Patrick Matthew: one of the people who thought of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection before Darwin

Since I wrote my previous post concerning whether or not Darwin should be given almost all of the credit for being the founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection the names of a few other claimants to the title have come to my attention.
Having said that, I’d like to instantly restate my feeling that in all probability no single individual should actually be given the title of Originator of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, due to the principle that in almost every field of scientific (or other) advancement the progress made is a matter of the gradual accretion of ideas one on top of the other, with each person involved taking a relatively small step forward, rather than the giant leap across a conceptual void made by a towering genius.
The desire to attribute advances to individual people has more to do with our wish to create a relatively simple and dramatic model of history rather than the truer less focussed network of diffuse interactions that it actually is.

All of the contenders that I’m aware of for the illusory title of Founder of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection are British. There could be one of several reasons for this. One is that the contribution by individuals from other countries may not be so well documented, another is that the British (of which I am one) are deliberately ignoring contributions from abroad, or it’s possible that Britain in the nineteenth century was culturally in just the right position for the theory to emerge naturally, in very much the same way that seeds of a particular plant will germinate in the right compost, sprouting separately in different parts of the bed.

One of the principal characters in the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection was Patrick Matthew (1790-1874), a Scottish landowner and arboriculturalist who published the theory in his book, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, over a quarter of a century before Darwin and Wallace.
Amongst other things Matthew postulated that the “progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.”
He seems to be overlooked by history because of the fact that he didn’t push or publicize his theory to any great extent. Indeed, the fact that he didn’t push it is sometimes used an a reason to not grant him the title of originator of the theory. Personally I feel that that’s a rather mean reason for trivialising someone’s contribution to something – that his PR was inadequate.
It seems that one reason why Matthew didn’t publicise his idea much was that he thought that the idea was so blindingly obvious that it hardly needed stating. It was only when a fuss was made about it twenty five years or so later that he felt that he had to mention his contribution.

Essentially, several people were going to come up with the theory at some time during the nineteenth century. As indeed several people did.

On the subject of putting faces to history, here’s the face of Patrick Matthew:

Patrick Matthew



Filed under Science

2 responses to “Patrick Matthew: one of the people who thought of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection before Darwin

  1. Milton Wainwright

    Anyone interested on knowing more about Matthew can read “It’s Not Darwin’s or Wallace’s Theory” and the associated link to the Dawkins web site by searching “wainwrightscience” on Google
    Best Wishes, Prof. Milton Wainwright Bept.Molecular Biology and Biotechnology,University of Sheffield,UK

  2. The website is the place to go for all the ‘new data’ on Matthew that 100% proves (contrary to previous Darwinist mythology) Darwin’s and Wallace’s friends and influencers DID read Matthew’s original ideas before Darwin and Wallace replicated them years later.

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