Alfred Russell Wallace

Concerning Alfred Russell Wallace. Stephen Jay Gould in discussing Wallace's thesis that the principle of natural selection cannot explain the evolution of humanity's unique capacities argues that Wallace accepted an extreme adaptationist or hyperadaptationist conception of natural selection. In this conception to explain the existence of a given trait in terms of natural selection we must attempt to determine how that given trait contributes directly to the Darwinian fitness of the organism. Wallace when applying this conception of evolution by natural selection to understanding human abilities ran up against the fact that the existence of such capacities as the capacity for esthetic appreciation or the ability to compose symphonies do not appear in any obviously way to contribute to primitive man's Darwinian fitness. Hence, Wallace's conclusion that the principle of natural selection cannot explain the development of those capacities that make us uniquely human. Wallace in fact went on to argue that those things that make us uniquely human cannot be understood within the framework of the natural sciences. Indeed, Wallace was quite interested in spiritualism and parapsychology, subjects which Charles Darwin was quite skeptical of.

Stephen Jay Gould has argued that it is possible to understand human evolution in terms of natural selection if we take a less extreme adaptationist view. Gould points out that the evolutionary origins of a trait or organ do not necessarily determine its subsequent functions. Thus birds probably evolved feathers originally for the regulation of their body temperatures. Only later on did feathers take on the function of facilitating flight. Humans probably evolved their large and complex brains in order to facilitate tool making and use by people in groups (Gould greatly admires Engels' essay "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man"). One favorite example that Gould likes to cite in support of his thesis is the development of the electronic computer. Computers were originally developed to facilitate number crunching. Only later on was it discovered that computers can be used to do a great many other things as well (like graphics or e-mail). Thus, Gould holds that Wallace went astray because he failed to recognize the distinction between evolutionary origins and subsequent functions (and so mistakenly believed that Darwinism requires that we look to the latter for explaining evolution).

I am intrigued by Gould's assertion (as quoted by Louis Proyect) that the naturalist in "Angels and Insects" was based on Wallace. I remember when I saw the movie I thought he seemed to be similar to Wallace (who like the movie character was of humble origins but who eventually was able to move up the social ladder). I wonder if Lou can tell us if Gould said anything else about this.

Jim Farmelant