Why was Wallace "seemingly fooled" by mediums?

Before attempting a brief summary, I need, finally, to tackle head-on the question of why Wallace, brilliant observer that he was, seemingly was fooled time and time again at the séances he attended. I can suggest a few fairly obvious reasons, and a couple that are not so obvious.

Under the “obvious” category, we must acknowledge that, careful as Wallace probably thought he was being in most instances, his powers of observation Were simply no match for the deceptive skills of the mediums he was dealing With. Add to this his general naïvéte as to the basically good intentions of people, and we have a recipe for disaster in this direction. Undoubtedly, he was easily taken in, though perhaps no more so than many other of his colleagues.

It must also be remembered that he felt, a priori, that remarkable preternatural phenomena existed, based on his experience as a skilled mesmerist back in the 1840s. Surely these new manifestations were just more of the same....? Further, it is undoubtedly true that he did not trust the critical powers of dissenters (especially men of science), at the same time believing that even though some instances of fraud were likely taking place, there was enough genuine evidence that this didn’t really matter.

Less obviously, this whole body of spiritualistic phenomena and process seemed to provide just the patch that would account for those aspects of evolution that natural selection was unable to explain. The fit Was irresistible, and once it was in place nothing was going to budge it.

Still, it is difficult to come to grips with Wallace’s obstinate resistanceto each and every accusation made of the mediums of his time, including those situations where anyone could see that an individual had been caught red—handed. Perhaps he truly felt that they had all been mistreated, frauds or not, or reasoned that a solid front was needed to keep up morale among spiritualists in general. Maybe, but how could it help morale to know there was fakery going on? [60-61]

Note: Charles H. Smith concludes this thoughtful discussion on a positive note: he points out that since "existing theories of nature are doubtlessly incomplete, and perhaps incomplete in unforeseen ways," Wallace's "thinking outside the box" might be considered rather inspiring!

Related Material


Smith, Charles H. "Wallace and the Preter-normal." An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion. Edited by Charles H. Smith, James T. Costa, and David Collard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019 [Review]. 41-66.

Created 8 August 2019