Did Patrick Matthew independently discover natural selection?

Adaptive evolution by natural selection (henceforth "natural selection") is the “differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype resulting in the adaptation of one or more traits to the organism's local environment” and is widely believed to be the primary mechanism driving evolutionary change in general - across the continuum from microevolution to macroevolution ("macroevolution is the product of microevolution writ large"). It is a well established fact that natural selection was published and discussed by several authors prior to Darwin and Wallace’s  landmark ‘joint papers’ of 1858 and (obviously) Darwin’s book Origin of Species of 1859. Even Darwin and Wallace freely acknowledged that several authors (most notably William Charles Wells in 1818 and Patrick Matthew in 1831) had discussed the concept in their published works many years earlier than they had.

In fact Wells and Matthew were not the first. That honour goes to James Hutton (1726 - 1797), a famous Scottish geologist, chemist and experimental agriculturalist (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hutton). Hutton proposed the concept of natural selection in his 1794 book An investigation of the Principles of Knowledge to explain how populations within a species could evolve adaptations to different conditions and hence become distinct races (subspecies). Pearson (2003: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v425/n6959/full/425665a.html) who rediscovered Hutton’s theory, wrote:

“The selection theory is the subject of an entire chapter in the second volume (see supplementary information). Hutton mused:

‘If an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.’

…Hutton describes that in dogs that relied on ‘nothing but swiftness of foot and quickness of sight’ for survival, ‘the most defective in respect of those necessary qualities, would be the most subject to perish, and that those who employed them in greatest perfection would be best preserved, consequently, would be those who would remain, to preserve themselves, and to continue the race’. But if an acute sense of smell was ‘more necessary to the sustenance of the animal’, then ‘the natural tendency of the race, acting upon the same principle of seminal variation, would be to change the qualities of the animal, and to produce a race of well scented hounds, instead of those who catch their prey by swiftness’."

Given that Hutton undoubtedly discovered natural selection long before Wells, Matthew, Darwin and Wallace, some have questioned whether these later authors discovered the concept independently, or whether they in fact plagiarised it. Dr Mike Sutton, a criminologist from Nottingham Trent University (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Sutton_(criminologist)) has made numerous claims in his 2014 eBook Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret and elsewhere, that Darwin and Wallace stole the idea of natural selection without attribution from Patrick Matthew’s 1831 book Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Sutton believes that three men who he says published reviews of Matthew’s book (Robert Chambers, John Selby and John Loudon) somehow passed the idea of natural selection on to Darwin and Wallace. Sutton calls this his "independently verifiable, evidenced" "bombshell discovery". However, Sutton’s accusations are in fact pure speculation since there is no documentary evidence that this is what happened: no correspondence is known between these individuals which supports this scenario, and Chambers, Selby and Loudon never discussed the idea of natural selection in any of their published works. Wallace never even met any of these three men prior to his discovery of natural selection in 1858. In addition, Sutton's research is flawed: Chambers never did review Matthew's book, and the 1832 review in Loudon’s Gardener's Magazine is not definitely even by John Loudon1!

In spite of the lack of evidence Sutton asserts that Darwin and Wallace must have been “knowledge contaminated” by Matthew’s 1831 book. *If* Sutton is correct then it might be asked whether Matthew himself was “knowledge contaminated” by Hutton’s much earlier book…

Matthew stated in a letter to the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette in 1860 that he was in fact the discoverer of natural selection. He wrote:

"TRUSTING to your desire that every man should have his own, I hope you will give place to the following communication.

In your Number of March 3rd I observe a long quotation from the Times, stating that Mr. Darwin “professes to have discovered the existence and modus operandi of the natural law of selection,” that is, “the power in nature which takes the place of man and performs a selection, sua sponte,” in organic life. This discovery recently published as “the results of 20 years’ investigation and reflection” by Mr. Darwin turns out to be what I published very fully and brought to apply practically to forestry in my work “Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” published as far back as January 1, 1831, by Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh, and Longman & Co., London, and reviewed in numerous periodicals, so as to have full publicity in the “Metropolitan Magazine,” the “Quarterly Review,” the “Gardeners’ Magazine,” by Loudon, who spoke of it as the book, and repeatedly in the “United Service Magazine” for 1831, &c. The following is an extract from this volume, which clearly proves a prior claim." [see https://patrickmatthewproject.wordpress.com/matthew-and-darwin/gardeners-chronicle/7-april/]

We now know, of course, that Matthew was incorrect – Hutton has clear priority over him. But can Matthew be regarded as an independent discover of natural selection, or might he have ‘lifted’ the idea from Hutton’s work without attribution? Well, it turns out that there is very plausible route for possible “knowledge contamination” to have occurred between Hutton and Matthew and that is that one of “Hutton’s strongest supporters” (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=jRt8EQYNjmMC&lpg=PA4&dq=%22thomas%20hope%22%20hutton%20geology&pg=PA145#v=snippet&q=thomas%20hope&f=false) was none other than Matthew’s lecturer at Edinburgh University, Thomas Charles Hope (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Charles_Hope). Matthew attended Hope’s classes in 1808 so may well have been exposed to Hutton’s idea of natural selection via Hope 23 years before writing about the same concept in his book on naval timber. Even if Matthew did not pick up on Hutton’s ideas via Hope, there is a distinct possibility that he would have read Hutton’s 1794 book at some point prior to 1831, as he was apparently “very well read” and Hutton’s book was about subjects of great interest to him (including agriculture).

I should stress that the possibility of Matthew being "knowledge contaminated" in this way is as speculative as Sutton's accusations that Darwin and Wallace "stole" the idea of natural selection from Matthew. This circumstantial evidence would not stand up in a court of law - unless the judge was Mike Sutton! A more likely explanation is that Darwin and Wallace independently discovered natural selection - which is exactly what all the historical evidence strongly suggests...

[An earlier review I wrote about Sutton's ideas can be read HERE. A later paper discussing Matthew's claim to being the discoverer of natural selection can be viewed here: https://academic.oup.com/biolinnean/article/131/3/706/5912435]


1. Thanks to Julian Derry (University of Edinburgh) for pointing this out.

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith