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

Decorated initial F

or Matthew natural selection was a “universal” law of nature which involved competition. No one group had an automatic advantage through accident of birth: each generation had to prove itself through its own actions and abilities, and that included human societies. Matthew also believed in free trade and opposed the protectionist policies of the British government, in particular the Corn Laws which he considered held back experimentation and improvement in agriculture. Matthew’s ideas were thus both political and biological and were overtly expressed as such. This is why he wrote them out in an appendix: if the government censor decided to move against either him or his book, the appendices could easily be removed at any time by the author, publisher or owner of the book while leaving the main text intact. The idea of natural selection was fully developed in the main text but the political aspects were not so explicit, and therefore would have been more difficult to suppress. Even in Scotland the intellectual climate had changed by the 1830s from being one of intellectual freedom to one of suppression. Matthew wrote to The Gardener’s Chronicle on 12 May 1860 the following:

I had occasion some 15 years ago to be conversing with a naturalist, a professor of a celebrated university, and he told me he had been reading my work, Naval Timber, but that he could not bring such views before his class or uphold them publicly for fear of the cutty-stool, a sort of pillory punishment, not in the market place and not devised for this offence, but generally practised a little more than a century ago. It was at least in part this spirit of resistance to scientific doctrine that caused my work to be voted unfit for the public library of that fair city itself. The age was not ripe for such ideas. [Letter to C. Darwin, 12 May 1860].

Given these circumstances it should come as no surprise that his ideas failed to gain much publicity or favour when they were published. This was reflected in contemporary reviews. The most important one was in the Gardener’s Magazine of 1832 (7: 702-3), by its founder and editor Julius Loudon, who wrote that in the February 1831 number, “we have given the title of this work, with a promise of a farther notice. This is, however, now so retrospective a business, that we shall perform it as briefly as possible. The author introductorily maintains that the best interests of Britain consist in the extension of her dominion on the ocean.” The reviewer went on to give a brief and accurate outline of Matthew’s descriptions of forest and tree management and planting, after which he points out that “the last chapter is a political one; and, indeed, throughout the book proofs abound that our author is not one of those who devote themselves to a subject without caring for its ultimate issues and relations; consequently his habit of mind propels him to those political considerations which the subject, ‘our marine’ naturally induces: benefiting man universally is the spirit of the author’s political faith.” Loudon had clearly appreciated the wider implications of the main body of the text even though he did not describe them in detail, and he had also understood the contemporary political inferences that this text contained, explaining that

An Appendix of 29 pages concludes the book, and receives some parenthetical evolutions of certain extraneous points which the author struck upon in prosecuting the thesis of this book. This may be truly termed, in a double sense, an extraordinary part of the book. One of the subjects discussed in the Appendix is the puzzling one, on 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. His whole book is written in a vigorous cheerful pleasing tone: and although his combinations of ideas are sometimes startlingly odd, and his expression of them neither simple or lucid, for want of practice in writing, he has produced a book which we should be sorry should be absent from our library.

The reference to the “puzzling” subject, ie “origin of species,” implies that this subject was being discussed in botanical circles, even if most people at the time were too timid to put anything into print for fear of the negative consequences which they were certain would be sure to follow.

Loudon was the editor of 5 journals and one of the leading botanists of his day. The Gardener’s Magazine was a leading journal of the time and was read by anyone and everyone who had an interest in botany, including Charles Darwin. Loudon was widely respected for his knowledge and understanding of botany and was frequently consulted for advice: he was not an insignificant reviewer or author, and his review would have brought Matthew’s book and its ideas to the attentions of many.

In contrast to Loudon’s favorable review, that in the United Services Journal of 1833 (33: 457-66) criticised the political aspects of Matthews’ book in a most disparaging and disapproving manner: “In thus testifying our hearty approbation of the author, it is strictly in his capacity as a forest-ranger, where he is original, bold and evidently experienced in all the arcana of the parentage, birth and education of trees. But we disclaim participation in his rumination on the law of nature, or on the outrages committed upon reason and justice by our burthens of heredity nobility, entailed property, and insane enactments.” Matthew’s political ideas did not meet with approval among the aristocrats and gentlemen who made up the officer class in the British armed forces of the early 19th century.

Matthew’s interpretation of geological history, evolution and politics were opposed by Charles Lyell, a wealthy Scottish landowner who had taken up geology when he inherited his estates at a young age in the 1820’s. He was in Paris in 1830 and had witnessed the Cuvier - St Hilaire debates, and later in June when riots broke out that led directly to the abdication and flight of the French King Charles X. In those riots many people were killed in the streets of Paris: Lyell himself only survived because he was able to hide in a friend’s house. Later in 1831 Lyell’s sisters’ coach was stoned by a London mob who were demonstrating in favour of Parliamentary reform. Understandably Lyell was frightened that revolution might come to Britain and that he and his family would be among those who would have suffered financially or worse had it done so.

Lyell was a convinced Christian and abhorred the idea of evolution which he rightly observed was closely connected to radical politics and contradicted the theology of both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. He opposed Cuvier’s catastrophism for two reasons. The first was scientific: Cuvier had studied land faunas in the Paris basin and while floods might explain their periodic demise, they could not account for the periodic extinction of contemporary marine faunas which was also known from the fossil record: other factors must have been involved although these were not discussed. The second reason was that Lyell resisted the idea of catastrophism because of its political implications: if human systems were an extension of the natural world, and catastrophes were an element of natural systems, then revolutions could be a natural and expected part of human societies too. Lyell therefore argued that the evidence of Earth’s history demonstrated only gradual change and that any catastrophes which did occur, such as large volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, had an impact on limited parts of the Earth, much as the French Revolution had only affected Europe.

Lyell rejected the whole of Lamarck’s evolutionary ideas which he attacked and seriously misrepresented because he associated them with French revolutionary politics and atheism. To Lyell the idea that humans were primates was absurd: they were the products of God’s Creation. Lyell’s highly influential Principles of Geology was published between 1830 and 1833, just at the time when Matthew published his On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Lyell was a member of the establishment and his book was very popular and widely read, not only because it presented a view of world history which could be accepted by the educated elites of the day, but because it was, (and is), a very readable text. It supported the contemporary political-religious status quo in Britain and therefore could be taught in the universities, where gradualism became the accepted interpretation of Earth history for the next century and a half. Matthew ideas by contrast, were ignored and forgotten until recenbtly.


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Last modified 28 February 2018