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Darwin credits Matthew with anticipating his theories of evolution

In an appendix added to the third edition of The Origin of Species (1872) in response to criticisms that he had insufficiently acknowledged his predecessors, Charles Darwin provided a sketch of the history of evolutionary theories, which, as John van Wyhe points out, “usually forms the basis of accounts of the same subject,” and “is a concise overview of the fact that Darwin was by no means the first to realize that life evolves nor that something like natural selection might be a cause.” After Matthew’s letter to the Gardener’s Chronicle pointing out that he had proposed the idea of the “natural process of selection” in 1831 had been published, Darwin wrote to his close friend Joseph Hooker on 13 April and asked that the latter send the following statement to the magazine for publication:

I have been much interested by Mr Patrick Matthew’s communication in the number of your paper dated April 7. I freely acknowledge that Mr Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. ……. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert to the forgoing effect. [Darwin Correspondence Project, 2758).

This was duly published in the Origin as: “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 restocked.” In a letter of 10 April 1860 to Charles Lyell he wrote:

Now for a curious thing. In last Saturday’s Gardeners’ Chronicle, a Mr Patrick Matthews (Darwin here incorrectly spells Matthew’s name) publishes long extracts from his work on “Naval Timber & Arboriculture” published in 1831, in which he briefly, but completely anticipates the theory of Nat. Selection—I have ordered the book, as some few passages are rather obscure, but it is, certainly I think, a complete but not developed anticipation! [Darwin Correspondence Project, 754]

Darwin also wrote to the American biologist Asa Gray on 25 April 1860, asking “Have you noticed how completely I have been anticipated by Mr P. Matthew, in Gardeners’ Chronicle?” (Darwin Correspondence Project, 2767). In 1861 Darwin was still acknowledging Matthew’s priority: “an obscure writer on forest trees in 1830, in Scotland, most expressly and clearly anticipated my views” (Letter to Quatrefages de Breau, 25 April 1861, Darwin Correspondence Project, 3127). Alfred Wallace reviewed Samuel Butler’s Evolution Old and New and wrote:

We come next to Mr Patrick Matthew, who in 1831 put forth his views on the developmental theory in a work on arboriculture: and we think that most naturalists will be amazed at the range and accuracy of his system, and will give him the highest credit as the first to see the important principles of human and “natural selection,” conformity to conditions and reversion to ancestral types; and also the unity of life, the varying degrees of individuality and the continuity of ideas or habits forming an abiding memory, thus combining all the best essential features of the theories put forward by Lamarck, Darwin and Mr Butler himself. [142]

Finally Wallace wrote in 1900: “These and many other passages, show how fully and clearly Mr Matthew apprehended the theory of natural selection, as well as the existence of more obscure laws of evolution, many years in advance of Mr Darwin, and myself and in giving almost the whole of what Mr Matthew has written on the subject Mr Butler will have helped to call attention to one of the most original thinkers of the first half of the 19th century”. (“Human Progress Past and Future.”

In the course of pointing to previous authors who had in some way anticipated his great work, Darwin generously gave more credit to Patrick Matthew than he actually deserves:

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 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 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.

Why Matthew, Darwin, and Wallace were wrong

In fact, Matthew and the generous Darwin were both wrong here, since the Scotsman’s theory of biological changes lacked two key elements in Darwin’s theory of natural selection: First and most important, Matthew does not appear to believe in evolutionary change at all. Second, Matthew thought that selection worked only negatively whereas Darwin explained how it worked positively, permitting the development of new species from individuals whose qualities provided greater opportunity for reproduction.

Matthew explicitly states that his version of selection is active for the millions of years of stasis during which a filtering process maintains species unchanged. He does not invoke Darwinian natural selection and propose, for example, that over time animals with the most swiftness propagate more than slower ones do. Keeping the swiftest, by removing those slower, is the only role of selection for Matthew. For Darwin such swiftness that permits animals to escape predators eventually produces species of faster animals; for Matthew such swiftness that permits animals to escape predators only maintains the current species at its highest level.

In an appendix to Naval Timber and Arboriculture, Matthew asserts that “there are only two probable ways of change” (383), the first of which occurs when “destructive liquid currents . . . probably extending over the whole surface of the globe” (382) have destroyed “nearly all living things,” and “an unoccupied field would be formed for new diverging ramifications of life,” which “fall into specific groups,” eventually “moulding and accommodating their being anew to the change of circumstances” (383). Matthew’s second possible way of change seems to be something like spontaneous generation, which occurs when

still wider deviation from present occurrence, — of indestructible or molecular life (which seems to resolve itself into powers of attracticm and repulsion under mathematical figure and regulation, bearing a slight systematic similitude to the igreat aggregations of matter), gradually uniting and developing itself into new circumstance-suited living aggregates, without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates, but this scarcely differs from new creation, only it forms a portion of a continued scheme or system. [383]

What Matthew calls “this circumstance-adaptive law” (385) seems at first glance to be something like Darwinian natural selection, and in describing “the extreme fecundity of Nature” he seems to come close to Darwinian natural selection when he explains that only “hardier” members of a species, who are “better suited to circumstance,” can “struggle forward to maturity” because they have “have superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy” (385). But Matthew never mentions, much less emphasizes, that “superior adaptation” leads to the better-adapted’s reproducing greater numbers than the less well adapted — and, more important, that this process leads to new species. His essential point is that environmental pressures remove the weakest members of a species, but such winnowing does not improve the species or lead to new ones. In other words, selection according to Matthew produces stasis rather than development.

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 prematurely destroyed. [384-85]

In a letter to Hillier, Matthew clarifies the position in his 1831 book:

Creation must precede selection. Constructiveness is the great attribute of the Deity. There cannot be selection before there is a varied creation. The constructive power creates, the selecting scheme of nature only chooses from amongst the created. In the ancestial life backward of all existing species not a hair of a head has been touched by competitive natural selection. It has only removed the less fitted to obtain room for the more fitted. The dual parentage or the more mixed contains the principle of variation. Of the higher animals and plants in the instinctive sexual attachment or attraction of each towards its own kind, we have at once the cause of variation and of the fixity of species Here variation works round a centre — while circumstances remain unchanged — the species or family always attaining to a more fixed type, though never altogether reaching one entirely fixed. While when a destructive change of circumstances occurs and in consequence an unrestrained field of existence is opened, near connected families intermix and from the absence for a time of selection the vacuation power, subject to be acted on by circumstantial change, has full scope. [emphasis added]

In sharp contrast to Matthew’s simple conception of winnowing-as-selection, Darwin proposed a far more complex gradualism involving adaptive, disruptive, sexual, and stabilising selection pressures operating simultaneously to differing degrees, and constantly, and competitively, across a population.

Related material


Darwin Charles Letter to J. D. Hooker, 13 April 1860, Darwin Correspondence Project, 2758.

Darwin Charles Letter to C. Lyell, April 10 1860, Darwin Correspondence Project, 754.

Darwin Charles Letter to A. Gray, 25 April 1860, Darwin Correspondence Project, 2767.

Darwin Charles Letter to Quatrefages de Breau, 25 April 1861, Darwin Correspondence Project, 3127.

Matthew, Patrick. On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with Critical Notes on Authors who have recently treated the Subject of Planting Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, & Longman and Co. London, 1831.

Wallace, A.R. “Human Progress Past and Future” in Studies Scientific and Social. London: Macmillan, 1900. II, 493-509.

Last modified 22 March 2018