The orthodox story is that he came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection about the same time as Darwin, therefore deserving equal credit. He was not given this recognition at the time, and has therefore been to some extent lost in the historical account. Two BBC programmes supporting this version of events were:
a) an edition of radio 4’s In Our Time, 21/3/2013.
b) Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero (two episodes, 21 and 28/4/2013), in which the comedian, a big fan of Wallace, embarks on a mission to rehabilitate his reputation, and give him the recognition he deserves. He achieves his ambition, the climax being a statue of Wallace at the Natural History Museum alongside the statue of Darwin.
Also, on the occasion of the centenary of Wallace’s death, there was an article by Stephanie Pain in New Scientist magazine (1) under the heading “…it is time to put him in his proper place – as Charles Darwin’s evolutionary equal”.
What is the true story? Whatever Wallace may or may not have thought in the late 1850s, by the end of his life he was a firm believer in God and Intelligent Design, as is clearly shown by the title of his 1914 book The World of Life: a Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose. In it he states his view that the purpose (that scientific heresy teleology!) of evolution is “the development of Man, the one crowning product of the whole cosmic process” (1). It is also interesting to note that in his book Darwinism he had previously included a section entitled Independent Proof that the Mathematical, Musical, and Artistic Faculties have not been Developed under the Law of Natural Selection (which are of course what we would describe as more spiritual aspects of humanity) (2). He was also a firm believer in spiritualism, as evidenced by his book Miracles and Modern Spiritualism. (All three books are available as free online downloads.)
Neither BBC programme found the time to mention any of this, even though the first was specifically meant to be an account of the life of Wallace. If we listen to an edition of In Our Time, we should be able to expect a reasonably complete presentation of the topic under consideration. Melvyn Bragg, however, made no mention of these facts, and concentrated exclusively on the orthodox story. It was left to one of the guests, geneticist Steve Jones, to allude briefly, if somewhat vaguely, to this when he said: “There was lots of speculation (of where species came from) … It got frightfully, terribly close to philosophy, which is always a sign that science is sinking into the morass. Darwin and Wallace rescued it from that, although… Wallace later in his life began to push it back in that direction” (my italics). This statement clearly does not do justice to the subject matter; Jones chose to call “philosophical speculation” what in reality were statements of religious faith and Intelligent Design (derived, it must be emphasised, from his observations of the natural world, not from a reading of the Bible!)
One can argue that Bill Bailey had the right to choose what to put into his programmes, but I would prefer a more complete, and therefore more honest, picture of the subject at hand. He described the theory of evolution by natural selection as “one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time”, but failed to mention any of the above. He even said that Wallace had taken “a path which would ultimately lead him to deny God”, which is either ignorance on an extraordinary scale, if he has studied Wallace as deeply as he claims, or a blatant lie.
Stephanie Pain, also a big fan of and knowledgeable about Wallace, is aware that he “was a prolific and successful writer”, yet fails to mention the books mentioned above, although she surely ought to have been aware of them. She therefore leaves her readers with a false impression of Wallace. She does mention his interest in spiritualism, but says that this is something discovered from a reading of his letters, thus downplaying its importance, when in fact he was interested enough to write a whole book about it, in which he bravely declared his belief in it, despite the criticism he received.
Along similar lines we can also note Richard Dawkins’s opening to his preface of The Blind Watchmaker. There he says that the mystery of our existence has now been solved. “Darwin and Wallace solved it, though we shall continue to add footnotes to their solution for a while yet” (3). Again this is very misleading, since Dawkins’s understanding of Wallace’s “solution” is in direct contradiction to what Wallace thought himself.
1. Issue 2942, November 9th, 2013 2. Preface, Pvii 3. 1889 edition, p 469 4. Penguin, 1988, Pxiii