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An “Interview” With Alfred Russel Wallace by Michael Tymn

An “Interview” With Alfred Russel Wallace by Michael Tymn

In 1858 the now famous Darwin-Wallace paper ( was presented to The Linnean Society of London. The society was a forum for discussions on genetics, natural history, systematics, biology, and the history of plant and animal taxonomy.  It was this paper - or combination of papers prepared individually by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace - that announced the natural selection theory to the world.

While history has recorded that Wallace (1823-1913) was co-originator with Darwin of the theory of natural selection, usually referred to simply as evolution, most people seem to credit the whole idea to Darwin.  That may be because Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, gave it more widespread recognition.  However, a secondary reason may be that Wallace’s reputation among scientists was tainted somewhat by the fact that he became a champion of spiritualism.
Wallace’s conclusions concerning natural selection were arrived at after years of travel in wilderness areas, including the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago. According to one biographer, by the turn of the century, Wallace was very likely Britain’s best known naturalist and one of the world’s most recognized names, as he lectured extensively on Darwinism.  He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Dublin and Oxford University.

Below is my “interview” with Wallace.  This “interview”  is based on many of his papers, including those assembled in Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, published in 1896 by George Redway, London.  All responses below are verbatim from the various papers, except for the Americanization of such words as skeptic (sceptic) and color (colour).  The questions have been tailored and arranged to fit the answers.

Dr. Wallace, what were your early views relative to spiritual matters?

“Up to the time when I first became acquainted with the facts of Spiritualism, I was a confirmed philosophical skeptic, rejoicing in the works of Voltaire, Strauss, and Carl Vogt, and an ardent admirer (as I still am) of Herbert Spencer.  I was so thorough and confirmed a materialist that I could not at that time find a place in my mind for the conception of spiritual existence, or for any other agencies in the universe than matter and force.”

So what changed your mind?

“My curiosity was at first excited by some slight but inexplicable phenomena occurring in a friend’s family, and my desire for knowledge and love of truth forced me to continue the inquiry.  The facts became more and more assured, more and more varied, more and more removed from anything that modern science taught or modern philosophy speculated on.  The facts beat me. They compelled me to accept them as facts long before I could accept the spiritual explanation of them; there was at that time no place in my fabric of thought into which it could be fitted. By slow degrees a place was made; but it was made, not by any preconceived or theoretical opinions, but by the continuous action of fact after fact, which could not be got rid of in any other way.”

Would you mind elaborating on that occurrence with the friend’s family?

“It was in the summer of 1865 that I first witnessed any of the phenomena of what is called Spiritualism, in the house of a friend - a skeptic, a man of science, and a lawyer, with none but members of his own family present.  Sitting at a good-sized round table, with our hands placed upon it, after a short time slight movements would commence, and not often ‘turnings’ or tiltings,’ but a gentle intermittent movement like steps, which after a time would bring the table quite across the room. Slight but distinct tapping sounds were also heard.  They gradually increased; the taps became very distinct, and the table moved considerably, obliging us all to shift our chairs.”

What did you make of that?

“That there is an unknown power developed from the bodies of a number of persons placed in connection by sitting around a table with all their hands upon it.  And the fact that we often sat half an hour in one position without a single sound, and that the phenomena never progressed further than I have related, weighs I think very strongly against the supposition that a family of four highly intelligent and well-educated persons should occupy themselves for so many weary hours in carrying out what would be so poor and unmeaning a deception.”

Did you witness other phenomena after that?

“In September 1865, I began a series of visits to Mrs. Marshall (a London medium), generally accompanied by a friend - a good chemist and mechanic, and of a thoroughly skeptical mind.  What we witnessed may be divided into two classes of phenomena - physical and mental.  Both were very numerous and varied.” 

I gather from your various writings that you gradually came to accept the spirit hypothesis?  Would you mind explaining that?

“Perhaps the most important characteristic of these phenomena [is that] they are from beginning to end essentially human.  They come to us with human ideas; they make use of human speech, of writing and drawing; they manifest wit and logic, humor, and pathos, that we can all appreciate and enjoy; the communications vary in character as those of human beings; some rank with the lowest, some with the highest, but all are essentially human.  When the spirits speak audibly, the voice is a human voice; when they appear visible, the hands and the faces are absolutely human; when we can touch the forms and examine them closely we find them human in character, not those of any other kind of being.  The photographs are always the photographs of our fellow creatures; never those of demons or angels and animals.  When hands, feet or faces are produced in paraffin moulds they are all in minutest details those of men and women, though not those of the medium.  All of these various phenomena are of this human character.

“The spiritual theory is the logical outcome of the whole of the facts.  Those who deny it, in every instance with which I am acquainted, either from ignorance or disbelief, leave half the facts out of view.  That theory is most scientific which best explains the whole series of phenomena; and I therefore claim that the spirit hypothesis is the most scientific, since even those who oppose it most strenuously often admit that it does explain all the facts, which cannot be said of any other hypothesis.”

What about the theory holding that medium has a secondary personality which is somehow giving rise to all the phenomena?

“But is this so-called explanation any real explanation, or anything more than a juggle of words which creates more difficulties than it solves?  The conception of such a double personality in each of us, a second-self, which in most cases remains unknown to us all our lives, which is said to live an independent mental life, to have means of acquiring knowledge our normal self does not possess, to exhibit all the characteristics of a distinct individuality with a different character from our own, is surely a conception more ponderously difficult, more truly supernatural than that of a spirit world, composed of beings who have lived, and learned, and suffered on earth, and whose mental nature still subsists after its separation from the earthly body.  On the second-self theory, we have to suppose that this recondite but worser half of ourselves, while possessing some knowledge we have not, does not know that it is part of us, or, if it knows, is a persistent liar, for in most cases it adopts a distinct name, and persists in speaking of us, its better half, in the third person.

“There is yet another and I think a more fundamental objection to this view, in the impossibility of conceiving how or why this second-self was developed in us under the law of survival of the fittest.

“This cumbrous and unintelligible hypothesis finds great favor with those who have always been accustomed to regard the belief in a spirit-world, and more particularly a belief that the spirits of our dead friends can and do sometimes communicate with us, as unscientific, unphilosophical, and superstitious.”

So you feel the spirit hypothesis is definitely a scientific one?

“Why it should be unscientific more than any other hypothesis which alone serves to explain intelligibly a great body of facts has never been explained.  The antagonism which it excites seems to be mainly due to the fact that it is, and has long been in some form or other, the belief of the religious world and of the ignorant and superstitious of all ages, while a total disbelief in spiritual existence has been the distinctive badge of modern scientific skepticism.”

Do you feel there is as much evidence for survival as there is for biological evolution?

“My position is that the phenomena of Spiritualism in their entirety do not require further confirmation.  They are proved quite as well as facts are proved in other sciences.”

The skeptics often point to the trivial nature of mediumistic messages.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

“The trivial and fantastic nature of the acts of some of these disembodied spirits is not to be wondered at when we consider the myriads of trivial and fantastic human beings who are daily becoming spirits, and who retain, for a time at least, their human natures in their new condition. So if we realize to ourselves the fact that spirits can in most cases only communicate with us in certain very limited modes, we shall see that the true ‘triviality’ consists in objecting to any mode of mental converse as being trivial or undignified.”

Materialists often say that you believe what you do simply because there is a will or need to believe.  Can you objectively say that is not the case with you?

“For 25 years I had been an utter skeptic as to the existence of any preter-human or super-human intelligence, and that I never for a moment contemplated the possibility that the marvels related by Spiritualism could literally be true.  If I have now changed my opinion, it is simply by the force of evidence.  It is from no dread of annihilation that I have gone into this subject; it is from no inordinate longing for eternal existence that I have come to believe in facts which render this highly probable, if they do not actually prove it.  At least three times during my travels I have had to face death as imminent or probable within a few hours, and what I felt on those occasions was at most a gentle melancholy at the thought of quitting this wonderful and beautiful earth to enter on a sleep which might know no waking.  In a state of ordinary health I did not feel even this. I knew that the great problem of conscious existence was one beyond man’s grasp, and this fact alone gave some hope that existence might be independent of the organized body.  I came to the inquiry, therefore, utterly unbiased by hopes or fears, because I knew that my belief could not affect the reality, and with an ingrained prejudice against even such a word as ‘spirit,’ which I have hardly yet overcome.”

What do you say to those members of orthodox religion who seem to be satisfied with faith alone and ask what the use of spirit communication is?

“It substitutes a definite, real, and practical conviction for a vague, theoretical, and unsatisfying faith.  It furnishes actual knowledge on a matter of vital importance to all men and most advanced thinkers have held, and still hold, that no knowledge was attainable.”

Thank you, Dr. Wallace.  Any parting thoughts?

“If a man die shall he live again?  This is the question which in all ages has troubled the souls of men; the prophets and the wise men of antiquity were in doubt as to the answer to be given it.  Philosophy has always discussed it as one of the unsolved problems of humanity, while modern science instead of clearing up the difficulty and giving us renewed hope, either ignores the question altogether or advances powerful arguments against the affirmative reply.  Yet the ultimate decision arrived at, whether in the negative or affirmative, is not only of vital interest to each of us individually, but is calculated, I believe, to determine the future welfare or misery of mankind.

“If the question should be finally decided in the negative, if all men without exception ever come to believe that there is no life beyond this life, if children were all brought up to believe that the only happiness they can ever enjoy will be upon earth, then it seems to me that the condition of man would be altogether hopeless, because there would cease to be any adequate motive for justice, for truth, for unselfishness, and no sufficient reason could be given to the poor man, to the bad man, or to the selfish man, why he should not seek his own personal welfare at the cost of others.”

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Facing the Final Choice by Michael Grosso – The editor of my first book suggested I call it The Final Choice (1985). I thought the title was overdramatic and a bit grandiose. I did in part write the book in response to what seemed like the growing threat of nuclear war. Read here
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