Joined: Sep. 2006
From the Encyclopedia of Evolution, Richard Milner (1990).
|Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace—the two greatest naturalists of the 19th century—took opposite sides when the supernatural went on trial. The fascinating confrontation between the cofounders of evolutionary theory took place in November, 1876, but was downplayed by the Darwin family and almost lost to history.|
Ironic, since Darwin’s side won.
|At issue was whether the famous American psychic Henry Slade was sincere about communication with “departed spirits” or was merely a clever con man. The case marked the first time a scientist had ever brought criminal charges against a professional “medium” for conducting fraudulent experiments.|
Known as the “slate-writing medium,” Slade’s specialty was posing questions to the spirit of his dead wife and receiving mysteriously written answers on slates. With the cream of society among his clients, his trial before a packed London courtroom was front-page news for weeks.
Professor Edwin Ray Lankester, a young evolutionary biologist who had been Thomas Henry Huxley’s student, paid to attend a séance at Slade’s with hope of catching him in trickery. Boldly, he snatched the slate from the medium’s hand in the darkened room and found an answer written before the question had been asked. Lankester hauled Slade into police court as a “common rogue.”
Alfred Russel Wallace, a staunch believer in Spiritualism, gladly appeared as star witness for the defense.... Darwin, on the contrary, was convinced that all “spirit-mediums” were “clever rogues,” preying upon the credulous and bereaved. He wrote Lankester that he considered it a “public benefit” to put Slade out of business and quietly contributed funds to the cost of prosecution.... Professor Huxley had even mastered the trick of snapping his big toe inside his boot [Did anyone know this?] to confound Spiritualist adversaries with “mysterious” rapping sounds—an achievement that has been overlooked by his many biographers.
Slade was convicted, and though he escaped to Europe after his conviction was overturned, the repeated exposures of his dishonesty turned him into a laughing-stock, and soon cub reporters were routinely sent, for their first assignment, to “expose” old Slade again.
But here’s where it gets really interesting:
|One of Lankester’s motives in pursuing Slade was to punish Wallace, whom he thought had “degraded” scientific meetings by permitting a paper on “thought transference” to be read. Only a few days before Lankester’s exposure of Slade, Wallace had chaired the anthropology section at the British Association, and his vote had broken a bitter deadlock to allow a paper by physicist William Barrett, about a woman who claimed to “see” events in London without leaving her small Irish town.|
The incident caused deep acrimony in the scientific community for which some never forgave Wallace. Years later, when Darwin wrote his friend Sir Joseph Hooker, asking help in securing a government pension for Wallace, Hooker refused.... Darwin prevailed on his colleagues to approve the pension for Wallace, in belated recognition of his extraordinary contributions to natural science.
What a remarkable man Charles Darwin was to stick up for his naive colleague (Wallace was by all accounts an honest believer) in the face of this.
Here’s a related article: Alfred Russel Wallace, the Origin of Man, and Spiritualism
Which came first: the shimmy, or the hip?
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"I happen to think that this prerequisite criterion of empirical evidence is itself not empirical." - Clive
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