Of the several independent assertions that constitute Darwin’s “theory of evolution” in On The Origin of Species, Darwin regarded the idea of natural selection as his most important and original. After all, it alone explained how naturalistic processes could lead to the remarkable adaptations of animals and plants heretofore seen as some of the strongest evidence for God. And although the idea of evolution itself had been broached by others before Darwin, including his own grandfather Erasmus, natural selection seemed to be sui generis.
Well, not entirely. It was anticipated by several people, including the Scottish polymath James Hutton in 1794. But the most remarkable precursor to the idea of natural selection was published by Scottish horticulturalist and agriculturalist Patrick Matthew (1790-1874) as an appendix to his book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (1831). Although the book was about how to build ships using wood, and what kind of wood to use, Matthew added a 28-page Appendix. In that Appendix were 29 sentences that laid out what he called “selection by the law of nature”, which bore a striking similarity to the idea made famous by Darwin 28 years later.
Here are two excerpts from Matthew’s Appendix:
THERE is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition that its kind, or that organized matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers, to their highest perfection, and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As Nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing—either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence.
. . . There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called Species; the progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.
The self-regulating adaptive disposition of organized life may, in part, be traced to the extreme fecundity of Nature, who, as before stated, has, in all the varieties of her offspring, a prolific power much beyond (in many cases a thousandfold) what is necessary to fill up the vacancies caused by senile decay. As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy than any other kind; the weaker, less circumstance-suited, being permaturely destroyed. This principle is in constant action, it regulates the colour, the figure, the capacities, and instincts; those individuals of each species, whose colour and covering are best suited to concealment or protection from enemies, or defence from vicissitude and inclemencies of climate, whose figure is best accommodated to health, strength, defence, and support; whose capacities and instincts can best regulate the physical energies to self-advantage according to circumstances—in such immense waste of primary and youthful life, those only come forward to maturity from the strict ordeal by which Nature tests their adaptation to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind by reproduction.
Well yes, that has variation, differential survival, culling of most individuals in a species, speciation, and adaptation—all features of Darwin’s own theory. It’s a remarkable anticipation of Darwin’s ideas.
Does this mean that Matthew deserves credit for the idea of natural selection? Only as an anticipation of Darwin’s far more thorough explication (Darwin, by the way, never read Matthews’ Appendix). Matthew deserves no more credit for natural selection as a popular idea than does Erasmus Darwin for evolution. Matthew’s ideas weren’t adopted, were almost never cited, had no influence in biology, and Matthew never realized until after The Origin was published (and sold out the printing in a single day) that he once had within his grasp The Big Idea that explained the design-like features of nature.
Nevertheless, several people have tried to diminish Darwin’s idea by pointing out that Matthew had it first—and that Darwin plagiarized it. The latest attempt is by Mike Sutton in this book published two months ago (click on image to go to Amazon link):
I haven’t read it, but according to Geoff Cole, a cognitive scientist at the Centre for Brain Science at the University of Essex, who reviewed the book in the latest issue of Evolution (click below for free access), Sutton’s book is a real hit job on Darwin.
The title of Sutton’s book clearly asserts that Darwin took credit for Matthew’s theory, and it’s true that once Patrick Matthew had read The Origin, he argued for his own precedence, even though Darwin had never seen the “incriminating” sentences above. Sutton also claims that Matthew’s idea had real priority because Naval Timber was cited by others before 1859, but as Cole notes in a very critical but polite review, those citations were almost all to the book itself, not to the ideas in the Appendix.
Cole also notes Sutton’s ridiculous accusations of Darwin’s “plagiarism”:
What is most uncomfortable about Sutton’s thesis is his treatment and personal attack on Darwin. He suggests that Darwin ”was a plagiarist who lied repeatedly” and undertook “deliberate, knowing fraud”. Indeed, “the biggest science fraud in history”; fraud that Darwin supposedly hoped “nobody would notice”. Sutton also expresses suspicion about the chronic illness Darwin was known to suffer; a subject that many historians have written about (e.g., Hayman, 2009). From every single account of Darwin and how he went about his life, these “lies” are the complete opposite of what we know about the man. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a scholar write that a particular event “is testament to his honesty”. As Browne (1985) stated, “By the time Descent of Man was published in 1871 reviewers were falling over themselves to congratulate Darwin’s “unassailable integrity and candour, and his “wonderful thoroughness and truthfulness” (Browne, 1985, p.257 & 258).
Every serious historian who’s studied Darwin’s life knows that he was neither a plagiarist nor a liar, although he did, understandably, want to preserve credit for his own ideas. After Matthew wrote a claim of his priority in The Gardner’s Chronicle in 1859, Darwin not only published an acknowledgement of Matthew’s precedence in the same magazine, but also inserted this long acknowledgment of Matthew’s work into the 3rd edition of On the Origin of Species:
In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on ‘Naval Timber and Arboriculture,’ in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that (presently to be alluded to) propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself in the ‘Linnean Journal,’ and as that enlarged on in the present volume. Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly in scattered passages in an Appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the ‘Gardener’s Chronicle,’ on April 7th, 1860. The differences of Mr. Matthew’s view from mine are not of much importance: he seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then re-stocked; and he gives, as an alternative, that new forms may be generated “without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates.” I am not sure that I understand some passages; but it seems that he attributes much influence to the direct action of the conditions of life. He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection. In answer to a letter of mine (published in Gard. Chron., April 13th), fully acknowledging that Mr. Matthew had anticipated me, he with generous candour wrote a letter (Gard. Chron. May 12th) containing the following passage:—”To me the conception of this law of Nature came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought. Mr. Darwin here seems to have more merit in the discovery than I have had; to me it did not appear a discovery. He seems to have worked it out by inductive reason, slowly and with due caution to have made his way synthetically from fact to fact onwards; while with me it was by a general glance at the scheme of Nature that I estimated this select production of species as an à priori recognisable fact—an axiom requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp.”
Cole explains patiently why Darwin should get nearly all the credit for the idea of natural selection. A few excerpts from Cole’s excellent review:
Who then should be credited with discovering the process by which evolution occurs? Matthew, Hutton, Maupertuis, Wells? Or anyone else who also chipped in? The answer is simple. Charles Darwin.
. . . A necessary condition of insight is that the knowledge must be reflected upon and placed within the appropriate context. Unless a person fully recognises what they have said, done, or found, no formal insight has occurred. There is no priority.
. . . I suspect Matthew was annoyed with himself, as I was with myself, for not realising the importance of what he had written. That may have been why he dedicated so much of his later efforts on his priority claim. If he had realised he would surely have submitted an academic paper outlining his theory; a paper that was only about the theory. Given fear of religious establishment, this could have initially been anonymously penned. He may have even published a book on the origin of all life forms and how the development of every single species can be explained. He would have also repeatedly used his phrase “the process of natural selection”, a phrase Sutton places great emphasis on, as opposed to the one time he did so in Naval Timber. As it was, there was no paper or book. There was no in-depth development of ideas about evolution and how it relates to divergence, heredity, the geological record, geographic distribution, classification, morphology, and embryology. No lengthy discussion of how there are problems and “difficulties” with his own theory. There was not 30 years of methodical work in which he used his theory to explain aspects of cross-pollination and movement in plants, not to mention work on human psychology, sexual behaviour, and emotions. There were no lengthy and numerous discussions with colleagues about his theory and when he should go public.
In fact, Sutton acts like a creationist, arguing that generations of evolutionary biologists have realized that Matthew should really get credit for the idea; but we have, because of our mindless adulation of Darwin, kept that quiet:
Essentially, Sutton has to explain why generations of evolutionary biologists and the like have never come to the same conclusion as himself. The usual explanation is that we are all involved in a “cover up” (p. 5) or part of the “Darwin Industry”, as Sutton calls it, in which a “loosely affiliated in-group of scientists, historians of science, other writers, publishers, editors, and journals, share a common goal to protect the perception of Charles Darwin as a genius science hero” (p. 10). But how This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. about this for an alternative explanation? Those generations of biologists have independently decided that there is nothing to see here, that Darwin should be honoured with discovering evolution. Furthermore, if a few sentences in which natural selection is referenced warrants priority, as Sutton seems to believe, then why pick out Patrick Matthew? Why not his predecessors, Hutton, Wells, or Maupertuis? In fact, shouldn’t Matthew be accused of plagiarism, having failed to acknowledge the fact that his ”own original child” was described at least 30 years before by various others?
Sutton’s book is his latest, in his decade-long, attempt to undermine Darwin’s priority. As all others before, this one will fail.
Of that there’s no doubt. Matthew’s independent musings about natural selection are a remarkable coincidence, but he didn’t make much of them, didn’t examine them further, and certainly didn’t try to integrate them into a grand theory of organic evolution. But judge for yourself: I hope you’ve read The Origin, so just peruse Matthew’s brief discussion and then ask yourself whether Matthew should get the lion’s share of the credit for the idea of natural selection.
One brief correction of Cole’s fine review: on its first page it describes Darwin as being “the ship’s naturalist” on the voyage of the Beagle. That’s a common misconception, for an “official” naturalist—the ship’s surgeon Robert McCormick—had already been designated. Darwin sailed on the Beagle using his own money, and his position was as both a “self funded naturalist” and also the “captain’s companion”. He was taken aboard largely to provide gentlemanly company for Captain FitzRoy, with whom he dined and conversed. Darwin’s researches and collections during the voyage were done on his own volition and enthusiasm.