Patrick Matthew (1790-1874)

"In last Saturday Gardeners' Chronicle, a Mr Patrick Matthews publishes long extract from his work on "Naval Timber & Arboriculture" published in 1831, in which he briefly but completely anticipates the theory of Nat. Selection. -- I have ordered the Book, as some few passages are rather obscure but it is, certainly, I think, a complete but not developed anticipation! . . . Anyhow one may be excused in not having discovered the fact in a work on 'Naval Timber'."
Charles Darwin. Letter to Charles Lyell, April 10, 1860.

Patrick Matthew was born in Scotland on October 20, 1790, on a farm in Scotland. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, Matthew traveled widely in Europe, but spent most of his life on his estate in Scotland, where he owned and managed an orchard of over 10,000 fruit trees. He died on June 8, 1874. Matthew is an obscure figure in the history of evolutionary thought; relatively little is known about his life. He was not a trained scientist, and his evolutionary insights lie buried in the middle of his books and articles on agriculture and politics. Yet he developed a theory of natural selection nearly thirty years before the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, with both deep differences and remarkable similarities to Darwin's theory.

What was his "complete but not developed anticipation" of natural selection? In 1831, Matthew published On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, a book on raising trees of optimum quality for the construction of Royal Navy ships. In an appendix to this book, Matthew expressed his theory, based in part on his observations of how tree species might vary in form, and how artificial selection might improve cultivated trees. To let Matthew speak for himself:

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 possess 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.
Could natural selection produce new species? Matthew suggested that this was possible:
There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called species; the progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.
Matthew's ideas can also be seen in his political and social writings and outlook. Though a middle-class landowner and grain dealer, in the 1830s he became involved in the Chartist movement, a working-class movement for political reform. He was influenced by Malthus's warnings that population would outstrip food supply, leading to poverty and death as consequences of the struggle for existence. In his 1839 book, Emigration Fields, Matthew proposed a solution: mass emigration of British colonists to North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Although Matthew believed that British colonists could settle anywhere -- "the whole of the unpeopled regions of the earth may now be said to be British ground" -- he advocated their settlement in temperate climates. Why? Human races showed adaptation to the places where they lived; the British people, coming from a temperate climate, would prosper in temperate climates abroad. Emigration, Matthew thought, would cause natural selection to weed out the unfit:
In the agitation which accompanies emigration, the ablest in mind and body -- the most powerful varieties of the race will be thrown into their natural positions as leaders, impressing the stamp of their character on the people at large, and constituting the more reproductive part; while the feebler or more improvident varieties will generally sink under incidental hardship.
Matthew always believed that he, not Darwin, deserved credit for the theory of evolution by natural selection -- he even had "Discoverer of the Principle of Natural Selection" printed on his calling cards. But how much influence did he really have? Some have suggested that Darwin had read Matthew's work and was influenced by it, but there is no convincing evidence that Darwin had ever heard of Matthew's biological theories before the publication of The Origin of Species. There are nearly as many deep differences between Matthew's theory and Darwin's as there are similarities. Matthew was a catastrophist: his geological theories were very close to those of Cuvier. According to Matthew, the earth had periodically been rocked by upheavals, which left an "unoccupied field. . . for new diverging ramifications of life." Evolutionary change took place right after these upheavals; between catastrophes, species did not change,and natural selection would act to stabilize species, not alter them:
A particular conformity, each after its own kind, . . . no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries. Geologists discover a like particular conformity -- fossil species -- through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life on one epoch from that of every other.
Matthew's theory lacked Darwin's concept of evolution as an ongoing, continuous process. Matthew did not see evolution as the gradual accumulation of favorable variations leading to adaptation, nor did he believe in extinction except by catastrophe. Matthew saw species as classes of similar organisms, not as interbreeding populations. He also never relinquished his belief in natural theology: he wrote to Darwin in 1871 that "a sentiment of beauty pervading Nature. . . affords evidence of intellect and benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design and cannot be accounted for by natural selection." The phrase quoted above, "There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance," sums up Matthew's attitude to natural selection: it showed the workings of Providence, of the designed laws of nature. Nevertheless, Matthew's ideas show how pervasive were intellectual trends such as Malthusian sociology and natural theology, which were to influence Darwin so much.