"Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret" is published....

"Without Matthew neither Darwin nor Wallace would have written anything original or worth reading on the subject of evolution and the discovery of it would not have been made until the second quarter of the 20th Century at the earliest."

Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret, a book by UK criminologist Mike Sutton, has just been published as a Kindle edition. Mike aims to inform the world that Scottish fruit grower Patrick Matthew published the theory of evolution by natural selection in his 1831 book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture - a full 27 years before Wallace and Darwin published the same idea in their landmark paper of 1858. Not only that, but Mike claims that a number of Darwin and Wallace's colleagues read the book and then passed information about natural selection on to them - so his argument is that Darwin and Wallace did NOT independently discover natural selection, but lied because they said they had....

That Patrick Matthew (possibly) discovered and published natural selection before Darwin and Wallace is very old news (yawn!) - it has been much discussed in the literature and is indeed the subject of an earlier badly written and repetitious book by Dempster (1983) [see a review HERE]. I remain undecided as to whether Matthew did actually discover the 'full theory' of natural selection a la Darwin and Wallace - certainly he did not present his idea as being a new theory, and it was so poorly and briefly explained that I wonder whether Matthew actually understood the idea in the way that Darwin and Wallace clearly did. Anyway, I and many other evolutionary biologists are happy to credit Matthew as being an important early pioneer in this field - perhaps even more kudos would be due if someone with a detailed knowledge of evolutionary theory is able to convincingly demonstrate that Matthew did indeed unambiguously come up with the full theory of natural selection.

What is new in Mike's book is therefore not the notion that Matthew discovered natural selection, but the allegation that Darwin and Wallace did not independently devise the theory i.e. that they plagiarized it from Matthew's book. Does Mike have hard evidence that they did this? The answer is a resounding "NO"! Absolutely no hard evidence is presented to demonstrate that Darwin or Wallace ever read Matthew's book, and as we will see, there is not a shred of evidence that anyone passed Matthew's ideas on to them either.

Mike claims that since he can demonstrate that a number of Darwin and Wallace's colleagues read Matthew's book, that they must have understood Matthew's poorly explained passages about natural selection, and then passed this information on to Darwin and Wallace. However, there is absolutely no evidence that this happened so Mike's entire argument ‘totters and falls’. Mike's speculations are sometimes rather odd - for example he says that Robert Chambers read Matthew's book (OK, fair enough), was influenced by Matthew's evolutionary arguments (where's the evidence?), and that this then prompted Chambers to write a book about evolution (i.e. Vestiges) several years later (wild speculation!). Yes, Chambers did write a book about evolution (then known as transmutation), but why did he not mention natural selection if he had understood the idea when he read Matthew's book? After all natural selection provides a mechanism for how evolution works - and the fact he didn't present a mechanism is the main weak point about Vestiges that led others to dismiss the book as idle speculation. Chamber's clearly missed an excellent opportunity to plagiarise Matthew's ideas... Note that although it is a fact that Wallace was inspired to become an evolutionist on reading Vestiges in 1845, he obviously didn't get the idea for natural selection from this book (as it isn't mentioned), and since evolution itself is a very old idea (dating back to ancient Greek times), Wallace (and Chambers for that matter) could just as easily have been inspired by evolutionary works published long before either Vestiges or Matthew's book - e.g. those by Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) from the 18th century.

It is my assessment that IF Matthew did propose natural selection (and this is open to doubt), then it was presented in such a poorly explained way that readers of his book did not know what he was on about. This is why no one discussed Matthew's idea in print for 27 long years. The way the idea was presented by Matthew was a bit like if Einstein had first published his mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc2 in the middle of a treatise about growing turnips. People may have seen it and thought "what's that all about?" - and then promptly ignored it...

So, in conclusion, Mike's claim of plagiarism rests on the baseless allegation that a number of people who read Matthew's book passed information about natural selection on to Darwin and Wallace, who then claimed that they had discovered it, independently of each other and independently of Matthew. It is worrying that a criminologist would make such allegations given the absence of any actual evidence... Nullius in Verba, indeed!

[For more discussion about these issues (some by me) please see the comments below the following poorly researched article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10859281/Did-Charles-Dar...

PS. Given that no one ever picked up on Matthew's theory of 'natural selection', Matthew's idea was an intellectual dead end. His work was never rediscovered, dusted-off, debated and built upon by others - unlike Mendel's theory of inheritance. Instead, Darwin and Wallace's better explained and publicised theory replaced it completely.... The modern theory of natural selection and indeed modern evolutionary biology as a subject, originates from Darwin and Wallace's 1858 paper - massively boosted of course by Darwin's Origin and then by Darwin, Wallace and other people's subsequent work in the field. Matthew's evolutionary speculations were only brought to the attention of scholars by Matthew himself AFTER the publication of Origin in 1859 - no one had previously discussed them in print, or even said that they knew about them once Darwin's book appeared. Matthew was the only one aware of his own ideas, which just goes to show (as Darwin rightly pointed out) that the lion's-share of the credit for an idea should go to the person or persons who bring it to public attention and get people to take it seriously.

In conclusion, I believe that history is likely to conclude that Matthew's ideas are a short dead twig on the tree of human knowledge - whereas Darwin and Wallace's ideas, presented jointly in 1858, are the base of a vigorous, thick, living branch of the tree...

References

Dempster W. J. 1983. Patrick Matthew and natural selection: nineteenth century gentleman-farmer, naturalist and writer. P. Harris. Edinburgh.

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