Friday, 22 August 2014

A Vintage Roasting of Matthew (1831) On Naval Timber

[See here for all my 13 or so posts on Pattrick Matthew and plagiarism claims made on his behalf.]

The discovery of citations of Matthew (1831) has lead several writers to allegations that Darwin and Wallace must have known and plagiarised Matthew's idea of natural selection. The assumption seems to be that any citation or review of Matthew (1831) increases the likelihood that Darwin and Wallace got wind of this publication as well as of the idea of natural selection in it and its relevance to their own interest.

The following is an entertaining scorcher of Matthew (1831) being published anonymously in the Edinburgh Literary Journal, Saturday, July 2, 1831, pp. 1-4 (for the whole review click on this link). It serves to show that not all citations or reviews of Matthew (1831) necessarily increased Matthew's popularity or the awareness about his idea of natural selection and its relevance to the species problem.

This particular anonymous review of 1831 even claims that Matthew (1831) plagiarized earlier works on planting (arboriculture) by Miller, Marshall, Pontey etc. but denied to having read them in his preface. 

Here are just some gems and an image of the first page:
"This is a publication of as great promise, and as paltry performance, as ever came under our critical inspection." (Anon. 1831, p. 1)
"Whoever is conversant with any tolerable treatise on ship-building, and with three or four of the best modern works on planting (now fashionably called Arboriculture), will find that the book furnishes a very superficial view indeed on what they have there learned, hashed up a-new for the booksellers, with a sauce piquante of "Critical Notes on recent writers;" that is, a vulgar, petulant, and outrageous abuse of the most distinguished among them; of Sir Walter Scott, of Sir Henry Steuart, of Messers Loudon, Cruickshank, Monteath, and even of Mr. Withers himself, the Norfolk attorney; which last the author has felicitously selected as the archetype of his genius, and the model of his style. With more knowledge of the subject than the attorney (for less he could not well possess), he is a ten times worse writer; while for innate self-sufficiency and conceit, he beats the attorney all to nothing." (Anon. 1831, p. 1)
"The entire tract resembles a new quack medicine..." (Anon. 1831, p. 2)
Next comes the allegation that Matthew himself plagiarised:
 "In the first part, which is very short, we find an idea given of a ship's hull and timbers, with three woodcuts; as also, by means of three more, we have directions for the training and pruning of trees, so as to fit them for the construction of vessels; all which are much better give,—the first in any elementary book on naval architecture, and the second in the original works on planting, from whence they are copied [original emphasis] namely, those of Miller, Marshall, Pontey, etc., authors that Mr Matthew never had "the curiosity" to examine!" (Anon. 1831, p. 2)
Another allegation of plagiarising Cruickshank on the part of Matthew (1831) is given in a footnote at page 3 of this review. The place, where a reader could get a hunch that something in the book is relevant to the species problem, goes:
"In the second part, a very meagre and commonplace account is given of the oak, larch, chestnut, beech, elm, pine, and willow, the only seven trees used in ship-building. In this account, from our practical familiarity with the subject, and especially with the writers above enumerated, we can declare that we are not enabled to detect one new idea, excepting this; that those writers , as well as the most celebrated botanists and physiologists, with Linnaeus and Willdenow at their head, were all in the wrong in their manner of classifying, and generally treating these seven ship-building trees, until Mr Patrick Matthew of Gourdie hill appeared to set them right! Not only are they to be set right in these important particulars, but even the phytological divisions of genus, species, and variety, so long known and established, are all to be changed, and the more learned and felicitous ones of "breed, family, and individual," substituted in their stead" (Anon. 1831, p. 2,emphasis in original)
Any contemporary reader would probably only have concluded that Matthew was a big mouth and engaged in some trivial semantic squabble about taxonomic ranks, here.

On Matthew's critical notes of other authors who have treated the subject of planting, Anonymous wrote:
"Besides, these friendly planters had happened to commend one another in their writings—an offence which the waspish spirit of Mr Matthew could by no means digest. To give any idea of the coarseness, the virulence, the malignity, and utter absurdity of the style of attack that is here opened upon them, is impossible" (Anon. 1831, p. 3, emphasis in original)
Mr Anonymous then continued throughout the rest of page 3 and three quarters of page 4 to quote long passages of vitriol and ad hominem attacks from Matthew (1831), ending the review with some vitriol and ad hominem attack against Matthew in turn.

There is not one sentence about the appendix or the idea of natural selection in the whole scorcher. Why then is it cited by Sutton or Wainwright as evidence for the ostensible publicity of Matthew's idea of natural selection?

Oh—here's why: Mr Anonymous quotes the Preface of Mr Matthew (1831) in full on his page 1. In that preface Matthew, always addressing himself in the third person, has written:
"As the subject [naval timber], notwithstanding its great importance, might, per se, be felt dry and insipid by the general reader, accustomed to the luxuries of modern literature, the author has not scrupled to mix with it such collateral matter as he thought might serve to correct the aridity. The very great interest of the question regarding species, variety, habit, has perhaps led him too wide." (Matthew 1831, p. v-vi and quoted in Anon. 1831, p. 1, emphasis original)
While this only serves to show that Patrick Matthew regarded his idea of natural selection as a collateral issue himself, Sutton and Wainwright mistake it as a reference of Mr Anonymous to that idea. Mr Anonymous, however, has only cited the preface in full, because it was short and showed some of Matthew's character, in particular, his claim to be ignorant of the classic works on arboriculture by Evelyn, Hanbury, Marshall, Miller, and Pontey, but nevertheless to publish a book on the issue. Mr Anonymous wanted to quote that, of course, in order to level his charge against Matthew that he plagiarized exactly these authors (see above).

It is not at all clear whether Mr Anonymous did at all receive Matthew's idea of natural selection for having quoted the preface thus. I reckon he did not.