Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: April 2020

Briefly Reviewed: April 2020

Nature’s Prophet: Alfred Russel Wallace and His Evolution From Natural Selection to Natural Theology

By Michael A. Flannery

Publisher: The University of Alabama Press

Pages: 260

Price: $44.95

Review Author: Terry Scambray

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…in apprehension how like a god!” Thus Shakespeare described the sublime uniqueness of man. For Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution, man’s obvious uniqueness caused him to disagree with Charles Darwin’s explanation that material causes alone produced man as part of the scheme of evolution.

Michael Flannery’s rich and readable Nature’s Prophet demonstrates that Wallace’s disagreement was not a mere intramural quarrel but a reflection of the profound divide that exists within science down to our own day. That longstanding divide became most pronounced in the 19th century when the Western intelligentsia, primed by the discrediting of the Bible and the rumored death of God, accepted Darwin’s hunch about the origin of life. But in one of science’s great ironies, Wallace, who gave Darwin the idea of natural selection as the creative force of evolution, repudiated it as inadequate to account for sentient life and the “higher intellectual nature of man.”

Wallace certainly thought that the weeding-out process of natural selection could account for the growth and development of life. But to claim that natural selection could have come up with the specialized nature of the human speech organs as well as the human hand — and both of them as inseparable extensions of the creativity of the human mind — was a bridge too far for Wallace. Because of this, he argued that the only way to span the irreducible discontinuity separating the lower animals from man was with the support of “a Higher Intelligence.”

Part of Darwin’s argument for evolution was based on a comparison between “natural selection” and “artificial selection,” or, as the latter is commonly called, animal and plant breeding. Though breeding was an ancient practice with a history of conferring impressive though limited changes in organisms, Darwin thought that given more time, small changes would become big changes, fish scales could change into bird feathers, and so on.

But Wallace, like others, saw that comparing artificial selection to natural selection was an example of the apples-to-oranges fallacy (though apples and oranges have more in common than the two types of “selection,” a word that anthropomorphizes nature). Indeed, Flannery points out how Darwin, like contemporary Darwinists, inevitably fell into using teleological language; that is, Darwin’s descriptions suggested that natural selection is purposeful. Flannery writes, “To facilitate understanding of a purposeless process, purpose is repeatedly called in, [but] chance most certainly is not purposeful.”

Flannery shows how even contemporary Darwinists, like Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in What Darwin Got Wrong (2010), point to this contradiction but don’t resolve it any more than Darwin did because they are also wedded to a completely materialistic explanation for life.

Yes, some argue that Darwin was making “a heuristic comparison,” merely suggesting a way of understanding natural selection. Flannery shows, however, that Darwin saw the comparison as literal, that the breeder was nature writ small. Wallace went in the other direction, seeing breeders as comparable to “the Higher Intelligence” necessary for the creation of sentient life. Though some saw Wallace’s view as anachronistic, a make-work program for God in creation, Wallace claimed that science, not religion, drove him to this conclusion.

Wallace went on to write that recognition of this reality “is the direction in which we shall find the true reconciliation of Science and Theology,” not only on the issue of creation but of the entire discipline of science. Though science developed from theology in 13th-century Christian Europe, a schism between the two erupted in the 19th century, led by influential thinkers like Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Darwin. Flannery, a historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, shows that Wallace, though seemingly overshadowed by these individuals, was actually a harbinger of the great 20th-century scientists who worked to restore the symbiotic relationship between science and theology, nature and God.

Flannery reviews those who claim that Wallace, in his more encompassing view of science, “tried to shoehorn his experiments in spiritualism into his larger scientism.” Some portray Wallace as a herald of the Gaia hypothesis, a theory of a self-sustaining universe, or tie him to “process theology,” in which God offers possibilities for evolution that can be rejected or accepted. Still others see Wallace as a believer in Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria,” a separate-but-equal doctrine suggesting that if science and religion remain in their respective neighborhoods, peace will ensue. Flannery demonstrates that Wallace would consider each of these models reductionist and flagrant contradictions of his idea of a “Supreme Mind” working through nature.

Nature’s Prophet concludes by tying Wallace to several thinkers who sustain his legacy of liberating science from behind a Berlin Wall of materialism. One is Steve Clark, a research fellow at Oxford University, who points out that the supernatural has been the basis for scientific discovery from its beginning. Another is the iconic Fred Hoyle, who wrote, “We shall need to understand why the mysterious sanctity described by Wallace persists within us.” Hoyle’s conversion to theism came when he realized that the universe looks like a “put-up-job,” which is the thesis of his book The Intelligent Universe (1983). Jay W. Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez go further in The Privileged Planet (2004), arguing that we are situated to know that we are unique and that nature “discloses itself in ways that we cannot anticipate.” With this realization, they continue, “the thought creeps up: The universe, whatever else it is, is designed for discovery.”

Flannery also sees humans as “participative creatures in the panoply of human history.” He developed this thesis in tandem with the late historian and NOR contributing editor John Lukacs, who also recognized that the universe is made for our discovery. Echoing his Hungarian predecessor Michael Polanyi, Lukacs proclaimed, “We are at the center of the universe,” and saying so is not arrogance but, paradoxically, recognition of our human limitations.

Michael Denton, physician, geneticist, agnostic, and author of the compelling Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985), accepts a directed evolutionary process in accord with Wallace. In his earlier writing, Denton mentions Wallace as an influence on his criticism of Darwin. In his latest work, he returns to marveling at the uniqueness of the feather and cites Wallace, who also saw it “as one of the adaptive wonders of nature,” a completely novel feature with no antecedents in nature.

Flannery concludes with some of Wallace’s writings, one selection of which clashes with Bertrand Russell’s famous 1903 tract on materialism. Russell’s rhetoric soared as he wrote that man is “the outcome of the accidental collocation of atoms,” and all of man’s monumental achievements “are destined to extinction in the heat death of the universe,” which itself is a near certainty. In the shadow of such fin de siècle triumphalism, Wallace writes, “As contrasted with this hopeless and soul-deadening belief [in materialism], we accept the existence of a spiritual world as a grand, consistent whole adapted in all of its parts to the development of the noblest faculties of man.”

L’Islam Face au Christianisme. A special issue of L’Homme Nouveau


Publisher: Hors-Série no. 34

Pages: 66

Price: €8

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Philippe Maxence, editor of L’Homme Nouveau (The New Man), a first-rate French Catholic journal, notes that Islam is now the second religion in France, yet numbers are lacking as religion is officially a private matter and the census takes no notice of it. He gives special thanks to Marie-Thérèse Urvoy, a professor of Islamology, for her help in producing a special issue of L’Homme Nouveau titled L’Islam Face au Christianisme (Islam Confronts Christianity) and notes that she and her husband, Dominique, have consecrated their lives as university professors to the study of Islam. One of the books they co-authored is L’Action psychologique dans le Coran, on how the Qur’an induces absolute “certitude” in believers. Those who organized its verses were geniuses of propaganda, they say, for the text has profound psychological effects.

Alas, there is no one like Marie-Thérèse Urvoy in the U.S. Would that there were! Born in Syria, she studied in Beirut at the Jesuit Institute of Oriental Letters. In her article in this special issue, she observes that the fundamental texts of Islam condemn the beliefs of the nasara, a term in Islamic tradition that includes all Christians. Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains the exact words dictated by the deity in Arabic. This means that no one is allowed to argue against it, even when it misrepresents Christianity, as when it states that Christian belief in the Trinity means that we worship three gods. Those who engage in official “dialogue” with Islam do not seem to realize or care that we must justify in the eyes of Muslims our resistance to the Qur’an and make them understand that we have sound historical and scientific reasons for believing that their sacred text is a human production. For Muslims believe that Islam is the self-evident perfection of religion and that the “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians, are not converting out of obstinacy, “although they know” (III, 71).

L’Islam Face au Christianisme contains a list of 28 books on Islam in the Studia Arabica collection, published since 2005 under the direction of Marie-Thérèse Urvoy. The first two books — comprising a magisterial 1,100-page history by Fr. Édouard-Marie Gallez titled Le Messie et son prophète — delve into the life of Muhammad and the evolution of the Qur’an for two centuries under the direction of the caliphs. Another book, by Jean-Jacques Walter titled Le Coran révélé par la Théorie des Codes, is a scientific study of the many layers of language deposited in the Qur’an over the course of its evolution. This collection is of the greatest importance, and many of these books ought to be translated into English.

Urvoy mentions that the European TV channel ARTE presented a series on the origin of Christianity in a systematically hypercritical way. Then came a series on the origin of Islam, in which the viewer is plunged into a mythological tale with formulas of praise repeated each time “the Prophet” and his companions are mentioned. She also says that Ali Malek published an article in Le Monde in which he set aside “the most elementary intellectual honesty” to declare that no qur’anic text talks of killing infidels and misbelievers. Yet some of its texts most certainly do (e.g., II, 190, 191; IV, 89, 91; and IX, 5). The only way out of such intellectual myopia is to remember that Islam, more than any other religion, is a historical phenomenon. Its violent movements, even those of today, cannot be set aside disdainfully as if they had nothing to do with the religion, as all through its history since the seventh century, Islam has had violent movements and has justified them by the example of the life of Muhammad. Even Sufi mysticism is not opposed to these movements, for Sufis served as soldier-monks in the frontier fortresses called ribat.

According to Urvoy, “dialogue” between Christianity and Islam is impossible in an institutional framework. For in such a dialogue we find, on one side, a Christian charity that moves from conciliation to abdication, and on the other, a defense of Islam. Louis Massignon, a Catholic scholar of Islam and the (homosexual) guru behind the failed “dialogue” of our time, falsified the West’s perception of Islam because he wanted to bring about a bizarre global Sufism. Islam is fundamentally irreconcilable with Christianity and is even irreconcilable with the secular West, its goal being the ultimate triumph of Islamic law, with mandated inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as between men and women. Islam is not merely a source of values for its adherents, as in other religions; it is a complete regulation of life — religious, social, legal, and political. At present it cannot be reformed, as reform for Muslims consists in a return to the Qur’an, something that favors fundamentalism. A veritable reform will not occur so long as the Qur’an is dogmatically believed to contain the exact words dictated by the deity. And that is why books on the history of the Qur’an, such as those published in the Studia Arabica, are so important.

There are several articles on the Bible in this issue. In his article on the idea of revelation in Islam and Christianity, Dominique Urvoy, professor emeritus of the University of Toulouse, explains that the Qur’an accuses Jews and Christians of having left out parts of their scriptures and having fabricated other parts. And so, for fear of hitting on such fabricated passages, Muslims do not read the Bible. He also notes that for Jews and Catholics, Tradition is prior to Scripture, but for Muslims, the Qur’an is prior to Tradition and is the criterion and judge of it.

In a second article on the Bible, Hamadi Redissi, professor of political science at the University of Tunisia and author of Une Histoire du Wahhabisme, informs us that there are 25 instances in the Qur’an in which Jews and Christians are accused of having falsified the Bible. This is why our Scriptures are not on any reading list for Muslims and are only skimmed out of curiosity or to snatch up a citation. In the Qur’an, however, the Bible consists only of the Torah, one Gospel (Mark), the Psalms, and two apocryphal works. The explanation for this truncation of the Bible is found in Fr. Gallez’s work on the origins of Islam, Le Messie et son Prophète. Gallez shows that the Judeo-Nazarenes who converted Muhammad to their heretical sect gave him leaflets (qurans) from their own version of the Bible. Later on, the caliphs made great efforts, which are documented, to find and destroy these leaflets, which provided the first, earliest language-layer of the Qur’an.

In his article on jihad, Italian historian Roberto de Mattei denies that there is a parallel between crusaders and jihadists. Jihad is an offensive war for the imposition of Islam by force. The crusades, in contrast, did not impose a religion but defended Christianity by obliging Muslims to stop persecuting the Christian faithful. Crusaders were inflamed with the ardor of charity and offered their lives for the supernatural good of their neighbor. Mattei points out that the Muslim deity is not Being, not a Person, but simply a Will in action that demands submission. In the Qur’an the deity does not ask for the love of his believers but only demands their subjection and that of the entire world through them. The deity does not give non-Muslims the right to exist, so the Qur’an commands that they be forced to choose between subjection and destruction. Conversion to Islam does not require an interior transformation but only ritual actions. This is an exteriorized religion that lacks supernatural grace, the source of which is the Second Person of the Trinity. It lacks the interior life of Christianity that brought about the transformation of civilizations from within.

Hubert Borde, writing on Islam and democracy, observes that fundamentalist Muslims see democracy as a heresy. As their religion is “essentially legal,” they have trouble as a community submitting to another form of law. It is to be hoped, however, that as individuals they would be able to accept democracy. In Muslim countries, Islamists tend to instrumentalize freedom of the press and pluralist elections to bring about authoritarian, fundamentalist regimes. And yet there have been secularist reformers who have appealed to the principle of Shura (from sura 42 of the Qur’an, titled “The Consultation,” in which Muhammad consults his companions). In the late 19th century, the authors of the Nahda (Renaissance, in Arabic), Mohammed Abduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, and Rachid Rida, laid a foundation for criticizing despotic regimes in Muslim lands and began spreading the ideas of pluralism, political liberty, and separation of powers. They pleaded for a modernization along Islamic lines.

In an article on Islam in Germany, Heinz Otto Luthe, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, says that to the extent that Christianity has cast aside evangelization for “syncretist dialogue,” it has lost cultural vigor in the face of an aggressive, fundamentalist Islam. He deplores the syncretism that avoids argument for the sake of nebulous “dialogue.” Except for the extreme right, political discourse in Germany now condemns all criticism of Islam as Islamophobia. Hence, there is asymmetry between an Islam that is confident and defensive and a Christianity that is weak and accommodating, tolerant to the point of being sheep-like. Muslims make up 5.7 percent of the population in Germany, and of them, 50 percent are of Turkish origin — with their imams trained, appointed, and given salaries by the Turkish government. Alarmingly, the deputies of Turkish origin who voted in 2016 for the resolution on the Armenian genocide are now having to live under police protection, as does Seyran Ates, who received death threats after founding a liberal mosque. Some German intellectuals sporadically resist the “insidious” encroachments of Islam on the legal system and scholarly texts, and they also demand that Islamic authorities condemn acts of violence and terrorism. But they are an elite minority and find no echo in public opinion.

The demographer Michèle Tribalat, author of Assimilation: La fin du modèle français, writes that the number of young people of foreign origin in France nearly doubled from 1968 to 2015, from 11.5 percent to 21.2 percent of the population. And though the number of those from other European nations has been cut by half, those from non-European nations have multiplied by six, from 2.9 percent in 1968 to 16.8 percent in 2015. She notes that in the Île de France, those of foreign, non-European origin make up 35.6 percent of the population.

In American journals we rarely find articles about the long and periodically violent history of Islam, the slow evolution of the Qur’an, and the strong religious underpinning of contemporary Muslim violence. We need many, many more books and articles on Islam that deal honestly with its history and philology. We need our own Marie-Thérèse Urvoy to lead the way, or at least we need the works she has published in the Studia Arabica to be translated into English.


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