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. The law of entail, necessary to hereditary nobility, is an outrage on this law of nature which she will not pass unavenged - a law which has the most debasing influence on the energies of a people.— On Naval Timber and Arboriculture
The opening sentence of On Naval Timber and Arboriculture leaves the reader in no doubt that Matthew’s primary concerns were political and social, for he begins by arguing that
Navigation is of the first importance to the improvement and protection of the species, in spreading, by emigration, the superior varieties of man, and diffusing the arts and sciences over the world: in promoting industry, by facilitating the transfer of commodity through numberless channels from where it is not, to where it is required: in bearing those products of those most fertile but unwholesome portions of the earth to others more congenial to the existence of the varieties of man susceptible of high improvement; Water being the general medium of action - fluidity or conveyance by water, almost as necessary to civilised life as to organic life, in bearing the molecules forward in their vital courses, and in floating the pabulum (the raw material) from the soil through the living canals to the manufactories of assimilated matter, and thence to the points of adaptation. [p. 1]
Matthew argued that because armies could be moved and supplied much more easily by sea than by land, Britain should therefore establish a global maritime empire, trade freely, and control foreign lands. To do so Britain needed a large and powerful navy. In order to build and maintain such a navy Britain needed a constant supply of high quality timber, but Matthew believed Britain’s forests were so poorly managed that they could not meet the nation’s maritime requirements. Drawing upon his extensive practical experience, he explained how to plant trees that would produce the required types and quantities of wood.
The title page of Naval Timber, a plate showing the shapes of lumber required to construct a ship, and the appendix stating the importance of timber suitable for shipbuilding to a “Universal Empire.” [Click on images to enlarge them.]
In the midst of his recommendations he explained how varieties of plants could be bred to diversify and thus produce different materials suitable for specialist purposes. His discussions make clear that species arise from varieties growing in different places and under different conditions. Matthew believed that natural selection was a valuable winnowing process that maintained the integrity of individual species whereas Edward Blyth later described it as a negative process that prevented speciation. Matthew spelled out his ideas on natural selection in a wholly unambiguous manner in the appendices of his book. The reasons why he did this have been ignored or misunderstood by many modern historians, even though Matthew himself stated why he had done so very clearly in an appendix. The appendices, which took the form of politico-biological statements that were the logical result of the universal law of natural selection, had the potential to have the book banned and its author prosecuted for sedition. Note B, for example, makes the law of natural selection apply to mankind as well as the rest of the natural world. In other words, Matthew here connects the natural world and human politics in precisely the manner that those who connected biology and political reform were doing in Britain and Europe at that time:
There is a law universal in nature tending, to render every reproductive the best possibly suited to its condition that its kind, or that organised 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. The law of entail, necessary to hereditary nobility, is an outrage on this law of nature which she will not pass unavenged — a law which has the most debasing influence on the energies of a people, and will sooner or later lead to a general subversion, more especially when the executive of a country remains for a considerable time efficient, and no effort is needed on the part of the nobility to protect their own, or no war to draw forth or preserve their powers by exertion. . . . How far hereditary nobility, under effective government, has operated to “retard the march of intellect,” and deteriorate the species in modern Europe, is an interesting and important question.” [Note B pp. 364-65]
Matthew protected himself from charges of sedition or treason by praising Britain’s “liberal benevolent monarch, assisted by a popular representative Parliament”:
Although the necessity of the existence of feudal lords is past, yet the same does not hold in respect to a hereditary head or King; and the stability of this head of the government will, in no way, be lessened by such a change. In the present state of European society, perhaps no other rule can be so mild and efficient as that of a liberal benevolent monarch, assisted by a popular representative Parliament. The poorest man looks up to his king as his own, with affection and pride, and considers him a protector; while he only regards the antiquated feudal lord with contempt. The influence of a respected hereditary family, as head of a country, is also of great utility in forming a principle of union the different members, and in giving unity and stability to the government. [p. 367]
In contrast, Matthew attacks the governments of France, Spain, and Italy for being harmed by hereditary families, but he did not entirely spare the government of Britain either, merely stating that he thought that they would survive longer than most. In his opinion: “It would be wisdom in the noblesse of Europe to abolish every claim or law which serves to point them out a separate class, and, as quickly possible, to merge themselves into the mass of the population. It is a law manifest in nature, that when the use of anything is past its existence is no longer kept up” (p. 367, original emphasis). Matthew's book appeared in 1831, the year when riots and demonstrations in favour of parliamentary reform so threatened the British political establishment that some believed that a violent revolution might occur. In France in the previous year Charles X had been overthrown by the Parisian mob. Many of those who were agitating for political and social reform used science in general and evolutionary ideas in particular to support their attacks on the inequities of the existing hereditary system: note B is a political statement as well as a scientific one. Adrian Desmond (1989) commented: “Matthew’s appendix was not a chance juxtaposition of radicalism and transformism: there was a link between their democratic politics, free trade demands, and doctrines of self -development….the way the radical’s materialist science harmonised with calls for a capitalist free market.”
Matthew, like many Victorians, believed democracy, like charity, not only begins at home but remains there as well, for he strongly advocated imperial expansion. In Note C Matthew used his “law universal in nature” to justify European Caucasian colonisation of other lands: “The Caucasian in its progress, will also have mingled slightly, and, judging from analogy, perhaps advantageously, with the finer portion of those whom it has overwhelmed. . . . A change of seed, that is, a change of place, within certain limits of latitude, is well known to be indispensable to the more sturdy growth and health of many cultivated vegetables; and it is also probable that this also holds true of the human race. There are few countries where the old breed has not again and again shrunk from the vigour of new immigration” (pp. 370-71).
Matthew, a Scotsman, next discusses claims that although the Celts in France had interbred with Caucasians, the Celtic type remained dominant because it was better suited to the warm dry climate of that country. We can see here the influence of William Charles Wells, who had presented two papers to the Royal Society in 1814 (published in 1818) that argued that the different races adapted to the climates in which they lived. In keeping with the general ideas of his time, Matthew argued that European races were naturally superior to those from other parts of the world because they were best adapted to a temperate climate and were therefore most able to adapt to other climates. This idea was to be more fully developed in 1839 in his book Emigration Fields.
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Last modified 4 May 2018