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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Have We Lived on Earth Before?
Shall We Live on Earth Again? (S618a: 1904)

What Great Minds Think on the Subject of Re-incarnation.
1.--Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, Author of
"Man's Place on the Universe."

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: One of several responses to a general inquiry made by the magazine The London, and printed in their issue of November 1904. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S618a.htm

    [[p. 401]] To these questions there can, of course, be no positive answer founded on experience; yet I believe they can be answered with a near approach to certainty if we found our conclusions on the ascertained phenomena and laws of evolution and heredity. Answers which appeal mainly to likes or dislikes, or to supposed metaphysical necessities, are, in my opinion, absolutely worthless. To avoid misconceptions, I shall take the terms of the questions in what seem to be their plain meaning--that by "we" are meant the identical individual souls, or "egos," of all persons now living, or who ever have lived on earth; and that by living "on earth" is meant living in ordinary human bodies, not in some incorporeal or spiritual state. Let us consider first what the affirmative answer to the above questions really implies.

In the Beginning.

    Every one admits that at some period, not very remote geologically, man began to exist. Whether he began as a single pair, or as a group simultaneously developed from some lower sub-human form, does not much matter. In either case there was a period when the numbers were comparatively small, and it is quite clear that the offspring of these early men could not have lived on earth before in human bodies, nor could the much more numerous second or third generations.

    The theosophical doctrine of the re-incarnation--the only thoroughly worked-out system answering our questions in the affirmative--asserts that this process of re-embodiment only began after the human form was perfected, and the human soul, or "manas," became incarnated in it, and that it was really essential for soul-development. The difficulty as to the early generations of men finding bodies in which to live a second time is overcome by the theory of devachan, an intermediate state of existence in which the lessons of earth-life fructify through contemplation and communion with other souls in the same condition; and as this state may continue for very long periods the actual commencement of re-incarnation was at a later period when there was considerable population with a large and continuous supply of births. Thenceforward it is supposed that all, or almost all, souls in due course became re-incarnated for purposes of development in the grades of spirit existence. If this theory be true, it undoubtedly follows that, speaking broadly, we have all lived on earth before, and shall live on earth again, at all events till man is far more advanced morally and intellectually than he is now. But is it true? So far as I can learn, it is a pure speculation, and can appeal to no direct evidence in its support. But there is, on the other hand, a considerable body of evidence which renders it in the highest degree improbable, if it does not absolutely demonstrate its fallacy, as I shall now endeavour to show.

Laws of Heredity.

    The department of biology that has the most direct bearing on the theories of re-incarnation we are now discussing consists of those recent discoveries of laws of heredity which were first made known by Mr. Francis Galton. By means of very [[p. 402]] large collections of facts relating to the varying characters of plants, the lower animals, and man, and also of the transmission of those characters to successive generations, he has arrived at two remarkable generalisations, which, after having been closely examined and tested by other inquirers, are now generally accepted as truly representing laws of heredity.

     The first of these is termed the law of "regression to mediocrity." This means that if we consider the whole of the individuals of any species, or of any variety, or of any considerable body of individuals, we can always find for each character which can be measured or estimated (such as size of the body or of its parts, colour, &c.) a mean value of the whole, with varying amounts of deviation, often very great, above and below the mean. But if we take any of these greatest variations (the largest or smallest, the darkest or the lightest, &c.), and breed from them, we find almost invariably that the offspring on the average possess less extreme characters than their parents. They approach nearer to the mean value of the whole group. Thus, very tall men, even if married to very tall women, rarely have children taller than themselves, usually none so tall, and often of quite average stature; and the same thing occurs with very short people, whose children are usually taller than themselves. This law applies to all animals which have been accurately observed by breeders, and it has also been tested by experiments on a large scale with plants. Most interesting, however, is the fact repeatedly noticed by many writers, that mental qualities follow the same law. Exceptionally clever men arise from parents of only average ability, while they very rarely have children equal to themselves; great geniuses never. Here, then, there is also "regression to mediocrity."

How Genius Arrives.

    The mean or typical form of the species, variety, or race, seems to remain fixed for considerable periods, dependent apparently on free intercrossing between individuals, and the absence of all selection or destruction of particular types. By means of either of these processes the mean can be altered, and then the regression will be towards the new mean. But notwithstanding this general regression of extreme forms back towards the mean, exceptionally developed characters, whether physical or mental, are hereditary, though not always and absolutely. Though the highest genius is not directly hereditary, it is the families which for successive generations have produced great or talented or brilliant men and women that at length give birth to the great genius, but also to a large number of mediocrities. Weismann and many other writers have given numerous examples which illustrate this law.

    The other generalisation, which states the proportion due to each parent and each ancestor in the production of the characteristics of the offspring, is even more remarkable, while it also serves to explain the cause of the first law. From a very extensive comparison of men and animals with their immediate parents, and with their near and remote ancestors, Mr. Galton obtained the following results as a constant average: That individuals derive one-half their peculiarities from the parents (a quarter from each), one-fourth from their four grandparents, one-eighth from their eight grandparents, and so on indefinitely. This law has been critically examined and tested, among others by Professor Karl Pearson, the eminent mathematician, and found to be generally correct.

Why We Resemble Our Ancestors.

    The actual working of this law, in connection with Weismann's theory of the continuity of the germ-plasm, seems to be that in the reproductive organs of each individual there is a mixture of hereditary germs derived from a long series of ancestors, nearly in the proportions above given, and a certain number of these, taken as it were at random from each parent, determine the form and characteristics of the offspring, whether physical or mental. On the average, therefore, children will resemble their parents, their grandparents, &c., nearly in the above-named proportions, but there is room for infinite variety of combination. Sometimes the parental germs will prevail, sometimes those of certain ancestors; and if in the ancestral line any special characteristics have prevailed during many generations those characteristics are sure to appear in some of the children, even if they were absent in the parents themselves. Germs from several distinct ancestors may also combine to produce a cumulative result as regards any [[p. 403]] group of characters, and thus arise great men of every kind, and, by fortunate and very rare combinations, great geniuses. It is clear that this will be more likely to happen when both parents are of the same equally good stock. Hence aristocratic families or rural communities which frequently intermarry are the most likely to perpetuate the good (or bad) qualities the ancestral stock may have possessed; and these various results are exactly what do occur.

Negative Arguments.

    The application of the above to our present discussion will now be obvious. The two great laws of heredity just explained are found to apply to the whole organic world--to plants, animals, and man. They apply to the mind as well as to the body, to the highest moral emotions as well as to pure intellect. But if the theory that re-incarnation is a means of human progress, and has constantly been in operation, is true, there should be indications of continuous and very exceptional progress in the higher forms of human character as compared with other parts of the organic world. But there are no indications whatever of such a difference. We have certainly not advanced morally so much as we have intellectually, and even in intellect, taking an average, it is doubtful whether we have really advanced from the time of Socrates and Plato, or from that of the authors of the Maha-Bharata. Not only has no proof been given of any exceptional advance in man, such as ought to have occurred if he had really been influenced beneficially by successive re-incarnation, but there is, as I have shown, direct and very cogent evidence that no such advance has really been made.

A Grotesque Nightmare.

    Other contributors will no doubt dwell upon the difficulties inherent in the whole supposed process of re-incarnation. For myself, I cannot conceive that any fully-developed human soul, however bad, could be benefited by being again plunged into the midst of the deplorable and degrading conditions now prevailing, whether in mansion or slum; among the sensual rich or the starving poor; into the desperate struggles for wealth or for bare food; subject to the physical and moral tortures of its workhouses and its prisons; its bad passions aroused by oppression and injustice; and through those horrors of war upon preparation for which we concentrate all the resources of science and much of the hard-earned wealth of the masses, while we leave their children to grow up in want, misery, and vice, and their old and feeble to a lingering death.

    The whole conception of re-incarnation appears to me as a grotesque nightmare, such as could only have originated in ages of mystery and superstition. Fortunately, the light of science shows it to be wholly unfounded. For the several reasons here set forth I reply to the questions asked with an emphatic negative.

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