Patrick Matthew—the Scot who pre-empted Darwin


Fig. 1. Patrick Matthew (1790–1874).1 According to Charles Darwin, Matthew was “an obscure writer on forest trees”.2 In reality, as made clear by historian of science, Professor Loren Eiseley, he was the first man to clearly articulate the theory of evolution by natural selection—and many years before Darwin.3,4

Patrick Matthew (1790–1874)5 was born at ‘Rome’, a farm held by his father near Scone Palace in Tayside, Scotland. Both his parents were descended from a long line of wealthy land owners and, upon the death of his father when Patrick was just seventeen, he took on the management of a sizeable estate. This he put to good use, planting what became one of the largest orchards in Scotland, comprising around 10,000 apple and pear trees. During the course of his work, he gained extensive knowledge of arboriculture (the science of the cultivation of trees) and, like the creationist Carl Linnaeus before him, concluded that species were not fixed in their form.6 Matthew believed that plants and animals changed over time in response to competition and changing environments. This, he argued, was driven by the “continual selection of the strongest”, what he also referred to as “the natural process of selection”—a term he coined nearly thirty years before Darwin first published The Origin of Species.

Evolutionary racism

Matthew lived at a time when Britain was often at war and defence of the realm, and the growth of the British Empire, depended upon a strong navy. His mother was related to Admiral Duncan who was famous for his victory over the Dutch at Camperdown, when Matthew was just seven years old. Eight years later, Nelson defeated the French at Trafalgar in the most outstanding naval victory in British history. Matthew himself was acutely aware of threats from abroad. When visiting France in 1815, he had to return home hurriedly, on receiving the news that Napoleon had just escaped from exile on the island of Elba!

Believing that he could contribute to the furtherance of British naval supremacy, in 1831 Matthew published a book, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.7 This was reviewed favourably in the United Service Journal of that year, with the reviewer describing him as “original, bold, and evidently experienced in all the arcana [i.e. mysteries] of the parentage, birth, and education of trees.”8 Matthew made no secret of his racist, imperial agenda, believing the British to be among the superior varieties of man, and that it was their right to colonise other parts of the world. He wrote,

Navigation is of the first importance to the improvement and perfecting of the species, in spreading, by emigration, the superior varieties of man … the ablest in mind and body—the most powerful varieties of the race will be thrown into their natural position as leaders, impressing the stamp of their character on the people at large, and constituting the more reproductive part; while the feebler or more improvident varieties will generally sink under the incidental hardships. When a swarm emigrates from a prosperous hive it also will generally consist of the more adventurous stirring spirits, who, with the right of conquerors, will appropriate the finest of the indigenae [i.e. current inhabitants] which they overrun… The rougher excitement of hatred, ambition, pride, patriotism, and the more selfish passions, is necessary to the full and strong development of our active powers. That Britain is leaving the impress of her energy and morality on a considerable portion of the world, is owing to her having first borne fire and sword over these countries: the husbandman tears up the glebe, with all its covering of weeds and flowers, before he commit [sic] his good seed to the Earth.9

In this he anticipated, by thirty years, the doctrine of ‘social Darwinism’—the view that survival of the fittest applies to humans and nations as well as animals in the jungle.10 It is also pertinent to note here how evolutionary thinking independently led to the condoning of racism in both Matthew and the followers of Charles Darwin.11

All this might cause one to think of Matthew as unpleasant and unfeeling; but this appears not to be the case. A local farmer, for example, remembered him as kindly.12 In a letter to Darwin, he expressed concern for Darwin’s son, who had been unwell, and offered hospitality to Darwin should he wish to visit Scotland.13 In another letter, he wrote of how he found it “delightful to do good.”14 Matthew thus demonstrated how evolutionary beliefs can persuade even those of naturally benevolent character to support the most evil of practices.

Can natural selection generate new organs?

In later life Matthew came to realise that natural selection was clearly limited in the changes it could produce. In a letter to Farmer’s Magazine, he wrote, “Under the law of competitive selection, fins can change to feet, feet to arms, and arms to wings, and vice versa, but not this without a pre-ordained capacity. This law guides the organs to improvement, and alters them in accommodation to circumstances should circumstances change, but cannot originate new organs.”15 In a letter to Darwin he wrote that the “principle of beauty is clearly from design and cannot be accounted for by natural selection. Could any fitness of things contrive a rose, a lily, or the perfume of the violet?” Matthew came to recognise that the world provided “evidence of intellect & benevolence in the scheme of Nature”; and, of this he was quite certain: “There cannot be a doubt that in the scheme of nature there exists high design & constructive power carried out by general Laws”.11 Sadly, however, he had no time for the creator God of the Bible, or for those who would preach His gospel, arguing that, “There is no doubt man is left purposely in ignorance of a future existence. Their pretended revelations are wretched nonsense.”11

What is Darwin’s theory of evolution and how did Patrick Matthew anticipate it?

Charles Darwin knew that the offspring of plants and animals are all slightly different—due to what he referred to as ‘the law of variation’. Consequently, some would be better fitted for their environment than others. For example, animals which are more agile would be more able to escape predators; those with a thicker layer of body fat would be better adapted to cold conditions. The fittest would be most likely to survive to reproductive maturity and these would be most likely to pass on their favourable characteristics to future generations. Darwin referred to this as ‘the law of natural selection’. According to his theory of evolution, natural selection gives direction to variation, continually changing plants and animals so that they are always best suited to the conditions in which they live.

However, in 1831, before Darwin had even set sail on his Beagle voyage, Patrick Matthew had enunciated exactly the same idea. He wrote of variation as

one of the most evident traits of natural history, that vegetables as well as animals are generally liable to an almost unlimited diversification … 1

Of what he termed “the natural process of selection”2 he wrote,

Fig. 2. Title page of Darwin’s Descent of Man. Forty years after Matthew advocated evolutionary racism in Naval Timber and Arboriculture, Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “… the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”7
There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition … to their highest perfection, and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles … 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 … their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence.3

Then, anticipating Darwin fully, Matthew wrote of the

circumstance-adaptive law, operating upon the slight but continued natural disposition to sport [i.e. produce variation] in the progeny …4

Even Darwin acknowledged Matthew’s priority in the third edition of the Origin of Species:

In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on ‘Naval Timber and Arboriculture,’ in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that … propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself …5

Biblical creationists, of course, acknowledge both the tendency of plants and animals to vary and the reality of natural selection—and that acting together they can produce new species. Creationists fully endorse the reality of ‘speciation’. Where we differ from evolutionists, however, is in the extent of the changes that can be wrought by this process. Like artificial selection, natural selection gives rise to new species by removing genetic information—by removing the genes that give rise to undesirable characteristics. Microbe-to-man evolution fundamentally requires an increase in genetic information. Hence, in terms of information and complexity, speciation proceeds in the opposite direction to evolution..6

According to the Bible, God created plants and animals according to their “kinds” (Genesis 1:11, 21 and 24). This implies that variation is strictly limited and that organisms cannot cross “kinds”—a view which is entirely consistent with scientific observations. Hence apes will never turn into people as Darwin believed.

References and notes

  1. Matthew, P., On Naval Timer and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting, Adam Black, Edinburgh, p. 106, 1831.
  2. Ref. 1, p. 308.
  3. Ref. 1, pp. 364–365.
  4. Ref. 1, p. 385–386.
  5. Darwin, C., On the Origin of Species, 3rd ed., John Murray, London, p. xiv, 1861.
  6. Statham D.R., Only the Bible explains the diversity of life, Creation 37(1):40–43, January 2015.
  7. Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, John Murray, vol. 1, London, p. 201, 1871.

 For one view, see Dominic Statham’s article Did Darwin plagiarize Patrick Matthew?, August 2015.

Published: 11 August 2015

References and notes

  1. Calman, W.T., Patrick Matthew of Gourdiehill, Naturalist, in Paton, A.W. and Millar, A.H., eds., Handbook and Guide to Dundee District, British Association, p. 451–457, 1912; archive.org. The photograph can be found on p. 457. Return to text.
  2. Darwin, C.R., letter to Quatrefages de Bréau, J. L. A. de, 25 April 1861; darwinproject.ac.uk. Return to text.
  3. Eiseley, L., Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the men who discovered it, Anchor Books, New York, pp. 125–132, 1961. Return to text.
  4. Statham D.R., Did Darwin plagiarize Patrick Matthew?, J. Creation 29(2):119–123, 2015. Return to text.
  5. Dempster, W.J., Evolutionary Concepts in the Nineteenth Century: Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew, Pentland Press, UK, 1996. Return to text.
  6. Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), ucmp.berkeley.edu. Return to text.
  7. Matthew, P., On Naval Timer and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting, Adam Black, Edinburgh, 1831. Return to text.
  8. Anon, On naval timber, United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine, Part 2, p. 457, 1831. Return to text.
  9. Ref. 7, pp. 1, 373 and 376. Return to text.
  10. Dempster, W.J., Patrick Matthew and Natural Selection, Paul Harris, Edinburgh, pp. 47–48 and 70–71, 1983. Return to text.
  11. Wieland, C., One Human Family, Creation Book Publishers, USA, ch. 1, 2011. Return to text.
  12. Ref. 10, p. 12. Return to text.
  13. Matthew, P., letter to Darwin, C., 3 December 1862; darwinproject.ac.uk. Return to text.
  14. Matthew, P., letter to Darwin, C., 12 March 1871; darwinproject.ac.uk. Return to text.
  15. Matthew, P., The Farmer’s Magazine, 3(19):283–285, January–June 1861; babel.hathitrust.org.Return to text.