Patrick Matthew

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Patrick Matthew

Patrick Matthew (20 October 1790 – 8 June 1874) was a Scottish landowner and fruit farmer. He published the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution in 1831, over a quarter-century earlier than Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. However, Matthew failed to develop or publicise his ideas but both Darwin and Wallace were aware of Matthew's work.[1] They published their ideas in 1858, and in doing so might have been responsible for 'the greatest known science fraud in history by plagiarising Matthew's complete hypothesis of natural selection, his terminology, observations and creative explanations'.[2] Claims of plagiarism are unsubstantiated however, as there is no evidence Darwin had ever encountered Matthew's work until after 1860.


Patrick Matthew was born 20 October 1790 at Rome, a farm held by his father John Matthew near Scone Palace, in Perthshire. His Mother was Agnes Duncan, stated to belong to the family of Admiral Duncan, the ancestor to the Earls of Camperdown.

On his father's death and while only seventeen, he took over the management of Gourdiehill in the Carse of Gowrie, between Perth and Dundee. He inherited Gourdiehill through his mother, in the possession of whose family it had been for more than two hundred years. He was educated at Perth Academy and the University of Edinburgh, though he did not graduate, as he had to take over the responsibilities of managing and running the affairs of a somewhat modest but significant property estate. Over the years he would successfully nurture, cultivate, and transform much of the estate's farmland and pastures into several large orchards of apple and pear trees, numbering over 10,000. He became an avid proponent as well as interested researcher of both silviculture and horticulture, both of which influenced his growing awareness of the forces of nature. This awareness, along with his own experiences acquired from years of working his own modest estate would later frame a strong base of reference to form his own opinions and theories.

In 1807, Matthew returned to manage the family estate. Between 1807 and 1831 ( 1831 being the year of publication on the subject of Naval Timber) he periodically travelled to Europe, sometimes seeking scientific enlightenment or agricultural or economic advice, as well as attending to business matters. Some of his encounters with noted men of science came during these travels, especially in France. Later, between 1840 and 1850, he travelled more extensively in what is now northern Germany. It was during these travels, especially to the Hamburg area that are significant to be noted and understood. Hamburg was a significant thriving center of trade, having direct ocean access to the North Atlantic. Matthew recognised this and proceeded to research what he deemed to be gainful opportunities. The political settings of the Prussian Empire era in regards to the Region of Schleswig-Holstein were something that Patrick Matthew was and became even more well aware of. It was after much research, of the regional market dynamics and trade parameters present, along with the bustling river port facilities and farmlands surrounding Hamburg, that brought him to settle on the purchase of two farms in Schleswig-Holstein.

Matthew married Christina Nicol in 1817 and had three daughters and five sons, one of whom took over the German farmland estates in Schleswig-Holstein. Three other sons sailed off to the gold fields of California. His children, in order of birth, were: 1) John... Born 1818; 2) Robert... Born 1820; 3) Alexander...Born 1821; 4) Charles...Born 1824; 5) Euphemia...Born 1826; 6) Agnes...Born 1828; 7) James Edward...Born 1830; and 8) Helen Amelia...Born 1833.

By this time Patrick Matthew, prospering from his estate in Scotland, as well in his investment holdings in the Hamburg area, was entering into a Land Company interest in Australia and New Zealand. He encouraged two of the 3 sons in America to go to that region and to purchase as much property as they could, and James and Charles Matthew emigrated to New Zealand.[3]

The other son in America, John Matthew, continued until 1853 to send botanical tree specimens back home to his father in Scotland. Most notably seedling stock of both the Giant Redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the Coastal Redwood (Sequoia semperiverens) respectively. The first seedlings of these two species known to be the first planted outside their native California are a collective group still statuesquely thriving near Inchtures in Perthsire. Matthew gave many more seedlings to friends, relatives and neighbours. Many more of those original trees can be found throughout the Carse of Gowrie as well as other locations throughout Scotland, such as Stirlingshire at Gillies Hill beneath the fortress of Stirling Castle. Those Redwoods are strongly believed to have been planted from the same 1853 seedling stock as those from the Inchtures group[citation needed].


Naval Timber[edit]

In his youth Matthew was much influenced by events of the times, especially exploits of the Royal Navy, and perhaps even influenced by one of the Navy's greatest heroes of the day who was from the immediate area: Viscount Admiral Adam Duncan, who was known for his exploits at the battle of Camperdown and as the acknowledged mentor of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. In managing his orchards, that eventually numbered over 10,000 apple and pear trees, Matthew became familiar with the problems related to the principles of husbandry in both the silviculture of forestry management as well as management practices used in horticulture for food production. Both became significantly important to his understanding of selection and propagation. Like Lord Nelson and others, he thought it important to continuously search for, take possession of, and carefully manage the best Naval timber resources throughout the expanding British Empire.

In 1831 he published the book, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.[4] The book focused on how best to grow trees for the construction of the Royal Navy's warships. He considered the task to be of great importance, as the navy permitted the British race to advance. Matthew noted the long-term deleterious effect that culling only the trees of highest timber quality from forests had on the quality of timber.

In an appendix to the book, he elaborated on how artificial selection—the elimination of trees of poor timber quality from the breeding stock—could be used to improve timber quality, and even create new varieties of trees. He extrapolated from this to what is today recognised as a description of natural selection. Although his book was reviewed in several periodical publications of the time, the significance of Matthew's insight was apparently lost upon his readers, as it languished in obscurity for nearly three decades.[5]

In 1860, Matthew read a review of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in the Gardeners' Chronicle, including its description of the principle of natural selection. This prompted him to write a letter to the publication, calling attention his earlier work and its theory. He quoted extracts from his book, citing "See Naval Timber and Arboriculture, pages 364 and 365, 381 to 388; also 106 to 108." The extracts included the following:[6]

There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible suited to its condition that its kind, or 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 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 ...

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 ... [The] progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.[6]

On reading this, Darwin commented in a letter to Charles Lyell:

Now for a curious thing about my Book, & then I have done. In last Saturday Gardeners' Chronicle, a Mr Patrick Matthews [sic] 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! Erasmus always said that surely this would be shown to be the case someday. Anyhow one may be excused in not having discovered the fact in a work on "Naval Timber".[7]

Darwin then wrote a letter of his own to the Gardener's Chronicle, stating,

I have been much interested by Mr. Patrick Matthew's communication in the Number of your Paper, dated April 7th. I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, had heard of Mr. Matthew's views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect.[8]

As promised, Darwin included a statement about Matthew having anticipated "precisely the same view on the origin of species" in the third and subsequent editions of On the Origin of Species, referring to the correspondence, and quoting from a response by Matthew published in the Gardener's Chronicle. Darwin wrote:

The differences of Mr. Matthew's view from mine are not of much importance: he seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then re-stocked; and he gives, as an alternative, that new forms may be generated "without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates." I am not sure that I understand some passages; but it seems that he attributes much influence to the direct action of the conditions of life. He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection. In answer to a letter of mine (published in Gard. Chron., April 13th), fully acknowledging that Mr. Matthew had anticipated me, he with generous candour wrote a letter (Gard. Chron. May 12th) containing the following passage:—"To me the conception of this law of Nature came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought. Mr. Darwin here seems to have more merit in the discovery than I have had; to me it did not appear a discovery. He seems to have worked it out by inductive reason, slowly and with due caution to have made his way synthetically from fact to fact onwards; while with me it was by a general glance at the scheme of Nature that I estimated this select production of species as an à priori recognisable fact—an axiom requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp."[9]

Later opinions[edit]

Notwithstanding Darwin's insistence on his ignorance of Matthew's work, Ronald W. Clark, a biographer of Darwin, commented that "Only the transparent honesty of Darwin's character... makes it possible to believe that by the 1850s he had no recollection of Matthew's work".[10] This begs the question, for it assumes he did read Matthew's book. Clark continues: "If Darwin had any previous knowledge of Arboriculture, it had slipped down into the unconscious".[11][12] However, there is no evidence whatsoever that Darwin had read the book, and the fact that he sent out for a copy after Matthew's complaint strongly suggests that he did not have a copy in his extensive library.

In subsequent editions of The Origin of Species, Darwin acknowledged Matthew's earlier work, stating that Matthew "clearly saw...the full force of the principle of natural selection". Later, Matthew would claim credit for natural selection and even had calling cards printed with "Discoverer of the Principle of Natural Selection". However, Darwin's citation has done little to garner recognition for Matthew, since he is still generally unknown. Most modern historians of science do not consider Matthew a genuine precursor. The historian of biology Peter J. Bowler has gone so far as to say that:

Such efforts to denigrate Darwin misunderstand the whole point of the history of science: Matthew did suggest a basic idea of selection, but he did nothing to develop it; and he published it in the appendix to a book on the raising of trees for shipbuilding. No one took him seriously, and he played no role in the emergence of Darwinism. Simple priority is not enough to earn a thinker a place in the history of science: one has to develop the idea and convince others of its value to make a real contribution. Darwin's notebooks confirm that he drew no inspiration from Matthew or any of the other alleged precursors.[13]

Ernst Mayr's opinion was even more clear-cut:

Patrick Matthew undoubtedly had the right idea, just like Darwin did on September 28, 1838, but he did not devote the next twenty years to converting it into a cogent theory of evolution. As a result it had no impact whatsoever.[14]

Natural theology[edit]

Writing to Darwin in 1871, Matthew enclosed an article he had written for The Scotsman and, as well as wishing that he had time to write a critique of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, expressed the belief that there is evidence of design and benevolence in nature, and that beauty cannot be accounted for by natural selection.[15] Such a belief is mainstream natural theology, and reveals how far Matthew was from Darwin in realising the potential of evolutionary explanations: for him as well as others, man was the sticking-point.

There is little or no evidence that Matthew held these views as a younger man: there is no discussion of a religious nature in Arboriculture.

Socio-political views[edit]

Matthew's idea on society were radical for their times. Although he was a landowner, he was involved with the Chartist movement, and argued that institutions of "hereditary nobility" were detrimental to society. It has been suggested that these views worked against acceptance of his theory of natural selection, being politically incorrect at the time (see Barker, 2001). The more likely reason is that the obscurity of the location hid the ideas from many who would have been interested. Only after Darwin's Origin did Matthew come forward in a popular journal, the Gardeners' Chronicle. Matthew also published a book in 1839, Emigration Fields (Black, Edinburgh), suggesting that overpopulation, as predicted by Malthus, could be solved by mass migration to North America and the Dominions.

Matthew supported the invasion of Schleswig-Holstein by Bismarck in 1864: his pamphlet on the event was denounced by the Dundee Advertiser. He also supported the Germans against the French in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), a war which marked the final unification of the German Empire and the end of the Second French Empire.

In 1870 Matthew became aware of the terrible housing conditions of the workers in Dundee. In a letter to the Dundee Advertiser he told readers that the death rate of children under five in the town was 40%, and outlined a blueprint for the redevelopment of the city.

The Tay bridge[edit]

Matthew campaigned for years against proposals to build a bridge over the River Tay. By 1869 pressure for a bridge had built up, and Matthew opposed the ideas with a letter to the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, and another to the local paper. Letters to the Dundee Advertiser followed throughout 1870 continuing the campaign. The basis of Matthew's opposition was twofold, engineering and social. The bridge would suffer from flaws in the casting of iron; the bridge would be in the wrong place – the foundations would be difficult where planned, and if erected upstream at Newburgh[16] the construction would be safer and cheaper. Further, Matthew argued that the money saved could be used to improve housing in Dundee.

No notice was taken of Matthew, who died in 1874; the bridge was built expensively, opened in June 1878, and was destroyed in a storm (December 1879) with great loss of life: the centre section of the bridge collapsed, taking with it a train that was running across it. Seventy-five lives were lost.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Did Charles Darwin 'borrow' the theory of natural selection? The Telegraph, 9 June 2014
  2. ^ Did Charles Darwin 'borrow' the theory of natural selection? The Telegraph, 9 June 2014, The Telegraph
  3. ^ Dempster W.J. 1983. Patrick Matthew and natural selection: nineteenth century gentleman-farmer, naturalist and writer. Harris. Edinburgh.
  4. ^ On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting Patrick Matthew, 1831. Black, Edinburgh & London.
  5. ^ However, a library in Perth banned the book, having no doubt spotted its hidden heresy. Dempster W.J. 1983, Preface.
  6. ^ a b Matthew, P. 1860. Nature's law of selection. Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (7 April): 312-13
  7. ^ "Letter 2754 – Darwin, C. R. to Lyell, Charles, 10 Apr (1860)". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  8. ^ "Letter 2766 – Darwin, C. R. to Gardeners' Chronicle, (13 Apr 1860)". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  9. ^ Darwin, C.R. (1861) On the Origin of Species, 3rd Edition, John Murray, London, pp. xiv–xv
  10. ^ Clark, Ronald W. 1984. The survival of Charles Darwin. p130-131 ISBN 0-380-69991-5
  11. ^ Clark, Survival of Charles Darwin, p131
  12. ^ If Darwin had read the book, it might have been an example of cryptomnesia.
  13. ^ Bowler, Peter J. 2003. Evolution: the history of an idea, 3rd. revised edn. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p158
  14. ^ Mayr, Ernst 1982. The growth of biological thought. Harvard.
  15. ^ "Darwin Correspondence Project – Letter 7576 – Matthew, Patrick to Darwin, C. R., 12 Mar 1871". Retrieved 13 January 2008. 
  16. ^ Pinsdorf, Marion (2004). All Crises are Global: managing to Escape Chaos. Fordham Univ Press. p. 101. ISBN 9780823222612. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Barker, J.E. (2001). "Patrick Matthew—Forest Geneticist (1790–1874)", Forest History Today.
  • Dempster, W.J. (1996). Natural selection and Patrick Matthew: evolutionary concepts in the nineteenth century. The Pentland Press, Edinburgh.
  • Wells, K.D. (1974). The historical context of natural selection: the case of Patrick Matthew. J. Hist. Biol. 6, 225–258.
  • Zirkle, C. (1941). Natural selection before the Origin of Species. Proc. Am. Phil. Soc. 84, 71–123.

External links[edit]