Patrick Matthew

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Patrick Matthew

Patrick Matthew (20 October 1790 – 8 June 1874) was a Scottish landowner and fruit farmer, who contributed to understanding of horticulture, silviculture, and agriculture in general, with a focus on maintaining the British navy and feeding new colonies. He published the basic concept of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution in an appendix to his 1831 book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, but failed to develop or publicise his ideas concerning natural selection. Consequently, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he and Alfred Russel Wallace were regarded by their scientific peers as having originated (independently of each other) the theory of evolution by natural selection; it has been suggested that Darwin and/or Wallace had encountered Matthew's earlier work, but there is no firm evidence of this. After the publication of On the Origin of Species, Matthew contacted Darwin, who in subsequent editions of the book acknowledged that the principle of natural selection had been anticipated by Matthew's brief statement in the appendix of his 1831 work.


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, a relative of Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan .[1]He was educated at Perth Academy and the University of Edinburgh, but did not graduate, as on his father's death and while only seventeen, he had to take over the responsibilities of managing and running the affairs of a somewhat modest but significant property estate at Gourdiehill in the Carse of Gowrie, between Perth and Dundee. 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.

Between 1807 and 1831 ( when he published "On Naval Timber and Arboriculture" ) he periodically travelled to Europe, sometimes on business, sometimes seeking scientific enlightenment or agricultural or economic advice. Between 1840 and 1850, he travelled extensively in what is now northern Germany; recognising the commercial potential of Hamburg he bought two farms in Schleswig-Holstein.

Matthew married Christian Nicol in 1817,[1] and they had eight children: John (born 1818) , Robert (1820), Alexander (1821), Charles (1824), Euphemia (1826), Agnes (1828), James Edward (1830), and Helen Amelia (1833). Robert farmed Gourdiehill in Patrick's old age, Alexander took over the German interests; the other three sons emigrated, initially to America.[citation needed] Matthew became interested in the colonisation of New Zealand and was instrumental in setting up a 'Scottish New Zealand Land Company' . At his urging, James and Charles Matthew emigrated to New Zealand, where they set up one of the earliest commercial orchards in Australasia using seed and seedlings from Gourdiehill.[2] John Matthew remained in America, sending botanical tree specimens back to his father; these included (in 1853) the first seedlings known to have been planted in Europe of both the Giant Redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the Coastal Redwood (Sequoia semperiverens). A group of trees of these species still thriving near Inchtures in Perthshire come from these seedlings. Matthew gave many more seedlings to friends, relatives and neighbours, and redwoods can be found throughout the Carse of Gowrie; these as well as some elsewhere in Scotland (e.g. at Gillies Hill near Stirling Castle) are thought to have been grown from the 1853 seedlings.[citation needed]


Naval Timber[edit]

In managing his orchards, Patrick Matthew became familiar with the problems related to the principles of husbandry in horticulture for food production (and hence, by extension silviculture).

In 1831 he published the book, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.[3] 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 comments in the main text 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, most notably by John Louden in 1832, the significance of Matthew's insight was apparently lost upon his readers, as it languished in obscurity for nearly three decades.[4]

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:[5]

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.[5]

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".[6]

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.[7]

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."[8]

Matthew, Darwin and Wallace are the only three people considered to have independently discovered the principle of natural selection as a mechanism for speciation (macroevolution). Others prior to Matthew had proposed natural selection as a mechanism for the generation of varieties or races within a species: James Hutton suggested the mechanism in 1794 as leading to improvement of varieties, and an 1813 paper by William Charles Wells proposed that it would form new varieties. In 1835, after Matthew’s book, Edward Blyth published a description of the process as a mechanism preserving the unchanging essence of stable species.[9]

Later opinions[edit]

Although Darwin insisted he had been unaware of Matthew's work, some modern commentators have held that he and Wallace were likely to have known of it, or could have been influenced indirectly by other naturalists who read and cited Matthew's book.

  • Ronald W. Clark, in his 1984 biography 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 by suggesting: "If Darwin had any previous knowledge of Arboriculture, it had slipped down into the unconscious".[11][12]
  • The criminologist Mike Sutton' has published research as a paper presented in 2014 to a British Society of Criminology conference proposing that both Darwin and Wallace had "more likely than not committed the world's greatest science fraud by apparently plagiarising the entire theory of natural selection from a book written by Patrick Matthew and then claiming to have no prior knowledge of it."[13] On 28 May 2014 The Daily Telegraph science correspondent reported Sutton's views, and also the opinion of Darwin biographer James Moore that this was a non-issue, and it was doubtful "if there was any new evidence had not been already seen and interpreted in the opposite way."[14] Sutton published a 2014 e-book Nullius in Verba: Darwin's Greatest Secret presenting his argument based on "new Big Data analysis", which he said uniquely shows that contrary to the prior belief that no naturalists had read Matthew's ideas before 1860, seven naturalists cited his 1831 book in the literature, four were well known to Darwin, and three (Loudon, Selby and Chambers) had in his view played major roles influencing and facilitating the pre-1860 work of Darwin and Wallace on natural selection.[15] Sutton's (2014) original research revealed that Loudon was editor of the journal that later published two of Blyth's (1835) [16] and (1836) [17] papers on evolution, and that Selby was editor of the Journal that later published Wallace's (1855) Sarawak paper on evolution.[18] Sutton (2014) [15] claimed that it was significant that Chambers cited Matthew's book in 1832,[19] and went on to write the best selling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844.[20]

However, there is no direct evidence that Darwin had read the book, and the fact that he sent out for a copy after Matthew's complaint suggests that he did not have a copy in his extensive library or access to it elsewhere. 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.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23] 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]

When the Edinburgh and Northern Railway (E&N) and the Dundee and Perth Railway (D&P) were seeking Parliamentary approval in 1845, it was proposed by their engineers that from Perth both should share a line running along the south bank of the Tay as far as Newburgh, where the D&P would cross to the north bank, and the E&N leave the Tay and head south to a ferry crossing of the Forth. Matthew had been in a very small minority supporting this, and the D&P as built crossed the Tay at Perth. In 1864, when a bridge crossing the Tay at Dundee was proposed, Matthew urged that a bridge at Newburgh was preferable to a bridge at Dundee, a Newburgh bridge giving much the same reduction in the rail distance between Dundee and the Forth ferry-ports from which passengers could cross to Edinburgh as a bridge at Dundee but doing so by a shorter (and therefore cheaper) crossing of the Tay.[24] He argued the costs of a Dundee bridge were being grossly under-estimated "To erect a substantial bridge, not a flimsy spectral thing, which might or not vanish as a phantom the first storm, or break down under the vibration caused by a heavy, rapid, moving train, would, in my opinion cost nearly double, and probably much more than double, the sum the Engineer states; upon this I stake my judgement against that of the Engineer", noting in passing " from the geological indices, I would expect the foundation to be more regular at Newburgh than at Dundee, consequently better".[24]

The financial crisis of 1866 put an end to the 1864 Tay Bridge proposal, but it was revived in 1869. Matthew responded with a series of letters to the Dundee papers arguing for a Newburgh bridge, and advancing all manner of additional arguments against a Dundee bridge; it would have a deleterious effect on silting and tidal scour in the Firth;[25] it would prevent navigation upstream of it;[26] it would be torn apart by the centrifugal force from heavy trains rapidly descending the curve at its northern end; it was vulnerable to earthquake, a ship colliding with a pier, or to high wind.[27]

Matthew's objections were not heeded,[28] and were not persisted in once Parliament had passed the Bill authorising construction of the Tay Bridge. During construction of the bridge some of Matthew's criticisms were borne out: it became apparent that bedrock could not be found at a depth allowing the use of brick piers; the design had to be modified to use lattice-work iron piers of reduced width, and there was considerable cost overrun. The bridge opened in June 1878 and was destroyed in a storm in December 1879: the lattice work piers supporting the centre section of the bridge ("the high girders") failed catastrophically as a train was crossing the bridge. The high girders and the train fell into the Tay and about seventy-five lives were lost. Whilst it was recalled in the immediate aftermath of the disaster that Matthew had predicted collapse in a high wind as one of the horrible ends to which a bridge at Dundee could come,[29] the disaster is generally ascribed to defects in the design and manufacture of the lattice work piers introduced into the design well after Matthew's campaign against the bridge.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Calman, WT (1912) “Patrick Matthew of Gourdiehill, Naturalist”, Handbook and Guide to Dundee and District, AW Paton and AH Millar (Eds), the British Association for the Advancement of Science, pp. 451-7 (see The Patrick Matthew Project » More On Matthew
  2. ^ Dempster W.J. 1983. Patrick Matthew and natural selection: nineteenth century gentleman-farmer, naturalist and writer. Harris. Edinburgh. with corrections/additions from review of Dempster By G J Tee in "Reviews" (PDF). New Zealand Journal of History: 66–67. 1984. Retrieved 23 January 2015. 
  3. ^ On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting Patrick Matthew, 1831. Black, Edinburgh & London.
  4. ^ However, a library in Perth banned the book, having no doubt spotted its hidden heresy. Dempster W.J. 1983, Preface.
  5. ^ a b Matthew, P. 1860. Nature's law of selection. Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (7 April): 312-13
  6. ^ "Letter 2754 – Darwin, C. R. to Lyell, Charles, 10 Apr (1860)". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  7. ^ "Letter 2766 – Darwin, C. R. to Gardeners' Chronicle, (13 Apr 1860)". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 4 February 2011. 
  8. ^ Darwin, C.R. (1861) On the Origin of Species, 3rd Edition, John Murray, London, pp. xiv–xv
  9. ^ "More on James Hutton". The Dispersal of Darwin. 5 June 2007. Retrieved 12 August 2015. , John Wilkins (2003). "Darwin's precursors and influences: 4. Natural selection". TalkOrigins Archive. Retrieved 2015-08-12. 
  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. ^ "The hi-tech detection of Darwin’s and Wallace’s possible science fraud: Big data criminology re-writes the history of contested discovery"
  14. ^ Did Charles Darwin 'borrow' the theory of natural selection? The Daily Telegraph, 28 May 2014
  15. ^ a b "Nullius in Verba: Darwin's Greatest Secret"
  16. ^ "Blyth, E. 1835. An attempt to classify the “varieties” of animals. The Magazine of Natural History. (8) (1), Parts 1-2."
  17. ^ " Blyth, E. (1836) Observations on the various seasonal and other external Changes which regularly take place in Birds more particularly in those which occur in Britain; with Remarks on their great Importance in indicating the true Affinities of Species; and upon the Natural System of Arrangement. The Magazine of Natural History: Volume 9. p. 393 – 409. "
  18. ^ "Wallace, A. R. (1855) On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. The Annals and Magazine of Natural History. Series 2. 16. 184-196 "
  19. ^ "Chambers, W. and Chambers, R (1832). Chambers's Edinburgh Journal. William Orr. Saturday March 24th . p. 63"
  20. ^ "Chambers, R. (anonymous) (1844) Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. New York. Wiley and Putnum."
  21. ^ Bowler, Peter J. 2003. Evolution: the history of an idea, 3rd. revised edn. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p158
  22. ^ Mayr, Ernst 1982. The growth of biological thought. Harvard.
  23. ^ "Darwin Correspondence Project – Letter 7576 – Matthew, Patrick to Darwin, C. R., 12 Mar 1871". Retrieved 13 January 2008. 
  24. ^ a b Matthew, Patrick (31 October 1864). "Bridge over Tay Firth". Dundee Courier and Argus. 
  25. ^ Matthew, Patrick (8 December 1869). "Dundee Bridge". Dundee Courier and Argus. 
  26. ^ Matthew, Patrick (6 April 1870). "The Spanish Castles in the Air Defunct". Dundee Courier and Argus. 
  27. ^ Matthew's objections are summarised (and mocked) by one of Bouch's subordinates in Groethe, Albert (1878). The Tay Bridge, Its History and Construction. Dundee. Retrieved 22 January 2015. . A more sympathetic summary (apparently following closely an account in Dempster (1983)) can be found in McKean, Charles (2007). Battle for the North: The Tay and Forth Bridges and the 19th-Century Railway Wars. London: Granta. pp. 93–94. ISBN 978-1-86207-940-3. 
  28. ^ The Dundee-Perth line had fallen into the hands of the Caledonian Railway in 1865; after that the wish of Dundee and the North British Railway for an NBR line into Dundee not at the mercy of the Caledonian could only be met by crossing the Tay at Dundee
  29. ^ "The Disaster Predicted". Dundee Advertiser. 31 December 1879.  repeating an article with the same title in the Newcastle Chronicle

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]