Freaking out Darwin
Books | How the co-discoverer of natural selection later ‘disassembled and demolished’ the theory of evolution
by Tom Wolfe
Posted 9/09/17, 01:38 pm
In The Kingdom of Speech—a runner-up for WORLD’s 2016 Book of the Year in the Science, Math, and Worldviews category—Tom Wolfe has fun with Darwinism and then linguistic theory. Wolfe sees Charles Darwin as an ambitious but fearful upper-class Brit beaten to the punch on natural selection by the lowly Alfred Russel Wallace, and evolution as a fable for atheists, about as reliable as the Apache belief that the universe began with a ball of dirt from which a scorpion pulled strands that became earth, sun, moon, and stars. (Wolfe calls that “the original version of the current solemnly accepted—i.e., ‘scientific’—big bang theory, which with a straight face tells us how something, i.e., the whole world, was created out of nothing.”) In the excerpt below, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company, Wolfe recounts how Wallace undermined his and Darwin’s “child.” —Marvin Olasky
Chapter 2: Gentlemen and Old Pals
Darwin displayed many symptoms of guilt over nipping Wallace’s underwear the way he had. Whenever the discussion, in print or in person, got around to “Mr. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” Darwin always made a point of mentioning that Mr. Wallace had also done important work in this area, so important, in fact, that in 1858 their original papers on the subject had been presented jointly before the Linnean Society. All these references came across as the great master pat pat patting his little protégé on his little head head head again.
Yes, over and over, until the day he died, Darwin sent up flares signaling his guilt. There is a difference, however, between guilt and regret. Of regret the man never betrayed one twitch. Either way, Wallace’s reflected light grew brighter and brighter. The accumulation of Darwin’s praise (only Lyell and Hooker knew it was guilt-driven) lent Wallace a certain heft, nonetheless … and his constant deferring to Darwin as the discoverer of natural selection kept him in the good graces of the Gentlemen.
So Wallace became a celebrity lit up by indirect light. By now that didn’t seem to trouble him in the slightest … for it was a lovely light. From there on out, nothing he wrote could be ignored. And write he did. He had a wonderfully clear, direct style and seemingly endless energy and originality. He went on to turn out an astonishing seven hundred articles and twenty-two books … he popularized the theory of natural selection—in fact, he wrote a book entitled Darwinism—but also branched out into anthropology, geography, geology, and public policy … and he never left Britain to go flycatching again. He was on his way to international renown and enough gold medals from learned societies and Queen Victoria to make his white tie and tails blaze with a chestful of honors.
By 1870 Wallace’s heft had turned into real gravitas—to Darwin’s sudden dismay. Darwin had screwed up his courage and begun working on The Descent of Man, his sequel to The Origin of Species, formally pronouncing man a descendant of the apes and monkeys and a product of natural selection, when Wallace published “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” the end piece of a collection of his articles entitled Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection.
On the thirty-ninth page of this forty-page essay, he gets off a line that lives on in the annals of annihilation by anesthesia. There is nothing in the pages you have just read, says Wallace, that “in any degree affects the truth or the generality of Mr. Darwin’s great discovery.” 17 No, nothing except for the fact that in the preceding thirty-eight pages he has systematically disassembled and demolished what was dearest to Darwin’s heart, the central point of his entire theory from the beginning, namely, that human beings are animals themselves, merely the most highly evolved species of animal, to which Wallace replies, in effect: I’m sorry, but there is a cardinal distinction between man and animal.
Once he gets started, Wallace wastes no time moving in for the kill. He goes straight after three of Darwinism’s central assumptions. One, natural selection can expand a creature’s powers only to the point where it has an advantage over the competition in the struggle for existence—and no further. Two, natural selection can’t produce any changes that are bad for the creature. And three, natural selection can’t produce any “specially developed organ” that is useless to a creature … or of so little use that it is not until thousands and thousands of years down the line that the creature can take advantage of the organ’s full power.
The creature is man, and the “specially developed organ” is the brain. Wallace goes to some pains to demonstrate that among mammals the size of the brain has an “intimate connection” to intelligence. For example, “whenever an adult male European has a skull less than nineteen inches in circumference or has less than sixty-five cubic inches of brain, he is invariably idiotic.” 18 The Neanderthals and all other prehistoric human beings dating back to the Stone Age had brains bigger than that and nearly as big as modern man’s, as do the most untutored peoples of the present … while the brains of the most intelligent apes, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, are scarcely one-third the size of man’s. That means, says Wallace, that prehistoric man had a “specially developed organ” with far more power than he needed to survive … and it was literally ages before modern man began to make full use of it. So here he is, equipped with “an organ that seems prepared in advance, only to be fully utilized as he progresses in civilization.” 19
In no way, said Wallace, can natural selection account for such a thing. But neither can natural selection account for man’s hairless body, especially his bare back, which makes him highly vulnerable to wind, cold, and rain. All other primates, even in Africa and the tropics, grow hides or coats of hair that protect them to the point of making them waterproof. The hair of the coats is layered at a downward angle. Rain rolls right off. Does man miss that? All the time, said Wallace. In fact, since time immemorial, men have been using animal hides and anything else they could think of to keep their backs covered. 20 There you had it—an obvious case of what Darwin said couldn’t happen: injurious evolution. “A single case of this kind,” Darwin himself had said, tempting Fate, “would be fatal to [the] theory.” 21
But there was fatal … and there was smashed to death, to use Darwin’s own word. Smashed to death came in the form of the highest achievement of the human brain: abstract thought. Without that, said Wallace, no man could have conceived of numbers, arithmetic, and geometric forms … he would never have experienced pleasure in music and art … he would have no conscience and therefore no moral codes … he would have no “ideal conceptions of space and time, of eternity and infinity” 22 … no sense of the past or the future … no consciousness of man’s place in the world … no capacity for recording the here and now so that he could draw upon accurate memories in making plans for the long term or even five minutes ahead. None of these, mankind’s highest and most refined abilities, had anything to do with natural selection. Natural selection could only make a species fit enough to survive, physically, in the struggle for life. Survival? Absolute domination is the name for it in man’s case. Man’s brain “has led to his conquest of the world” … as Wallace put it nineteen years later in his book Darwinism. The power of the human brain was so far beyond the boundaries of natural selection that the term became meaningless in explaining the origins of man.
No, said Wallace, “the agency of some other power” was required. He calls it “a superior intelligence,” “a controlling intelligence.” Only such a power, “a new power of definite character,” can account for “ever-advancing” man. 23 Whatever that power is, it is infinitely more important than mere natural selection.
Now, that hurt. Once again, this little flycatcher Wallace had (to use an anachronism, as noted above) freaked out Charles Darwin. In a regular frenzy Charlie began scrawling NO!— NO!— NO!— NO! in the margins of his copy and then hurling spears in the form of exclamation points. 24 Only a few wound up immediately following the NOs. The rest of them hit the page in the form of … take that, Wallace! … right through your temporal fossa and your little fifty-cubic-inch brain cavity! … and this one!—riiiippp—right through your solar plexus! … and this one! … right through your bowels! … and this one! … a regular crotch crusher! … and this one … straight through your ungrateful heart!!!!!! And to think that I went to the trouble of building up your reputation. True, it was out of guilt, but I built it up for you all the same. And don’t think that pathetic little disclaimer on page 39 absolves you of any treachery, either.
Finally he pulled himself together and sent Wallace a note saying, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.” 25
Oh, but he had. Murdered or, less dramatically, tried to destroy what Wallace had done with the entire Olympian climax of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Darwin was in no mood to be less dramatic, however. Wallace’s treachery, coming on top of Max Müller’s summary dismissal, did qualify as murder, when you got right down to it.
His only relief came when Wallace, bafflingly, began self-destructing as a scientist by becoming a believer in spiritism, which had become something of a vogue among many otherwise intelligent people. Spiritism did not necessarily involve a belief in God. But you did have to assume there was some kind of fourth dimension, the unearthly domain of a force, a spirit, that ordinary mortals couldn’t comprehend. This was what Wallace, a confirmed atheist since his early teens, had in mind when he began to go on about “the agency of some other power” … “a new power of a definite character” … “a superior intelligence” … “a controlling intelligence.” One way to commune with the Power was to engage in séances, complete with table rapping, tarot cards, and inexplicable moans and cries. One goal, among several, was to get in touch with dead souls on the Other Side of the river. Wallace managed to get Darwin to attend one. He lasted less than fifteen minutes before walking out, shaking his head. 26
In fact, Wallace was attributing to supernatural powers something as natural as breathing to human beings everywhere—and only to human beings—namely, speech, language, the Word.
Language in all its forms advanced man far beyond the boundaries of natural selection, allowing him to think abstractly and plan ahead (no animal was capable of it); measure things and record measurements for later (no animal was capable of it); comprehend space and time, God, freedom, and immortality; and remove items from Nature to create artifacts, whether axes or algebra. No animal could even begin to do any such thing. Darwin’s doctrine of natural selection couldn’t deal with artifacts, which were by definition unnatural, or with the mother of all artifacts, which was the Word. The inexplicable power of the Word—speech, language—was driving him crazy and Wallace across to the Other Side.
But a cosmogonist like Darwin couldn’t let it go at that. Speech had to have some animal genealogy … had to fit into his Theory of Everything. It was on his mind constantly. It was a threat he couldn’t dodge much longer.
From the book The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 2017 by Tom Wolfe. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
17 For examples, see note 26. See also “Review of Descent of Man,” Athenaeum 3 (April 1871), and “Review of The Descent of Man,” Edinburgh Review (July–October 1871).
18 For more information about the Philological Society, see Fiona Marshall, “History of the Philological Society: The Early Years,” available from www.philsoc.org.uk/history.asp.
19 Société de Linguistique de Paris. “Statuts de 1866, Art. 2.” Available at: http://www.slp-paris.com/spip.php?article5.
20 See Barton, “ ‘An Influential Set of Chaps.’ ”
21 Quoted in Paul C. Mangelsdorf, foreword to Experiments in Plant Hybridisation by Gregor Mendel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965). This note was kept by one of Mendel’s fellow monks, Franz Barina.
22 Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” The American Biology Teacher 35, no. 3 (March 1973), 125–29.
23 See Morris Swadesh, “Sociologic Notes on Obsolescent Languages,” International Journal of American Linguistics 14, no. 4 (October 1948), 226–35, and Stanley Newman, “Morris Swadesh (1909–1967),” Language 43, no. 4 (December 1967), 948–57.
24 Roger Hilsman, American Guerrilla: My War Behind Japanese Lines (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005), 143.
25 Morris Swadesh, “Towards Greater Accuracy in Lexicostatistical Dating,” International Journal of American Linguistics 21, no. 2 (April 1955), 121–37.
26 Edwin G. Pulleyblank, “The Meaning of Duality of Patterning and Its Importance in Language Evolution,” in Studies in Language Origins (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1989), 1:53–65.