Alfred Russel Wallace and the Supernatural:
A Case Study in Reenchanting Reductionistic Science's Hagiography in Light
of an Alternative Cosmology
Michael A. Cremo
Research Associate, History and Philosophy of Science
Bhaktivedanta Institute, 9701 Venice Blvd. Suite 5
Los Angeles, CA 90034, phone (310) 837-5283, fax (310) 837-1056
Presented at Kentucky State University Institute for Liberal Studies Seventh
Interdisciplinary Conference on Science and Culture, April 18-20, 1996,
© 1996 Michael A. Cremo. All rights reserved.
Modern biology and anthropology texts often contain biographical sketches
of Alfred Russell Wallace, co-founder with Charles Darwin of the theory
of evolution by natural selection. These idealized sketches routinely ignore
Wallace's extensive research into the paranormal and his related conclusions,
portraying him instead as a saint of materialism. This slanted hagiography
is arguably related to the authors' cultural commitment to materialist,
reductionist cosmologies. Adherents of alternative supernatural cosmologies,
may, in the course of producing their own science texts, accordingly transform
Wallace's biography. In this paper, I will report on such a work of hagiographic
transformation in progress, as an example of an interaction of science and
Traditionally, researchers interested in science and culture have focused
on the cultural responses of third world ethnic communities and fourth world
tribal peoples to encroaching modernity, with its characteristic science
and technology. For example, cultural anthropologists have extensively reported
on how Pacific peoples responded to incursions of modern technological society
by integrating some of its salient features into cargo cults (Worsely 1968).
By performing certain rituals, members of cargo cults believed that there
would someday arrive a large plane or boat bearing abundant Western goods,
in sufficient quantities to restore their lost cultural dominance. Generations
of anthropologists and sociologists have studied the cargo cults.
But my own case offers a reversal of the usual pattern. I am typical of
numerous members of modern, technologically advanced First World countries
who have been strongly affected by incursions of Third World cultural and
religious elements, adding a globalizing reflexive element to the interaction
of science and culture. This phenomenon is worthy of much more attention than
it has received.
In the early 1970s, I became a convert to Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a spiritual
revivalist movement which originated in Bengal in the late fifteenth and
early sixteenth centuries. Its central feature is worship of Vishnu, or Krishna,
by bhakti, divine love. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the leader of the revival,
revered as an incarnation of God (Krishna), predicted the movement would
spread to every town and village in the world. That began to happen in 1965,
when a Gaudiya Vaishnava guru named Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to
the United States and founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
The spiritual pactices of Gaudiya Vaishnavism are founded upon the traditional
cosmology of the ancient Vedic and Puranic texts of India. These texts,
especially the Bhagavata Purana, depict an enchanted universe that is (1)
populated with various grades of conscious beings (many with mystical and
"supernatural" powers); (2) structured with various levels of ever more
subtle material substance, culminating in a purely spiritual dimension; and
(3) predominated by a supreme conscious entity. This enchanted universe is
greatly different from the universe of modern reductionist science.
Indeed, the texts of modern science laboriously distinguish science and
the scientifically described universe from religion and the religiously described
universe (particularly the religion and religiously described universe of
a tradition that populates the universe with varieties of spirit beings
that can interfere with the ordinary physical processes).
Reductionist science distinguishes between natural and supernatural explanations.
Natural explanations are scientific. Supernatural ones are not. For me,
however, what reductionist science calls supernatural is simply part of
the natural. Or one might say the natural of reductionist science is simply
a subset of the total natural, This total natural could be the object of
a more comprehensive science.
According to the narrative of modern science, however, the past heros of
science exposed part of this larger natural as falsely natural. By driving
the falsely natural out of the bounds of the truly natural, the heros of
science improved the lot of humankind. Humanity could now see truth more
clearly and experienced new prosperity and liberty.
But as many postmodern critics have observed, that narrative is no longer
as convincing as previously. Contraction of the natural has brought spiritual
poverty and material degradation to humankind.
My Gaudiya Vaishnava teachers have also told me this, and as part of my
cultural project I have been tasked with exposing the inadequacy of cosmological
reductionism to members of the larger culture in which I am immersed.
In my attempt to accomplish a reexpansion of the natural and a reenchantment
of the reductionist universe, I have journeyed back through time textually,
to study carefully the past heroes of science, to see how I might best contend
with them and their modern heirs. What I discovered was interesting. Many
of the past heroes of science, my adversaries, I thought, were really allies,
or at least not as opposed to me as I expected. Pictured in the hagiography
of modern science as saints and heroes of reductionism, they were in many
cases bearers of truths close to, or even identical to, those I am representing.
The example of Newton is now familiar to many historians of science. Although
much is made in modernist scientific texts of his laws of motion and gravity,
little is said of his extensive work in alchemy and spirituality. All of
that is deliberately excluded from the historical surveys usually included
in the first chapters of college textbooks on physics. When we consider everything
that Newton wrote, he becomes a much more complex and problematic figure,
and this tends to undermine faith in a simple reductionist ("Newtonian")
picture of the universe.
Alfred Russell Wallace
The same is true of Alfred Russell Wallace. In a modern textbook on physical
anthropology he is depicted as a hero of modern reductionist science, cofounder
with Darwin of the theory of evolution by natural selection (Stein &
Rowe 1993). In a history of paleoanthropology (Trinkaus & Shipman 1992)
he is similarly depicted. Neither text mentions his extensive involvement
in paranormal research and the convictions he developed regarding the larger
spiritual context in which physical evolution, as he saw it, takes place.
Wallace, on the basis of his paranormal research, concluded that the universe
is populated with a hierarchy of intelligent conscious beings, who sometimes
manipulate matter in "supernatural" fashion so as to guide the formation
of the human body and assist humans in a process of spiritual evolution beyond
the death of the body.
In the remainder of this paper, I will survey Wallaces extensive paranormal
research and provide selections from his works on the larger implications
of his findings. This material is taken from a draft chapter of my forthcoming
book Human Devolution: An Alternative to Darwin's Theory. In my book Forbidden
Archeology (Cremo & Thompson 1993), I presented extensive evidence that
contradicts current accounts of human evolution. This evidence suggests
that humans have been present on this planet for hundreds of millions of
years, which is consistent with accounts of human antiquity found in the
ancient Sanskrit writings of India. Forbidden Archeology establishes the
genuine need for an alternative account of human origins, but does not itself
provide one. In Human Devolution, I will provide an alternative account,
drawn from the Vedic and Puranic literature. Put in simplest terms, this
account holds that humans on this planet have not evolved from the apes but
have devolved from an original spiritual position. Wallace's paranormal research
provides some empiric support for this account. And I have therefore devoted
a chapter in Human Devolution to Wallace and his work. But the picture of
Wallace found in my work differs substantially from that found in works
by mainstream scientists, such as those above cited.
The central feature of Wallace's paranormal research was his belief in
spirits and a spirit world. On the basis of personal experiments and
reliable reports from other scientists, Wallace concluded that the universe
is populated with a hierarchy of spirit beings, some of whom are in contact
with the human population on earth, usually through mediums. According to
Wallace, the spirit beings lower in the hierarchy, acting through mediums,
were responsible for a variety of paranormal phenomena, including clairvoyance,
miraculous healings, communications from the dead, apparitions, materializations
of physical objects, levitations, etc. More powerful spirit beings may have
played a role in the process of evolution, guiding it in certain directions.
Spirits, the kind that can move matter, are the last thing today's evolutionists
want to hear about. Such things threaten current evolutionary theory, which
depends on philosophical naturalism--the idea that everything in nature
happens according to known physical laws. Introduce nonmaterial entities
and effects, and the theory of evolution loses its exclusivity as an explanation
for the origin of species. Perhaps spirits were involved in the process.
If so, one would have to consider "supernatural selection" in addition to
In addition to believing in spirits, Wallace also believed that anatomically
modern humans were of considerable antiquity. For example, he provisionally
accepted the discoveries of J. D. Whitney, which, by modern geological reckoning,
place humans in California up to 50 million years ago.(Cremo and Thompson,
1993, pp. 368-394, 439-458) Wallace noted that such evidence tended to be
"attacked with all the weapons of doubt, accusation, and ridicule."(Wallace,
1887, p. 667) Wallace (p. 667) suggested that "the proper way to treat evidence
as to man's antiquity is to place it on record, and admit it provisionally
wherever it would be held adequate in the case of other animals; not, as
it too often now the case, to ignore it as unworthy of acceptance or subject
its discoverers to indiscriminate accusations of being impostors or the
victims of impostors." Wallace encountered the same kind of opposition when
he communicated to scientists the results of his spiritualistic research.
Early Experiences with the Paranormal
Wallace first became interested in paranormal phenomena in 1843. Some English
surgeons, including Dr. Elliotson, were then using mesmerism, an early form
of hypnotism, to perform painless operations on patients. The reality of
this anesthesia, although today accepted (but not explained), was then a
matter of extreme controversy.
At the time, Wallace was teaching school in one of the Midland counties
of England. In 1844, Mr. Spencer Hall, a touring mesmerist, stopped there
and gave a public demonstration. Wallace and some of his students, greatly
interested, attended. Having heard from Hall that almost anyone could induce
the mesmeric trance, Wallace later decided to make his own experiments. Using
some of his students as subjects, he soon succeeded in mesmerizing them and
produced a variety of phenomena. Some were within the range of modern medical
applications of hypnotism, while some extended to the paranormal (1896, p.
x, pp. 126-128; 1905, vol. 1, pp. 232-236).
One unusual thing witnessed by Wallace was community of sensation. "The
sympathy of sensation between my patient and myself was to me the most mysterious
phenomenon I had ever witnessed," he later wrote. "I found that when I laid
hold of his hand he felt, tasted, or smelt exactly the same as I did. .
. . I formed a chain of several persons, at one end of which was the patient,
at the other myself. And when, in perfect silence, I was pinched or pricked,
he would immediately put his hand to the corresponding part of his own body,
and complain of being pinched or pricked too. If I put a lump of sugar or
salt in my mouth, he immediately went through the action of sucking, and
soon showed by gestures and words of the most expressive nature what it was
I was tasting." (1896, pp. 127-128). During such experiments, Wallace took
care to "guard against deception." (p. 126) From reports of the mesmeric
experiments of other researchers, Wallace concluded that "the more remarkable
phenomena, including clairvoyance both as to facts known and those unknown
to the mesmeriser, have been established as absolute realities." (p xi)
Despite the well-documented observations of numerous competent researchers,
the scientific establishment remained hostile to mesmeric phenomena. Eventually,
the production of insensibility, behavior modification, and mild delusions
would be accepted under the name of hypnotism. But the more extraordinary
mesmeric manifestations--such as clairvoyance and community of sensation--were
never accepted. In any case, Wallace (1896, p. x), found his own experiments
of lasting value: "I thus learned my first great lesson in the inquiry into
these obscure fields of knowledge, never to accept the disbelief of great
men, or their accusations of imposture or of imbecility, as of any great
weight when opposed to the repeated observation of facts by other men admittedly
sane and honest."
From 1848 to 1862, Wallace traveled widely in the tropics, collecting wildlife
specimens and filling notebooks with biological observations. While on a
expedition to the East Indies, Wallace learned of paranormal phenomena that
went far beyond anything he had witnessed in his experiments with mesmerism.
"During my eight years' travels in the East," he later recalled, "I heard
occasionally, through the newspapers, of the strange doings of the spiritualists
in America and England, some of which seemed to me too wild and outrageous
to be anything but the ravings of madmen. Others, however, appeared to be
so well authenticated that I could not at all understand them, but concluded,
as most people do at first that such things must be either imposture or delusion."
(1905, vol. 2, p. 276)
Despite his feelings of disbelief, Wallace suspended judgement. His experience
with mesmerism had taught him that "there were mysteries connected with
the human mind which modern science ignored because it could not explain."
(1896, p. 131) So when Wallace came back to England in 1862, he determined
to look carefully into spiritualism.
Initially, Wallace contented himself with studying reports. But in the
summer of 1865, he began to directly witness spiritualistic phenomena. His
first experiences took place at the home of a friend, described by Wallace
as "a sceptic, a man of science, and a lawyer." (1896, p. 132) Wallace,
along with his host and members of his host's family, sat around a large,
round table, upon which they placed their hands. Wallace (pp. 132-133) observed
inexplicable movements of the table and heard equally inexplicable sounds
On a friend's recommendation, Wallace then visited Mrs. Marshall, a medium
who gave public demonstrations of phenomena stronger than those Wallace
had yet seen. Wallace paid several visits to Mrs. Marshall in London, usually
in the company of a skeptical friend with a scientific background. Among
the numerous physical phenomena he witnessed were levitation of a small table
one foot off the ground for a period of twenty seconds, strange movements
of a guitar, inexplicable sliding movements of chairs across the floor,
and levitation of a chair with a woman sitting upon it.
Wallace noted: "There was no room for any possible trick or deception.
In each case, before we began, we turned up the tables and chairs, and saw
that there was no connection between them and the floor, and we placed them
where we pleased before we sat down. Several of the phenomena occurred entirely
under our own hands, and quite disconnected from the 'medium.'" (1896, p.
At Mrs. Marshall's, Wallace also saw writing mysteriously appear on pieces
of paper placed under the table and heard the spelling out, by raps, of
intelligible messages. These messages contained names and other facts of
a personal nature, not likely to have been known by the medium. Wallace
himself received a message which contained his dead brother's name, the
place where he died in Brazil, and the name of the last person to see him
alive (p. 137)
As a result of such experiences, Wallace eventually became a convinced
spiritualist. Critics suggested that Wallace was predisposed to spiritualism
because of religious leanings. (Wallace, 1896, p. vi) But Wallace, describing
his view of life at the time he encountered spiritualism, wrote: "I ought
to state that for twenty-five years I had been an utter skeptic as to the
existence of any preter-human or super-human intelligences, and that I never
for a moment contemplated the possibility that the marvels related by Spiritualists
could be literally 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." (p. 132)
"The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural"
In 1866, Wallace published in a periodical an extended explanation of spiritualism
called "The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural." The heart of the essay
was a summary of scientifically documented evidence for psychical phenomena,
such as spirit messages. Wallace later brought out the essay in booklet
form, and sent it to many of his scientific friends and acquaintances. Some
responded with ridicule. For example, Thomas Henry Huxley, who received
a copy, replied: "I am neither shocked nor disposed to issue a Commission
of Lunacy against you. It may all be true, for anything I know to the contrary,
but really I cannot get up any interest in the subject. . . . 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." (Wallace, 1905, vol. 2 p. 280)
Wallace nevertheless invited leading scientists and other learned persons
to witness spiritualist phenomena, advising them that several sittings would
be required. This seems reasonable, because most experimental work in science
does require repeated trials. Dr. W. B. Carpenter and Dr. John Tyndall came
for one sitting each, during which only very mild, unimpressive phenomena
occurred. They refused Wallace's requests to attend more sittings. (Wallace,
1905, vol. 2, pp. 278-279) Most scientists refused to come at all. G. H.
Lewes, for example was "too much occupied and too incredulous to give any
time to the inquiry." (p. 279)
Around this same time, Tyndall had called for a single test demonstration
that would prove once and for all the true status of spiritualistic phenomena.
Wallace replied in a letter to Tyndall that one test, even if successful,
would not suffice to convince opponents. Wallace thought it better to amass
reports of the numerous credible cases already on record. And to these he
added, in his letter to Tyndall, one of his own experiences:
The place was the drawing-room of a friend of mine, a brother of one of
our best artists. The witnesses were his own and his brother's family, one
or two of their friends, myself, and Mr. John Smith, banker, of Malton, Yorkshire,
introduced by me. The medium was Miss Nichol. We sat round a pillar-table
in the middle of the room, exactly under a glass chandelier. Miss Nichol
sat opposite me, and my friend, Mr. Smith, sat next her. We all held our
neighbour's hands, and Miss Nichol's hands were both held by Mr. Smith, a
stranger to all but myself, and who had never met Miss N. before. When comfortably
arranged in this manner the lights were put out, one of the party holding
a box of matches ready to strike a light when asked.
After a few minutes' conversation, during a period of silence, I heard
the following sounds in rapid succession: a slight rustle, as of a lady's
dress; a little tap, such as might be made by setting down a wineglass on
the table; and a very slight jingling of the drops of the glass chandelier.
An instant after Mr. Smith said, "'Miss Nichol is gone." The match-holder
struck a light, and on the table (which had no cloth) was Miss Nichol seated
in her chair, her head just touching the chandelier.
. . . . Mr. Smith assured me that Miss Nichol simply glided out of his
hands. No one else moved or quitted hold of their neighbour's hands. There
was not more noise than I described, and no motion or even tremor of the
table, although our hands were upon it.
You know Miss N.'s size and probable weight, and can judge of the force
and exertion required to lift her and her chair on to the exact centre of
a large pillar-table, as well as the great surplus of force required to do
it almost instantaneously and noiselessly, in the dark, and without pressure
on the side of the table, which would have tilted it up. Will any of the known
laws of nature account for this? (Wallace 1905, vol. 2 pp. 291-293)
If the facts are as Wallace reported them, it would seem that Miss Nichol
herself could not have managed to place herself on the table. If all present
at the table were holding hands and did not let go, it would seem that none
of them could have lifted Miss Nichol in her chair. That leaves confederates
as a possibility. But they should have been exposed by the struck match.
Furthermore, it seems any attempt to lift Miss Nichol in complete darkness,
either by persons at the table or confederates from outside the room, would
have caused much more noise than reported by Wallace. One can propose that
Wallace himself deliberately gave a false report. This, however, seems unlikely.
Séances at Miss Douglas's
In 1869, Robert Chambers, author of Vestiges of Creation, introduced Wallace
to Miss Douglas, a wealthy Scotch lady with an interest in spiritualism.
Wallace attended many séances at Miss Douglas's London residence in
South Audley Street. There he met many well connected spiritualists, including
Darwin's relative Hensleigh Wedgwood. Among the most interesting séances
were those with Mr. Haxby, a young postal employee, described by Wallace
as "a remarkable medium for materializations." Haxby would sit in a small
room separated by curtains from a dimly lit drawing room on the first floor.
Wallace gave this account of a typical séance with Haxby:
After a few minutes, from between the curtains would appear a tall and
stately East Indian figure in white robes, a rich waistband, sandals, and
large turban, snowy white and disposed with perfect elegance. Sometimes
this figure would walk around the room outside the circle, would lift up
a large and very heavy musical box, which he would wind up and then swing
round his head with one hand. He would often come to each of us in succession,
bow, and allow us to feel his hands and examine his robes. We asked him to
stand against the door-post and marked his height, and on one occasion Mr.
Hensleigh Wedgwood brought with him a shoe-maker's measuring-rule, and at
our request, Abdullah, as he gave his name, took off a sandal, placed his
foot on a chair, and allowed it to be accurately measured with the sliding-rule.
After the séance Mr. Haxby removed his boot and had his foot measured
by the same rule, when that of the figure was found to be full one inch
and a quarter the longer, while in height it was about half a foot taller.
A minute or two after Abdullah had retired into the small room, Haxby was
found in a trance in his chair, while no trace of the white-robed stranger
was to be seen. The door and window of the back room were securely fastened,
and often secured with gummed paper, which was found intact. (1905, vol.
2, pp. 328-329).
The usual skeptical explanation for such manifestations is imposture by
the medium or a confederate. In this case, the measurements taken rule out
imposture by the medium. And the precautions taken to secure the entrances
to the back room make the participation of a confederate somewhat doubtful.
On the whole, circumstances point to the genuineness of the materialization.
On one occasion at Miss Douglas's, the famous Daniel Dunglass Home was
the medium and Sir William Crookes, a distinguished physicist, was present.
Crookes, later president of the Royal Society and recipient of the Nobel
Prize for physics, was conducting his own research into spiritualistic phenomena.
Wallace noted, however, that "his careful experiments, continued for several
years, are to this day ignored or rejected by the bulk of scientific and
public opinion as if they had never been made!" (1905, vol.2, p. 293)
At the séance attended by Wallace and Crookes, Home was given an
accordion. He held it with one hand, under the table around which he and the
witnesses sat. Home's other hand remained on top of the table. On hearing
the accordion play, Wallace went under the table to see what was happening:
The room was well lighted, and I distinctly saw Home's hand holding the
instrument, which moved up and down and played a tune without any visible
cause. On stating this, he said, "Now I will take away my hand"--which he
did; but the instrument went on playing, and I saw a detached hand holding
it while Home's two hands were seen above the table by all present. This was
one of the ordinary phenomena, and thousands of persons have witnessed it;
and when we consider that Home's séances almost always took place in
private homes at which he was a guest, and with people absolutely above suspicion
of collusion with an impostor, and also either in the daytime or in a fully
illuminated room, it will be admitted that no form of legerdemain will explain
what occurred. (1905, vol. 2, pp. 286-287)
Darwin Agrees to Test a Medium
Another scientists who witnessed Home's mysterious accordion playing was
Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. At the invitation of Crookes,
Galton attended three séances with Home and another medium, Kate
Fox. Afterwards, in a letter dated April 19, 1872, Galton wrote enthusiastically
What surprises me is the perfect openness of Miss F. and Home. They let
you do whatever you like within certain limits, their limits not interfering
with adequate investigation. I really believe the truth of what they allege,
that people who come as men of science are usually so disagreeable, opinionated
and obstructive and have so little patience, that the seance rarely succeeds
with them. It is curious to observe the entire absence of excitement or
tension about people at a seance. Familiarity has bred contempt of the strange
things witnessed.... Crookes, I am sure, so far as is just for me to give
an opinion, is thoroughly scientific in his procedure. I am convinced that
the affair is no matter of vulgar legerdemain and believe it is well worth
going into, on the understanding that a first rate medium (and I hear there
are only three such) puts himself at your disposal. (Pearson, 1914)
Darwin agreed to see Home, giving Galton a letter to send to him. But by
that time Home had gone on to Russia and never returned to England. (Beloff,
1993, pp. 49-50) Who knows what would have happened if Darwin had actually
met Home? Perhaps he would have joined Wallace in his spiritualism.
In 1874, Wallace attended a series of séances with the medium Kate
Cook. The sittings took place in the London apartment of Signor Randi, a
painter. The medium sat in a chair, behind a curtain hung across a corner
of a large reception room. Miss Cook always wore a black dress, earrings,
and tightly laced boots. A few minutes after she sat behind the curtain,
a female figure, wearing white robes, would sometimes come out and stand
near the curtain.Wallace offered this description of what happened:
One after another she would beckon us to come up. We then talked together,
the form in whispers; I could look closely into her face, examine the features
and hair, touch her hands, and might even touch and examine her ears closely,
which were not bored for earrings. The figure had bare feet, was somewhat
taller than Miss Cook, and, though there was a general resemblance, was
quite distinct in features, figure, and hair. After half an hour or more
this figure would retire, close the curtains, and sometimes within a few
seconds would say, "Come and look." We then opened the curtains, turned
up the lamp, and Miss Cook was found in a trance, in the chair, her black
dress, laced-boots, etc., in the most perfect order as when she arrived,
while the full-grown white-robed figure had totally disappeared. (1905 vol.
2, pp. 327-328)
Wallace had a similar experience with the medium Eglington. The séance
took place at a private house, in the presence of about eighteen spiritualists
and people inquisitive about spiritualism. The medium was to sit behind
a curtain hung across one corner of a room. The space behind the curtain
was small, just large enough for the chair on which the medium was to sit.
Wallace noted, "I and others examined this corner and found the walls solid
and the carpet nailed down." (1905, vol. 2, p. 329) In other words, there
was no concealed opening through which a confederate could enter. After Eglington
arrived and sat behind the curtain, a robed male figure appeared and walked
around the room, in dim light, allowing all of the witnesses to touch
his robes and examine his hands and feet. Could the figure have been Eglington
in disguise? Wallace gave this description of what happened immediately
after the sitting.
Several of the medium's friends begged him to allow himself to be searched
so that the result might be published. After some difficulty he was persuaded,
and four persons were appointed to make the examination. Immediately two
of these led him into a bedroom, while I and a friend who had come with me
closely examined the chair, floor, and walls, and were able to declare that
nothing so large as a glove had been left. We then joined the other two in
the bedroom, and as Eglington took off his clothes each article was passed
through our hands, down to underclothing and socks, so that we could positively
declare that not a single article besides his own clothes were found upon
him. The result was published in the Spiritualist newspaper. certified by
the names of all present. (1905, vol. 2, p. 329)
It is true that on some occasions mediums were exposed in cheating. This
should not be surprising, for even in orthodox science there is no shortage
of cheating. One notable hoax was Piltdown man, which fooled the scientific
world for forty years. And today the manipulation and manufacture of test
results in science laboratories is fairly common. So whether we are talking
about paranormal science or normal science, we cannot exclude the possibility
of cheating and hoaxing. The only thing we can do is examine particular
cases and make reasonable judgements about the likelihood of imposture.
In the case of Wallace's experience with Eglington, a great deal of care
was taken to insure against trickery. In light of this, the apparent materialization
of a humanlike figure by Eglington deserves a certain degree of credibility.
The most extraordinary phenomenon witnessed by Wallace was produced by
a truly remarkable medium, Mr. Monk. A nonconformist clergyman, Monk had
gained a considerable reputation for his séances. In order to study
him more closely and systematically, some well known spiritualists, including
Hensleigh Wedgwood and Stainton Moses, rented some rooms for Monk in the
Bloomsbury district of London. Wedgwood and Moses invited Wallace to come
and see what Monk could do. Wallace later gave this account of what happened:
It was a bright summer afternoon, and everything happened in the full light
of day. After a little conversation, Monk, who was dressed in the usual
clerical black, appeared to go into a trance; then stood up a few feet in
front of us, and after a little while pointed to his side, saying, "Look."
We saw there a faint white patch on his coat on the left side. This grew
brighter, then seemed to flicker, and extend both upwards and downwards,
till very gradually it formed a cloudy pillar extending from his shoulder
to his feet and close to his body. Then he shifted himself a little sideways,
the cloudy figure standing still, but appearing joined to him by a cloudy
band at the height at which it had first begun to form. Then, after a few
minutes more, Monk again said "Look," and passed his hand through the connecting
band, severing it. He and the figure then moved away from each other till
they were about five or six feet apart. The figure had now assumed the appearance
of a thickly draped female form, with arms and hands just visible. Monk looked
towards it and again said to us "Look," and then clapped his hands. On which
the figure put out her hands, clapped them as he had done, and we all distinctly
heard her clap following his, but fainter. The figure then moved slowly
back to him, grew fainter and shorter, and was apparently absorbed into
his body as it had grown out of it. (1905, vol. 2, p. 330)
Broad daylight rules out clever puppetry. That Monk was standing only a
few feet from Wallace, in the middle of an ordinary room, rules out the production
of the form by stage apparatus. Wedgwood told Wallace that on other occasions
a tall, robed, male figure appeared alongside Monk. This figure would remain
for up to half an hour, and allowed himself to be touched by Wedgwood and
his colleagues, who carefully examined his body and clothes. Furthermore,
the figure could exert force on material objects. Once the figure went so
far as to lift a chair upon which one of the investigators was seated. (Wallace,
1905, vol. 2, p. 331)
Spiritualistic Encounters in America
During the years 1886 and 1887, Wallace traveled in the United States on
a scientific lecture tour. In the course of his visit, he also met many
American spiritualists, such as Professor William James of Harvard, and
attended several séances.
One series of séances took place at the Boston home of Mrs. Ross,
a medium famous for materializations. (Wallace, 1905, vol. 2, pp. 338-339)
To make a space for the medium, a curtain was placed across the corner of
a front downstairs room. The sides of this corner were an outside wall of
the house and an inside wall, on the other side of which was a back room.
The inside wall was occupied by cupboard filled with china. Wallace carefully
inspected the walls and floor, from within the front room, the back room,
and the basement. He determined that there were no openings through which
anyone could enter, other than a sliding door to the back room. This door
was sealed with sticking plaster, and the witnesses secretly marked the
plaster with pencil, so that if the plaster were moved they would be able
to tell. The ten witnesses, including Wallace, sat in dim light in a circle
in front of the curtain. The light was sufficient for Wallace to see the
hands of his watch and to see the forms of everyone in the room. Under these
circumstances, three figures emerged from behind the curtain--a female figure
in White, Mrs. Ross dressed in black, and a male figure. When these retired,
three female figures, of different heights and dressed in white, came out.
These were followed by a single male figure. One of the gentleman witnesses
identified him as his son. Later, a figure dressed as an American Indian
came out from behind the curtain. He danced, spoke, and shook hands with
some of those present, including Wallace. Finally, a female figure holding
a baby appeared in front of the curtain. Wallace, on being invited by her,
came up and touched the baby, and found it to be real. "Directly after the
seance was over," wrote Wallace, "the gas was lighted, and I again examined
the bare walls of the cabinet, the curtains, and the door, all being just
as before, and affording no room or place for disposing of the baby alone,
far less of theother figures." (1905, vol. 2, p. 339)
At another séance with Mrs. Ross, attended by William James, Wallace
again saw eight or nine figures come out from behind the curtain. One of
these was the departed niece of one of the witnesses, Mr. Brackett. Wallace
noted that "Mr. Brackett has often seen her develop gradually from a cloudy
mass, and almost instantly vanish away." (1905, vol. 2, p. 339)Wallace himself
saw figures known to him.
One was a beautifully draped female figure, who took my hand, looked at
me smilingly, and on my appearing doubtful, said in a whisper that she had
often met me at Miss Kate Cook's séances in London. She then let me
feel her ears, as I had done before to prove she was not the medium. I then
saw that she closely resembled the figure with whom I had often talked and
joked at Signor Randi's, a fact known to no one in America.
The other figure was an old gentleman with white hair and beard, and in
evening-dress. He took my hand, bowed, and looked pleased, as one meeting
an old friend. . . . . at length I recognized the likeness to a photograph
I had of my cousin Algernon Wilson, whom I had not seen since we were children,
but had long corresponded with him, as he was an enthusiastic entomologist,
living in Adelaide, where he had died not long before. . . . These two recognitions
were to me very striking, because they were both so private and personal
to myself, and could not possibly have been known to the medium or even to
any of my friends present. (1905, vol. 2, pp. 339-340)
A few months after these events, a group of twelve men came to one of Mrs.
Ross's séances with the intention of exposing the materialized spirit
forms as imposters. When they executed their plan, the twelve men found
themselves unable to detain a single suspect (two men, one woman, two boys,
and a little girl) or take a single piece of their paraphernalia. The men
declared to a newspaper that the alleged impostors had entered the space
behind the curtain through a sliding portion of the baseboard. Upon learning
of this, some friends of Mrs. Ross brought her landlord and a carpenter
to the scene, where they conducted a thorough inspection. The carpenter
testified that there was no opening in the baseboard, and that none had
been made and covered up. Wallace sent to the Banner of Light a letter stating
these facts. He argued that "the utter failure of twelve men, who went for
the express purpose of detecting and identifying confederates, utterly failing
to do so or to secure any tangible evidence of their existence, is really
a very strong proof that there were no confederates to detect." (1905, vol.
2, pp. 340-341)
In Washington, D. C., Wallace, accompanied by a college professor, an army
general, and a government official, all spiritualists, attended séances
with the medium P. L. O. A. Keeler. Across one corner of the room a black
curtain was stretched on a cord, five feet off the floor. In the space behind
the curtain was a table, upon whcih rested a tambourine and a bell. Before
the séance, Wallace carefully checked the walls and floor, satisfying
himself that there were no hidden entrances. He also checked the curtain,
noticing it was one solid piece of cloth, with no openings. Everyone there
had the chance to make similar investigations. Keeler and two guests from
the audience sat in three chairs in front the of the curtain. A lower curtain
was then raised in front of them, up to the level of their chests. Keeler's
hands were placed on those of the guest sitting next to him.
Wallace observed: "The tambourine was rattled and played on, then a hand
appeared above the curtain, and a stick was given to it which it seized.
Then the tambourine was lifted high on this stick and whirled round with
great rapidity, the bell being rung at the same time. All the time the medium
sat quiet and impassive, and the person next him certified to his two hands
being on his or hers." (1905, vol. 2, p. 343)
A pencil and notepad were then passed to the hand above the curtain. Behind
the curtain, messages were written and these were thrown over the curtain.
The messages were signed with names known to certain witnesses, who found
the content of the messages intelligible to them. Wallace himself received
a message in an extraordinary way. Instead of passing the notepad over the
curtain to the hand, he held it himself near the curtain. Wallace then saw
a hand with a pencil come through the solid curtain and write a message
to him on the pad. On another occasion, Wallace observed a similar occurrence:
A stick was pushed out through the curtain. Two watches were handed to
me through the curtain, and were claimed by the two persons who sat by the
medium. The small tambourine, about ten inches in diameter, was pushed through
the curtain and fell on the floor. These objects came through different
parts of the curtain, but left no holes as could be seen at the time, and
was proved by a close examination afterwards. More marvellous still (if
that be possible), a waistcoat was handed to me over the curtain, which
proved to be the medium's, though his coat was left on and his hands had
been held by his companions all the time; also about a score of people were
looking on all the time in a well-lighted room. These things seem impossible,
but they are, nevertheless, facts. (1905, vol. 2, pp. 344-345)
In San Francisco, Wallace, along with his brother John, who lived in California,
and Mr. Owen, editor of the Golden Gate, attended some slate writing sessions
with the medium Fred Evans. (Wallace, 1905, vol. 2, pp. 346-349) A physician,
a friend of Mr. Owen, also was present. Four folding slates were cleaned
with a damp sponge and then handed to the four guests for inspection. The
slates were closed and placed on the table. The guests then placed their
hands on the slates. When a signal was given, they opened the slates and
found writing on all of them. The messages were from departed relatives
of Wallace and departed spiritualists. The usual skeptical explanation is
that the slates were somehow switched. But Wallace's description of the procedure
appears to rule that out, as the witnesses had their own hands on the slates
at critical times.
Another set of slates was set on the table. The medium marked one of these
slates with a pencil. When opened, this slate was covered with writing in
five colors. Wallace observed that the letters were clearly superimposed
over the pencil marks. This appears to rule out any clever chemical means
of producing the letters.
Wallace's brother had brought a new folding slate of his own. This was
placed nearby on the floor for a few minues. Wallace kept the slate in sight
the entire time. When the slate was opened, a message was found written
upon both sides of it. That it was a new slate, not belonging to the medium,
Wallace then asked the medium if the writing could be produced on pieces
of paper placed between slates. Evans told Wallace to place six pieces of
paper from a notepad and place them between a pair of slates. Wallace did
so. After a few minutes, the slates were opened. Wallace found portraits
of five departed spiritualists and a long dead sister of his drawn in crayon
on the six pieces of paper, which had rested one on top of the other between
the slates. They had been placed there by Wallace himself, ruling out substitution
by the medium. Given the unexpected request by Wallace, the circumstances
under which the pieces of paper were placed between the slates, it is hard
to see how the medium could have carried out any deception.
Wallace noted: "The whole of the seven slates and six papers were produced
so rapidly that the seance occupied less than an hour, and with such simple
and complete openness, under the eyes of four observers, as to constitute
absolutely test conditions. . . . A statement to this effect was published,
with an account of the seance, signed by all present."(1905, vol. 2, pp.
Wallace's Theory of Spiritualism: Analysis and Critique
Summarizing the conclusions he drew from his spiritual researches, Wallace
stated: "The universal teaching of modern spiritualism is that the world
and the whole material universe exist for the purpose of developing spiritual
beings--that death is simply a transition from material existence to the
first grade of spirit-life--and that our happiness and the degree of our
progress will be wholly dependent upon the use we have made of our faculties
and opportunities here." (1892, p. 648)
Such conclusions were drawn solely from facts that had been carefully and
repeatedly observed in nature, and they were thus entirely scientific, said
Wallace. (1885a, p. 809) The observable facts did not, however, warrant
extending spiritualist conclusions beyond certain limits. The verifiable
facts of spiritualism were, according to Wallace, related to humans and
the spirit beings nearest to earthly human existence. He therefore warned:
"Speculations on the nature or origin of mind in general as well as those
on the ultimate states to which human minds may attain in the infinite future,
I look upon as altogether beyond the range of our faculties, and to be, therefore,
utterly untrustworthy and profitless." (1885b) Wallace was generally content
with the limited conclusions that could be drawn from the observable middle
ground of human experience. He himself did, however, sometimes venture into
the realm of "untrustworthy" speculation about origins and ultimate states.
Wallace found spiritualism to be a good scientific hypothesis, for it allowed
him to intelligibly organize and explain many categories of evidence. For
example, spiritualism allowed him to accomodate in one explanatory system
the spiritlike daimon that advised Socrates; the Greek oracles; the miracles
of the Old and New Testaments; the miracles of saints such as St. Bernard,
St. Francis, and St. Theresa; the phenomena as witchcraft; modern Catholic
miracles such as Marian apparitions; psychic powers reported in primitive
peoples; the efficacy of prayer; and the phenomena of modern spiritualism.
(Wallace, 1874; cited in Smith, 1991, pp. 87-89) All of these could be attributed
to spirits acting through especially sensitive humans to produce unusual
physical and mental effects.
If spirits were nonmaterial or made of "the most diffused and subtle forms
of matter," (Wallace, 1896, p. 44) how could they act on, or even produce,
substantial material objects? Wallace observed that "all the most powerful
and universal forces of nature are now referred to minute vibrations of
an almost infinitely attenuated form of matter; and that, by the grandest
generalisations of modern science, the most varied natural phenomena have
been traced back to these recondite forces."(1896, p. 44) Regarding the
"almost infinitely attenuated form of matter," Wallace was referring to
a space-filling ether. In his system, the spirit beings would act on the
ether, and this subtle action would amplify through the forces of nature
into action on the level of observable matter. Wallace further proposed:
Beings of an ethereal order, if such exist, would probably possess some
sense or senses . . . giving them increased insight into the constitution
of the universe, and proportionately increased intelligence to guide and direct
for special ends those new modes of ethereal motion with which they would
in that case be able to deal. Their every faculty might be proportionate
to the modes of action of the ether. They might have a power of motion as
rapid as that of light or the electric current. They might have a power
of vision as acute as that of our most powerful telescopes and microscopes.
They might have a sense somewhat analogous to the powers of the last triumph
of science, the spectroscope, and by it be enabled to perceive instantaneously,
the intimate constitution of matter under every form, whether in organised
beings or in stars and nebulae. Such existences, possessed of such, to us,
inconceivable powers, would not be supernatural, except in a very lmited
and incorrect sense of the term. . . . all would still be natural. (1896,
The space-filling ether of nineteenth century physics is no longer with
us. But there are modern scientific concepts that might allow Wallace's basic
system to operate. According to deterministic chaos theorists, immeasurably
small random perturbances of matter can rapidly propogate into large-scale
effects that are not easily predictable. Scientists sometimes give the example
of a Caribbean butterfly that by its wings sets off motions of air molecules.
These movements might eventually amplify to steer a hurricane from open
sea into the American coast. If the butterfly had flapped its wings slightly
differently, the hurricane might not have hit land. According to this idea,
Wallace's spirit beings might make infinitesimal adjustments on the subatomic
level that would quickly propagate into observable spiritualist effects.
One might also propose that they are somehow capable of manipulating the
curvature of Einstein's space-time continuum. They could thus produce gravitational
effects, for gravity is said to be the result of curvature in the continuum.
Or one might propose that the spirit beings induce slight changes in the
quantum mechanical vacuum, which in some ways resembles an ether. Of course,
this approach is limiting, and rather than straining to find ways to explain
spiritualist phenomena in conformity with currently accepted physical laws,
it may make more sense to come up with a new theoretical system that more
naturally incorporates both the normal and paranormal phenomena. Reintroducing
a variety of the ether concept might be one way to do it. One could define
the ether as a subtle interface between consciousness and matter.
In terms of modern discussion of the mind/body question, Wallace would
be a dualist. He accepted the existence of a conscious self distinct from
the physical body. Wallace noted that the bodies of organisms, from primitive
to advanced, were built up from molecules, arranged in ever increasing complexity.
More, however, was needed to explain consciousness.
If a material element, or a combination of a thousand material elements
in a molecule, are all alike unconscious, it is impossible for us to believe,
that the mere addition of one, two, or a thousand other material elements
to form a more complex molecule, could in any way produce a self-conscious
existence. The things are radically distinct . . . There is no escape from
this dilemma,--either all matter is conscious, or consciousness is something
distinct from matter, and in the latter case, its presence in material forms
is a proof of the existence of conscious beings, outside of, and independent
of, what we term matter.(Wallace 1870; in Smith, 1991, p. 290)
Wallace favored the latter course, but his system has certain puzzling
features. Although a dualist, he does not appear to accept the existence
of individual conscious entities before their earthly embodiment. According
to Wallace, there is an original spiritual mind from which matter is generated.
Individual spiritual minds, associated with spiritual bodies (souls), are
only developed from and in material bodies, as they come into existence.
(Wallace, 1885b; in Smith, 1991, p. 100) After death, the individual minds,
as above stated, go to "the first grade of spirit life," where they experience
progress or the lack of it based on their earthly habits. But if individual
spirit souls can exist after earthly embodiment, why not before? And why
is there any need at all for earthly embodiment, which is not an altogether
pleasant experience? Why not skip that and go directly to "the first grade
of spiritual life."
A system in which there is preexistence of spirit beings offers a solution.
According to Wallace, spirit has free will, and as a result suffers or enjoys
the consequences of its actions after death. So if we allow that souls exist
before their material embodiment, and also possess free will, we could explain
the embodiment of some of these souls by misuse of the same free will. Only
those souls who misused their free will would suffer embodiment, which does
seem to have some unpleasant features, such as inevitable disease and death.
Here is another problem with Wallace's system. In his works, Wallace details
reports of varied spiritualistic phenomena, such as levitation, apparitions,
and clairvoyance, from his own time and throughout history. But he ignores
reports of transmigration of souls, which occur widely in almost all times
and places. The reports of transmigration are just as credible as any other
category of evidence he considers. The existence of this phenomenon requires,
however, certain modifications in Wallace's system. At death, souls would
pass not necessarily into the first phase of spiritual existence but perhaps
into new material bodies. According to religious systems that incorporate
transmigration, such as the Asian Indian system, some souls, because of
their strong attachment to their last embodiment, do not attain new material
bodies, but remain for some time as ghosts. This actually fits in quite
well with the observations of Wallace and other spiritualists, who found
that the spirits they contacted often desired to communicate with living
friends and relatives.
Wallace's Spiritualism and Evolution
How did Wallace incorporate his spiritualist ideas into his theory of evolution
by natural selection? Specifically, how did his spiritualist ideas relate
to his theory of human origins? First of all, Wallace believed that evolution
was in some sense directed. Although the origin of species was in general
governed by natural selection, natural selection was, in his opinion, not
sufficient to account for the exact variety of species we encounter today.
Some forces, the nature of which were not clearly understood, and which
perhaps never could be understood, shaped the path that evolution by natural
Stephen J. Gould, an influential modern evolutionary theorist, has proposed
that if we "ran the tape" of evolution again we would not get the same result.
For example, we might not get human beings. Indeed, we might "run the tape
"a thousand different times and get a thousand different sets of species.
In other words, there is a certain contingency rather then inevitability
to the evolutionary process.There are so many variables that one cannot predict
in advance the path evolution will follow. If there are so many paths, each
of which is dependent on millions of accidental occurences, great and small,
then this leaves open a possibility Gould is certain to dislike--an original
Mind could manipulate the process by undetectable adjustments to get a specific
Given a certain initial condition and a desired end result, the Mind-directed
pathway, mediated by natural selection, might contain a lot of strange features
one would not expect from a traditional Creator, but it would nevertheless
be guided and intentional. For example, the panda has a thumblike appendage
that it uses to grasp bamboo shoots, its favorite food. Gould points out
that the so-called thumb is not a real digit but an outgrowth from the panda's
wrist. God would never have created the panda's "thumb," says Gould. Only
natural selection could account for such a weird, quirky adaptation. But
God and natural selection were, for Wallace, not mutually exclusive. The
original Mind could have nudged the path of natural selection in a certain
direction to get human beings as an end result. And along the way there could
have been many unlikely byproducts such as the panda, with its strange thumb.
Let us consider in more detail the source of guidance in Wallace's system
of guided evolution. Anticipating Einstein, Wallace (1870) considered matter
a transformation of force, or energy. Force existed in two varieties: "The
first consists of the primary forces of nature, such as gravitation, cohesion,
repulsion, heat, electricity, etc.; the second is our own will force."(Wallace,
1870, in Smith, 1991, p. 290) The ancient question of free will remains
an unresolved problem for most philosophers and scientists right up to the
present. Foregoing a review of the entire debate, I shall here simply reproduce
the main features of Wallace's argument.
Wallace observed that many persons suggest free will is "but the result
of molecular changes in the brain." (1870, in Smith, 1991, p. 291) But he
countered that no one has ever proved that all force exhibited in a body can
be attributed to known pimary forces of nature. Accepting the existence of
free will as an observed feature of human consciousness, he proposed that
its exercise must involve the exertion of a force capable of setting into
motion the other natural forces exhibited in organisms. In this sense, the
action of natural forces in an organism could be ultimately traced to the
action of will force. This led Wallace to conclude: "If, therefore, we have
traced one force, however minute, to an origin in our own WILL, while we have
no knowledge of any other primary cause of force, it does not seem an improbable
conclusion that all force may be will-force; and thus, that the whole universe,
is not merely dependent on, but actually is, the WILL of higher intelligences
or of one Supreme Intelligence." (1870; in Smith, 1991, p. 291) In other
words, all matter and force in the universe are transformations of the will
of a Supreme
Intelligence, or intelligences.
The will of higher intelligences, according to Wallace, guided the process
of evolution by natural selection. Wallace stated:
. . . a superior intelligence has guided the development of man in a definite
direction, and for a special purpose, just as man guides the development
of many animal and vegetable forms. The laws of evolution alone would, perhaps,
never have produced a grain so well adapted to man's use as wheat and maize;
such traits as the seedless banana and bread-fruit; or such animals as the
Guernsey milch cow, or the London dray-horse. Yet these so closely resemble
the unaided productions of nature, that we may well imagine a being who
had mastered the laws of development of organic forms through past ages,
refusing to believe that any new power had been concerned in the production,
and scornfully rejecting the theory (as my theory will be rejected by many
who agree with me on other points), that in these few cases a controlling
intelligence had directed the action of the laws of variation, multiplication,
and survival, for his own purposes. We know, however, that this has been
done; and we must therefore admit the possibility that, if we are not the
highest intelligence in the universe, some higher intelligence may have
directed the process by which the human race was developed, by means of
more subtle agencies than we are acquainted with. (1870, pp. 359-360; in
Smith, 1991, p. 289)
Wallace believed that certain physiological features of humans could not
be explained by natural selection and survival of the fittest alone. He
noted that the brains of primitive peoples were as large and developed as
the brains of civilized peoples. It appeared, therefore, that the primitive
people had brains with capacities far in excess of those demanded by their
daily lives. Wallace said that "natural selection could only have endowed
the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape." (1869; in
Smith, 1991, p. 32) Concerning the human hand, Wallace said the savage "has
no need for so fine an instrument, and can no more fully utilise it than
he could use without instruction a complete set of joiner's tools." (1869;
in Smith, 1991, p. 32) Wallace made similar arguments about the human capacity
for speech. He took all of this as evidence that some intelligence had "guided
the action" of the laws of evolutionary development "in definite directions
and for special ends" (1869; in Smith, 1991, p. 33)
It is not that all contemporary scholars are unaware of Wallace's paranormal
researches and his cosmological conclusions (see Smith 1992 for a review).
Several studies have been done by historians of science and others, including
a few with a motive resembling mine (reenchanting the universe). My revisionist
view of Wallace, to be included in forthcoming book, is, however, more thorough
and, uniquely, is motivated by and linked to my explicit commitment to a
cosmology transmitted to me through a specific wisdom tradition, that of
Gaudiya Vaishnavism. I do not, however, stop with Wallace. In establishing
a spiritualist cosmology in my book, I shall expand its hagiographic element
to include other saints of modern materialism, such as Nobel laureates Sir
William Crookes, Charles Richet, and Marie Curie, who also participated in
paranormal research. My work thus adds another colorful thread to the complex
tapestry of postmodern interaction of science and culture.
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