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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Alfred who?

Alfred Russel Wallace

Today I bring you a short extract from my book Beyond the Frontiers of Human Intelligence. Yep, it's another one in the closet unpublished, but who knows, maybe I'll pull it out again one day! In line with yesterday's post about forgotten geniuses, today I bring forward the contrasting tales of the two men at the forefront of evolutionary theory in the mid 19th century. One would be effectively canonised in the halls of science, the other given a footnote in science history.

Darwin’s name lives on well beyond his death, and Darwinism has reached almost mythical proportions in modern science. Yet few people outside of evolutionary theory know of Darwin’s contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was an instrumental figure in the development of evolutionary theory. The reason for this is perhaps best stated by popular writer Bill Bryson, who relegates Wallace to a single sentence in his book A Brief History of Almost Everything. Bryson writes that Wallace: “…fell from scientific favour by taking up dubious interests such as spiritualism and the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe” (Bryson 2003 p 389). Likewise, science writer John Gribbin in Science: A History finds that Wallace’s interest in vitalism and spiritualism “tainted his scientific reputation” (Gribbin 2003 p 357). 

Darwin developed the theory of natural selection, but Wallace also made a tremendous contribution to evolutionary theory. As early as 1855, Wallace had written in his “Sarawak Law” essay of his belief in an organic evolutionary process which could account for geographical differentiation of species. It is unlikely however, that he appreciated the process of natural selection. Wallace continued to make great contributions to the field, but in 1866 he came out publicly in support of “spiritualism.” His “scientific reputation” never fully recovered after that point, and his contribution to evolutionary theory remains understated. More significantly, the kinds of mystical evolutionary processes within nature which he avowed had became relegated to the status of "superstition", and thus dismissed without consideration.

In an essay originally published in 1885, Wallace wrote:

…man consists essentially of a spiritual nature or mind intimately associated with a spiritual body or soul, both of which are developed in and by means of a material organism. Thus the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the material universe--with all its marvellous changes and adaptations, the infinite complexity of matter and of the ethereal forces which pervade and vivify it, the vast wealth of nature in the vegetable and animal kingdoms--is to serve the grand purpose of developing human spirits in human bodies. [i]

This is clearly a mystical/spiritual worldview, where mind animates nature.

Further it is fascinating to note that Wallace got the inspiration for his ideas on evolution during a non-ordinary state of consciousness. He had a series of visions while experiencing a fever. Non-ordinary states of mind are another effective taboo in modern science.

Wallace’s excommunication from mainstream science was effectively because his worldview was influenced by mystical spirituality.  He failed to heed the "psi taboo". That his interests are deemed “dubious” indicates the degree to which such issues have become ridiculed and scorned within modern scientific discourse. So Wallace became the “other man” (Gribbin 2003 p 350) in early evolutionary theory, and a point of potential debate in the development of science and evolution became incontestable. The Western mechanistic hegemony continued unabated.

I have to say I have some sympathy for Wallace, and can relate to how he must have felt. Despite having a PhD and scores of academic publications no university has thus far been willing to hire me, not even for a part-time position.  Meanwhile I see uni positions go to PhDs who have studied relatively uncreative subject matters and done a fraction of the work that I have. As parapsychologist Marilyn Shiltz wrote in one of her papers, there is a genuine price to pay for being a "proponent".


[i] Wallace, A.R.1885, “Are the Phenomena of Spiritualism in Harmony With Science?” Originally published in The Sunday Herald (Boston) of 26 April 1885.


  1. Marcus - we deleted the blog for now. He hacked us again (4th time). The offer to read the energy would be great. don't write to the other email address. We'll contact you! Sounds like spy stuff, huh?
    - Trish

  2. Most of these remarks are inaccurate. Wallace was never "excommunicated"; in his late years he became the most famous scientist in the world. And while his 1855 paper signaled no recognition of natural selection, his more famous 1858 one certainly did. Yes, he did fall from favor in some quarters, but some quarters only: his incessant contributions to science were well known and he had many followers. And he was attacked not for believing in life on other worlds, but for arguing it was unlikely that advanced life *did* exist on other worlds.

  3. Well, my Anonymous friend, the truth is that there is not much in that little piece that is "inaccurate", as far as my sources indicate. Perhaps you'd like to be more specific as to what is inaccurate. The main point of the article is that Darwin has been valorised by mainstream science (although some argue he is misrepresented - see, while almost nobody on the street has heard of Wallace nowadays. Darwin criticised Wallace's spiritualist beliefs, BTW. Having just checked, you are right about Wallace believing that human's are unique in the universe - he examined evidence for the "canals" on Mars and was convinced they were natural formations. So Bill Bryson has misrepresented his ideeas there (that was my source).

    As for Wallace being "excommunicated", perhaps that is too harsh a word, but the following extract from wikipedia fully supports the widely help opinion that Wallace lost scientific credibility because of his support of spiritualist ideas. Marcus


    Wallace's very public advocacy of spiritualism and his repeated defence of spiritualist mediums against allegations of fraud in the 1870s damaged his scientific reputation. It strained his relationships with previously friendly scientists such as Henry Bates, Thomas Huxley, and even Darwin, who felt he was overly credulous. Others, such as the physiologist William Benjamin Carpenter and zoologist E. Ray Lankester became openly and publicly hostile to Wallace over the issue. Wallace and other scientists who defended spiritualism, notably William Crookes, were subject to much criticism from the press, with The Lancet as the leading English medical journal of the time being particularly harsh. The controversy affected the public perception of Wallace’s work for the rest of his career.[108] When, in 1879, Darwin first tried to rally support among naturalists to get a civil pension awarded to Wallace, Joseph Hooker responded:

    "Wallace has lost caste considerably, not only by his adhesion to Spiritualism, but by the fact of his having deliberately and against the whole voice of the committee of his section of the British Association, brought about a discussion of on Spiritualism at one of its sectional meetings. That he is said to have done so in an underhanded manner, and I well remember the indignation it gave rise to in the B.A. Council."