.  Let’s go back in time and place these men in history and try to understand their perspectives and the worldview of their time.

Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, was a highly successful English physician at Lichfield for more than fifty years.  A prominent member of the very wealthy Darwin-Wedgwood family and one of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, inventor and poet.  He was born December 12, 1731, received his medical education at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and while at Lichfield, Erasmus Darwin wrote didactic poetry, developed his

own theory of evolution, and  invented amongst other things, an organ able to recite the Lord’s prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments.  Darwin's final long poem, originally titled The Origin of Society, was published posthumously in 1803. It is considered his best poetic work. It centers on his own conception of evolution.  The poem traces the progression of life from microorganisms to civilized society. His most important scientific work was his book titled Zoonomia or the Laws of Organic Life, which he wrote between 1794-1796.

The following passage is from the first volume of Zoonomia:

"The late Mr. David Hume, in his posthumous works, places the powers of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of the machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest part of the earth had been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals from decomposed vegetables; all of which have been first produced by generation, or by the secretions of organic life; he concludes, that the world itself might have been generated, rather than created; that is, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fiat.--What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of THE GREAT ARCHITECT! THE CAUSE OF CAUSES! PARENT OF PARENTS! ENS ENTIUM!

For if we may compare infinities, it would seem to require a greater infinity of power to cause the causes of effects, than to cause the effects themselves. This idea is analogous to the improving excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid or habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase of the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; and is consonant to the idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertion we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions." [Zoonomia, I, 509]

[Note: The Oxford English Dictionary cites "unrolling" as the first meaning of "evolution." This is the meaning Erasmus Darwin intends here. The process unrolls through the divine decree, "fiat."]

“Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!”

Like his father Erasmus, Robert Darwin was a medical doctor, having also received his education at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.  Like his father, Robert had a very successful medical practice.  There were, however, also distinct differences.  Robert showed little interest in evolution.  The religious references in Erasmus’ works clearly point to Erasmus as a man of faith.  His son Robert, the father of Charles Darwin, decidedly turned against the faith of his father and Robert declared himself an atheist.  Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was to share traits of both his father and grandfather.  Charles read the writings of Erasmus and made the theory of evolution by natural selection his life work, but he leaned toward his father’s views on God. 

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) was a British naturalist, biogeographer, author, and humanitarian.  Unlike Darwin, Wallace did not come from wealth.  In fact, in 1835 his father was swindled out of his property and his family fell on hard times. Wallace had to stop attending school at the early age of 13, and yet, he educated himself and was eventually the author of many books on evolution and natural history. 

As a youth, Wallace was fascinated with beetles and collected and studied many of them with a friend, Walter Bates.  Together in 1848, Wallace and Bates went to Brazil to collect specimens along the Amazon.  After about a year, they parted ways and Wallace went inland to explore the Rio Negro.  In 1852, Wallace set sail to return to England with his documentation and specimens, but his ship caught fire. He escaped with the crew, spending ten days at sea in a lifeboat, but thousands of carefully prepared specimens and all of his field notes went down with the ship.  Thankfully, he had sent some specimens ahead and had the others insured so he was able to survive on that insurance money and specimen sales.  After about two years in London, Wallace set out on another expedition, this time to Malay Archipelego.  He remained there for eight years collecting over 125,000 specimens, 1000 of which were new to science. 

During those eight years, in early 1858, Wallace sent Darwin an essay from Borneo, entitled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.  It gave a full account of the theory of natural selection and gave Darwin the answer to the phenomenon of biological diversity: the fittest would survive.  At the time, Darwin who was in the Galapagos Islands, had been working on his own version of the theory for some twenty years, but had published nothing.  When Darwin received Wallace's manuscript, he sent it on to his friend, Charles Lyell, an influential geologist of his time.  Lyell had warned Darwin that Wallace was developing a theory and had also encouraged Darwin to publish his writings. In the cover letter sent to Lyell, Darwin regretted his procrastination:

My Dear Lyell,…Your words have come true with a vengeance — that I should be forestalled. You said this, when I explained to you here very briefly my views of 'Natural Selection' depending on the struggle for existence. I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters…So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.

Lyell and another friend, Joseph Hooker, came to Darwin’s rescue, arranging for him to publish, alongside Wallace's formal paper, a hurried extract from one of his manuscripts and a personal letter to a friend in which he had sketched his own ideas on natural selection. In this publication titled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type, Darwin was listed as the first author. This publishing took place without Wallace’s knowledge or consent.  Darwin then rushed his manuscript Origin of Species through to publication the following year.

So what were the similarities and differences between the evolutionary theories of Wallace and Darwin?  Both Wallace and Darwin were committed to science, but their conceptions of science were dramatically different.  For Wallace science was simply the search for truth in the natural world; for Darwin science must utilize only natural processes functioning through unbroken natural laws in nonteleological ways. (Teleological: The study of design or purpose in natural phenomena.)  Both theories describe change through time.  Both are based on the principle of utility, that is, attributes of an organism will only develop when they afford the organism an advantage for survival.  Both theories include the concept of divergent evolution, which does not appear in any of Darwin's writings prior to his reading Wallace's manuscript, which did explicitly describe it. 

Divergent evolution, as described in conventional evolutionary theory, is a relative phenomenon in which initially similar populations accumulate differences over evolutionary time, and so become increasingly distinct, that is, they "diverge". This process also known simply as "divergence," was described in the Origin of Species (1859) and was the subject of the single illustration contained in that book.

In the views of both Darwin and Wallace, divergence serves two purposes:

  • It allows a given type of organism to survive in modified form by utilizing new niches;
    and

This increase in diversity supposedly boosts a habitat's carrying capacity.

As an aside, historians have some serious questions and concerns with this part of their theories.  When evolution of this type is the sole focus, evolutionary change is pictured as treelike. There is a branching into distinct types, and the branches do not reunite.  However, when not only divergence, but also fusion events, are taken into account, the topology of evolution becomes more like a web. Since evolutionary biologists now know that such fusion events do occur with significant frequency, the representation of evolutionary relationships as simple trees has been called more and more into question in recent years. There is a growing consensus that evolution has often been a process that involves the rejoining of divergent limbs.

Among the differences in their theories, only Wallace’s theory limits the power of natural selection to effect biological change. It suggests that in those areas of the biological world beyond the scope of natural selection’s operations, some purposeful intelligence must be called upon to explain their existence. In contrast, Darwinian evolution claims that all biological life can be explained through a directionless process of “survival of the fittest” and random mutation.

Wallace advocated what is best described as a theory of “intelligent evolution.” Intelligent evolution is a theory of common descent based upon natural selection strictly bounded by the principle of utility. However, where utility cannot be found in a known organ or attribute, some other cause—an intelligent cause—must be called upon.  In short, intelligent evolution is directed, detectably designed, and purposeful common descent. Wallace’s theory included an option for teleologics and Darwin’s did not. 

Wallace thought Darwin’s theory was incomplete—the guidance of a higher power was needed to explain nature. Wallace's ideas show strongly that the godless view of evolution taken by so many modern evolutionists is not forced on them by the evidence; rather they assume it in spite of the evidence.  Wallace observed, to Darwin’s chagrin, that man’s intellect—his reason, his artistic and musical ability, his wit, his talent, and most of all man’s moral sense—must be caused by an “Overruling Intelligence” that guided evolution. Wallace insisted that man’s mind was created by a Mind.  Darwin was following evidence that supported a materialist theory he already espoused; Wallace was following evidence that shed light on the nature of nature.  Wallace provided both a coherent criticism of Darwin and Darwinism and a theist-friendly alternative account of evolution.  Darwin knew something ominous from Wallace was in the air. Writing to Wallace in March 1869, Darwin penned nervously, “I shall be intensely curious to read the Quarterly: I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”

Wallace and Darwin’s friend Lyell had established a long and intense dialogue over evolution and the two agreed that the theory—at least as Darwin had expounded it—carried certain implications for human development that were problematic; both became sounding boards for each other regarding a teleological interpretation of these processes. Perhaps emboldened by his fertile discussions with Lyell, Wallace used his published review of Lyell’s work to present to the world the unambivalent evolutionary teleology that he would expound in ever-greater detail during the remainder of his life.

Wallace basically pointed to the human intellect as being too great for that simply allowable by natural selection because, by definition, the law of natural selection guided by the principle of utility would be an effective barrier to its development.

One could not, Wallace argued, explain the uniquely human attributes of abstract reasoning, mathematical ability, wit, love of music and musical aptitude, art appreciation and artistic talent, and moral sense as necessary for survival in a state of pure nature through which (by Darwin’s own principle) natural selection must operate. Therefore, some other cause or action must be invoked. That cause of action Wallace called “an Overruling Intelligence.” Darwin was devastated and scratched an emphatic “NO!!!” in the margin of his copy of the Quarterly. He wrote back to Wallace, “I presume that your remarks on Man are those to which you alluded in your note. If you had not told me I should have thought that they had been added by someone else. As you expected, I differ grievously from you, and I am very sorry for it.”

Nine months later Darwin was still reminding Wallace, “But I groan over Man—you write like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist, and you the author of the best paper [“On the Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man”] that ever appeared in the Anthropological Review! Eheu! Eheu! Eheu!—Your miserable friend, C. Darwin.”

Darwin also broached his disappointment to Lyell.  Darwin did not get the sympathetic ear he was looking for. “I rather hail Wallace’s suggestion that there may be a Supreme Will and Power which may not abdicate its functions of interference, but may guide the forces and laws of Nature,” Lyell replied.

Darwin had, of course, been working on an evolutionary theory longer than Wallace had. Still, the question remains whether he would ever have published if Wallace's manuscript had never arrived in the mail. No doubt, Darwin’s wealth was one reason that he ended up with most of the credit for the evolutionary theory. Darwin was a member of one of the richest families in England. Moreover, Darwin's writings about the voyage of the Beagle had made him famous. His riches, social prominence, and fame as an author left the younger, less well-known Wallace in the shadows.  But there may be another reason for his success over Wallace’s.

What was the worldview in the 1800’s when Darwin and Wallace were developing and publishing their works?  Europe was in the throes of the Enlightenment.  Indeed, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, as noted above, was one of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th-century Europe.  It emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition.  Its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge specifically through the scientific method.  It strongly opposed Christianity.  The Enlightenment was a revolution in human thought. The new way of thinking was that rational thought begins with clearly stated principles, uses correct logic to arrive at conclusions, tests the conclusions against evidence, and then revises the principles in the light of the evidence.  In regard to the theory of evolution, the secular intelligentsia sided with Darwin because Darwinism provided them with a view of evolution that handily eliminated God.

They succeeded in making Darwinism the default view of evolution.  His theory better served their purposes, but was his theory correct?  Was it complete?  If it is incomplete, what is it missing?  If it is complete, why does it remain only a theory after all this time??  Darwin had critics even amongst his friends.  Another theory, Intelligent Evolution or Intelligent Design, was equally well developed and obviously not a new consideration.  Wallace was not the first to propose it.  Erasmus Darwin proposed it over sixty years before him.