There is a common error among many commentators that Matthew was a Providentialist and therefore believed in some form of Deity. In Emigration Fields he does refer to Providence as a designer: “All who have aided in these enactments ought to be held up to the detestation of mankind, as promotors of misery, as ministers of evil, bent upon rendering abortive the good with a benevolent Providence has designed for Man” (p. 4). It is impossible to know exactly what were Matthew’s religious beliefs and it is futile to try to deduce them from such scattered words in his writing, but it is most probable that he was an atheist. Unlike Charles Darwin in Origin of Species, he never referred to a designer in his writings on natural selection and evolution, and his allusions to biblical stories do not indicate anything other than that, like any contemporary educated person, he had a good knowledge of the Bible. In his reference to and discussion of Providence in Emigration Fields in 1839 he was referring specifically to charity, as the relevant passages makes abundantly clear: “The rich man’s charity is an unnatural offence, a human interposition counteracting the laws of providence.” (Note B, p. 217: note the lack of capitalisation of “providence” in the original text).

Weale has also suggested that because Matthew wrote to Darwin to argue that natural selection could not account for the development of beauty in nature, Matthew must have believed in some form of natural theology. Once again the mistake is made of taking Matthew’s statements in isolation: no regard has been given there to the broader context and body of Matthew’s writings. Matthew’s Scottish background and education was that of atheism or weak deism and he certainly would not have been in favour of any form of natural theology. He had no difficulty in accepting Man as a mammal which shared a common ancestry with apes and monkeys, unlike many of his English contemporaries. Equally Weale’s assertion that because Matthew accepted Cuvier’s evidence that animals had not changed in 4000 years he accepted the biblical account of creation ignores what Matthew wrote about catastrophes and restocking by new species: this process could not possibly have occurred in 4000 years and certainly not been repeated several times. Matthew, who was fully cognisant of, and agreed with, the ideas of James Hutton and his disciples, clearly believed that the Earth was very much older than 4000 years.

Matthew’s uncompromisingly materialistic and atheist ideas had no no room for special acts of creation, he mentions neither the Bible nor God. He had been educated at Edinburgh at the end of a period that known as the Edinburgh Enlightenment by teachers who had either directly contributed to the movement or had been strongly influenced by it. Members of this group included Adam Smith, James Hutton, Robert Jameson, and Adam Black, all of whom rejected natural theology and literalist interpretations of the bible in sharp contrast to Oxbridge which taught it through the 1840s.

Edinburgh in the latter decades of the eighteenth and early decades of the nineteenth century was one of the leading intellectual centres in Europe and many of the people there were materialists, some were atheists. There was a strong and lasting cultural link between Edinburgh and France so that the ideas of Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, Denis Diderot and Pierre Louis Maupertuis on evolution were known and discussed in Edinburgh, but not in England except by individuals such as Erasmus Darwin, another atheistic, materialistic political and social radical who had been educated at the Edinburgh medical school. After the French Revolution in 1789 the power of the Roman Catholic Church to censor materialistic ideas was destroyed, with the result that theories which had formerly been discussed privately in the closets of a few, could now be published and presented to a much wider audience. Lamarck, who began teaching theories of evolution in 1802, published them in 1809: in 1815 he showed that man is a primate mammal. Matthew encountered all of these radical ideas when he travelled to France and Germany where they were openly and freely discussed. In Britain by contrast the Pitt government had introduced a series of Seditious Acts which prevented the discussion of materialist or atheist ideas in public, because they were considered to be associated with revolution, social upheaval, and a threat to order. Evolution was one of the suppressed ideas thought politically very dangerous. This restricted intellectual environment, gave Paley’s natural theology a boost which it might not otherwise have had, and helped to ensure that natural theology was taught in English Universities until the 1840s. Oxford and Cambridge fellows were especially constrained because they had to be ordained members of the Church of England, and to become ordained they had to sign the 39 Articles of Faith. They could not teach materialist or atheist ideas on pain of losing their post. Consequently, these universities became intellectually backward while free enquiry, which was pushed to the radical fringes of British society, had to be supported by wealthy liberals such as Jeremy Bentham. Patrick Matthew was one such wealthy political and social radical who refused to truckle to the sensitivities of the clerical-political Establishment and as a result he was both thoroughly disliked and ignored by them.

None of his ideas were original to him and he made no claims to be original, but, like Robert Chambers, he was well educated and able to bring together knowledge from different disciplines and synthesise them into an original thesis. He was the first to recognise that evolution operates slowly for long periods of time rapidly following mass extinctions. His theory that there had been global catastrophes that periodically wiped out most animals and plants in the geological past was taken from Cuvier. Enough was known about the fossil record that geologists could recognise that extinction events had occurred in the past on many occasions: these were being used to divide the geological timescale into periods. Cuvier had argued for special Acts of Creation to restock the Earth after catastrophic floods which wiped out the terrestrial faunas which he had uncovered in the Paris Basin, but Matthew clearly stated that he believed that some organisms must have survived these catastrophes and reproduced, and in so doing became the ancestral stocks of new species in the subsequent period. Speciation would continue as varieties which were better “circumstance suited”: these would grow quicker and better and therefore leave more offspring. This is exactly how palaeontologists have understood the history of life on Earth: it is now called punctuated equilibrium. Matthew was a political radical who believed in political reform, and accepted the evidence from the fossil record at face value. He was a supporter of Lamarckian evolution except that he believed in extinction, and agreed that Mankind was a mammal and therefore a part of nature in which competition was an integral element, so by extension human systems should reflect natural systems and allow the most able to rise to the top of society. If geological catastrophes had struck the Earth in the past, they could strike again at any time in the future.


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Last modified 27 February 2018