Monday, February 05, 2007


Wallace's Line

Jonathan Rosen has an interesting piece in The New Yorker on Alfred Russel Wallace, who he calls "Darwin’s neglected double." That may be overstating the case, both as to the neglect of Wallace and as to how close his views were to Darwin's. Wallace's role in the history of evolutionary theory is not as obscure among people with interest in the subject as Rosen might think and he suffers less from the distortions and calumny that the anti-science crowd heaps on Darwin. And as has been pointed out before, Darwin himself may have overestimated the similarity of Wallace's original theory to his own, in that Wallace saw natural selection working at the species level rather than at the level of the individual organism.

Still, it is not a bad idea to make Wallace and his life more widely known, as he is an interesting figure in his own right. Rosen gives a good broad synopsis of Wallace's life and work, though the details may need some checking, since Rosen treats the apocryphal story about J. B. S. Haldane, supposedly pressed by a clergyman on the nature of God, quipping that “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles” as if it was true.

On the significance of Wallace, Rosen says:
G. K. Chesterton once remarked that Wallace was one of the world’s great men because he led a revolution and then a counter-revolution. Having done as much as anyone to overturn traditional religious assumptions, Wallace proceeded to horrify his fellow-evolutionists by concluding that natural selection could not in itself explain the uniqueness of man. He never renounced his evolutionary theory, but instead made it the cornerstone of a theistic explanation of the universe. ... He combines both halves of the debate over the meaning of evolution, coolly articulating the materialist mechanisms by which the simplest organisms morphed into human beings while arguing that our existence offers evidence of divine agency.
But I'm not sure that any disfavor from his fellow scientists is the reason the public at large knows less than they should about him:
Wallace wound up with just about every honor a great scientist could receive. At his death, he could have been buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Darwin, but his family, knowing his wishes, declined. Instead, they buried him in the local graveyard, which had a better view.
Wallace may be just where he wanted to be.

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