Coyne, Wallace, and Flannery

There’s a post on “PRUnderground” that takes delight in an alleged screwup by Prof. Jerry Coyne. Coyne is stated to have made a claim during a radio program about Alfred Russel Wallace:

In particular, Jerry was emphatic in claiming Alfred Russel Wallace never connected biogeography to evolution: “Wallace did not use biogeography as evidence of evolution. I mean, never!”

Given that “intelligent design” comes into it later, I’m suspicious about the veracity of any such quote. It certainly is a staple of religious antievolution argument to get things wrong. So I’ll note that the basis for everything else is not verified and go on with the assumption that the author did manage to convey that claim of Coyne’s in essence.

The article then goes on to discuss Coyne’s claim, or, rather, to claim to discuss Coyne’s claim:

That’s not how I remember this history, so I decided to check with Wallace biographer Professor Michael Flannery.

Professor Flannery: Well, he seems to really be unfamiliar with Wallace’s body of writing on that topic. The famous paleontologist and geologist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, he’s sort of an icon in the field, referred to Wallace’s Sarawak Law Paper as “A very strong argument for the Theory of Descent and a bold declaration from a strong and fearless Evolutionist.”

And actually if you’d like sort of an icing on the cake reference, Ian McCalman, who has written a pretty good book recently called Darwin’s Armada, refers to Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper as, “The first ever British scientific paper to claim that animals had descended from a common ancestor and then produced closely similar variations which have evolved into distinct species.”

What’s remarkable about this is that the rebutting expert never directly addresses the question at issue. Did Wallace use biogeography to inform his discussion of evolution? Unless you already knew the answer to that, Flannery’s response doesn’t approach it at all. Rebutting Coyne’s claim requires three elements to be shown: Wallace as source, evolution as topic, and biogeography as evidence. The Osborn and McCalman quotes address only the first two of these, leaving the critical component, biogeography, out entirely.

Flannery does mention in passing Wallace’s Sarawak paper. Even a brief skim of the paper is enough to disabuse anyone of the notion that Wallace never used biogeography as evidence of evolution. But one would have to already know the content of the paper in order to decide whether Flannery’s assertion carried weight or not. For completeness, though, I’ll quote Wallace discussing that iconic example, the Galapagos Islands:

Such phænomena as are exhibited by the Galapagos Islands, which contain little groups of plants and animals peculiar to themselves, but most nearly allied to those of South America, have not hitherto received any, even a conjectural explanation. The Galapagos are a volcanic group of high antiquity, and have probably never been more closely connected with the continent than they are at present. They must have been first peopled, like other newly-formed islands, by the action of winds and currents, and at a period sufficiently remote to have had the original species die out, and the modified prototypes only remain. In the same way we can account for the separate islands having each their peculiar species, either on the supposition that the same original emigration peopled the whole of the islands with the same species from which differently modified prototypes were created, or that the islands were successively peopled from each other, but that new species have been created in each on the plan of the pre-existing ones. St. Helena is a similar case of a very ancient island having obtained an entirely peculiar, though limited, flora. On the other hand, no example is known of an island which can be proved geologically to be of very recent origin (late in the Tertiary, for instance), and yet possesses generic or family groups, or even many species peculiar to itself.

Back to the PRUnderground article…

Then, for nausea’s sake, the folks go off into speculation and “intelligent design” cheerleading:

Alex Tsakiris: All this might seem like a lot of minor detail that no one cares about, but this little bit of history is actually quite important in the culture war debate over the theory of evolution. Why does an otherwise smart guy like Dr. Jerry Coyne say these things which are so obviously incorrect? What’s the real agenda here?

Professor Flannery: Well, my guess is that he is either just unfamiliar with Wallace’s work, although that’s kind of hard to believe… I actually think that it just doesn’t serve his purpose. When you look at his book, Why Evolution is True, one of the things he’s writing against is Intelligent Design. To bring Wallace into the picture becomes problematic for him because Wallace himself came to view evolution as being guided.


Here’s the response I entered in comments there:

Coyne was wrong about Wallace. Wallace was wrong about the concept of “intelligent design”. Coyne not completely grasping the history of ideas isn’t helpful, but it in no way can be taken as supporting IDC.

Professor Flannery also doesn’t do well in forming his answer to the question of whether Coyne was right in his claim. Flannery’s first try, invoking Osborn on Wallace’s status as an evolutionist, doesn’t even address the question. For the second, one has to oneself know the content of the Sarawak paper to know that the claim by Coyne is false; it isn’t evident by the statement that Flannery makes. The quote he gives is remarkable for the complete absence of any geographical or biogeographical component.

Update: At Troy Britain’s prompting, I’ve had a look at the Skeptico transcript of the Coyne interview and listened to the segment in the MP3 including the quote from Coyne that was at issue. The quote does fail to give the gist of Coyne’s original claim. That claim is that it was Darwin who was the first to use biogeography as evidence of evolutionary change. Coyne rejects any discussion made by Wallace of both biogeography and evolution that occurs after 1859 as not being relevant to his claim. That makes Coyne’s statement that Wallace “never” used biogeography as evidence for evolution a bit of hyperbole on his part, since his only interest seems to be in who got there first, Darwin or Wallace. Unfortunately, Coyne is mistaken on this point: the 1855 “Sarawak” paper by Wallace is quite explicit in using biogeography to undermine the idea that species are fixed. In 1855, Wallace did not have and did not produce a mechanism for speciation, but it is clear that he was talking about evolution and that he was using biogeography as evidence for it.

Giving Wallace appropriate credit for his innovations is not a concession to religious antievolutionists. Like I said before, Wallace was wrong in his advocacy of stuff that the “intelligent design” creationists have glommed onto. That doesn’t make the good stuff that Wallace did less worthy of notice.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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