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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Misunderstanding Alfred Russel Wallace

A friend comments on Michael Shermer's "A Skeptic's Take on the Public Misunderstanding of Darwin" (Scientific American, February, 2009),
Shermer has exhibited a knack for consistently misinterpreting and selectively quoting Wallace. Shermer is correct that Wallace suggested Spencer's term survival of the fittest, but he doesn't own up to what this came to mean for Wallace. Wallace's mature understanding of evolutionary processes were themselves evolving and would take a distinct turn away from Darwin in 1869. Shermer is understandably big on the pre-1869 Wallace; after that Shermer's treatment of Wallace becomes progressively more selective and idiosyncratic. In fact, Wallace came to understand "survival of the fittest" precisely within the teleological terms Shermer would deny. Consider this from his World of Life (1910): "If then, as I am endeavoring to show, all life development -- all organic life forces -- are due to mind-action, we must postulate not forces, but guidance; not only self-acting agencies as are involved in natural selection and adaptation through survival of the fittest , but that far higher mentality which foresees all possible results of our cosmos. That constitution, in all its complexity of structure and of duly coordinated forces acting continuously through eons of time, has culminated in the foreseen result. No other view yet suggested affords any adequate explanation . . . ." (p. 197) So in the end Wallace not only adopted but championed the so-called "misconception." Notice that Wallace could continue to use the term but within an expressly teleological framework. What Wallace called "mind-action" or "Overruling Intelligence" most of us would simply call God.
Which reminds me, I have just received Michael Flannery's new book, Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace's World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus, 2009). More later.

It's good to see someone taking this stuff on. As Darwinism becomes less believable by the year, we can expect more sophisticated "misunderstanding" of alternatives, equivalent to the number that Darwin's disciples did on his co-theorist Wallace.

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