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Patrick Matthew

Patrick Matthew (20 October 17908 June 1874) was a Scottish fruit grower who had proposed the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution over a quarter-century earlier than did Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin and Wallace were unaware of Matthew's work when they synthesised their own.


Early life, and "Naval Timber"

Matthew was born near Dundee, Scotland to a relatively wealthy family. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, though he did not earn a degree, and in 1807 he returned to manage his family's estate in Erol, Scotland . In the growing of apple and pear trees, he apparently had become familiar with problems of timber forestry, for in 1831 he published a book, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture , focusing on how best to grow trees for the construction of the Royal Navy's warships. He considered the task of be of great importance, as the navy permitted the British race to advance. Matthew noted the long-term deleterious effect of dysgenic artificial selection—the culling of only the trees of highest timber quality from forests—on the quality of timber. In an appendix to the book, he elaborated on how eugenic artificial selection—the elimination of trees of poor timber quality—could be used to improve timber quality, and even create new varieties of trees. He extrapolated from this to what is today recognized as a description of natural selection:

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.

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. In 1860, Matthew read a review of Darwin's 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 explication of the theory. Subsequently, Darwin commented in a letter to Charles Lyell:

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!

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

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, has 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.

Notwithstanding Darwin's insistence on ignorance of Matthew's work, Ronald W. Clark, a biographer of Darwin, suggested that even if Darwin had at some point encountered Matthew's work (of which there is no evidence whatsoever), it is possible that it simply did not register, but crept into his subconscious, only later serving as a forgotten basis of his ideas, which would not have been intellectual dishonesty. Alternately, that both Matthew and Darwin attended the University of Edinburgh (at different times, and before Matthew published his theory) has been considered to increase the possibility that they drew from common influences.

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 Matthew recognition, since he is still a generally unknown personage of history.

Natural theology

Writing to Darwin, Matthew stated his belief in "a sentiment of beauty pervading Nature [that] affords evidence of intellect and benevolence in the scheme of Nature." He further maintained, "This principle of beauty is clearly from design and cannot be accounted for by natural selection."

Social views

Matthew also applied his understanding of natural selection to society. 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 this particular view worked against acceptance of his theory of natural selection, being politically incorrect among most naturalists of the time (see Barker (2001)). He also published a book, Emigration Fields, suggesting that overpopulation, as predicted by Malthus, could be solved by mass migration to North America and the Dominians.


  • Patrick Matthew—Forest Geneticist (1790-1874) by John E. Barker. Forest History Today, Spring/Fall 2001.

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Last updated: 04-29-2005 02:04:05
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55