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.
But what if some crucial source was missing from Google Books and any other online archive? What if a common predecessor was the hidden source of similarities between Darwin and Matthew?
Hutton (1726 – 1797)In 1794, James Hutton published An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, from sense to science and philosophy (Edinburgh: Strahan & Cadell).
1. This is not digitally available either by Google Books or any other online archive. However, Paul N. Pearson published a short retrospective on it in Nature (2003, vol. 425, p. 665) and delivered as supplementary information: The full text of Hutton's chapter from The Principles of Knowledge and other relevant extracts from Elements of Agriculture.
2. It is a large, metaphysical treatise about the question how experiences (from mere sensations to conscious cognition) become knowledge and eventually science.
3. Though Hutton did not apply the term selection to the natural process, he published an early statement of the principle of natural selection as an example of knowledge that has become science, that is, husbandmen do science by applying their knowledge about nature in breeding:
“IN order to illustrate the nature of human wisdom, we are now to examine the conduct of man in relation to the laws of nature; for, where man suits his conduct to those laws, he must necessarily have understood them. But, nobody will dispute that this is science, when man perceives the order of nature, that is, the laws by which things come to pass; and if, upon this knowledge, he shall so shape his conduct, as to attain the end in view, his wisdom will then appear as evidence of his science.” (Hutton 1794: p. 497; re-quoted from Pearson 2003, supplementary information)
After more preliminaries about species being made up of individuals with slightly varying traits, this variability having no direction, and natural conditions such as soils and climates being also of an indefinite variety, Hutton stated the principle of natural selection as follows:
“Now, this will be evident, when we consider, that if an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.” (Hutton 1794: p. 501; re-quoted from Pearson 2003, supplementary information)
4. Though clearly stated, the principle of natural selection was not combined with the idea of species transformation. On the contrary, Hutton explicitly disavowed a species transmutation theory of his contemporary Telliamed:
“We are not here to indulge in the romantic fancy of a Telliamed, forming fowls of flying fish, and men of mermaids or some aquatic animal.” (Hutton 1794: p. 500; re-quoted from Pearson 2003, supplementary information)Benoit de Maillet (alias Telliamed) had speculated about a world that used to be inundated and then subsequently fell dry. Among geologists this idea was referred to as Neptunism and the opposite as Plutonism (or vulcanism).
5. The usage of Hutton (1794) is strikingly similar to that of Matthew (1831) and Darwin (1859. On the Origin of Species):
1. adapted to the particular situation and circumstances
|1. adapted to the locality||1. adapted to their conditions of life|
2. organised bodies
|2. organized matter/ being/ existence||2. organised forms|
3. indefinite variety
|3. infinite variety||3. infinite diversity|
Explanatory systemsIf we thought of Hutton’s Principles of Knowledge as a construct of ideas that could be illustrated by a complex building, a farm for example, the various rooms and premises of that farm would be enlightened by different mechanisms (switches). But only the stable, where the breeding and husbandry went on, would be enlightened by the mechanism of natural/artificial selection. Further more, none of the breeding going on there or in nature outside of the farm would ever lead to a transmutation of one species into another.
In this picture, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would, instead, be a zoological and botanical garden, but all the buildings and enclosures would be enlightened by one central switch, natural selection connected with species transmutation. Gradualism was also be a part of Darwin’s explanatory system, but as the combination of gradualism with natural selection already existed in Hutton’s explanatory system, that particular combination was not the new invention then. It was the combination of natural selection with species transmutation that distinguished Darwin’s, Wallace’s and, yes, Matthew’s explanations from those that previously saw natural selection and species transmutation as mutually exclusive.
In the above picture of explanatory systems, Matthew's book would be a village of separate properties, a miscellany of ideas, but not one long argument. A visitor would find the mechanism of natural selection lying around, here and there, in different states of assembly. Passages that can be recognized, in retrospect, as being inspired by the idea of natural selection occur throughout the book (for examples see here and here), but it is not one long argument crafted in order to drive home the message that natural selection transforms species.
A tour through Matthew’s villageEntrance hall. The introduction (pp. 1-4) is not about natural selection, but about the importance of the navy for the British empire. It also contains a rants against the degeneration of an entailed aristocracy, at page 3, and this rant contains a footnote (“* See App. B.”) that refers to Note B, which was too long to be included in the main text as a footnote. It was therefore put in an appendix of end-notes A to F. This Note B, in turn, starts with an insight about a natural law that must have caught his readers by surprise, as they were probably expecting the rants about the degenerate to nobility to continue. Continue it would, but only after this insight:
“There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition that its kind, or that organized matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers, to their highest perfection, and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As Nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time's decay, those individuals who posses not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing—either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence. The law of entail, necessary to hereditary nobility, is an outrage on this law of nature which she will not pass unavenged [...]” (Matthew 1831, 364-365)Surely, this is not a combination of natural selection with species transformation. If anything it is a naturalistic fallacy, in which Matthew argues that the law of entail is bad, because it is against nature.
Joiner’s Workshop. Part one (pp. 5-30) of Matthew's book is about the Structure of Vessels with plank wood being for the skin of ships and timber for the ribs or skeleton. This part contains nothing of interest concerning natural history and what it does contain about ship building has been said to be shallow and derivative.
Arboretum. Part two (pp. 31-105) is about British Forest Trees suited for Naval Purposes, which were: Oak, Spanish Chestnut, Beech, Scotch Elm, British Elm, Red-wood Willow, Red-wood Pine, White Larch. While there is a lot of information about varieties of trees in here, none of it aims at a function of this variability in theory of evolution through natural selection. Instead, it is a rather confused part mixing information about leaf variety, bark variety etc. with the sensitivity of certain tree species to pruning or whether they are suitable for hedgerows, their requirements of soils, measures against dry rot etc.
Philosopher’s shed. Part three (pp. 106-137) is called Miscellaneous Matter connected with Naval Timber. This part is not half as mixed up a miscellany as the previous one. Instead it is a rather concentrated lamentation deploring the poor selection regime being followed by tree nurseries. The point is that healthy trees with good heritable traits take the longest to mature and yield seeds, which is why tree nurseries have often chosen the most sickly trees that spend themselves in seeds the earliest for seeds.
“The consequences are now being developed of our deplorable ignorance of, or inattention to, one of the most evident traits of natural history, that vegetables as well as animals are generally liable to an almost unlimited diversification, regulated by climate, soil, nourishment, and new commixture of already formed varieties. In those with which man is most intimate, and where his agency in throwing them from their natural locality and dispositions has brought out this power of diversification in stronger shades, it has been forced upon his notice, as in man himself, in the dog, horse, cow, sheep, poultry,—in the apple, pear, plum, gooseberry, potato, pea, which sport in infinite varieties, differing considerably in size, colour, taste, firmness of texture, period of growth, almost in every recognisable quality. In all these kinds man is influencial in preventing deterioration, by careful selection of the largest or most valuable as breeders; but in timber trees the opposite course has been pursued. The large growing varieties being so long of coming to produce seed, that many plantations are cut down before they reach this maturity, the small growing and weakly varieties, known by early and extreme seeding, have been continually selected as reproductive stock, from the ease and conveniency with which their seed could be procured; and the husks of several kinds of these invariably kiln dried*, in order that the seeds might be the more easily extracted! May we, then, wonder that our plantations are occupied by a sickly short-lived puny race, incapable of supporting existence in situations where their own kind had formerly flourished—particularly evinced in the genus Pinus, more particularly in the species Scots fir; so much inferior to those of Nature’s own rearing, where only the stronger, more hardy, soil-suited varieties can struggle forward to maturity and reproduction?” (Matthew 1831: pp. 106-108)While species transmutation is not at issue, here, the degeneration of cultivated trees is lucidly explained in terms of poor regimes of artificial selection on the part of tree nurseries and in comparison with natural selection.
Potemkin village within. Part four (pp. 138-359) is a Notice of Authors who treat of Arboriculture. Now, this is the biggest part of Matthew’s village, the Potemkin village within. Notice of authors means that Matthew picked the nits out of earlier publications on tree planting etc., and let the authors look stupid, but he also picked the cherries and let them look like his own insights. And he did not care whether the nit or cherry in question was about coppice, pruning, soil preparation, ploughing, transplanting trees, curing diseases, whether slow or quick grown wood is better for naval purposes etc. Needless to say that some passages in this part have also been inspired by the idea of natural selection, whenever it suited Matthew’s agenda of denigrating a predecessor. But these passages do not combine natural selection with species tarnsformation and, like rubies in the rubbish, they are hard to find.
The maze. The Appendix (pp. 363-381) is a collection of end-notes A-F that were too long to be included in the main text as footnotes. Notes B and C are on the topic of natural selection, the rest is not.
The exit. After this collection of end-notes, another appendix to the appendix (pp. 381-388) is appended. This is where Matthew clearly combines his idea of natural selection with that of species transmutation, nowhere else.
“Is the inference then unphilosophic, that living things which are proved to have a circumstance-suiting power—a very slight change of circumstance by culture inducing a corresponding change of character—may have gradually accommodated themselves to the variations of the elements containing them, and, without new creation, have presented the diverging changeable phenomena of past and present organized existence.” (Matthew 1831: p. 382)
“the progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species incapable of co reproduction.
The self regulating adaptive disposition of organized life may, in part, be traced to the extreme fecundity of Nature, who, as before stated, has, in all the varieties of her offspring, a prolific power much beyond (in many cases a thousandfold) what is necessary to fill up the vacancies caused by senile decay. As the field of existence is limited and preoccupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy than any other kind; the weaker, less circumstance-suited, being prematurely destroyed. This principle is in constant action, it regulates the colour, the figure, the capacities, and instincts; those individuals of each species, whose colour and covering are best suited to concealment or protection rom enemies, or defence from vicissitude and inclemencies of climate, whose figure is best accommodated to health, strength, defence, and support; whose capacities and instincts can best regulate the physical energies to self-advantage according to circumstances—in such immense waste of primary and youthful life, those only come forward to maturity from the strict ordeal by which Nature tests their adaptation to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind by reproduction.” (Matthew 1831: p. 384-385)
The visitor to Matthew’s village first saw the foyer with pomp about the navy and the British empire, but including also an irritating side-chamber with a rant against entailed nobility as blundering against a law of nature he may or may not have heard of before. That visitor then went into a workshop, where a joiner showed him the craft of ship building. From there he got into an arboretum displaying the British forest trees suited for ship building. Next he stumbled into the shed of a philosopher deploring the poor job of the nurserymen that manage the arboretum. And from there he reached the Potemkin core of the village, a bewildering array of claims on Matthew’s part. Will he ever have gotten through that Potemkin village and made his the exit through appendices?
ConclusionIt is a false abridgment to talk about the 'discovery of natural selection' or the 'discovery of the mechanism of evolution' as if natural selection had not been known before 1858 or 1831 for that matter. As shown above, the ideas of species transformation and of natural selection were old but thought to be mutually exclusive, before they have been combined in a way that turned natural selection into a mechanism for species transformation. The new idea was to combine them in a way that natural selection was no longer preventing species transmutation but promoting it.
This particular combination can also be found in the appendix to the appendix of Matthew’s book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. But there the similarities between Matthew’s and Darwin’s explanatory systems already end. Where Darwin’s is one long argument to drive home the message that natural selection can transform species, Matthew's is all sorts of arguments on a miscellany of topics.
The other parts in this series (6 parts so far) can be found under the label 'Patrick Matthew.'