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Darwin & Wallace: The Right Track and the Wrong Track

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 3/2/2012

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both “discovered” evolution independently of one another, and in completely different ways. How different things might have been had Wallace published first.

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    Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were both evolutionists, and their chief work was in this field. They both had similar—but not identical—theories on evolution, and in fact it wasn’t until Wallace had proposed his own evolution theories that Darwin was compelled to publish his famous work.

    However, by the time Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, Wallace, believing that the evolution of the mind lay not in the physical, but in the supernatural realm, had begun investigating spiritualism.

    This was obviously a radical departure for Wallace, but for the era in which he lived, it was a logical one. Wallace had come to believe that the mind was a spiritual entity separate from the physical body, and that the mind had supernatural powers which he himself had witnessed.

    Subsequently he published a work entitled The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural, and this signaled the beginning of a philosophical break between himself and Darwin. When he followed this up with another work in which he suggested that the evolution of both body and mind had been guided by a higher power and that it was impossible for natural selection to have produced the human mind, the departure was complete.

    Wallace's new-found spiritualism caused significant tension between Darwin and Wallace, as their beliefs were now in opposition rather than comparative agreement.

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    The Two-Track Model

    The two-track model of scientific progress is, more or less, simply hindsight. According to this model, we can today look back on the history of science, and in light of what we now know as fact, decide whether past scientific theories and hypotheses have either advanced or slowed scientific progress. Those ideas that have contributed to what we today accept as scientific fact are “right track” ideas, while those that have been proven wrong are said to be on the “wrong track.”

    With this idea of right track and wrong track science in mind, it is interesting to compare the scientific and religious views of Darwin and Wallace. Examining their views in these terms, it becomes apparent that both men were led astray to varying degrees by wrong track ideas – creationism and mysticism.

    Darwin, despite being a firm believer in his evolutionary theories, was side-tracked by the prevailing opposition to what was thought of as heresy. However, he eventually overcame his hesitation, and published On the Origin of Species in 1859. In contrast Wallace had developed his own theories before becoming side-tracked by mysticism, having come to believe that the evolution of the mind was more than physical.

    In terms of the two-track model, Darwin’s evolutionary theories were right track, while Wallace’s were wrong track. Darwin’s theories did not allow for the possibility of a creator or higher power guiding evolution, whereas Wallace eventually came to insist that evolution could not have occurred without one.

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    What If…?

    Wallace has often been judged harshly by history, when it has remembered him at all (when evolution is taught in schools, Wallace barely rates a mention). Darwin, on the other hand, is (rightly) lauded as a scientific hero. Perhaps this is because Wallace ‘slipped up’ after his independent discovery of evolution, whereas Darwin overcame a philosophical and religious struggle with creationism before publishing his book.

    It’s certainly interesting to wonder whether things might have turned out differently had the two men swapped belief systems – if Wallace had dabbled in mysticism before embracing natural selection, and Darwin had become a creationist and recanted his theories after publishing On the Origin of Species.