April 26, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin Plagiarized Patrick Matthew

Darwin had to acknowledge that his ideas were anticipated by several others, including Patrick Matthew, by decades.

Dr. Michael Weale is trying to set the record straight on Darwin. In this press release from King’s College London, Weale points to horticulturist Patrick Matthew (1790-1874) as the “overlooked third man” along with Darwin and Wallace to conceive of natural selection as a law of macroevolutionary change. Matthew’s term was “natural process of selection” and was described in his 1831 book, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, 27 years before Darwin’s Origin. Here is the concept in Matthew’s words:

“There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition that its kind, or that 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.”  (Matthew, 1831: 364).

Matthew wrote Darwin a few months after The Origin came out. Wallace also acknowledged Matthew’s priority. Weale says,

In 1860, Matthew wrote to point out the parallels with his prior work, several months after the publication of On the origin of species.  Darwin publically wrote in 1860I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species”, while Wallace wrote publically in 1879 of “how fully and clearly Mr. Matthew apprehended the theory of natural selection, as well as the existence of more obscure laws of evolution, many years in advance of Mr. Darwin and myself”, and further declared Matthew to be “one of the most original thinkers of the first half of the 19th century”.  However, both asserted their formulations were independent of Matthew’s.

In the 3rd and subsequent editions of The Origin, Darwin, under pressure from critics, included a new Introduction acknowledging predecessors who had conceived of ideas similar to natural selection. “The differences of Mr. Matthew’s view from mine are not of much importance,” he said. Darwin pointed out some worldview differences, such as Matthew’s notion that the world underwent several periods of depopulation and restocking from vegetable matter. “He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection,” adding that he had responded earlier in a letter, “fully acknowledging that Mr. Matthew had anticipated me.” Matthew had written with “gracious candor” to Darwin, apparently deferring that Darwin had worked it out with more rigor than he had.

But that’s not the whole story. Matthew had gotten under Darwin’s skin for a time. Darwin biographer Janet Browne describes the aftermath of Darwin’s bombshell 1859 book:

During those early months, several people claimed to have thought of natural selection first. Patrick Matthew, an obscure but fiery political writer, wrote to the London magazines to draw attention to his book Naval Timber and Arboriculture, published in 1831, in which he had indeed described the mechanism of natural selection…. He [Darwin] took steps to deal with this source of possible controversy quickly and cleanly. He wrote a brief response for publication and made his excuses politely. The last thing he wanted was another priority dispute. Undaunted, Matthew capitalized on the connection for several years afterwards, much to Darwin’s private irritation. (Browne: Darwin: The Power of Place, pp. 108-109).

In The Dark Side of Charles Darwin, Jerry Bergman mentions the Patrick Matthew controversy. He quotes Stephen Jay Gould who had noted that Matthew wrote Darwin “to express his frustration at Darwin’s non-citation” of his work. Bergman continues, “In response to Matthew’s evidently valid concern, Darwin merely ‘offered some diplomatic palliation in the historical introduction added to later editions of the Origin.'” To Bergman, Darwin’s first response letter to Matthew in April 1860 “indicates Darwin’s guilt” in the affair. Darwin may not have known of Matthew (see Sutton, below), but once the word got out, “it does not justify the slight Matthew was given ever since.”

Weale is aware that Edward Blyth also conceived of a similar operative principle in nature, but notes that to Blyth and others, natural selection was a conservative process set up by the Creator. “Prior to Matthew, the principle of natural selection had been applied as an almost anti-evolutionary concept, as a process that kept species in their place,” he explains. Patrick Matthew, in contrast to Blyth, extended the principle to macroevolutionary change. For that, Weale considers Patrick Matthew to be “the first person known to have proposed natural selection as a mechanism for the origin of species (macroevolution).” Weale has set up a public website called The Patrick Matthew Project to accumulate all the known publications, letters, and biographies of Matthew. Readers wishing to investigate this issue of priority now have access to Matthew’s personal letters to Darwin, and other pertinent documents.

Last year in The Daily Journalist, Dr. Mike Sutton documented evidence that Darwin and his friends were aware of Matthew’s ideas before the Origin. Sutton calls this “A Bombshell for the History of Discovery and Priority in Science.

To date, there has been no hard evidence to prove that Darwin’s or Wallace’s work was influenced by Matthew. However, newly discovered literature reveals seven naturalists cited Matthew’s book before 1858. Three played key pre-1858 roles facilitating and influencing Darwin’s and Wallace’s published ideas on natural selection. They are: Loudon who edited and published Blyth’s acknowledged influential articles on evolution; Chambers, author of the ‘Vestiges of Creation’   which both Darwin and Wallace also acknowledged influenced their work; and Selby who, in 1855, edited and published Wallace’s Sarawak paper. These new discoveries mean that Matthew now has full scientific priority for the theory natural selection.

So why do we speak of Darwinism, and not Matthewism?

A number of excuses for crediting Darwin over Matthew are offered at Weale’s website: (a) Darwin had come upon the mechanism independently (although Weale acknowledges the possibility Darwin was aware of Matthew’s priority; see bullet #6 on Weale); (b) Darwin was the better scientist; (c) Darwin spent more time developing the idea, etc. But one possibility not discussed is that maybe Patrick Matthew’s ideas were not naturalistic enough.  On the “Recurrent Themes” page, Weale says:

Matthew believed in a purposeful, designed, anthropocentric universe [bold in original here only]. This was already clear from a letter that Matthew wrote to Darwin in 1871 (when Matthew was 80), but it was unclear whether this might have been a late-in-life conversion. Wells (1973) argued that this world view extended to Matthew’s younger life, based on scattered references to a “benevolent Providence” and “we never see a provision of nature without a sufficient reason” contained in Emigration Fields (1839, pp. 4, 123, 217), and also to references to variation in nature being for an “apparent use” and to life under natural selection displaying “unity of design” in On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (1831, Excerpts 4 and 2). One might excuse these latter comments as shorthand for “use to natural selection” and “body plan”. However, I have now found a new article from 1849 that also contains a reference to a competitive spirit “implanted for wise ends” in human nature, and several articles from 1860-61 that endorse the idea that Matthew’s world view was consistent and purposeful throughout his life, as befits a man of strong conviction.

There appears to be a mystical or vitalistic streak in Matthew’s world view that would be unacceptable to today’s evolutionists. But that fact should not disqualify his priority. Wallace, similarly, accepted spiritualism to some extent, and as Michael Flannery has documented, believed in a version of intelligent design, particularly for the origin of human intelligence and reason. There is no question, however, that Darwin’s view was wholly mechanistic. Perhaps that is the main reason Darwin’s name has been synonymous with evolution ever since, with a little help from the P.R. tactics of his X-Men, Thomas Huxley, Asa Gray and Charles Lyell (see 3/03/08).

Read Bergman’s book, and Browne’s excellent biography of Darwin, to see how Charlie was a scheming scoundrel. Then read Darwin Day in America to contemplate the wreckage Darwin’s earthquake produced in the entire intellectual culture for the next century and a half, right up to the present day.

But lest we give the impression that Matthew, Darwin, Wallace or any of the lot deserve credit for some great scientific discovery, we remind our readers that “natural selection” is a restatement of the “Stuff Happens Law” (SHL) a vacuous, unscientific “empty set” of a theory if there ever was one. It is not a law of nature. It is the abandonment of scientific explanation. Why? Because mutations are due to chance (stuff happens), and the environment is blind and unconcerned for what living things do (stuff happens). Neither “selects” anything. If you add chance to chance, what do you get? Chance! And if your scientific explanation amounts to chance, you have simply thrown up your hands, and said, “Stuff happens.” That is the opposite of science. Giving the SHL a catchy name like “natural selection” is a mere fig leaf over a naked concept. So who cares if Matthew thought of it first? Imagine the debate: “I said Stuff Happens in 1831” Matthew complains. “No, I thought of Stuff Happens independently!” Darwin responds. What a bunch of know-nothings.

For support that this is indeed the case, read what William Dembski says in his new book, Being as Communion (2014). After quoting Richard Dawkins’s bluff about natural selection being nonrandom, Dembski responds:

Dawkins’s attempt to minimize the role of chance in evolution is misleading. The fact remains that the creative potential for Darwinian processes come from variations: “Unless profitable variations do occur,” noted Darwin, “natural selection can do nothing.” But, within Darwinism, any such profitable variations are random (for instance, within neo-Darwinism, variations result from genetic copying errors). Moreover, given Dawkins’s materialism, these variations must be sifted through a selection process that itself is the result of accidental forces of nature. To say that selection is nonrandom is therefore like saying that once a die is cast and has landed, the face that appears is nonrandom. True enough, but getting there certainly involved a good deal of randomness, and the same holds for natural selection if materialism is true. (Dembski, p. 142).

This agrees with our claim that “natural selection” is all about chance, and if a scientific explanation offers nothing but chance, it is equivalent to saying “stuff happens.” This means that Darwin, Wallace, Matthew—the whole lot of them—are nothing but “empty talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:10). Should any of these “waterless clouds, swept along by winds” (Jude 12) be celebrated for explaining God’s green Earth without God?


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