Evolutionist who fell for spiritualism

The theory of evolution by natural selection is indelibly associated with the name of Charles Darwin

The theory of evolution by natural selection is indelibly associated with the name of Charles Darwin. However, the theory was first published under the joint authorship of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and is properly called the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution.

Wallace's place in history has been very much overshadowed by Darwin. They were very different men. For one thing, Darwin's elucidation of the grand scheme of evolution weakened and possibly dispelled his belief in the supernatural. Wallace, on the other hand, was a firm believer in the supernatural and a champion of spiritualism, which Darwin despised.

The theory of evolution through natural selection holds that life forms change and develop over time through the natural selection of traits that confer reproductive advantage.

Wallace accepted this mechanism for all of the biological world except the human realm. If early hominids needed only ape-like intelligence to survive, why, he asked, had they evolved brains capable of developing language, music and mathematics?


Wallace believed homo sapiens had an extra dimension not derived from animal predecessors. This extra dimension was part of an unseen world of spirit - the soul.

Darwin was disappointed when Wallace published his views on the supernatural in 1869, and he wrote to him: "I differ grievously from you; I can see no necessity for calling in an additional and proximate cause (the supernatural element) in regard to Man . . . I hope you have not too completely murdered your own and my child" (the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection).

Darwin's embarrassment was compounded in 1876 when he learned that Wallace was to appear as a defence witness in the case of the prosecution of Dr Henry Slade, a well-known spirit medium, for fraud.

The case against Slade was taken by a zoologist, Edwin Lankester. Spiritualism was rampant in Britain at the time. It was a reaction by Victorians against the materialism perceived in the developing sciences and the industrial revolution. Something of a similar reaction largely explains the current ballooning of New Age philosophies.

I have not studied the area, but my limited knowledge of spiritualism never encouraged me to think there is anything in it. The whole area has been plagued by confidence tricksters and by fraud. Interest in the 19th century in communicating with the dead began in 1848 with two New York sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox. When the girls "conversed with spirits", strange rapping sounds spelled out long messages.

In later life, after they had achieved fame, one sister confessed she had produced the rapping sounds by flexing her big toe in her shoe. If it were possible, communicating with spirits of the dead would be one of the most fascinating things imaginable. One would like to learn of the nature of the after-life - what about God, is there a Heaven, etc. But all the "messages" I have heard relayed through the "medium" from the "spirits" have been entirely banal, e.g. "he says he is very happy dear, he is watching you and you are not to worry". Darwin, of course, didn't believe in spiritualism, but his cousin Hensleigh Wedgewood did and continually tried to persuade Darwin to attend seances to witness the wonderful phenomena.

Eventually in 1874, Darwin sent his son George and his famous supporter Thomas H Huxley along to a seance.

They witnessed a guitar play "by itself" and some bottles move around but they were both convinced it was mere trickery.

The trial of Slade attracted widespread media attention. Lankester had attended a seance conducted by Slade and had submitted questions to Slade to ask the spirits when he summoned them up.

During the seance the questions were put one by one to the spirits who mysteriously wrote the answers on a slate. During the session Lankester suddenly snatched the slate from Slade and found the written answer to a question not yet asked. He denounced Slade as "a scoundrel and an imposter".

Wallace testified in Slade's defence. He had witnessed the phenomenon of "spirit writing", but he would not speculate on whether or not the writings were written by spirits. However, he stoutly declared Slade to be an honest person and as incapable of fraud as any scientist.

At the end of the day Slade was sentenced to three months' hard labour, but his conviction was later successfully appealed and he never served a sentence.

The story has an ironic postscript. Lankester went on to be appointed director of the British Museum of Natural History.

In 1912 he fell foul of another fraud. But this time the fraud was perpetrated by scientists and Lankester was completely taken in.

The fraud was the Piltdown man hoax. Bones were unearthed at Piltdown, 25 miles from Darwin's home, and presented as evidence of a missing link "ape-man".

The whole thing was a forgery, but Lankester and a generation of natural scientists, full of enthusiasm for the Darwin-Wallace theory, uncritically swallowed the story. Now they had, not only a great British scientific theory, but a great British fossil to back it up.

A final word on Alfred Russel Wallace.

Apart from his wonderful scientific work Wallace had many other interests. He lived dangerously for the times by championing radical causes such as socialism, women's rights, pacifism, land nationalisation and spiritualism. Every time I visit a bookshop I seem to see a new book on Darwin. Isn't it time for a good new biography of Wallace?

William Reville is a senior lecturer in biochemistry at UCC.