Bill Bailey on Alfred Russell Wallace and the Origins of Evolution by Natural Selection

Last Sunday the BBBC began a new 2-part series in which the musician and comedia, Bill Bailey, followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace to discover how he indpendently came to the theory of Natural Selection at about the same time as Charles Darwin. Russell’s been overlooked as the co-discoverer of the theory. Bailey points out that at the time, Natural Selection was known as the ‘Wallace-Darwin Theory’. It was Russell’s letter to Darwin discussing his theory of Natural Selection that prompted Darwin, after decades of independent research, to finally publish his own results. AS time went on, Wallace receded into the background until finally the theory was completely dominated by the towering figure of Darwin. Bailey went to the Natural History Museum in London to show the great statue of Darwin that was installed four years ago during the Darwin bicentennial celebrations. Wallace, he noted, was nowhere to be seen. He then briefly talked with David Attenborough, who duly paid tribute to Wallace’s genius and perserverance in researching and formulating the theory.

Unlike the aristocratic and university-educated Darwin, Wallace came from a humbler background. His education stopped when he was about 12 or 14, and he was forced to fund his expeditions by selling the specimens he collected. It was during his trip to Indonesia that he began to formulate his theory of Natural Selection by noting how the species very gradually shaded into each other.

It’s a fascinating story. Bailey’s a musician and comedian, as well as Rocker and SF/ Fantasy geek. His shows incorporate music, wittily playing on the different styles and genres. One of the funniest of his pieces about how the Dr. Who theme, when you slow it down, sounds like Belgian Jazz. He then does a Belgian Jazz song, to the amended Dr. Who theme, with vocals in French, about the Doctor defeating the Daleks ’cause they can’t climb stairs. A enthusiast of the theremin, he managed to seriously freak out Jonathan Ross by playing it on his show. In the programme, Bailey’s a genial, articulate and knowledgable host. He’s done some of the same pursuits Wallace did, such as butterfly collecting, and first travelled to Indonesia several decades ago. He fell in love with the place, and the programme shows him not only trekking through the Indonesia rainforest in search of exotic animal and poring over Wallace’s books and specimens, but also staying and talking with an Indonesia family. He talked about how Indonesians also ate dragonflies, downing a kebab skewer of them. He thus followed Ray Mears in eating insects and what westerner’s would consider revolting in the name of bushcraft and cross-cultural understanding.

Criticism of Programme for Presenting Evolution as Leading to Atheism

DEspite that, I have serious reservations about the programme. It’s underlying theme is that evolution naturally leads to atheism, and conflict with the Church. Bailey several times talked about how Wallace would eventually lose his faith, and the Church’s opposition to evolution, or transmutation as it was then called. The show presented a picture very much of the lonely genius ploughing his way to scientific truth against opposition from the religious Establishment.

Yet here and there there are hints to contrary. Bailey noted the setback to Wallace’s own research on evolution with the publication of Chamber’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. As well as angering the Church, it was also scientifically rubbish, with tales of a Platypus being produced by a bird. Bailey notes that the Vestiges was massively popular, and was even read by Queen Victoria. Wallace was afraid that without further research, his own theory of evolution would similarly suffer ridicule.

Philosophical and Theological Trends leading to Acceptance of Evolution

What the programme does not show or mention, is that attitudes at the time were changing. Victorian society was becomming much more open to evolutionary theory. This was due to a number of factors. Firstly, the work of the German explorer Humboldt in South America had made the Victorian public aware of the great variety of species in that part of the world, and the possibility that evolution may have played a role. A further boost came from Hegelian philosophy. Hegel believed that society advanced and evolved through a dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. While his theory was confined to human societies, it nevertheless opened up the Victorian public to the possibility that other aspects of the world also similarly evolved. In the 1820s the Bridgewater Lectures led to Liberal theological opinion in the Anglican Church considering that the world and its creatures may similarly have been produced by natural law. In the 1840s Baden-Powell, the Savillian professor of Mathematics at Oxbridge set out his view considering that the world’s creatures had also evolved in a process similar to the contemporary manufacturing process. Just as the way an article was shaped and formed during manufacture by different industrial processes, so organisms were shaped and formed by the world. And just as the industrial techniques that produce a table, coat or pot are the products of an intelligent creator, so the evolutionary processes that create a living creature also indicated the presence and direction of a supreme intelligence: the Almighty. A number of other Anglican clergy, such as F.D. Maurice, also accepted evolution because it made the creation of the world less mysterious, and pointed to the action of a divine intelligence.

Wallace, Teleology and Spiritualism

Although he lost his Christian faith, Wallace’s own views departed considerably from a completely materialist view of evolution. He was a Spiritualist, who believed that evolution was teleological, working towards a predestined end. He also believed that the higher faculties in humanity – our intelligence and moral sense, could not have been the product of unguided evolution. Because of this there has been interest in him from the Intelligent Design movement. Yet Wallace’s unorthodox opinions were not mentioned in the programme, even if just to dismiss them. It will be interesting to see if they are mentioned in tomorrow’s programme.

In short, Bailey’s series is an excellent programme in many ways as an introduction to Wallace’s life and thought. There are some stunning footage of the plants and animals of the region, and eye-catching animated sections which bring Wallace’s notes to life. The series suffers, however, from the simplistic notion that evolution must always lead to atheism and its doctrinaire and uncritical acceptance of the belief that religion and science are in conflict. Very few historians of science accept this view, but it has been loudly promoted by Dawkins and many of his followers. The programme follows this line, thus distorting and obscuring oen of the most profound intellectual developments of the Victorian Age.

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