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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Alfred Russel Wallace vs. Charles Darwin on cruelty in nature

In World of Life, Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's co-theorist, directly addressed one of Darwin's key reasons for rejecting design in nature, in a letter to American supporter Asa Gray:
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.— (Letter 2814 — Darwin, C. R. to Gray, Asa, 22 May [1860])
Now, Darwin was a slippery character, as biographers have acknowledged, and he had been a materialist atheist long before he had any theory of evolution to propose, so his pretense of coming to these conclusions reluctantly was just that - a pretense. (See Flannery on this.)

However, Wallace addresses both examples in The World of Life. With respect to insects, he notes,
There is, of course, a large body of facts which indicate that whole classes of animals, though very highly organized, suffer nothing which can be called pain, as in the insects; and similar facts show us that even the highest warm-blooded animals suffer very much less than we do. (P. 185)
Now, re insects, Wallace is surely right, and I have never been much impressed by Darwin's example of the Ichneumon wasp laying its larvae in caterpillars. There is little evidence that the caterpillar knows or cares that it simultaneously gorges and is gorged. Whether a given caterpillar pupates or dies is not an instance of any great evil in the world, provided no ecology is upset.

About "the highest, warm-blooded" animals, I am not so sure. However, one source of human suffering that animals don't have is a "metacognitive" understanding of their condition. That is, the old dog Rover may think, ''I feel sick. I have no appetite, no energy. I just want to sleep all the time." His people know, "Rover has an inoperable cancer. Sedatives and painkillers for now. Later, we must make a decision ..." Rover is forever barred from knowing the nature of his condition, in the human, metacognitive sense, so there are many sources of suffering he simply cannot experience.

With respect to cats, Wallace notes, "It must be remembered that in a state of nature the Carnivora hunt and kill to satisfy hunger, not for amusement; and all conclusions derived from the house-fed cat and mouse are fallacious." (p. 181)

One might add that the biggest worry for a wild cat or other small carnivore that its catch might be stolen by a bigger animal. Swallowing the prey whole is a common preventive tactic. (The prey may be disgorged later, of course, for offspring - but meanwhile, it is secure down the hatch.)

See Michael A. Flannery's Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution (Erasmus, 2009) for more.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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C.S. Lewis and Darwinism

From Alan Jacobs, The Narnian (HarperOne, 2006)

from a letter to his father in 1925, p. 120 (long before he became a theist (1929) or Christian (1931), on having been accepted for English rather than philosophy.

If the air on the heights did not suit me, still I have brought back something of value. It will be a comfort to me all my life to know that the scientist and the materialist have not the last world: that Darwin and Spencer undermining ancestral beliefs stand themselves on a foundation of sand; of gigantic assumptions and irreconcilable contradictions an inch below the surface. It leaves the whole thing rich in possibilities: and if it dashes the shallow optimisms it does the same for the shallow pessimisms.
It's not clear to me why theistic evolutionists claim Lewis as one of their own. He never was.

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Passings: Cross-disciplinary pioneer Brian Goodwin dead at 78

Brian Goodwin: A Pioneer across the Disciplines
ISIS Press Release 23/07/09

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Prof. Brian Goodwin in his last post as Resident Scholar at Schumacher College at the age of 78.
Brian was a scientist well ahead of his time. He pioneered theoretical biology, structuralism, complexity theory, holistic and Goethean science, inspiring generations of students and colleagues across the disciplines to ask the big questions and always to think beyond received wisdom.

Brian had been member of ISIS since the beginning and also a member of the Independent Science Panel of 2003. Brian’s funeral will be held at 2 pm on August 1 at Staverton Church in Dorset. His memorial is set for 20 September.

Please check the website link for further information.

A friend notes:
A friend writes, Brian Goodwin has been a significant figure in the UK for many decades. I once heard him give a fascinating lecture of the "fruiting" bodies made when thousands of amoeba stopped acting as individuals and started acting as a collective. His structuralist views kept him out of the UK neodarwinian hierarchy, but his writings have ensured a continuing influence among younger biologists.
For an appreciation of his work, go here.

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Alfred Russel Wallace and intelligent design

This episode of ID the Future has the second installment of Casey Luskin’s interview of Michael A. Flannery, author of Alfred Russel Wallace's Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace's World of Life Challenged Darwinism (2009). In this podcast, historian Flannery explains how Wallace held views different from Darwin, and thus poses a challenge to modern ID-critics:

“You see, with Wallace they’re faced with a real problem, because with Wallace they’re faced in one individual someone who is non-Christian, non-creationist, a thorough evolutionist, who not only independently discovered natural selection but came to a view of nature imbued with intelligent design. So an unamended Wallace would really force the Darwinists to admit 3 important things. First, it’s absolutely possible to believe in evolution without subscribing to Darwinism. … Second, ID is not nor was it from the beginning creationist. And third, ID was derived from scientific observations more than a hundred years ago, drawn from Alfred Russel Wallace.”

Michael Flannery is Professor and Associate Director for Historical Collections at the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has previously published on Alfred Russel Wallace in Forbes Magazine online, and his book is published by Erasmus Press.

Click here to listen.

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