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ome commentators, following Charles Darwin, have described Patrick Matthew as obscure. In a letter to Quatrefages de Breau in April 1861 Darwin described Matthew as “an obscure writer on Forest Trees,” and in the Gardener’s Chronicle in April 1860 he claimed to have no knowledge of Matthew's views. Darwin also commented in the Historical Sketch in Origin of Species that Matthew had described natural selection “very briefly in scattered passages in an Appendix”, (Origin of Species p. xxii). Loren Eisley, in his Darwin’s Century, was the first modern author to describe Matthew as ”obscure” and this has been repeated by many others including Gavin de Beer, Stephen Jay Gould, Kentwood Wells, C. Leon Harris, Arnold Brackman and more recently Richard Dawkins. De Beer wrote incorrectly that Matthew’s book was published in an “obscure place” when in fact it was published by Longman’s in London and Adam and Charles Black in Edinburgh, both large and well known publishers. Matthew’s book was reviewed by Julius Loudon, (see The reception of Naval Timber), a leading botanist of his time, in the Gardener’s Magazine (p. 703), which had a status similar to Nature today. At least seven other reviews of Naval Timber are known to have been written and published between 1832 and 1833, most of them showing respect for Mathew as an arboriculturalist (Dempster). Captain Fitzroy may have had a copy of Naval Timber with him in his private library on the Beagle, because part of his orders were to look out for suitable sources of timber in South America for use by the Royal Navy and Matthew’s book would have been a good reference guide. Many landowners north of the English border knew of Matthew and he seems to have been known among landowners in England. He was ignored, and therefore might be described as “obscure", by naturalists in Oxford, Cambridge and London because they were Natural Theologians who were not prepared to consider the materialist ideas expressed in Naval Timber. How widely his book circulated is not known but the fact that Darwin was able to buy a copy in 1860 after he had read Matthew’s letter in Gardener’s Chronicle, shows that copies were still available nearly 30 years after it had been published. The relatively small numbers of copies of the book that were sold may have been due to its cost and the limited interest in a specialised text.

Matthew’s prose is difficult to understand at times: Naval Timber was the first book that he had written and he was a farmer rather than an author. The purpose in writing the book was to describe ways of propagating trees rather than putting forward a scientific theory, so he assumed that most readers would have used it for practical purposes. Loudon was the editor of the Gardener’s Magazine who in his review wrote: “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” (p. 703).

However in the passages where Matthew described the natural process of selection in both the text and appendices, his intention and meaning were clear. Take, for example, these two passages:

One of the most evident traits of natural history, 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. In those which man is most intimate, and where his agency in throwing them from their natural locality and disposition has brought out this power of diversification in stronger shades, it has 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 76]

“There is a law universal in Nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible 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, 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 posses not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing - either prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their places being occupied by more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence.” [Appendix B]

A reason for his ideas being ignored by gentleman naturalists was that he combined his ideas about the natural world with politics, at a time and place when Natural Theology was the dominant means of understanding the living world and most contemporary naturalists were clergymen. Matthew’s Note B, with its unequivocal statement in favour of a meritocracy and against hereditary privilege linked his science and politics in such a way that readers were left no room for doubt about his views concerning social and political reform. For Matthew natural selection was a fundamental law of nature, and Note B is a political-biological statement of which the reviewer in the United Services Journal did not approve: “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.” Loudon also commented his review 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” (p. 703).

Dempster has pointed out that Matthew’s deductive sweep did not, and does not, find much favour with English academics, most of whom prefer an inductive approach to nature (p. 34) A. Desmond and others have described at length the close connections between Lamarckism and the evolutionary writings of Erasmus Darwin, with radical reformist political movements in Britain in the period 1800 to the early 1850’s: Matthew was a Chartist until 1839. Evolution was rejected by naturalists in Britain at this time in part because it was closely associated with radical reformist politics and revolution, as Matthew recognised when he wrote: “The age was not ripe for such ideas,” (letter to Gardener’s Chronicle 12 May 1860). When Naval Timber was published in 1831, many in Britain believed that the country was close to violent revolution and would have regarded Matthew’s Note B and other elements in the book as highly inflammatory. For this reason Matthew had placed his most radical evolutionary ideas in appendices so that they could be easily removed by any owner of the book, or deleted by the publisher, if the government censor decided that they were seditious. This would have left the body of the book complete with the idea of natural selection still in it and any reader would have still been able to draw their own conclusions about politics and nature if had they been so inclined. Matthew did not attempt to develop his ideas any more at the time for the reason he gave above; instead he turned to what he considered to be more productive pursuits, (Dempster, p. 46).


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Last modified 14 June 2018