So, whose theory of evolution is it?

Richard Collins looks at Darwin’s forgotten precursors

DARWIN mania will soon be upon us; the bicentenary of the great man’s birth occurs next February. Another Darwinian milestone was reached this month: on July 1, 150 years ago, papers by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were read at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in London.

The theory of evolution, which would change for ever our view of the natural world and our place in it, had been born.

In 1858, Wallace had written a paper linking evolution to the mechanism of selection and sent the manuscript to Darwin. In the normal course of events, the paper would have been published and the credit for developing the new theory would have gone to Wallace. However, as his background placed him lower in the rigid English caste structure than the famous Charles Darwin, it has been alleged that Wallace was “done down”.

Fourteen years younger than Darwin, he may have been overawed to find himself hobnobbing with the great and the good of the scientific community. At any rate, he did not insist on the immediate publication of his paper and agreed to the joint presentation with Darwin.

In the popular imagination, Darwin’s eureka moment occurred during his visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835. However, he experienced no blinding flash of revelation while there. The idea that species are transformed by the pressures of selection did not surface in his notebooks until 1837 and the first full formulation of the theory appeared in 1842.

But why did he not publish the principle which one commentator described as “the most important idea to occur to a human mind”? Was he afraid of the controversy it would inevitably generate? Apparently not. It seems that he was just too busy with other things.

But a case can be made that neither Darwin nor Wallace had been the first to come up with the new principle. There was a third, and little known, contender with his hat in the ring. Patrick Matthew, a Scottish fruit-grower, had published a version of natural selection a quarter of a century earlier.

Matthew was born near Dundee in 1790. He attended Edinburgh University, but left without a degree and returned to his estate in Errol to grow fruit trees. There he became interested in artificial selection for tree cultivation. In 1831, Matthew published a book entitled On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

In it, he argued that, by systematically eliminating poorer quality trees, it would be possible to increase the supply of trees suitable for shipbuilding. But Matthew went further: at various points in the book and particularly in an appendix, he described the mechanism of natural selection.

“There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible suited to its condition. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in his swiftness, and the fox in his wiles... progeny in some circumstances, might in several generations, even become distinct species.”

Matthew believed the selection principle applied equally to humans. He argued, for example, that British people should colonise only the temperate regions of the world, because natural selection had best fitted them to survive there.

When The Origin of Species appeared, Matthew wrote to the Gardener’s Chronicle pointing out that he had been the first to put forward the famous principle. Darwin and the scientific community had been unaware of Matthew’s work. Replying to the item in the Chronicle, Darwin acknowledged that “Mr Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection.”

Had he published the principle on its own rather than in a book on timber production, we might now be referring to Matthewism rather than Darwinism.

As so often in life, it’s not always what we do, but how we do it, that matters.

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