Patrick Matthew: the real inventor of the idea of natural selection?

August 5, 2022 • 9:15 am

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.

You can read Matthew’s appendix at Darwin Online, and some of the statements about his views of natural selection can be seen and discussed in context here, here, and here.

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.

53 thoughts on “Patrick Matthew: the real inventor of the idea of natural selection?

  1. This is a long post and I started skimming in the middle, but I have a couple of comments. First, if this is fraud, we’re all the better for it. Patrick Matthew’s idea was clearly not getting attention, and we can infer that wasn’t go to any time soon from the fact that it has taken until the 21st century to discover this “fraud.” Of course, in the hypothetical situation where Darwin read it and claimed it as his own, it would be more honest for him to cite it. But wherever the theory came from, the important part is that it was somehow promoted and informed out understand of how life’s diversity came to be.

    Second, a lot of ideas are independently discovered. Surely people had already noticed unintentional results of selective pressure: e.g. a vendor who orders a variety of products in some proportion will find that the proportions change after buyers show up, and will take this into account when reordering. It is interesting that Matthew would make his observation as an aside as if it was common sense. In fact, it shows unusual insight and he missed a chance to promote it.

    Finally, I think Matthew begins by identifying something like purifying selection and while he does state that new species might emerge, he does not propose selection as the the complete mechanism for all of the complexity that has been generated the the appearance of the first life on earth. That strikes me as the main difference between his theory and Darwin’s. Both agree that something happens. Only Darwin suggests that it may in itself be a complete explanation.

      1. “First, if this is fraud, we’re all the better for it.” This was intended as a counterfactual. Nvm. I am sorry to have bothered comment at all.

    1. I’d like to add that my first point (if you’ll briefly entertain that I had one) was certainly not to lend any credence to Sutton’s ridiculous claim. Of course Darwin did not steal natural selection from Matthew.

      My point is that the impact of a good idea is ultimately more important than getting its attribution right, not to dismiss this as unimportant. E.g.,I could argue till I’m blue in the face that Steve Jobs stole many of the UI concepts of early Macs from Xerox PARC. I believe that is true (not a counterfactual). But so what? PARC was historically bad at promoting their ideas to consumers. It is better that someone publicized and evangelized these ideas than holding them hostage to their originators.

      I’m not sure that’s a premise everyone would accept, including my younger self. I think part of it is that I used to care more about who discovered/invented what, and in retrospect, I see the ideas and their dissemination to where they’re needed as a lot more important than whether credit is rightfully assigned. While my example above comes from consumer innovation, I believe the same applies to science.

      Matthew should get credit for his early insight, but there is a reason he is not the one we associate with this important idea.

  2. It’s hard to say here whether Hutton wants Darwin to be wrong because that preserves a more magical view of the world, or because he just wants to be an iconoclast railing at a conspiracy of elitists. No reason it can’t be both.

    The fact that Matthew’s theory resembles the “you know, I gotta theory about that” of the guy holding forth from an armchair is pretty conclusive regarding whether he gets credit or not. So, I think, is this:

    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 smacks of the popular teleology in which all things strive towards Perfection. Darwin’s careful explanation removed any given direction. Matthew’s view seems spiritual. The beauty of the TOE was in how it removed it.

  3. Indeed, Matthew’s words are fascinating. However, locating them in the Appendix of his book on shipbuilding tells you all you need to know. It was a great insight, the value of which that Matthew didn’t realize.

    Darwin’s Origin not only explicates the theory of natural selection, he develops it by amassing data and argument across numerous disciplines—animal domestication, biogeography, embryology, etc.—*and* he fully explicates its importance in fashioning the entire history of life. Not only that, Darwin kept going, spending his entire life illustrating the power of natural selection and it’s relevance. From the formation of vegetable mound by earthworms to evolution of humanity itself, Darwin led the way.

  4. Those are some pretty nifty prose for a boatbuilder by late 18th century standards. If the planking on Matthew’s ships was constructed as solidly as his sentences, they must’ve been seaworthy indeed.

  5. It’s a bit like Gene Roddenberry describing the “warp drive” in Star Trek, and then given credit when, after decades of research, an actual warp drive is created.

    Doc Bill’s Framastatic Matter Transmuter. Dibs!

  6. Text alert.

    The inset quoted paragraph beginning “Essentially, Sutton has to explain why generations of evolutionary biologists” (toward the end of the post) has what looks like a copy/paste error. The odd resulting sentence is this:

    But how This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. about this for an alternative explanation?

    It looks like the copyright reminder got scooped up in a copy operation, and inserted mid-phrase into “But how + about this ..”.

    1. Yes, Maya, I can fully agree. And, as Dom points out under 13, probably quite plagiarist in nature itself.

  7. The idea that Darwin was a lying plagiarist is holed beneath the water-line by his direct reference to Matthew’s work in the 3rd edition of The Origin of Species and his letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle in response to Matthew’s letter. His behaviour when he discovered that Wallace had arrived at similar ideas to his own is also evidence of his honesty and integrity and in stark conflict with the idea that he was in any way a cheat.

  8. I think many creationists gunning for Darwin believe that evolution is a house of cards propped up solely by Darwin’s theories, and they all want to be the guy who shot Liberty Valance.  It is most frustrating and sad to read attacks such as this one by Sutton, and your takedown of his petty and unsubstantiated assertions is excellent, PCCE.
    As for Matthew himself, he did have some impressive insights, and I love that both he and Darwin saw ‘beauty’ and ‘grandeur’ in this view of life.

    1. … they all want to be the guy who shot Liberty Valance.

      As I recall, Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance wasn’t actually outdrawn by Jimmy Stewart in their shootout, but shot by John Wayne with a rifle from in a hidey-hole off in the cacti — then again, it’s Gene Pitney’s hit record that I remember better than I do the film. 🙂

  9. Consulting the puiblisher’s website (link) it would seem that Mike Sutton is a crank (see, e.g. the last para of the blurb) and the publisher publishes only crank books.

    1. Agreed. To me the use of “Dr.” on a book cover, however technically correct, is always a red flag.

  10. Of course Darwin deserves the credit he gets for not just his insights, but also the huge amount of careful work he did in compiling evidence and looking at the issue in great depth. But these conversations also remind me of this passage from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency:

    “Sir Isaac Newton, renowned inventor of the milled-edge coin and the catflap!”

    “The what?” said Richard.

    “The catflap! A device of the utmost cunning, perspicuity and invention. It is a door within a door, you see, a …”

    “Yes,” said Richard, “there was also the small matter of gravity.”

    “Gravity,” said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, “yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered.” … “You see?” he said dropping his cigarette butt, “They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap … ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention. It is a door within a door, you see.”

    As evidenced by these folks like Matthew, Wallace, Lamarck, and others, humanity was on the cusp of grasping evolution by natural selection. Darwin was a genius and did speed things up a bit, but even without him, it wouldn’t have delayed things all that much in the grand scheme of human history.

    As an aerospace engineer and aviation buff, I see the same thing in the Wright brothers. Like Darwin, they also deserve a lot of credit for their meticulous and systematic approach to manned flight, but with the likes of Langley, Chanute, Bleriot, Santos du Mont and others, manned flight was an invention whose time had come.

    1. Yes ideas often seem bubble up together from different sources, there are lots of examples.

      Regarding Matthews, the most well known book is Evolutionary Concepts in the Nineteenth Century: Natural Selection & Patrick Matthew by WJ Dempster, 1996. He accused Darwin of being ‘economical with the truth’ then, & I trust Sutton acknowledges his priority in dissing Darwin!

      If someone has a review of that in a proper journal, perhaps you could share it?

      The thing is people setting out with an agenda to attack something or someone rather than attempting to uncover the facts & accusing everyone else of cover-ups. Classic Alex Jones conspiracy stuff.

      NB the Dempster book first appeared in 1982…

    2. And it should not be forgotten that Clément Ader flew a heavier-than-air self-powered (steam powered) machine, the Éole, well before the Wright brothers (1890), albeit only low hight (20 cm) and short distance (50m). Nothing came from it. The light weight steam engine was still too heavy and the Éole had no means to direct the flight. Still, it was the first heavier than air self-powered flight.
      Then there also were Richard Pearse and Karl Jatho, both contemporaneous with the Wrights(1903).
      The Wrights used catapults so start (there is some controversy there, it is said that not all their flights used catapults, specifically their first flight), so even they were not completely self-powered. Santos-Dumont’s was the first heavier-than-air self powered directed flight (1906).,as%20the%20Wright%20brothers%20did.

      1. That link isn’t particularly accurate (e.g. there were lots of gliders photographed before 1903, including Chanute and even the Wrights themselves).

        What set the Wright brothes apart was combining everything needed for controlled, powered, manned flight. They really do deserve the credit for being first, especially with a practical airplane. When they gave their first public demonstrations in 1908, audiences were blown away by just how advanced the 1908 Flyer was compared to any other flying machine.

        Yes, their 1903 Flyer took off without a catapult. They did so specifically in anticipation of detractors. Of course, they took off into the wind, just like any modern pilot would do (it shortens the ground run, but doesn’t change any of the physics of flying – it’s still all about relative airspeed). Yes, they began using catapults when they went back to Huffman Prairie, but that was just to accelerate development. They still could have taken off without the catapult, it just would have required a longer runway. (Besides, nobody says Navy airplanes don’t really fly because they use catapults.)

        All that said, and like I said in my earlier comment, the Wrights were probably only a few years ahead of the competition, and aviation today probably wouldn’t be all that different if they hadn’t been around. I hope this doesn’t violate Da Roolz, since I think it’s relevant, but here’s something I wrote somewhere else describing a lot of the other early aviation pioneers to put this into perspective:

        Eh, I’ll risk one more link. This one’s a critique of the claim you sometimes see that Gustav Whitehead might have been the first to fly:

    1. That “pre-covery” (to steal an astronomer’s concept) at least was well known to Darwin, and his letters contain a number of references to seeing the public roasting which Chambers got, which were very influential on Darwin in his decision to document his idea really well, on first presentation, resulting in a large magnum opus … until his hand was forced by Wallace, resulting in the cut down version we know as Origin.

  11. In his novel “Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse”, Jan Potocki, a Polish ethnographer working for Napoleon, describes a fictive Spanish professor who discovered a special acid deep in the cells that carried all the secrets of life. Should he be credited for the discovery of DNA?

  12. It would seem the idea of natural selection was such a brilliant idea for Mathew, he consigned to an appendix on ship building.

  13. Steve Gould, in an essay reprinted in Ever Since Darwin, popularized the idea, originally put forth by Jacob Gruber, that Darwin was not the naturalist on the Beagle. But the notion of an “official” naturalist is anachronistic; our old friend John van Wyhe has shown that, although there are complexities, Darwin was the Beagle’s naturalist, and regarded as such by himself, Fitzroy, the Admiralty, and his contemporaries.

    van Wyhe, J. 2013 “My appointment received the sanction of the Admiralty”: Why Charles Darwin really was the naturalist on HMS Beagle. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44(3):316-326. pdf


    1. Very interesting. I remember that essay by Gould clearly; he was nothing if not a good and memorable writer. But it’s always good to get updated and improved information.

    2. What an interesting and convincing article.
      I can’t fail to note how profoundly stratified British society was in those days. I think the notion that he, Darwin, would be Fitzroy’s ‘companion’ and treated as a ‘gentleman’, and hence would not be quartered with the lowly crew as a ‘naturalist collector’ to make the position more attractive, makes perfect sense in that context.

  14. Sub… really? A plagiarism claim?

    Off-topic amusing parallel :

    The attempt to male a serious plagiarism claim reminds me of how a musician in Spirit claimed they wrote Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven because the song Taurus has a standard line cliché that is in My Funny Valentine, Dido’s Lament (Purcell), and so on.

    … but this is of course completely different!

    BTW : I just learned the spelling “plagiarism”. Apparently I haven’t spelled it correctly my whole life.

    1. BTW : I just learned the spelling “plagiarism”. Apparently I haven’t spelled it correctly my whole life.

      You’d been copying it wrongly, as well as not properly referencing your previous usages?

  15. he [Matthew] seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then re-stocked;

    This might itself look prescient in the light of the increasing recognition (since the late 1970s) of the importance of non-uniformitarian events and non-uniform rates of processes in the geological record. The Alvarez family demonstrating the association between the Chixulub impactor and the decimation of the dinosaurs (and the much more significant changes in the maritime microfauna) at the end of the Cretaceous period ; Shoemaker’s deduction that the Moon’s craters were of impact origin, not volcanic origin ; the variation in rate of basaltic vulcanicity that expressed itself as the late Triassic Caribbean-North African- Georgian Large Igneous Province (LIP), the end-Permian “Siberian Traps” LIP, the end-Cretaceous Indian Deccan LIP, the Paleocene-Eocene North Atlantic LIP associated with the mass extinction separating the faunas of those two time periods.
    It looks prescient, from this end of the telescope of history. But in the context of being written a few years after Lyell introduced the concept of Uniformitarianism in his Principles of Geology (Published in 3 volumes while Darwin was on the Beagle ; I believe he was sent copies of the 2nd and 3rd volumes while he was gallivanting around the tropics.), and that was an explicit argument with the previous popular paradigm of “repetitive creations” promoted by people like Revd Buckland. From that end of the historical telescope, Matthew is commenting on a then very current debate within the relatively new “Geological Society of London” (I’m not sure if it had it’s royal charter by then ; Hon.Secretary around that time one Charles Darwin.)
    It’s a perfectly valid comment of Matthew ; but it’s not prescient.

    1. Mind that secretly – since it is buried in massive data – there seems to be a putative evolutionary pattern in diversification and extinction; I may have noted this before. The discoverers described it as a “decay clock” and instead of “repetitive creations” it is perhaps “destructive creation” [my bold and paragraph insertions].

      Here we apply machine learning to generate a spatial embedding (multidimensional ordination) of the temporal co-occurrence structure of the Phanerozoic fossil record, covering 1,273,254 occurrences in the Paleobiology Database for 171,231 embedded species. This facilitates the simultaneous comparison of macroevolutionary disruptions, using measures independent of secular diversity trends. Among the 5% most significant periods of disruption, we identify the ‘big five’ mass extinction events2, seven additional mass extinctions, two combined mass extinction–radiation events and 15 mass radiations.

      In contrast to narratives that emphasize post-extinction radiations1,3, we find that the proportionally most comparable mass radiations and extinctions (such as the Cambrian explosion and the end-Permian mass extinction) are typically decoupled in time, refuting any direct causal relationship between them. Moreover, in addition to extinctions4, evolutionary radiations themselves cause evolutionary decay (modelled co-occurrence probability and shared fraction of species between times approaching zero), a concept that we describe as destructive creation.

      A direct test of the time to over-threshold macroevolutionary decay4 (shared fraction of species between two times ≤ 0.1), counted by the decay clock, reveals saw-toothed fluctuations around a Phanerozoic mean of 18.6 million years. As the Quaternary period began at a below-average decay-clock time of 11 million years, modern extinctions further increase life’s decay-clock debt.

  16. Returning from the rabbit hole surrounding Dr. Mike Sutton, it seems from fuzzy evidence he may be a piece of work to the degree that he has attracted a personal detractor, J F Derry. Caveat emptor!

    It was easy to verify that it seems Sutton is using sockpuppetry from his university adress to insert self-published sources in his own Wikipedia article [declared up top on that page] and in his objections to Derry’s similar insertions on its article on Patrick Matthew’s [described in the Talk page]. You also don’t want to go to Sutton’s accusatory blog, where critics are – of course? – described as plagiators.

    But since there seem to be some fact among Derry’s accusations, I’ll quote a putative history of Sutton from what I believe is Derry’s own blog, and we can possibly find out which is what – for instance, it seems Derry self promotes his “investigation”.

    Michael “Mike” Robert Sutton, a recently retired (late 2018) criminologist at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), has been under investigation for misconduct including fraud since February, 2016. Previously, he was promoting his spurious claims about evolutionary history since mid-2013. At that time, his approach was comparatively benign. This changed noticeably, sometime around early 2016, coinciding with his publishing a paper on the subject. From then on, he has put much effort into forwarding his ideas, as a way of promoting himself.

    I also found out that there is a “The Patrick Matthew Project” which attempts to reinforce the weight of his life and work for various reasons. There is a Dr. Mike Weale [Department of Medical & Molecular Genetics, King’s College London] that has a critical dialog with Sutton there.

    These opinion pieces are designed to counter the opinions of Dr Mike Sutton. I believe most of Dr Sutton’s conclusions to be wrong, and based on incorrect interpretation of the data at hand.

  17. I very much enjoyed reading all the comments here, and am encouraged that Sutton’s falsehoods are finding no favour. The claims are comprehensively invalid in two areas: a) history and b) historiography:

    a) Matthew combined mutability with catastrophism: natural selection only featured as a way to maintain species (noted since Lucretius), NOT as part of his speciation (Derry & Dagg 2020, Dagg & Derry 2022). He clarified this in later writings.

    b) Sutton consistently makes mistakes, with dates, citations, interpretations, etc. Using the same Google Books-based method underpinning his Darwin plagiarism claims, over 90% of his claimed data was found invalid (Derry 2022). He has demonstrated a chronic lack of expertise.

    Sutton probably does believe his defamatory claims are justified, but (with the exception of a single example regarding criminology, and unrelated to Darwin and Matthew, Derry 2018), all have been shown false. He knows this, but refuses to offer (or is incapable of providing) defence or corrections in debate. All that has been forthcoming in response to any challenge is ad hominem.

    Probably enough said…

    Dagg, Joachim L. and Derry, J. F. (2022) Patrick Matthew’s synthesis of catastrophism and transformism. Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science. [in press]

    Derry, J. F. (2022) The Role of Expertise in Discovery. Comment on “Sutton and Griffiths (2018). Using Date Specific Searches on Google Books to Disconfirm Prior Origination Knowledge Claims for Particular Terms, Words, and Names. Social Sciences 7: 66” Social Sciences 11, no. 7: 289.

    J F Derry, Joachim L Dagg (2020) The Origin of Specious: misunderstandings about Patrick Matthew’s evolutionary thinking. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 131, Issue 3, November 2020, Pages 706–715.

    Further reading:

    1. Now published with supplement showing Matthew did not attend University of Edinburgh as Dempster and Sutton have claimed:

      Patrick Matthew’s synthesis of catastrophism and transformism

      Joachim L. Dagg and J. F. Derry
      Published:07 September 2022


      Patrick Matthew (1790–1874) regarded natural selection as a force of conformity. Competition between species kept them from dysmorphic chaos. Catastrophes exterminated many species that would otherwise compete. The absence of this competitive natural selection allowed the remnants to ramify (their lineages to split). Matthew thus united elements of catastrophism and transformism in a way opposite to Lyell combining uniformitarianism with species fixity. Matthew’s mechanism of lineage splitting differed from Darwin’s or Wallace’s. Wallace’s lineages split in the presence of competing species. Darwin saw competition within species as the disruptive force splitting lineages. How, then, did the majority come to regard Matthew’s and Darwin’s mechanism as equal, a view shared by the mainstream and the fringe? The roots of this misconception lie in publications by Thomas Huxley, Patrick Matthew and Charles Darwin, each of whom had fragmentary knowledge of the others’ ideas. Later writers elaborated the divergent presentism rolling from split narratives.

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