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Alfred Russel Wallace was a Hyper-Evolutionist, not an Intelligent Design Creationist

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” The following is my opening statement in the debate. A link to Flannery’s reply can be found near the end of this page.

The double dangerous game of Whiggish What-if? history is on the table in this debate that inexorably invokes hindsight bias, along the lines of “Was Thomas Jefferson a racist because he had slaves?” Adjudicating historical belief and behavior with modern judicial scales is a fool’s errand that carries but one virtue—enlightenment of the past for correcting current misunderstandings. Thus I shall endeavor to enlighten modern thinkers on the perils of misjudging Alfred Russel Wallace as an Intelligent Design creationist, and at the same time reveal the fundamental flaw in both his evolutionary theory and that of this latest incarnation of creationism.

Wallace’s scientific heresy was first delivered in the April, 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review, in which he outlined what he saw as the failure of natural selection to explain the enlarged human brain (compared to apes), as well as the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of the body:

In the brain of the lowest savages and, as far as we know, of the prehistoric races, we have an organ…little inferior in size and complexity to that of the highest types…. But the mental requirements of the lowest savages, such as the Australians or the Andaman Islanders, are very little above those of many animals. How then was an organ developed far beyond the needs of its possessor? Natural Selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.

(Please note the language that, were we to judge the man solely by his descriptors for indigenous peoples, would lead us to label Wallace a racist even though he was in his own time what we would today call a progressive liberal.)

Since natural selection was the only law of nature Wallace knew of to explain the development of these structures, and since he determined that it could not adequately do so, he concluded that “an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.”

Natural selection is not prescient—it does not select for needs in the future. Nature did not know we would one day need a big brain in order to contemplate the heavens or compute complex mathematical problems; she merely selected amongst our ancestors those who were best able to survive and leave behind offspring. But since we are capable of such sublime and lofty mental functions, Wallace deduced, clearly natural selection could not have been the originator of a brain big enough to handle them. Thus the need to invoke an “Overruling Intelligence” for this apparent gap in the theory.

Why did Wallace retreat from his own theory of natural selection when it came to the human mind? The answer, in a word, is hyper-selectionism (or adaptationism), in which the current adaptive purpose of a structure or function must be explained by natural selection applied to the past. Birds presently use wings to fly, so if we cannot conceive of how natural selection could incrementally select for fractional wings that were fully functional at each partial stage (called “the problem of incipient stages”) then some other force must have been at work. Darwin answered this criticism by demonstrating how present structures serve a purpose different from the one for which they were originally selected. Partial wings, for example, were not poorly designed flying structures but well designed thermoregulators. Stephen Jay Gould calls this process “exaptation” (ex-adaptation) and uses the Panda’s thumb as his type specimen: it is not a poorly designed thumb but a radial sesamoid (wrist) bone modified by natural selection for stripping leaves off bamboo shoots.

Wallace’s hyperselectionism and adaptationism were outlined more formally in an 1870 paper, “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” in which he admitted up front the danger of proffering a force that is beyond those known to science: “I must confess that this theory has the disadvantage of requiring the intervention of some distinct individual intelligence…. It therefore implies that the great laws which govern the material universe were insufficient for this production, unless we consider…that the controlling action of such higher intelligences is a necessary part of those laws….”

After an extensive analysis of brain size differences between humans and non-human primates, Wallace then considers such abstractions as law, government, science, and even such games as chess (a favorite pastime of his), noting that “savages” lack all such advances. Even more, “Any considerable development of these would, in fact, be useless or even hurtful to him, since they would to some extent interfere with the supremacy of those perceptive and animal faculties on which his very existence often depends, in the severe struggle he has to carry on against nature and his fellow-man. Yet the rudiments of all these powers and feelings undoubtedly exist in him, since one or other of them frequently manifest themselves in exceptional cases, or when some special circumstances call them forth.”

Therefore, he concludes, “the general, moral, and intellectual development of the savage is not less removed from that of civilised man than has been shown to be the case in the one department of mathematics; and from the fact that all the moral and intellectual faculties do occasionally manifest themselves, we may fairly conclude that they are always latent, and that the large brain of the savage man is much beyond his actual requirements in the savage state.” Thus, “A brain one-half larger than that of the gorilla would, according to the evidence before us, fully have sufficed for the limited mental development of the savage; and we must therefore admit that the large brain he actually possesses could never have been solely developed by any of those laws of evolution…. The brain of prehistoric and of savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.”

The middle sections of this lengthy paper review additional human features that Wallace could not conceive of being evolved by natural selection: the distribution of body hair, naked skin, feet and hands, the voice box and speech, the ability to sing, artistic notions of form, color, and composition, mathematical reasoning and geometrical spatial abilities, morality and ethical systems, and especially such concepts as space and time, eternity and infinity. “How were all or any of these faculties first developed, when they could have been of no possible use to man in his early stages of barbarism? How could natural selection, or survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, at all favour the development of mental powers so entirely removed from the material necessities of savage men, and which even now, with our comparatively high civilisation, are, in their farthest developments, in advance of the age, and appear to have relation rather to the future of the race than to its actual status?”

Modern Intelligent Design creationists generally (with few exceptions) believe that the designer is God. Nowhere in this paper does Wallace invoke God as the overarching intelligence. In a footnote in the second edition of the volume in which this paper was published, in fact, Wallace upbraids those who accused him of such speculations:

Some of my critics seem quite to have misunderstood my meaning in this part of the argument. They have accused me of unnecessarily and unphilosophically appealing to “first causes” in order to get over a difficulty—of believing that “our brains are made by God and our lungs by natural selection;” and that, in point of fact, “man is God’s domestic animal.” … Now, in referring to the origin of man, and its possible determining causes, I have used the words “some other power”—“some intelligent power”—“a superior intelligence”—“a controlling intelligence,” and only in reference to the origin of universal forces and laws have I spoken of the will or power of “one Supreme Intelligence.” These are the only expressions I have used in alluding to the power which I believe has acted in the case of man, and they were purposely chosen to show that I reject the hypothesis of “first causes” for any and every special effect in the universe, except in the same sense that the action of man or of any other intelligent being is a first cause. In using such terms I wished to show plainly that I contemplated the possibility that the development of the essentially human portions of man’s structure and intellect may have been determined by the directing influence of some higher intelligent beings, acting through natural and universal laws.

Clearly Wallace’s heresy had nothing to do with God or any other supernatural force, as these “natural and universal laws” could be fully incorporated into the type of empirical science he practiced. It was not spiritualism, but scientism at work in Wallace’s world-view: “These speculations are usually held to be far beyond the bounds of science; but they appear to me to be more legitimate deductions from the facts of science than those which consist in reducing the whole universe…to matter conceived and defined so as to be philosophically inconceivable.”

In Wallace’s science there is no supernatural. There is only the natural and unexplained phenomenon yet to be incorporated into the natural sciences. That he left no room in his evolutionary theory for exaptations of early structures for later use is no reflection on his ambitions and abilities as a scientist. It was, in fact, one of Wallace’s career goals to be the scientist who brought more of the apparent supernatural into the realm of the natural, and the remainder of his life was devoted to fleshing out the details of a scientism that encompassed so many different issues and controversies that made him a heretic-scientist.

If modern Intelligent Design theorists restricted their visage to only natural causes they would, perchance, be taken more seriously by the scientific community, who at present (myself included) sees this movement as nothing more than another species of the genus Homo creationopithicus.

Read Flannery’s reply to my opening statement and tune into Skepticblog in a couple weeks for my response to him.

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The Baloney Detection Kit (on RDF TV)

With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, lays out a “Baloney Detection Kit” — ten questions we should ask when encountering a claim. (continue reading…)

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Atheists & Genesis Revisited Hits the Small Screen

For this week’s blog I’ll post two related video links, the first for an Australian television series called Compass, which interviewed me while I was in Sydney last summer, on “The Atheists.”

I think it is a well done show, fair and balanced, so to speak, but I do find the premise rather interesting in as much as they purport to be studying “us” like we’re some mysterious species recently discovered on a remote island. From the voice over: “What do they believe? And are they all the same?” Picture David Attenborough hanging from a cliff face, “and here, if you look closely, you’ll see amongst the vast forest of believers the rare spotted atheist, whose diet remains a mystery but whose mating habits produce far fewer offspring than believers, and so they nest precariously on face cliffs such as this one so as not to be devoured by their carnivorous neighbors…”

Here’s the show summary:

Compass talks to atheists of different stripes.Eminent philosopher John Gray; science writer and editor of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer; historian and writer Inga Clendinnen and Australia’s best known atheist Phillip Adams, all explore the philosophical and practical consequences of being an atheist.

How does their atheism shape their attitudes to science and the big questions of our time such as war and global warming? Is conflict between atheists and believers inevitable and necessary? Or, is this debate generating more heat than light?

Genesis Revisited

I happened upon this delightful video based on the Coda entitled “Genesis Revisited,” from my book, Why Darwin Matters, which I explained in the book: “To convey the logical absurdity of trying to squeeze the round peg of science into the square hole of religion, I penned the following scientific revision of the Genesis creation story. It is not intended as a sacrilege of the poetic beauty of Genesis; rather, it is a mere extension of what the creationists have already done to Genesis in their insistence that it be read not as mythic saga but as scientific prose. If Genesis were written in the language of modern science, it would read something like this.”

The voice is in this video is a computer generated voice called “Daniel” from RealSpeak

Genesis Revisited: A Scientific Creation Story
by Michael Shermer

In the beginning — specifically on October 23, 4004 B.C., at noon — out of quantum foam fluctuation God created the Big Bang, followed by cosmological inflation and an expanding universe. And darkness was upon the face of the deep, so He commanded hydrogen atoms (which He created from Quarks) to fuse and become helium atoms and in the process release energy in the form of light. And the light maker he called the sun, and the process He called fusion. And He saw the light was good because now He could see what He was doing, so He created Earth. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be lots of fusion light makers in the sky. Some of these fusion makers He grouped into collections He called galaxies, and these appeared to be millions and even billions of light years from Earth, which would mean that they were created before the first creation in 4004 B.C. This was confusing, so God created tired light, and the creation story was preserved. And created He many wondrous splendors such as Red Giants, White Dwarfs, Quasars, Pulsars, Supernova, Worm Holes, and even Black Holes out of which nothing can escape. But since God cannot be constrained by nothing, He created Hawking radiation through which information can escape from Black Holes. This made God even more tired than tired light, and the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the continents drift apart by plate tectonics. He decreed sea floor spreading would create zones of emergence, and He caused subduction zones to build mountains and cause earthquakes. In weak points in the crust God created volcanic islands, where the next day He would place organisms that were similar to but different from their relatives on the continents, so that still later created creatures called humans would mistake them for evolved descendants created by adaptive radiation. And the evening and the morning were the third day. And God saw that the land was barren, so He created animals bearing their own kind, declaring Thou shalt not evolve into new species, and thy equilibrium shall not be punctuated. And God placed into the rocks, fossils that appeared older than 4004 B.C. that were similar to but different from living creatures. And the sequence resembled descent with modification. And the evening and morning were the fourth day.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life, the fishes. And God created great whales whose skeletal structure and physiology were homologous with the land mammals he would create later that day. God then brought forth abundantly all creatures, great and small, declaring that microevolution was permitted, but not macroevolution. And God said, “Natura non facit saltum” — Nature shall not make leaps. And the evening and morning were the fifth day.

And God created the pongidids and hominids with 98 percent genetic similarity, naming two of them Adam and Eve. In the book in which God explained how He did all this, in one chapter He said he created Adam and Eve together out of the dust at the same time, but in another chapter He said He created Adam first, then later created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. This caused confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt, so God created theologians to sort it out.

And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One chosen as his special creation He named Lucy, who could walk upright like a human but had a small brain like an ape. And God realized this too was confusing, so he created paleoanthropologists to figure it out.

Just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, and evolutionary biology, so he created creation myths. But there were so many creation stories throughout the world God realized this too was confusing, so created He anthropologists and mythologists.

By now the valley of the shadow of doubt was overrunneth with skepticism, so God became angry, so angry that God lost His temper and cursed the first humans, telling them to go forth and multiply themselves (but not in those words). But the humans took God literally and now there are six billion of them. And the evening and morning were the sixth day.

By now God was tired, so He proclaimed, “Thank me its Friday,” and He made the weekend.
It was a good idea.

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Creationism in 3-D

A skeptic engages three types of creationists who claim science supports their beliefs, yet they contradict one another
magazine cover

During the tsunami of bicentennial celebrations of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in February, I visited the fringes of evolutionary skepticism to better understand how one of science’s grandest theories could still be doubted.

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol, England, is run by a kindly gentlemen named Anthony Bush, who insisted that I not confuse him with those “loony American creationists” who think that Earth is only 6,000 years old. “How old do you think it is?” I queried. “Oh, I’ve worked it out to be around 100,000 years old, with Adam and Eve at around 21,000 years old.” (At an order of magnitude difference that makes Mr. Bush only five zeros shy of reality.)

What about, I pressed on, all the geologic evidence for a much older Earth? All those strata of, say, sandstone — loose sand compressed into solid rock over immense periods? Those strata are laid down every season, like tree rings, Bush explained. Interesting analogy, given that we can see trees growing from year to year, but where can we find sand being annually compressed into stone? (continue reading…)

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Biblical Patternicity


Last night, April 28, 2009, I debated Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana from Reasons to Believe (RTB), an evangelical Christian organization whose mission it is to give people “reasons to believe” beyond the usual faith-based reasons. In this case, it is to scour the annals of scientific discovery in search of findings that seem to gel well with biblical passages; and even if they don’t seem to fit, these gentlemen are adroit at massaging both the research and the scriptures such that in the end they will fit come hell or high water.

I blogged about my previous debate with the RTB boys before, so I won’t repeat their arguments and my rebuttals here, but this was most definitely a larger venue and audience — the basketball arena at the University of Texas at Austin with over 3,000 in attendance — so I made sure that my presentation was especially poignant and lively (first and foremost, I believe, a public speaker must be interesting, have something to say, and say it in a manner that gets people to pay attention and remember). For example, I nailed Ross right off the bat on his claim that the RTB “day-age” model of creation is correct when he said that the use of the Hebrew word “yom” in Genesis means “epoch” (and therefore no matter what scientists discover about the age of the origins of life, the Earth, and the universe, they can say “see, our model predicted that correctly”).

No, sorry gentlemen, yom means “day,” as in, well, a day, a 24-hour day. Yom Kippur, for example, is the “Day of Atonement”. Yom Kippur is, in fact, the 10th and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur does not mean the “Age of Atonement,” the “Epoch of Atonement,” the “Geological Age of Atonement,” or the “Cosmological Constant of Atonement.” As I pointed this out I could see Mssrs. Ross and Rana scrambling through their Bibles and other works of reference they had on the table with them, but they never did respond so I presume that they have conceded the point.


I also made the general point that their RTB creation models are based on postdictions, whereas science depends on prediction. That is, the RTB models start with what we already know about nature, then search for biblical passages to match them, then predict that we’ll find more of the same. This is exactly what the Nostradamians do, as when they “predicted” 9/11 … after it happened! Sorry gentlemen, that’s not a prediction; that’s a postdiction. For RTB to be science, they must make predictions about things we do not already know!

Ross claims that the Bible — and only the Bible — has a creation story to match that of modern cosmology; that is, the creation of the universe out of nothing, that the earth was without form and void, etc. That’s not true, and I provided several examples from the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians. But I also found this one that I added to the collection, from the Tao-te Ching 25, 6th century B.C.E.:

There was something undifferentiated
and yet complete,
which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless,
it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere
and is free from danger.
It may be considered
the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.


At one point in my presentation I pointed out the supreme irony of an atheist having to explain to theists how to properly read the Bible. The book of Job, for example, is about suffering and the problem of evil and why bad things happen to good people. It is not a book of cosmology. Further, I noted that Bible scholars of all stripes (most of whom are deeply religious) agree that the Bible is an edited volume written by many authors over a long span of time. This helps explain why, for example, in one passage Noah is instructed to take two of every kind of animal on the Ark, and in another passage he is instructed to take 7 of each kind. One version has the flood lasting 40 days and 40 nights, another passage says 150 days. In one passage Noah sends out a raven to find land. In another passage he sends a dove. And on and on. By adopting the methods of Reasons to Believe, you are forced to dismiss all of this scholarship and miss the real meaning of the Bible. The Bible is about how people should get along with one another and about morality and ethics and meaning. By trying to make the Bible fit the current estimates of the Hubble constant (to pick just one among many examples), me thinks you are missing the point of the book, and thus (in your world view) you are missing God’s message.

Is that supreme irony, or what?

In a form of what I call “Literary Patternicity” (patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise), in the following passage from the great poet John Donne, it would appear that he anticipated the discovery of the double helix as the basis of life and reproduction:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string;
So to intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

Wow, incredible, how could John Donne have anticipated the discovery by Crick and Watson centuries later? But more importantly, my point in this exercise in literary patternicity is that you will miss the beauty and power of Donne’s poetry if you try to read into it modern scientific discoveries.

I closed with a set of challenges to Ross and Rana, asking them to tell us, from their scriptural readings, the answers to the following unknowns in science:

  1. Did Neanderthals have symbolic language, and what caused their extinction?
  2. Is RNA the precursor to DNA, and what came first, cells or self-replicating molecules?
  3. Did eukaryotic cells come from prokaryotic cells?
  4. When did ID/God intervene in the history of life — never, occasionally, always?
  5. Why doesn’t God heal amputees?
  6. If it turns out that your testable RTB models are refuted, will you give up your belief in Jesus as your savior?

Interestingly, although Ross said that if his RTB models were refuted he would give up his belief in both God and Jesus, there erupted in the audience a loud chorus of “no” voices, which made my point beautifully: this is not, never was, and never will be about science, because no scientific evidence would ever dissuade believers from their belief. Why? Because such beliefs are not based on science in the first place.


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