“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!” ..Walter Scott
For 150 years, the world has been led to believe that Charles Darwin was the originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Though evolution scholars have always known that to be technically inaccurate (in the sense that he wasn’t the first), I have recently discovered that it is completely untrue (in the sense that he wasn’t even an originator). I shall show, beyond reasonable doubt, that Darwin was strongly influenced by, among many others, a Scottish estate owner, Patrick Matthew (1790-1874), who had hit upon exactly the same theory, and Darwin subsequently lied about his knowledge of Matthew. To begin with, for the benefit of the many people who have never heard of Matthew, I shall tell the story as it appeared in public print.
Patrick Matthew wrote a book titled “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”, which was published in 1831. Matthew was a bit of an imperialist, and the main premise of his argument was that, if Britain was to remain top dog nation and expand her Empire, she needed a strong navy, which required sturdy ships made from first-class timber. One of his concerns was that nurserymen, in their self-serving selection procedures for seeds were allowing tree species to form lots of varieties, which would not naturally thrive. Also, the nurserymen’s protection of saplings from the competition they would experience in the wild was weakening the quality of timber. In the main body of the book, he says:
Man’s interference, by preventing this natural process of selection among plants, independent of the wider range of circumstances to which he introduces them, has increased the difference in varieties particularly in the more domesticated kinds.
In the Appendix of his book, Matthew expanded upon his views about Nature and the law that governs which organisms thrive, or perish, in the face of strong competition. The following is an extract:
The self-regulating adaptive disposition of organised 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 pre-occupied, 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 adaption and greater power of occupancy than any other kind; the weaker, less circumstance-suited being permanently 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 from enemies, or defence from vicissitude and inclemencies of climate, whose figure is best accommodated to health, strength, defences 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 adaption to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind by reproduction.
“Naval Timber and Arboriculture” received several reviews, the most significant and favourable of which came from a fellow Scot, John Claudius Loudon, in the December 1832 issue of the Gardener’s Magazine, of which Loudon was the editor. The review contained this passage:
........One of the subjects discussed in this appendix is the puzzling one, of the origin of species and varieties; and if the author has hereon originated no original views (and of this we are far from certain), he has certainly exhibited his own in an original manner.
Further to that, Loudon cited Matthew’s book in the 1835 edition of his renowned “Encyclopaedia of Gardening”, and extensively in Volume 3 of his 8 Volume “Arboretum et fruticetum britannicum (The Trees and Shrubs of Britain)”, published in 1838. In both cases, the references were in the main body of the text, not just the ‘List of books referred to’. Despite Loudon’s promotion, Matthew’s book did not sell well and sank into obscurity. Loudon died in 1843, and with him his magazine. The Gardeners’ Chronicle, which had been started in 1841 under the editorship of the rising star of botany, Professor John Lindley, took over as the must read journal for gardeners and botanists.
We now move forward in time to the 7th April 1860, just a few months after the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, when a long letter from Patrick Matthew was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle:
Trusting to your desire that every man should have his own, I hope you will give place to the following communication.
In your number of March 3rd I observe a long quotation from The Times, stating that Mr Darwin ‘professes to have discovered the existence and modus operandi of the natural law of selection’, that is, ‘the power in nature which takes the place of man and performs a selection, sua sponte, in organic life’. This discovery recently published as ‘the result of 20 years’ investigation and reflection’ by Mr Darwin turns out to be what I published very fully and brought to apply practically to forestry in my work Naval Timber and Arboriculture published as far back as 1 January 1831, by Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh and Longman & Co., London, and reviewed in numerous periodicals, so as to have full publicity in the Metropolitan Magazine, the Quarterly Review, the Gardeners’ Magazine, by Loudon, who spoke of it as the book, and repeatedly in the United Services Magazine for 1831, &c. The following is an extract from this volume, which clearly proves the prior claim.
There then followed extensive extracts from three places in “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”. The Gardeners’ Chronicle of April 21st contained the following reply from Darwin:
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.
Sure enough, when Darwin incorporated an Historical Sketch into the 3rd edition of “The Origin of Species” in April 1861, he included the following:
In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture,' in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that (presently to be alluded to) propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself in the 'Linnean Journal,' and as that enlarged on in the present volume. Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly in scattered passages in an Appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the 'Gardener's Chronicle,' on April 7th, 1860. 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."
That extract was shortened in subsequent editions. Darwin made an error in his date of April 13th, which was the day he drafted the letter. So far, this tale all seems very straightforward. Matthew had briefly but succinctly anticipated Darwin’s theory, but Darwin hadn’t known about it. That is the way that Darwinian history records the event (when it acknowledges Matthew at all) and, at first glance, that is corroborated by the private correspondence and diaries. We know from Emma (Mrs) Darwin’s diary that Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Hooker, and his champion, T.H.Huxley, were staying with them over the Easter weekend when Matthew’s letter appeared on Saturday 7th April 1860. That would have prompted much discussion. There is in existence an unpublished letter to an unknown bookseller, which was allegedly written by Darwin on April 9th, ordering Matthew’s book. In a letter to Charles Lyell written on April 10th, Darwin says:
Now for a curious thing about my Book, & then I have done. 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! 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''.
And in a letter to Hooker on April 13th, he enclosed the draft of his letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle and demonstrated that he had read the book by saying:
Questions of priority so often lead to odious quarrels, that I shd. esteem it a great favour if you would read enclosed. If you think it proper that I shd. send it (& of this there can hardly be question) & if you think it full & ample enough, please alter date to day on which you post it & let that be soon.— The case in G. Chronicle seems a little stronger than in Mr. Matthews book, for the passages are therein scattered in 3 places. But it would be mere hair-splitting to notice that.— If you object to my letter please return it; but I do not expect that you will, but I thought that you would not object to run your eye over it.— My dear Hooker it is a great thing for me to have so good, true, & old a friend as you. I owe much to science for my friends.
So much for Darwin’s defence. Now we come to the prosecution. Darwin’s evidence is asking us to believe that a letter sent to an unknown bookseller on April 9th (which would not have entered the postal system till the 10th because the 9th was Easter Monday), ordering a book which had only had one print run 29 years earlier, resulted in Darwin’s having received and read the book by April 13th. Hooker may have had no cause to question it, and experts on the Victorian book trade might claim that it is possible, but it seems very unlikely. As shown in his correspondence, Darwin’s usual procedure for ordering books was to have them delivered to his brother Erasmus’ London house and then collect them when he next went to London. We know from Emma’s diary that he did not go to London that week. Furthermore, the copy of “Naval Timber and Arboriculture” found in Darwin’s library had “Ap. 13 1860” inscribed in it, and such an inscription is not reportedly found in other books. It seems that Darwin particularly wanted to leave some sort of evidence that he had not seen the book before that date. Additionally, a letter to Lyell on April 15th makes no mention of the subject. It all seems very strange. The more likely explanation for all this is that he already had the book and may not have successfully ordered it.
Now we come to the evidence that he had read the book long before. In 1959 – the centenary of the publication of “The Origin of Species” – an American anthropologist, Loren Eiseley, published an article, “Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth and the Theory of Natural Selection”, in which he accused Darwin of having lifted the idea of natural selection from the 1830’s articles of an English ornithologist, Edward Blyth, without due acknowledgement. In his articles, Blyth had discussed many aspects of what Darwin would call natural, artificial and sexual selection. Eiseley used similarities in words, expressions and ideas as his evidence that Darwin had read Blyth’s articles. Just for good measure, Eiseley also cited what he saw as evidence that Darwin had probably also read Patrick Matthew’s book before 1842. The evidence came in three parts:
Firstly, Eiseley questions where Darwin came up with the expression ‘natural selection’ and believes it derived from Matthew’s use of the term ‘natural process of selection’. In his 1842 pencil sketch and subsequent 1844 Preliminary Essay (written in order to be published in the event of his death), Darwin first used the expression ‘natural means of selection’ before resorting to the more familiar ‘natural selection’. What Eiseley seems to have missed is that, in the famous Appendix, Matthew refers to the ‘plastic quality of superior life’, and that Darwin frequently describes organised life as ‘plastic’ in both the 1842 sketch and the 1844 Essay. That may seem insignificant, but I have put search engines through numerous natural history texts of the period on the internet (including Herbert’s “Amaryllidaceae” and Chambers’ “Vestiges….”), and have found no other use of the word ‘plastic’.
Secondly, Eiseley cites a passage from that 1844 essay which seems to be a summary of Matthew’s book:
In the case of forest-trees raised in nurseries, which vary more than the same trees do in their aboriginal forests, the cause would seem simply to lie in their not having to struggle against other trees and weeds, which in their natural state doubtless would limit the conditions of their existence.
As many Darwin scholars have noted, “The Origin of Species” is generally an expansion of that 1844 essay, but it misses out that passage. As we shall shortly see, it hadn’t disappeared entirely and forever.
Thirdly, Eiseley refutes the idea that Darwin had no cause to be reading books about arboriculture by citing an extract from a letter to Asa Gray on 20th July 1857:
I must say one word more in justification (for I feel sure that your tendency will be to despise me & my crotchets) that all my notion about how species change are derived from long-continued study of the works of (& converse with) agriculturists & horticulturists;
In the footnotes, Eiseley also cited a letter to Huxley of 27th November 1859 in which Darwin said:
I have picked up most by reading really numberless special treatises & all Agricultural & Horticultural Journals; but it is work of long years. The difficulty is to know what to trust. No one or two statements are worth a farthing,—the facts are so complicated.
Eiseley could also have referred to a letter all about trees sent to Hooker on the 1st December 1856. So far, Eiseley’s case was intriguing, but hardly conclusive. What Eiseley didn’t know (because most of it wasn’t published till 1972), was that Darwin’s Big Species Book, “Natural Selection” (which he was writing in the 1850’s with a view to eventual publication prior to his being prompted by Wallace into writing a shorter book, “The Origin of Species”), contains the following passage about the two main types of oak tree:
Every forester can distinguish the two forms: it is asserted that they come true to seed though this has been denied: the quality of their timber is said to be different & Quercus sessiliflora is hardier & ascends the Scotch mountains higher than Q. robur. On the other hand the existence of a perfect gradation of inter-mediate forms is admitted by everyone...
Eiseley would probably have compared it with the following passage from the main body of Matthew’s “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”:
Botanists....divide the oak of this country into two species, Quercus Robur and Q. sessiliflora, the former with long fruit-stalks and hard, strong, durable timber, the late leafing old kind once so prevalent in the island: the latter an earlier leafing, faster growing kind, timber inferior, leaves petiolate, fruit sessile, not common, but supposedly native. We consider there is no foundation for this specific distinction; we have met with oaks with various lengths of fruit-stalks: Besides, short and long fruit stalks is a very common difference among seedling varieties. The families or breeds which we have observed in the indigenous oak resemble what are found among almost every kind of vegetable, and graduate into each other...
No doubt, Darwin could have found the necessary information for his passage in other sources, but it does seem rather reminiscent of Matthew, particularly with regard to the timber quality and gradation between varieties. The idea that Darwin may have been influenced by Matthew over trees is reinforced by another thing that Eiseley noted. In Volume II of Darwin’s 1868 book, “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” (the two Volumes of which basically constituted the first two chapters of his Big Species Book), Darwin altered the quoted passage from his 1844 essay by saying:
Our common forest-trees are very variable, as may be seen in every extensive nursery-ground; but as they are not valued like fruit-trees, and as they seed late in life, no selection has been applied to them; consequently, as Mr. Patrick Matthews remarks, they have not yielded distinct races, leafing at different periods, growing to different sizes, and producing timber fit for different purposes.That passage contains information from three different places in Matthew’s book. Though Darwin could safely cite Matthew after 1860, the fact that he cites Matthew as the source for the whole extract suggests that was equally true for the two pieces of information which were also in the 1844 essay and the unpublished part of his Big Species Book, “Natural Selection”. Darwin could not have anticipated that future scholars would pour through his unpublished writings.
In a subsequent 1965 article, “Darwin, Coleridge and the Theory of Unconscious Creation”, Eiseley picked up on the revelation by Gavin de Beer (the director of the British Museum which had taken possession of Darwin’s papers) that Darwin’s 1837-1838 notebook had had 50 pages (27 sheets) removed from it by Darwin on the 7th December 1856 (which was the day after Darwin’s last child was born and six days after his letter to Hooker about trees). There were also missing pages in his other notebooks. Eiseley made the reasonable assumption that the pages were removed in order to be destroyed, which implied that they contained something potentially incriminating. Eiseley believed it was something to do with Blyth. If that was the case, Darwin wasn’t very thorough, because he left references to Blyth’s articles in other notebooks. Besides, in 1856 Blyth had been living in India (and corresponding with Darwin) for 15 years and he presented no potential threat to Darwin anyway. If the pages were removed as censorship, it seems much more likely they contained references to Matthew. By 1856, Darwin was contemplating publishing his theory, on Lyell’s advice, which was not something he had previously considered within his lifetime. That’s why he was writing his Big Species Book. If he was aware that publication might lead to confrontation by Matthew, he would also have known that he couldn’t afford to have any evidence in his possession that he knew about Matthew. Nor could he leave any references to Matthew in his writings.
Unfortunately for Eiseley’s case, many of the missing pages from Darwin’s notebooks
were discovered in 1967 to be in the possession of Darwin’s descendants, but there are still some 70 pages (meaning sheets, I think) missing from all his 1837-1839 notebooks. It seems Darwin classified the removed notes according to the subject matter, and there are some entire classifications that are still missing.
Though he had previously been a respected Darwin scholar, Eiseley’s views were summarily dismissed, not least by Stephen Jay Gould both in 1987 and 2002. However, Eiseley’s evidence about the influence of Blyth and Matthew on Darwin’s writings was never actually refuted. In fact, Eiseley was right about Blyth, even though he was only working on the similarities in their expressions. Darwin’s notebooks show that he read Blyth’s articles in early 1838, and Darwin’s only acknowledgements to Blyth in his books were for factual information. Blyth put the case for natural selection so much more relevantly than Malthus, whose 1798 “Essay on Population” Darwin undoubtedly read in October 1838. That must make Darwin either very thick or very devious. As a dead political economist with no interest in natural history, Malthus could not be viewed as a potential rival, so it was safe to cite him as a source of inspiration. Was Eiseley also right about Matthew?
From his correspondence and early writings (including the basic manuscript of “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication”), it is clear that Darwin was concerned with trees and shrubs, and Darwin frequently cited Loudon’s books listed above, which had references to Patrick Matthew’s “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”. In the unpublished chapters of his Big Species Book, “Natural Selection”, Darwin refers on two occasions to Volume 3 of Loudon’s “Arboretum…”, which contains no less than eight extensive passages about Matthew and his book. What’s more, one of Darwin’s references was in connection with oak trees and the most extensive passage about Matthew was in the section about oak trees. In his research for that passage about oak trees in “Natural Selection”, it is inconceivable that Darwin did not read about Matthew and his book in Loudon’s book. In the estimation of his friends, Darwin had a prodigious memory, of which he himself modestly said in his Autobiography:
My memory is extensive, yet hazy: it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am drawing, or on the other hand in favour of it; and after a time I can generally recollect where to search for my authority.
If, in April 1860, Darwin had written anywhere that he remembered having read about Matthew (but had never read his book), he might be let off the hook. But he didn’t, so he isn’t. As a very minor point, it is notable that, in his letter of April 10th to Lyell, Darwin refers to Matthew as Matthews, which is something Loudon regularly did in his books. Perhaps Darwin checked Loudon’s books on April 10th to make sure he hadn’t left notes in the margins of the passages concerning Matthew. It is probably in respect of Loudon’s books that, in 1984, a Darwin biographer, Ronald W. Clark, wrote 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."
This belief in Darwin’s honesty has been common to all neo-Darwinists, despite the evidence that his treatment of characters such as Lamarck, Robert Grant and Edward Blyth shows that he hated the idea that he could be thought to have been influenced by anyone, even though he obviously was. This wish to be thought an original thinker particularly applied to Hooker, who was his greatest admirer, and to whom Darwin was most inclined to deny influential predecessors. Darwin even told an unequivocal lie, in a letter to Hooker, about his not having known about Leopold von Buch’s contribution to evolution theory, while the notebooks show that he did.
That brings us on to W.J.Dempster, whose 1996 book, “Evolutionary Concepts in the Nineteenth Century: Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew”, continued on from Eiseley. Though Dempster’s intention was more to try and have history re-written (so that Matthew is universally acknowledged as the originator of natural selection) than to cast serious aspersions about Darwin’s integrity, he did pour out a lot of vitriol onto Darwin, mainly in respect of his failure to acknowledge predecessors. Dempster concentrated his rational attention on Loudon, and claimed that, as an avid reader of magazines and an admirer of Loudon, Darwin could have seen Loudon’s review of Matthew’s book, but he didn’t provide any evidence for that. He only pointed out that the review immediately after the one of Matthew’s book was of a book by John Lindley, of whom Darwin was a known admirer. What Dempster didn’t point out was that, just as Darwin could have got the expression ‘natural selection’ from Matthew, he could also have got the expression ‘the origin of species’ from Loudon’s review of Matthew’s book. Furthermore, Darwin’s intended title for his most famous book was “An Abstract on the Origin of Species and Varieties through Natural Selection”. If Darwin had read that review, he would undoubtedly have got Matthew’s book immediately (on the strength of the review excerpt cited above), and it would certainly have had a major influence on his thinking.
So, did Darwin see that review? I have recently uncovered some evidence that strongly suggests he did. In both a letter published in Gardeners’ Chronicle on 13th November 1858 and in his Big Species Book, “Natural Selection”, Darwin cites a letter in the February 1832 issue of Gardener’s Magazine and a response which is in the December issue – the very one which contains Loudon’s review of Matthew’s book. In other words, Darwin must have looked through that issue of the magazine. Actually, he probably had Volume 8 (of the collected issues of 1838), but that doesn’t diminish the point. Can we pinpoint him any nearer the Reviews section? To quote the current US President, “Yes, we can”. Two of the books reviewed in the December issue of Gardener’s Magazine were by John Lindley, into whose current and most famous books Darwin began to take an interest in 1838. On the inside back cover of his 1837-1838 notebook, Darwin had a list of books which included ‘Lindley Introduct.’, which could have been referring to one of the reviewed books, Lindley’s “An Introduction to Botany”. Alternatively, it could have been referring to Lindley’s earlier book, “An Introduction to the Natural System of Botany”, which was reviewed in Volume 7 of Gardener’s Magazine.
Three other books reviewed in the December 1832 issue were “Botanical Miscellany” by W.J.Hooker (the father of Joseph, who was only a boy in 1832), “Plantae Asiaticae Rariores” by Nathaniel Wallich, and “English Botany” by Sir J.E.Smith and James Sowerby. All those books would later be cited by Darwin. That may not constitute proof that he read the review of Matthew’s book, but, in the light of all the other evidence cited above, it makes it extremely likely. Having been away for five years, Darwin was dependent on magazines, including back issues, to bring him up to date with who was who and what books might be of interest. Why would he not read a review of a book on “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”? He had spent the most formative five years of his life on a ship made of timber, and he was very interested in trees and shrubs.
What I am suggesting is that, before 1842, Darwin read Loudon’s review and subsequently Matthew’s book, and he may have recorded in his private notebook some of his impressions. Darwin didn’t tell anyone about this, since he didn’t talk to anyone about the species issue at the time. Even when he did, in 1844, it was only about evolution generally and not about the nuts and bolts of natural selection or where he got the idea from. The longer that cover-up continued, the more impossible it became to disclose. Where natural selection was concerned, he had decided to hide behind the smokescreen provided by Malthus. He never wanted to lie about Blyth or Matthew; he just wasn’t keen to reveal the truth. One of the reasons he put off publication for so long was probably because he feared confrontation from Matthew. When that dreaded confrontation came in April 1860, he had to keep up the pretence to his friends that he never knew about him. He would then have destroyed any pages from his notebooks which pertained to Matthew, so that his guilty secret would never be revealed. Whatever happened in the 6 days between the 7th and 13th April 1860, I’m quite sure it didn’t involve Darwin seeing Matthew’s book for the first time.
Do I have doubts? Of course I do, like any juror delivering a guilty verdict, I hope. But science, like justice, is about weighing up the evidence, not about pre-conceived notions, and the evidence looks bad for Darwin. If I am wrong (and in many ways I would like to be), then the luck that enabled Darwin to receive Matthew’s book on Friday the 13th of April has turned out to be bad luck.
None of the above detracts from Darwin’s achievement, which was the methodical and meticulous development of the most comprehensive and well-argued case in favour of evolution yet produced. But he was a flawed human being, and a plodder, rather than a superhuman original thinker.
My thanks go to the Darwin Correspondence Project and The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online for providing me with much of the wherewithal for this article, though I rather suspect they won’t appreciate it. My special thanks go to whoever put several volumes of the Gardener’s Magazine onto a website devoted to the writings of J.C.Loudon.
Hugh Dower, 2009.