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Darwin’s Theory of Evolution — or Patrick Matthew’s?


Writing at FiveThirtyEight, journalist Daniel Engber discusses the theory that Charles Darwin engaged in intellectual theft or plagiarism (“Who Will Debunk The Debunkers?“). Engber describes the investigations of criminologist Mike Sutton at Nottingham Trent University:

In the last few years, Sutton has himself embarked on another journey to the depths, this one far more treacherous than the ones he’s made before. The stakes were low when he was hunting something trivial, the supermyth of Popeye’s spinach; now Sutton has been digging in more sacred ground: the legacy of the great scientific hero and champion of the skeptics, Charles Darwin. In 2014, after spending a year working 18-hour days, seven days a week, Sutton published his most extensive work to date, a 600-page broadside on a cherished story of discovery. He called it “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.”

Sutton’s allegations are explosive. He claims to have found irrefutable proof that neither Darwin nor Alfred Russel Wallace deserves the credit for the theory of natural selection, but rather that they stole the idea — consciously or not — from a wealthy Scotsman and forest-management expert named Patrick Matthew. “I think both Darwin and Wallace were at the very least sloppy,” he told me. Elsewhere he’s been somewhat less diplomatic: “In my opinion Charles Darwin committed the greatest known science fraud in history by plagiarizing Matthew’s” hypothesis, he told the Telegraph. “Let’s face the painful facts,” Sutton also wrote. “Darwin was a liar. Plain and simple.”

The claim, however, is absurd. Sutton argues that Darwin must have known and “borrowed heavily” from Patrick Matthew’s 1831 essay “On Naval Timber and Arboriculture” and his unveiling of “the natural process of selection.” I’ve never been especially persuaded by any of these plagiarism claims, and this seems like another resurrection of the threadbare Darwin “theft” thesis. I’ve addressed the general subject on a previous occasion.

This case seems especially odd given the fact that Darwin himself acknowledged Matthew’s work in his own “Historical Sketch,” added in 1861 to the third edition of the Origin. Darwin points out, correctly I believe, that Matthew’s argument for natural selection was interspersed in various passages and not a sustained, systematic investigation of its principles. I see no plagiarism here.

It’s true that Matthew suggested a form of natural selection and perhaps even one that was animated by abrupt change rather than gradual change — though it seems to me that evolution might actually proceed in different circumstances by either mode and in that sense is fairly unremarkable. However, even at best sheer priority of an idea isn’t enough to garner status in the history of science.

After all, Matthew didn’t develop the idea much further and issued his idea as an appendix to tree-raising for the building of ships. It was hardly a central component of his thinking.

The matter reminds me of the development of anesthesia. Crawford Long of Jefferson, Georgia, was the first ever to use diethyl ether as an anesthetic agent. He did so on March 30, 1842. However, this accomplishment was never written up or widely disseminated beyond a small circle of Long’s colleagues and friends. Instead, William T. G. Morton first publicly demonstrated the use of ether as a general anesthetic on October 16, 1846. Numerous physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital were witnesses, whereupon it was published almost immediately.

To my view it is not enough to first discover something; one must actually demonstrate it and share it with the general community of scholars. Unlike Morton, Long seemed not to fully appreciate the implications of his discovery. Perhaps the same was true of Matthew, though I’m not sure. One thing I am sure of — you can’t steal an idea you acknowledge, and Darwin certainly did acknowledge Matthew.

As for Wallace, one thing Patrick Matthew did not have was a context for his theory. Wallace published his famous Sarawak Law Paper in 1855. He stated there that, “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a closely allied species.” He then laid out four geographical principles and five geological principles by which evolution operated. Darwin knew of this paper and so when he saw Wallace’s Ternate letter, describing a theory much (he thought at the time at least) like his own, he was startled and shocked into finally presenting his theory of evolution in full.

Darwin can, did, and indeed should take full responsibility for his particular theory. There were long rumblings about evolution before Darwin, from his own grandfather’s Zoonomia to Robert Chambers’s Vestiges, but Darwin’s “contribution” was indeed special and unique and he is therefore particularly culpable for the mischief and tragedy it has caused in its social applications.

I think Sutton is trying make “news” where there is none. I don’t like these stories because they have little historical foundation and more importantly they take the focus off Darwin’s personal responsibility for a very destructive set of notions and instead reduce him to little more than a cheat. Darwinism, in short, deserves its name in the fullest sense.

Photo: Patrick Matthew, via Patrick Matthew Project.