Monday, 16 May 2016

Did Darwin plagiarize Matthew? Part 3: Debunking claims about citing Matthew (1831)

Mike Sutton is a reader in criminology at Nottingham Trent University who has used google, in order to track down the provenience of certain quotes that are often attributed wrongly. He now thinks he has sufficient evidence to conclude that both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace plagiarized Patrick Matthew (1831. On Naval Timber and Arboriculture) and stole Matthew's idea of evolution through natural selection from it.

One part of his exercise (Sutton 2014, Nullius in Verba, ThinkerMedia, chapter 4, don't buy it, it's not worth it) was to find sources that cite Matthew (1831). Six of these sources, he claimed "specifically drew attention to Matthew's discovery of the natural process of selection on species" (Sutton 2014, chapter 4). His conclusion is that anybody who is interested in the question of the origin of species must, on seeing any these sources, necessarily and immediately buy Matthew's book and search it for information on this very topic. The following lists these sources from Sutton (2014, chapter 4) with comments added, where Sutton's premises are evidently false (tl;dr? Scroll to end).


Anon — Edinburgh Literary Review[30]
    This source is a critique published in The Edinburgh Literary Journal No. 138, Saturday, July 2, 1831: pp. 1-4. What did this review of Matthew (1831) actually say and did it draw attention to Matthew's ideas about natural selection? Here's the relevant passage:  

    "We have always considered it as a fortunate circumstance, when an author has the talent of delineating his own character, and especially in the front of his book, which saves a reviewer much trouble. We shall, therefore, give Mr Matthew's Preface entire, as it is short, and conveys a tolerable taste of his style and genius.—

          'It may be thought presumptuous in a person who has never had the curiosity to peruse the British classic authors on planting and timber,—Evelyn, Hanbury, Marshall, Miller, Pontey,—to make experiment of the public sufferance. The author does not, however think any apology necessary; as, if the public lose time unprofitably over his pages, he considers the blame attachable to them, not to him. A writer does not obtrude as a speaker does, but merely places his thoughts within reach.
          As the subject, notwithstanding its great importance, might be felt, per se, 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 a little too wide. [...]' "

    Firstly, this anonymous reviewer did not draw attention to Matthews ideas on natural selection. He just replicated the full preface of Matthew (1831), in order to show his readers, what a prick Matthew was.

    Secondly, contemporary readers could not necessarily have told, from this preface, that the book said anything about natural selection transforming species, varieties or habits. Back then, many books dealing with natural history said something about species, varieties and habits. But if natural selection or an equivalent thereof was mentioned in connection with this species problem, then as a force keeping the species fixed and preventing their transmutation. Sutton thinks the contemporary readers must have understood: "the question regarding species, variety, habit," as a hint of Matthew at his idea that natural selection plays a role in transforming species, because he does understand it thus now. The ruling paradigm, however, saw natural selection and species transmutation as mutually exclusive. Therefore, contemporary readers may well have gathered the opposite from this 'hint.'

    Surely, the reviewer did not intend to raise anybody's attention to the idea of natural selection in Matthew (1831). On the contrary, the rest of this review details each part of Matthew's book, but only mentions things concerned with practical matters of tree training or Matthew's offenses, slander and plagiarisms (yes, see footnote at page three of this review).


    Currently unknown — The Elgin Courier
      This is from an advertisement in The Quarterly Literary Advertiser, London, November, 1831 (the information by google about the book is wrong). The advertisement also reprints, in the style of a blurb, praise from other publications, for example, the following:

      " 'This work contains a great variety of interesting information. We have perused, with much interest and gratification, the speculations therein contained, in reference to the moral and physical constitutions of the human race.'—Elgin Courier."

      Again, I fail to see why a contemporary reader should necessarily take this as a hint at natural selection transforming species. Speculations about the moral and physical constitutions of the human race could probably have meant many things to contemporary readers. As mentioned above, natural selection and species transmutation were taken to be mutually exclusive things. To think that contemporaries must have understood this like we would, today, is retrospective bias (Whiggishness).

      John Loudon — Publisher, naturalist, botanist, garden designer and polymath
      Admittedly, Loudon's review (see here) shows that he did get the message about natural selection and the origin of species, but even he had his doubts about what it meant:

      "One of the subjects discussed in this appendix is the puzzling one, of the origin of species and varieties; and if the author has hereon originated no original views (and of this we are far from certain), he has certainly exhibited his own in an original manner."

      Loudon knew the idea of natural selection from its established context of natural theology, that is, as a force keeping species fixed (see here). So, while Loudon did raise attention to that part of Matthew's book, he may well have not agreed or not understood Matthew's idea of the role of natural selection in transforming species.

      Anon. United Service Journal
      This is an anonymous review in the United Service Journal and Naval and military Magazine, 1831, part II, p. 457. The reviewer wrote:

      "In thus testifying our hearty approbation of the author, it is strictly in his capacity of a forest-ranger, where he is original, bold, and evidently experienced in all the arcana of the parentage, birth, and education of trees. But we disclaim participation in his ruminations on the law of Nature, or on the outrages committed upon reason and justice by our burthens of hereditary nobility, entailed property, and insane enactments."

      Again, the law of nature could mean anything to a contemporary reader and the association with "outrages on reason and justice committed by hereditary nobility and entailed property" will not have helped those readers to take this as a hint at natural selection and the transmutation of species.

      Adam Black — Matthew's Edinburgh Publisher
      Adam Black not only published Matthew's book, but also The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature. Volume 4 has an advertisement of Matthew's book at page 7 that was clearly reminiscent of the way that natural selection was thought to keep the species fixed, not transform it, already by Buffon in the 18th century (see here, here and here):

      "In embracing the Philosophy of Plants, the interesting subject of Species and Variety is considered,—the principle of the natural location of vegetables is distinctly shewn,—the principle also which in the untouched wild "keeps unsteady nature to her law," inducing conformity in species, and preventing deterioration of the breed, is explained,—and the causes of the variation and deterioration of cultivated forest-trees pointed out."

      To contemporary readers, this clearly suggests Matthew's book to be one more installment of the old natural theology paradigm.

      Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green — Matthew's London Publisher
      As Sutton's references are no help in finding another source, this must be the same advertisement as that already quoted under Elgin Courier above. In this advertisement, before the praise of the other publications including the Elgin Courier are being reproduced, blurb-like, exactly the same text is given as that already quoted above (see Adam Black — Matthew's Edinburgh Publisher). Therefore, the same strictures apply here as well. To contemporary readers, it suggested that Matthew's book was a veritable piece of the old paradigm, where natural selection or its equivalents served to keep species fixed and prevent them form transmutation.


      tl;dr
      It has been claimed that six publications or adverts from before 1858 "specifically drew attention to Matthew's discovery of the natural process of selection on species." However, five of these did not do so. Only Loudon's review might have drawn the attention of a reader being interested in this specific issue to this specific book.

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

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