A. R. Wallace and “preter-human intelligences”

In “Wallace’s Woeful Wager” Dana Hunter tells the story of A. R. Wallace’s bet with John Hampden about the shape of the earth. In her version, Wallace—“venerable 19th century man of science”—was duped by scheming, doltish, young-earth creationists who assailed science with Biblical passages and ignored evidence in defense of their flat-earth beliefs. Hunter is right: there was no way Wallace was going to win that bet. Hampden and his friends were not going to be convinced by Wallace’s evidence. But that’s the problem with evidence, it is never free of the bias people bring to it. Wallace himself suffered from a similar problem: like Hampden he ignored or explained away inconvenient evidence and assailed science with arguments from authority.

To call A. R. Wallace a “venerable 19th century [sic] man of science” stretches our comfortable notions of “man of science” and ignores the fact that for many 19th-century “men of science” Wallace was, well, not all that venerable.[1] Science, for Wallace, included all sorts of ideas that we would now reject, ideas that undermine the rational science vs. dogmatic religion framework that animates Hunter’s post. Take, for example, Wallace’s provocative pamphlet The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural that was dismissed by many of the scientists he sent it to.[2] Here he argued against miracles as violations of the laws of nature, but argued for “preter-human intelligences”—“intelligent beings [that] may exist around and among us, unperceived during our whole lives, and yet capable under certain conditions of making their presence known by acting on matter”—and the power of mediums to summon spirits.

Over the next few decades his belief in spirits and other spiritual forces continued to grow. He became convinced of his own ability to focus mesmeric energy, despite the medical profession’s opposition to mesmerism, which he dismissed out of hand as ignorance and prejudice. In his autobiography, My Life, Wallace says:

…I found that I had considerable mesmeric power myself, and could produce all the chief phenomena on some of my patients; while I also satisfied myself that almost universal opposition and misrepresentations of the medical profession were founded upon a combination of ignorance and prejudice.

Wallace’s biography and his Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1896) attest to his unwavering belief in spirits and his own mesmeric powers as well as those of his brother.[3] Conviction and belief shaped Wallace’s interpretation of evidence and trumped the arguments of experts. He reported knocking sounds and tables floating in the air and other evidence of “preter-human intelligences” acting in our world. In many instances, Wallace’s evidence is nothing more than the reports of witnesses he considered reliable and who hold important posts in society, that is, authorities. In other cases, he experienced the phenomena himself—it’s hard to know what Wallace experienced when he says:

I will only state here that I was so fortunate as to be able to see the simpler phenomena, such as rapping and tapping sounds and slight movements of a table in a friend’s house, with no one present but his family and myself, and that we were able to test the facts so thoroughly as to demonstrate that they were not produced by the physical action of any one of us. Afterwards, in my own house, similar phenomena were obtained scores of times, and I was able to apply tests which showed that they were not caused by any one present. A few years later I formed one of the committee of the Dialectical Society, and again witnessed, under test conditions, similar phenomena in great variety, and in these three cases, it must be remembered, no paid mediums were present, and every means that could be suggested of excluding trickery or the direct actions of any one present were resorted to.

Whatever Wallace experienced, he knew what it demonstrated. Wallace’s refusal to see evidence (e.g., of trickery) or entertain other explanations for the evidence (e.g., fraud) looks a lot like Hampden’s refusal to consider evidence that contradicted his beliefs.

There’s a symmetry in all this. Hampden and Co. ignored or interpreted evidence to suit their beliefs. Wallace ignored or interpreted evidence to suit his beliefs. Now Hunter treats both Hampden and Wallace as evidence to suit her own beliefs.

I am not offering some backhanded defense of Hampden (or attack of Wallace)—he was a nut job (as was Wallace in his own way). I am trying to draw attention to the ways that Hunter’s caricature of Hampden does little to help us understand what he was doing and why it was kooky, just as her sanitized version of Wallace similarly prevents us from understanding this “man of science.” Both versions distort the past by projecting our values and prejudices onto that past and thereby obscuring any lessons that we might learn from it.[4] And, in the end, casting the Wallace-Hampden wager as an early version of our science (i.e., reason) vs. religion (i.e., stupidity) debate ignores evidence that doesn’t suit our present beliefs.

  1. Christine Garwood does a nice job explaining how and why Wallace’s peers were upset that he even accepted Hampden’s bet. Wallace had, they thought, undermined science by implying that the shape of the earth was debatable. Moreover, Wallace did not have the expertise to defend the shape of the earth—that should have been left to an astronomer like Astronomer Royal George Airy. See Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea, pp. 79–117.
    Wallace’s continued belief in spiritualism and mesmerism put him at odds with many of his contemporaries, who increasingly thought poorly of him for it.  ↩

  2. Huxley’s response to Wallace is great (reproduced in Wallace’s My Life):

    I am neither shocked nor disposed to issue a Commission of Lunacy against you. It may be all true, for anything I know to the contrary, but really I cannot get up any interest in the subject. I never cared for gossip in my life, and disembodied gossip, such as these worthy ghosts supply their friends with, is not more interesting to me than any other. As for investigating the matter—I have half a dozen investigations of infinitely greater interest to me—to which any spare time I may have will be devoted. I give it up for the same reason I abstain from chess—it’s too amusing to be fair work, and too hard work to be amusing.  ↩

  3. In some of these stories Wallace and his brother abuse (or are duped by) Indian boys by enticing them into their home and sending them into trances. In return, Wallace and his brother would give them “a copper” or a little present when they released the boys from the trance:

    I will here only add that my brother Herbert also possessed the power, and that when we were residing together at Manaos, he used to call up little Indian boys out of the street, give them a copper, and by a little gazing and a few passes send them into the trance state, and then produce all the curious phenomena of catalepsy, loss of sensation, etc., which I have already described. This was interesting because it showed that the effects could be produced without any expectation on the part of the patients, and, further, that similar phenomena followed as in Europe, although these boys had certainly no knowledge of such phenomena. One day, I remember, when we were going out collecting, we entered an Indian’s hut, where we had often been before, and my brother quietly began mesmerizing a young man nearly his own age. He did not entrance him, but obtained enough influence to render his arm rigid. This he instantly relaxed, and asked the Indian to lie down on the floor, which he did. My brother then made a pass along his body, and said, “Lie there till we return.” The man tried to rise but could not, though several of his relatives were present. We then walked out, he crying and begging to be loosed. Thinking he would certainly overcome the influence we went on, and coming back about two hours later we found the man still on the ground, declaring he could not get up. On a pass from my brother and his saying, “Now get up,” he rose easily. We gave him a small present, but he did not seem much surprised or disturbed, evidently thinking we were white medicine-men. Here, again, it seemed to me pretty certain that the induced temporary paralysis was a reality, and by no means due to the imagination of the usually stolid Indian.  ↩

  4. Take, for example, Hampden’s pamphlet, The Popularity of Error. In it he defends the Bible and gestures to the Scriptures but doesn’t site any passages. Instead, it rehearses a simple set of common-sensical objections to both a spherical earth and a mobile earth. What jumps out of his pamphlet are not the Bible verses (there are none) but his opposition to Newton and Copernicus and his efforts to dismiss both as merely offering theories or hypotheses. There may be something interesting about the Hampden’s approach here and current efforts to dismiss global warming or evolution as mere hypotheses and theories. As there may be something interesting in his invocation of quotidian experiences as objections to increasingly abstract scientific theories. ↩