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Publisher's Summary

Alfred Russel Wallace will forever be rightfully cited along with Charles Darwin as the codiscoverer of natural selection, even if in his later writings (like Newton before him), he wishes to see a “super” natural teleology behind the universe's unfolding. 

Simply put, it is called natural selection precisely because it is “natural” - within nature and empirically testable and observable over time. That there may be other processes at work that are not strictly due to natural selection is certainly true and is a very fruitful line of inquiry. 

Ironically, it was Darwin who had to withstand Wallace's harsh criticism when he tried to emphasize the importance of “sexual” selection in contradistinction to natural selection, since Wallace's advocacy of natural selection was much more orthodox and (within limits) more far-reaching than Darwin's! 

Wallace began attending various spiritualist and psychic gatherings. Ever the fieldworker, Wallace wanted to see for himself what evidence there was for the supernatural. 

The following excerpts are a glimpse of Wallace's passionate interest in his subject and how he applied his critical mind to those who were skeptical of miracles and the like, particularly the famous philosopher David Hume. 

In closely reading Wallace today, I cannot help reflect upon his naivety, especially with his willingness to accept eyewitness accounts as being wholly accurate and evidential. 

While it is certainly true that we must keep an open mind and not be so cynical in our outlook that we don't accept evidence that contradicts our preset models, we must be doubly careful not to succumb to premature transcendental theorizing, particularly when a close inspection of psychic phenomena far too often shows something much more mundane is occurring. This is best captured by Pierre-Simon Laplace's witty advice when he writes, “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” 

Carl Sagan, writing decades later, modernized Laplace by arguing, “[E]xtraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” 

As much as I admire Alfred Russel Wallace, I can well understand why his friend Charles Darwin was a bit horrified when his colleague eschewed natural selection precisely when it counted most. In any case, I do think Wallace’s work here is important, even if we find ourselves disagreeing with him at various turns. 

Public Domain (P)2018 MSAC Philosophy Group

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