Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Did Darwin plagiarize Matthew? Part 1: Debunking claims from misreading Matthew (1831)

Sutton (2014. Nullius in Verba. Darwin's greatest secret. Epub by Thinker Media) compared Wallace's Sarawak paper with Matthew (1831. On Naval Timber and Arboriculture) thinking that Wallace's plagiarism of Matthew unfolds by mere juxtaposition. I will leave various passages that hardly show any similarity in wording aside. The following comparison, instead, proves Sutton's inability to decode the context and meaning of what he finds with google. He continues to marshall as evidence of plagiarism the following two passages by Wallace and Matthew and concludes:

"As his [76] hypothesis is one which claims acceptance solely as explaining and connecting facts which exist in nature, he expects facts alone to be brought to disprove it; not à-priori arguments against its probability.'
"As our author's [77] premises thus appear neither self-evident nor supported by facts it might seem unfair at least it would be superfluous to proceed to the consideration of his conclusions and corollaries.'
From this simple preliminary comparison of extracts from the 1855 Sarawak paper with NTA [Sutton's acronym for Matthew (1831)], it is obvious that three years before he sent his Ternate paper to Darwin, Wallace had plagiarised Matthew’s hypotheses. The similarities in wording, concepts and ideas are too great and too numerous for Wallace to have possibly come up with them independently the Originator.>> (Sutton 2014, chap. 5)

In the endnotes Sutton explains:
<<[76] Wallace is referring to himself in the third person. He means it is his own hypothesis.
[77] Matthew is referring to himself in the third person. He means that his hypothesis now requires many examples of confirmatory evidence, and as many examples of disconfirming evidence as can be obtained to test its veracity. This is exactly what Darwin set out to do—Wallace too.>> (Sutton 2014, appendix)
Even if some readers see the striking similarity, which I do not, the problem is the context.

Wallace (1855) actually refers to himself in the third person. He says that he will not accept a priori criticism as could have come from theologians or philosophers, but that he will only accept evidence. For example, closely allied species that are not associated geographically or geologically would serve as evidence contrary to his law. One can see that from the sentence preceding the one quoted above.
"The writer's object in putting forward his views in the present imperfect manner is to submit them to the test of other minds, and to be made aware of all the facts supposed to be inconsistent with them." (Wallace 1855, p. 190)
Matthew (1831, Part iv), however, criticized other authors dealing with arboriculture (e.g., Monteath, Nicol, Sang, Billington, Forsyth, Withers, Steuart, Scott, Cruickshank). His pattern of addressing the criticised as "our author" and himself as "we" is consistent throughout the book. He begins his series of criticisms with Mr. Monteath's "The Forester's Guide." Here, for example, he writes:
"Our author's mode of preparation of turfy peatmoss soils we think good, but conveniently applicable in healthy moss ground, only with the assistance of the late Mr. Finlayson's ingenious device of the self-clearing plough." (Matthew 1831, p. 142)
In this manner, Matthew continues from the beginning of his criticisms of others at page 138 onwards to the end of the main text of his book at page 359, addressing whomever he criticises as "our author" and referring to himself as "we." 

In fact, Matthew (1831, p. 308) ends a long passage of criticising a long quote of Loudon that he found in Steuart, but spliced before re-quoting (Matthew 1831, p. 298-307). After the long re-quote of Loudon via Steuart, Matthew (1831, p. 298, bottom) wrote:
"We [that is, Matthew] differ from the author of the Encyclopeadia of Gardening [that is, Loudon], even in limine [that means: even before the trial begins], in his assumption, that pruning is of a corresponding nature with culture, in inceasing the annual circles of the wood."
And the sentence at page 308 closes this long ellipse of dismissal by affirming
"As our author's premises thus appear neither self-evident nor supported by facts it might seem unfair at least it would be superfluous to proceed to the consideration of his conclusions and corollaries." (Matthew 1831, p. 308)
As is clear from this context, the last sentence beginning with "As our author's premises..." ends Matthew's criticism of the re-quoted Loudon on the effects of pruning (culture) and location/soil (nature) on timber quality (see here). Here, Matthew says that he will not even bother to review and criticize the conclusions of the author because he found his premises wanting. 

It takes a bit more than mere googling to get this context and meaning, because one needs to read 10 pages astern, in order to get it.

Sutton, however, thinks that Matthew addressed himself as "our author" and, in this passage, demanded that others after him should proceed to test his hypothesis. This is a gross misinterpretation on Sutton's part.

Elsewhere, Sutton even tries to interpret this passage as a hint at why Matthew (1831) put the longer exposition of his natural selection idea into the appendix (see Sutton, A Bombshell for the History of Evolutionary Biology, thedailyjournalist.com):

<<Having refuted Darwin’s excuses that Matthew hid his discovery solely in the appendix of NTA, and that both NTA’s title and subject matter were inappropriate to contain unique ideas on organic evolution in the first half of the 19th century, it is perhaps useful to examine why Matthew did put so much of his discovery, and his discussion of its implications, into the appendix. He may have done so for two reasons. It seems likely that he believed it was the right place for a deductively derived hypothesis, as opposed to an inductive theory inspired and supported by sufficient confirmatory empirical evidence. If so, that would explain why he wrote the following in the main body of NTA (Matthew 1831, p. 303):
‘As our author's premises thus appear neither self evident, nor supported by facts, it might seem unfair, at least it would be superfluous, to proceed to the consideration of his conclusions and corollaries.’
Those further conclusions and corollaries were saved for the appendix, which may also have been used so extensively because it seemed the appropriate place for heresy.>>
One can hardly press more wishful thinking than Sutton in so condescending a dismissal by Matthew of Steuart's and Loudon's premises. 

Admittedly, in attacking the particular assumption that pruning up a tree can do any good for it, Matthew (1831, pp. 307-8) did work himself up to one of the scattered passages being inspired by the idea of natural selection (see also here). Explaining how pruning can only mar the adaptedness of a tree, he gushes forth: 
"The use of the infinite seedling varieties in the families of plants, even in those in a state of nature, differing in luxuriance of growth and local adaptation, seems to be to give one individual (the strongest best circumstance-suited) superiority over others of its kind around, that it may, by overtopping and smothering them, procure room for full extension, and thus afford, at the same time, a continual selection of the strongest, best circumstance-suited, for reproduction. Man's interference, by preventing this natural process of selection among plants, independent of the wider range of circumstances to which he introduces them, has increased the difference in varieties, particularly in the more domesticated kinds; and even in man himself, the greater uniformity, and more general vigour among savage tribes, is referrible to nearly similar selecting law—the weaker individual sinking under the ill treatment of the stronger, or under the common hardship.
   As our author's premises thus appear neither self-evident nor supported by facts it might seem unfair at least it would be superfluous to proceed to the consideration of his conclusion." (Matthew 1831, p. 307-308)
The vicinity of this insight about natural selection to the last sentence beginning with "As our author's premises..." does not make the latter sentence one about the theory of natural selection or about Matthew in the third person, however. It remains the closure of the long ellipse of criticising the practice of pruning as explained above.

The other parts in this series can be found by choosing the rider/label 'Patrick Matthew' from above the blog posts.