Charles Darwin

Early Evolutionists

Patrick Matthew

 

Patrick Matthew (1790 - 1874), a Scottish arboriculturalist and fruit grower, remains an obscure figure in the history of early evolutionary thought. Nevertheless, as Darwin discovered unexpectedly in 1860, Matthew did publish a fully formed concept of the role of natural selection in 1831. Matthew's ideas on the mechanism of evolutionary change appeared as a brief note in an appendix to a book entitled Naval Timber and Arboriculture (pdf here), which covered the then very important topic of how to grow, harvest and prepare trees for the building of ships. Darwin learned of this appendix upon reading "Nature's law of selection" (written by Matthew, image below right) in the April 17, 1860 issue of the Gardeners' Chronicle and New Horticulturalist. "In your Number of March 3d I observe a long quotation from the Times, stating that Mr. Darwin 'professes to have discovered the existence and modus operandi of the natural law of selection.' This discovery turns out to be what I published very fully and brought to apply practically to forestry in my work 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture,' published as far back as January 1, 1831." Darwin could do little more than respond briefly and forthrightly in a letter published in the April 12 issue of the Gardeners' Chronicle: "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."


This episode offers tremendous insight into the issue of priority, the centrality of timing, and the importance of thorough documentation when advancing a new idea. Matthew's concept of natural selection, like that of James Hutton in 1794, was buried in a longer work on other topics. It appeared well before the broader community of natural historians was prepared to integrate such an idea into its thinking about the sources of biodiversity. And importantly, this brief essay lacked the extraordinary documentation and reasoning that Darwin brought to bear on the topic of natural selection when he finally marshaled his vast intellectual resources to write On the Origin of Species more than twenty years after first coming up with the idea of natural selection.

Plate from Naval Timber and Arboriculture by Patrick Matthew. Click here to read this book. The appendix on natural selection (Note B) appears on pages 364 - 369.

For an excellent treatment of Matthew and his ideas on natural selection, please read: Wells, K. D. 1973. The historical context of natural selection: the case of Patrick Matthew. Journal of the History of Biology 6: 225 - 258.

Beginning of the letter in Gardeners' Chronicle in which Matthew asserted his priority over Darwin with respect to the discovery of natural selection.