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Who was Patrick Matthew?

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Matthew_May1912_sCrop2Patrick Matthew (1790-1874) was a Scottish landowner who was keenly interested in the advancement of agricultural practices. He saw these as serving greater societal goals such as maintaining the British Navy and feeding new colonies. He established extensive orchards of apples and pears on his estate, and developed a considerable understanding of horticulture, silviculture and agriculture in general.

The original “originator”
Matthew was the first person to propose a correctly reasoned version of natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism for the origin of species (macroevolution). He also emphasized the axiomatic quality of natural selection, as a “law of nature” that emerged inevitably from the underlying conditions of heritable variation, over-reproduction and competition among living things. His macroevolutionary ideas appeared in an Appendix (Excerpt 2) to his 1831 book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

His ideas received little attention at the time, and indeed there is only one known pre-Origin critique of his ideas on macroevolution – a brief 1832 review (attributed to J. C. Loudon) which professed itself unsure of how original Matthew’s ideas were. It is thought that both Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) independently originated their versions of this great transformative principle for modern biology. Their versions were jointly published in 1858, followed in 1859 by Darwin’s great work On the Origin of Species.

Matthew was not the first person to come up with the idea of natural selection, but he was the first to make the crucial conceptual leap to see it as mechanism that could drive the evolution of life, from one species into other species (a process nowadays referred to as macroevolution). Prior to Matthew, the principle of natural selection had been applied as an almost anti-evolutionary concept, as a process that kept species in their place. Species were assumed to have been created separately, by a Creator. A version of “survival of the fittest” was known to the ancient Greeks. A few commentators had proposed that races or varieties within a species could arise via a process of natural selection (microevolution) – for example James Hutton (in 1794) and William Charles Wells (in 1818).

However, only Matthew, Darwin and Wallace – the three “originators” – made the key conceptual leap to seeing natural selection as a mechanism for macroevolution, and thus as an explanation for the origin of species.

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To learn more
I have written a short commentary about Patrick Matthew. This was published on 20 April March 2015 in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. The published version will be freely available at the Biol. J. Linn. Soc. website for the 6 months following the publication date, here. The peer-reviewed and pre-peer-reviewed versions of the manuscript are freely available here.

The best way to learn more about Matthew is to read his ideas on macroevolution by natural selection for yourself: “Accommodation of organised life to circumstance, by diverging ramifications”.

See also additional resources on Matthew.