"Long before it's in the papers"
April 21, 2015


Scientific “outsider” anticipated Darwin’s ideas by decades, research finds

April 21, 2015
Courtesy of Wiley Journals, 
King's College London
and World Science staff

A Scot­tish landowner-planter named Pat­rick Mat­thew an­ti­cipated Charles Dar­win’s main ideas about ev­o­lu­tion 27 years in ad­vance but got lit­tle cred­it, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

Its au­thor ar­gues that the main ques­tion to­day should­n’t be which man de­serves the most cred­it, but rath­er how we can ben­e­fit most from the un­ique con­tri­bu­tions of each.

A portrait of Patrick Mat­thew (1790-1874). Fur­ther infor­ma­tion on Mat­thew and his wri­tings is here.

Dar­win de­vel­oped the ideas more sys­tem­at­ic­ally and “rightly de­serves his pri­ma­cy,” the au­thor, mo­lec­u­lar ge­net­i­cist Mi­chael Weale of King’s Col­lege Lon­don, wrote. On the oth­er hand, Weale not­ed, Mat­thew fol­lowed a dif­fer­ent prac­tice by us­ing the word “law” rath­er than “the­o­ry”—an ex­am­ple per­haps worth fol­low­ing.

In gen­er­al, Dar­winian ev­o­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry states that some in­di­vid­u­als sur­vive and re­pro­duce more suc­cess­fully than oth­ers; there­fore it is their char­ac­ter­is­tics, and not those of the oth­ers, that mainly pass to fu­ture genera­t­ions. Thus, each genera­t­ion is­n’t per­fectly iden­ti­cal to the last, though they do tend to stay adapted to their en­vi­ron­ment. Over time, this pro­cess can lead to the emer­gence or dis­ap­pear­ance of whole spe­cies, events such as we can find re­flected in the fos­sil rec­ord and some­times even wit­ness.

Be­sides Mat­thew and Dar­win, a third, well-known per­son in­volved in de­vel­op­ing ev­o­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry is Al­fred Rus­sel Wal­lace, who co-published his work with Dar­win in 1858.

But Mat­thew, pub­lish­ing in 1831, wrote of a law “u­ni­ver­sal” in nature—e­ven on oth­er plan­et­s—in which:

“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…”

This “law,” Mat­thew wrote, “sus­tains the li­on in his strength, the hare in her swift­ness, and the fox in his wiles.”

Else­where, Mat­thew writes that “great dif­fer­ence of cir­cum­stances” might push this pro­cess in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, such that “the prog­e­ny of the same par­ents… might, in sev­er­al genera­t­ions, even be­come dis­tinct spe­cies, in­ca­pa­ble of co-reproduction.”

Mat­thew’s re­marks ap­peared in the ap­pen­dix to a book of his book, On Na­val Tim­ber and Ar­bor­i­cul­ture.

Weale calls Mat­thew the “lit­tle-known first orig­i­na­tor of macroev­o­lu­tion [large-scale ev­o­lu­tion] by nat­u­ral se­lec­tion.” Weale’s ar­ti­cle ap­pears in the Bi­o­log­i­cal Jour­nal of the Lin­ne­an So­ci­e­ty.

“Sadly, all the ev­i­dence sug­gests that no one who read Mat­thew’s book ap­pre­ci­at­ed the macroev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas con­tained in his ap­pen­dix. His book did not gain wide cir­cula­t­ion, and both Dar­win and Wal­lace de­nied any pri­or knowl­edge of his work,” Weale wrote.

To­day, “we could still ben­e­fit from adopt­ing [Mat­thew’s] vi­sion of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion as a ‘law’ rath­er than a ‘the­o­ry,’ as a self-ev­i­dent and in­es­cap­a­ble prin­ci­ple giv­en that or­gan­isms ma­nifestly com­pete, vary and re­pro­duce,” Weale wrote. “In pub­lic per­cep­tion, laws are con­crete and cer­tain, and the­o­ries less so.”

Mat­thew al­so fore­saw that man would ul­ti­mately de­stroy the plan­et’s en­vi­ron­ment, Weale not­ed, adding: “Mat­thew was an out­sid­er, but that does­n’t mean we should keep him out in the cold.”

* * *

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A Scottish landowner-planter named Patrick Matthew anticipated Charles Darwin’s main ideas about evolution 27 years in advance but got little credit, according to a new study. Its author argues that the main question today shouldn’t be which man deserves the most credit, but rather how we can benefit most from the unique contributions of each. Darwin developed the ideas more systematically and “rightly deserves his primacy,” the author, molecular geneticist Michael Weale of King’s College London, wrote. On the other hand, Weale noted, Matthew followed a different practice by using the word “law” rather than “theory”—an example perhaps worth following. In general, Darwinian evolutionary theory states that some individuals survive and reproduce more successfully than others; therefore it is their characteristics, and not those of the others, that mainly pass to future generations. Thus, each generation isn’t perfectly identical to the last, though they do tend to stay adapted to the environment that produced them. Over time, this process of change can lead to the emergence or disappearance of whole species, events such as we can find reflected in the fossil record and sometimes even witness. Besides Matthew and Darwin, a third, well-known person involved in developing evolutionary theory is Alfred Russel Wallace, who co-published his work with Darwin in 1858. But Matthew, publishing in 1831, wrote of a law “universal” in nature—even on other planets—in which: “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…” This “law,” Matthew wrote, “sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles.” Elsewhere, Matthew writes that “great difference of circumstances” might push this process in different directions, such that “the progeny of the same parents… might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.” Matthew’s remarks appeared in the appendix to a book of his, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Weale calls Matthew the “little-known first originator of macroevolution [large-scale evolution] by natural selection.” Weale’s article appears in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. “Sadly, all the evidence suggests that no one who read Matthew’s book appreciated the macroevolutionary ideas contained in his appendix. His book did not gain wide circulation, and both Darwin and Wallace denied any prior knowledge of his work,” Weale wrote. Today, “we could still benefit from adopting [Matthew’s] vision of natural selection as a ‘law’ rather than a ‘theory,’ as a self-evident and inescapable principle given that organisms manifestly compete, vary and reproduce,” Weale wrote. “In public perception, laws are concrete and certain, and theories less so.” Matthew also foresaw that man would ultimately destroy the planet’s environment, Weale noted, adding: “Matthew was an outsider, but that doesn’t mean we should keep him out in the cold.”