Under Review

Patrick Matthew (1790 - 1874) and Natural Selection. Historical News about the Forgotten

Natural selection Patrick Matthew Charles Darwin Alfred Wallace Robert Chambers John Loudon Prideaux Selby

Cite as:

Joachim Dagg (2018). Patrick Matthew (1790 - 1874) and Natural Selection. Historical News about the Forgotten. RESEARCHERS.ONE, https://www.researchers.one/article/2018-09-13.


Ever since Charles Darwin admitted Patrick Matthew's priority in 1860, the latter's book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture is thought to contain the first clear and complete anticipation of the idea of (macro-)evolution through natural selection. Most publications dealing with Matthew, however, merely repeated the little that was known about Matthew through articles by Walther May and William Calman and re-printed the ever same pieces of correspondence and excerpts from Matthew’s book. Apart from this repeating of old lore, stronger claims merely jumped to the conclusion that Charles Darwin plagiarised Patrick Matthew from facts that are equivocal and have never been scrutinised within their historical context. This publication attempts to establish a proper historiography of Patrick Matthew, where there is currently mere repetition of old tales or tossing around of tall claims. The tall claims about Matthew raise questions that need to be properly addressed and put in historical perspective before tentative conclusions can be drawn.

     A reader that knows a good deal about evolutionary theory and its history but nothing about Patrick Matthew will naturally ask the following questions when confronted with tall claims: Who, what, where, how? Who was that Patrick Matthew? What exactly did he anticipate? Wherein did he publish this anticipation? How did his contemporaries receive it? On careful inspection of the evidence and its context, none of these questions can be answered in a simple and definitive way. This should come as no surprise after 150 years without a proper historiography of Patrick Matthew and, instead, a mixture of repeating lore and jumping to unwarranted conclusions. The following, therefore, demands of the reader to endure the suspense of not knowing some things for sure, because of the incomplete historical record, and the courtesy to excuse an unknown author enlarging on an unknown protagonist. On the other hand, it highlights how many interesting historical inquiries await talented students. Each question opens a historical panorama when addressed with an open mind rather than prejudices, orthodox or revisionist.

     Many archival sources given below are new to the historical canon of evolutionary biology. They are quoted verbatim when that is the most succinct way to support an argument. Each chapter is preceded by a captivating vignette, in present tense and different font, in order to whet the readers’ appetite. The style of the vignettes also differs from the other sections in that citations are put into footnotes, in order to keep the flow of reading uninterrupted. The citation style is scientific within the chapters, in order to ease the tracking and cross-checking for interested scholars, who want to follow up with their own inquiries. Some dramatising has been introduced in some of the vignettes, like the one that follows below. These extrapolations have been performed without affecting the historical facts, and they were written with sympathy for all the protagonists.

     The heading of each chapter is a question and the chapters are referred to as Q1 to Q9. The chapters themselves are subdivided into a summary part, the evidence that will seem excessive to some readers (they may skip it) and not enough to others (they may follow up with their own inquiries), and a conclusion. As an exception, Q3-Q5 are summarised and concluded together because they form a comparison, as a group, of the respective transmutation mechanisms of Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Wallace. [Chapters Q3-Q5 are based on an article that has previously been published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 123(4).] 

     Part 1 addresses Patrick Matthew’s life. In particular, Q1 refutes the widespread myth that Patrick Matthew studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh until his father died in 1807. Q2 shows that this student of medicine was a namesake from Newbigging. Part 2 addresses the book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture of Patrick Matthew. In particular, Q3-Q5 compare the transmutation mechanisms of Matthew, Darwin and Wallace. This shows that the similarities between their schemes are superficial amounting to no more than that they all include natural selection somehow and lead to species transmutation somehow else. Without the retrospective that inflates the importance of natural selection over all other parts of the theories in question, they are as different as Cuvier’s and Matthew’s, say, or Lyell’s and Darwin’s theories. Q6 reveals what further information can be gleaned from the book about its kludgy composition. Part 3 sheds light on the reception of Matthew’s book by his contemporaries that refutes the myths of its utter non-reception and the opposite myth of its perfect reception. In particular, Q7-Q9 look at the roles of three popularisers of science, who have been claimed to have communicated Matthew’s ideas on natural selection and species transformation to Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace respectively. First, Robert Chambers probably never read the book of Matthew. Second, John Loudon may or may not have been the author of an anonymous review of Matthew’s book in the Gardener’s Magazine. The only question remaining is why did Darwin miss the short passage about the origin of species in that review? As it starts by recounting matters of naval timber, shipbuilding and other issues of no interest to Darwin, however, it is easy to see how he might have inadvertently skipped the crucial passage. Third, Prideaux Selby read Matthew’s book but did not understand Matthew’s idea on ecological competition, which was a prerequisite for comprehending his evolutionary ideas. Even if he had understood, however, it is hard to see how he is supposed to have communicated the intelligence to Wallace in the Malay Archipelago.