atthew has priority as the first person to publish the phrase “the natural process of selection,” and, like others before him, he emphasizes the importance of the “continual balancing of life to circumstance,” but despite his claim in the 1860s that he had anticipated the main ideas of The Origin of Species and Darwin’s repeated acceptance of the claim, he had not in fact proposed a theory of evolution at all. He did provide observational evidence from his experience as an arboriculturalist to support the idea that nature culls weaker members of a species, which he asserted was a universal process, a “law of nature.” He wrote in a letter: “The constructive power creates, the selecting scheme of nature only chooses from amongst the created”, so that his theory of biological changes was simpler than Darwin’s: Matthew thought that selection worked only negatively whereas Darwin explained how it worked positively, permitting the development of new species from individuals whose qualities provided greater opportunity for reproduction. Moreover, in sharp contrast to Matthew’s simple conception of winnowing-as-selection, Darwin proposed a far more complex gradualism involving adaptive, disruptive, sexual, and stabilising selection pressures operating simultaneously to differing degrees, and constantly, and competitively, across a population.
The title page of Naval Timber and part of the table of contents. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Matthew fully understood the practical difficulty of defining a species, pointing out that “our common larch like almost every other kind of tree consists of numberless varieties, which differ considerably in quickness of growth, ultimate size, and value of timber. . . . The uniformity in each kind of wild growing plants called species may be broken down by art or culture and that once a breach is made, there is almost no limit to disorder, the mele that ensues being nearly incapable of reduction” (p. 76; emphasis added). Here the influence of the French evolutionist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck might seem to appear. Whereas Lamarck believed that all species change very slowly and relate to each other by gradual transition, and thus such diversification of species into varieties ultimately leads to new species, Matthew writes as if human interference creates a limitless “disorder,” rather than any adaptation or improved abilities to survive.
He believed that such diversification followed the Lamarckian principle that the environment affected the growth and development of organisms. He therefore pointed out that “one of the most evident traits of natural history” appears in the fact that “vegetables as well as animals are generally liable to an almost unlimited diversification, regulated by climate, soil, nourishment, and new commixture of already formed varieties.” Such changes ultimately leading to speciation occur when human beings bring out “this power of diversification in stronger shades.” Such changes have
been forced upon his notice, as in man himself in the dog, horse, cow, sheep, poultry, in the apple, Pear, plum, gooseberry, potato, pea, which sport infinite varieties, differing considerably in size, colour, taste, firmness of texture, period of growth, almost in every recognisable quality. In all these kinds man is influential in preventing deterioration, by careful selection of the largest or most valuable as breeders; but in timber trees the opposite course has been pursued. [p 106; emphasis added]
Matthew therefore concludes: “the rural economist should pay as much regard to the breed or particular variety of his forest trees, as he does to that of live stock of horses, cows, and sheep” (76). He repeats the same idea later: “Indeed the difference of quality of timber depends chiefly on the infinite varieties existing in what is called Species, though soil and climate have no doubt considerable influence, both in forming the variety, and in modifying it while growing” (pp. 202-03). He discussed the effects of wind, describing how trees growing close together in a wood have smaller branches, trunks and roots because the impact of wind shear was less as they were protected by the mass of the forest (p. 202). The trees would also be be taller. By contrast trees growing in the open as isolated individuals have larger branches because there is more space so that the effect of the wind would be much greater: in response the trees have thicker trunks and much larger root systems.
If “the natural process of selection” is to work there must be some form of competition between species caused by the pressure of population on resources. Matthew would have known of the writings of Lord Monboddo who had argued that pressure of population on resources stimulated improvement in population because the stronger or more aggressive members control a larger portion of the resources available. Other authors in England had expressed similar ideas at the end of the eighteenth century, notably Thomas Malthus and William Paley who strongly influenced Charles Darwin, so the idea was well known. Matthew described how this process appeared to operate in a forest:
When woods are planted of various kinds of timber, the stronger, larger growing kinds will sometimes acquire room by overcrowding the smaller: but when the forest is of one kind of tree, and too close, all suffer nearly alike, and follow each other in fast decay, as their various strengths of constitution gives way. . . . In the natural forest of America, when a clearance by any means is effected, the young seedlings, generally all of one kind, spring up so numerous, that, choking each other, they all die together in a few years. This close springing up and dying is sometimes repeated several times over……the seeds in the soil be so reduced to throw up plants so far asunder as to afford better opportunity for the larger growing varieties to develop their strength; and, overpowering the less, thus acquire spread of branches commensurate to the height, and thence strength of constitution sufficient to bear them forward to large trees. [pp. 106-08]
Competition between species explains why pine trees are unable to grow on better soils occupied by oak and walnut, a phenomenon known as competitive exclusion: “The oak and walnut banish them (i.e. the pines), to inferior soil from greater power of occupancy in good soil, as the pines, in their turn, banish other plants from inferior sands - some to more sterile location, by the same means of greater powers of occupancy in these sands.” He next discusses the relation of such competition to variety:
The use of infinite seedling varieties in the families of plants, even in those in a state of nature, differing in luxuriance of growth and local adaptation, seems to be to give an individual (the strongest best circumstance suited) superiority over others of its kind around, that it may, by overtopping and smothering them, procure room for full extension, and this affording, at the same time, a continual selection of the strongest, best circumstance-suited, for reproduction. 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; and even in man himself, the greater uniformity, and more general vigour among savage tribes, is referable to nearly similar selecting law - the weaker individual sinking under the ill treatment of the stronger, or under common hardship. [pp. 307-08]
Matthew understood that selection must work over long periods of time, and under the influence of the geologists James Hutton and Baron Georges Cuvier, he described how the natural process of selection would lead to the origin of new species over countless generations. This is another part of Matthew’s writings that has been seriously misunderstood. In Note F he started by discussing the recent geological history of the Firth of Tay based upon his own field observations. Then he discussed evolution over geological time, starting with the species problem: “Throughout this volume, we have felt considerable inconvenience, from the adopted dogmatical classification of plants, and have all along been floundering between species and variety, which certainly under culture soften into each other. A particular conformity, each after its own kind, when in a state of nature, termed species, no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries” (p. 381; emphasis added). The question here remains does Matthew’s emphasis upon the long-accepted notion that human beings can create new varieties of plants and animals having anything much to do with Darwinian ideas of the evolution of new species?
Matthew directly refers to Cuvier’s reports of the mummified remains of animals brought to France from Egypt by the Napoleonic expedition of the early 1800s. Cuvier, who had shown that the bones of these species had not changed in 4000 years, used this fact to argue against the evolutionary ideas of Lamarck and Geoffrey St. Hilaire. Matthew uses Cuvier’s geological discoveries to put forward a biological chronology that differed markedly from that of Lamarck when he argues that “geologists discover a like particular conformity — fossil species — through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life, of one epoch from that of every other.” Matthew therefore concludes we have to admit one of two explanations for the existence of these different species: either that there is “a repeated miraculous creation,” or else there is “a power of change, under a change of circumstances, to belong to living organised matter, or rather to the congeries of life, which appears to form superior.” He next finds a proof of “the plastic quality of superior life” (by which he seems to mean its adaptability) in the effects of “the interference of man” and the very different conditions of life in various geological epochs.
Matthew then explains that cataclysmic geological change “probably extending over the whole surface of the globe” destroyed almost all living things, leaving
an unoccupied field . . . for new diverging ramifications of life, which, from the connected sexual system of vegetables, and the natural instincts of animals, to herd and combine with their own kind, would fall into specific groups, these remnants, in the course of time, moulding and accommodating their being anew to the change of circumstances, and to every possible means of subsistence, and the millions of ages of regularity which appear to have followed between the epochs, probably after this accommodation was completed, affording fossil deposits of regular specific character. [emphasis added]
Matthew therefore concludes that evidence suggests “only two probable ways of change” — the first, that discussed above, and the second,
the still wider deviation from present occurrence - of indestructible or molecular life (which seems to resolve itself into powers of attraction and repulsion under mathematical figure and regulation, bearing a slight systematic similitude to the great aggregation of matter), gradually uniting and developing itself into new circumstance-suited living aggregates, without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates, but this scarcely differs from new creation, only it forms a portion of a continued scheme or system.
The changes of species, Matthew points out, raises many questions, such as
do they arise from admixture of species nearly allied producing intermediate species? Are they the diverging ramifications of the living principle under modification of circumstances? Or have they resulted from the combined agency of both? Is there only one living principle? Does organised existence, and perhaps all material existence, consist of one Proteus principle of life capable of gradual circumstance-suited modifications and aggregations, without bound under the solvent or motion-giving principle, heat or light?
Whatever the explanation, Matthew concludes, “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.” He adds that “it is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to the commixture of species nearly allied,’ although “the progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction” (pp. 383-84; emphasis added). This last sentence stands out as one of the very few places that Matthew does sound as if he believes in evolution.
Matthew clearly thus conceived nature as a self-organising system, through which life could appear from non-living materials, an idea which had been originally proposed by the Frenchman Maupertuis in the eighteenth century. He also combined Lamarckian evolution whereby organisms change gradually through time, with Cuvier’s catastrophism, where whole faunas and floras are wiped out on a global scale. His interpretation of the aftermath of the extinctions differed from Cuvier’s, however, because he believed that some species did survive the catastrophes and became the ancestors for new faunas. Modern palaeontologists call this view of evolutionary change punctuated equilibrium. Matthew had thus presented two supposedly modern — i.e. later twentieth century — ideas in 1831, but he had been largely ignored and forgotten. Unlike Cuvier who invoked a Creator in his thesis, Matthew was a strict materialist and atheist.
At the end of the book Matthew included a brief note that points out that “since this volume went to press, there has been some changes of scenery on the European stage even rivalling what has been accomplished of sylvan metamorphosis on the face of nature by Sir Henry Stuert…..We had intended to bring out Naval Timber and Arboriculture as a portion of a work embracing Rural Economy in general, but this is not a time to think of rural affairs” (pp. 390-91, original emphasis].
Matthew was a man with strong political views who understood humanity to be part of a larger system of nature, and politics to be but a small part of that larger system. He did not perceive any clear distinction between practice and theory or natural systems and human ones: for him they were all parts of a larger whole. Matthew’s ideas can only be properly understood and appreciated from this perspective and any attempt to divide or separate the different facets of his writings leads to a deep misunderstanding and possible false judgement of him. The modern academic environment which divides knowledge and understanding into ever more fragmented units would have been wholly alien to Matthew.
Which phrases or statements by Matthew suggest a belief in evolution?
1. There is “a power of change, under a change of circumstances, to belong to living organised matter, or rather to the congeries of life, which appears to form superior.”
2. “the progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.”
3. “ . . . these remnants, in the course of time, moulding and accommodating their being anew to the change of circumstances.”
Where does Matthew deny evolution?
“The constructive power creates, the selecting scheme of nature only chooses from amongst the created. In the ancestial life backward of all existing species not a hair of a head has been touched by compitative natural selection. It has only removed the less fitted to obtain room for the more fitted” (letter to Hillier)
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Last modified 30 April 2018