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Reply to Dr. Jerry Coyne on Biogeography

Michael A. Flannery 2/21/2012

I will keep to what I believe is the heart of the matter. Coyne claims, “Wallace did not use biogeography as evidence of evolution. I mean, never.” I beg to differ. That Wallace viewed his masterpiece in biogeography, The Geographical Distribution of Animals (1876), as an extension and elaboration of Darwin’s own efforts in this area is not doubted. In the preface to volume 1 of that work he expressed the hope that his “book should bear a similar relation to the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the ‘Origin of Species,’ as Mr. Darwin’s ‘Animals and Plants Under Domestication’ does to the first chapter of that work.” So to suggest that Wallace wasn’t presenting his own biogeography work in support of evolution is like saying Darwin’s chapter 1 of Origin was an argument for evolution but his Animals and Plants Under Domestication was not—an odd proposition indeed!

Furthermore, Wallace made it quite clear in volume 2 of that same work that its relationship to evolution was no trivial matter: “This is not a mere question of applying to the vegetable kingdom a series of arbitrary divisions of the earth which have been useful to zoologists; for it really involves a fundamental problem with the theory of evolution.” The remainder of that volume, Wallace explained, would be devoted to addressing precisely this problem. If this isn’t using biogeography in support of evolution, what is!

Coyne considers the examples of Wallace scholar Martin Fichman and the International Biogeography Society President Brett Riddle “irrelevant” to his argument that Darwin—and Darwin alone—presented biogeography as proof of evolution, but others have explicitly contrasted Wallace with Darwin. H. Lewis McKinney, for example, states in The Dictionary of Scientific Biography that The Geographical Distribution of Animals was much grander than a mere extension of Darwin’s two chapters, “Wallace’s work actually transformed the subject and became the standard authority for years.” Biology historian Jim Endersby praised Wallace’s founding of what would become biogeography and bemoaned his demotion to “little more than a footnote to Darwin.” Fact is, Wallace’s Geographical Distribution of Animals was, according to historian Peter Bowler, “a monumental synthesis” that incorporated new findings in the fossil record to make his evolutionary case. But in what sense a synthesis? Not principally of Darwin’s work but of his own.

Here Coyne ignores a vast body of important work that well preceded Origin of Species in 1859. Wallace’s initial contribution to biogeography began with a paper “On the Monkeys of the Amazon” read before the Zoological Society of London in December of 1852. Even before Wallace independently arrived at the theory of natural selection, he was diligently working on geographical distribution as evidentiary support for evolution. While in Sarawak, during the rainy season of 1855, he wrote “On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species.” Published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in September, it applied the geographical distribution of animals in the Malay Archipelago to evolution. More than 80 years ago famed paleontologist/geologist Henry Fairfield Osborn called Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper “a very strong argument for the theory of descent” and a bold declaration from a “strong and fearless evolutionist.” More recently, historian Iain McCalman has properly called it, “the first ever British scientific paper to claim that animals had descended from a common ancestor and then produced closely similar variations which evolved into distinct species.” Two years later Wallace then gave practical application to his Sarawak Law in a paper “On the Natural History of the Aru Islands.” In a letter to Walter Henry Bates on January 4, 1858, he pointed out that “The connection between the succession of affinities and the geographical distribution of a group, worked out species by species, has never yet been shown as we shall be able to show it.” The resulting paper, “On the Zoological Geography of the Malay Archipelago,” for the Linnean Society in 1860 was impressive and important. Martin Fichman correctly dubs it “a seminal work in the evolutionist tradition.” This, perhaps more than any other work, formed the foundational study that would support his two-volume work years later.

Coyne’s harping on Darwin’s priority “17 years before Wallace’s book” completely ignores these earlier contributions and misses the fact that Wallace’s biogeography work was being used in support of evolution. Given that Darwin began his speculations on the subject while on the Beagle, we can grant Coyne’s Down House hero priority, but priority isn’t prominence. Wallace is considered the father of biogeography not just for The Geological Distribution of Animals (although that is huge) but for his entire corpus of writings on the subject that began in 1852 well before Origin. For Coyne to accept Wallace’s status as biogeography’s “father” while at the same time dismissing it as irrelevant in the support of evolution is just a nonsequitur.

Coyne’s downplaying of Wallace in Why Evolution is True is at first blush curious. Why not put the best evidence for evolution forward and use Wallace’s seminal contributions in biogeography on its behalf? Could it be that the deeper source of this neglect is its failure to serve Coyne’s purpose, namely, to present his polemic against intelligent design? After all, Wallace’s massive contributions in the establishment of biogeography demonstrate that from a teleological perspective it’s simply irrelevant. True, the development of biogeography demolished and thoroughly supplanted the books of the special creationists like William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1837). These works presented each species as specially created and divinely suited to dwell within its own expressly prepared niche, but the weakness of this argument was evident even before biogeography came on the scene. Fact is, Wallace constructed his own view of an inherently teleological evolutionary scheme and discussed it at length in The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose in 1910, and he did so without retreating in the least from biogeography.

So what may we conclude from all this? Three things:

1. Coyne’s insistence that Wallace didn’t use biogeography as evidence for evolution is simply not borne out by the historical record.

2. Paying virtually no attention to Alfred Russel Wallace in any discussion of biogeography is at least incomplete and at most misleading.

3. The “truth” of evolution is the wrong question; it should be, Is Evolution Guided? Coyne may answer this negatively, but the validity of evolution per se (i.e., common descent) is not at issue. Wallace and Darwin were one on the “fact” of evolution. But the devil is in the details. Biogeography was a defeater only for special creation as outlined by William Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises, not for teleology in nature as a general proposition as Wallace’s impressive career demonstrates.