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@Hooker (22 & 28 Oct 1865)

PMP

Darwin to J. D. Hooker, 22 & 28 October 1865. Letter 4921: Darwin Correspondence Project
In amongst other items, Darwin mentions an 1813 paper by W. C. Wells that discusses the principle of natural selection, and that therefore Matthew could no longer place “Discoverer of the principle of Natural Selection” on his title pages.

There are a number of fallacies that have arisen from this brief passage, which I address below.

1. Darwin’s fallacy #1. Matthew never claimed to be the “Discoverer of the principle of Natural Selection” in any title page that we know of. He did claim to be the “Solver of the problem of species” on the title page of his pamphlet Schleswig-Holstein along with other claims (“First proposer of steam rams, metallic cover, sloping sides, heavy gun boats, etc”).

2. Darwin’s fallacy #2. Matthew had every right to continue his claim to be the “Solver of the problem of species”, because W. C. Wells only proposed natural selection (in the guise of group selection) as a mechanism for within-species evolution (specifically, the evolution of different races of man). Matthew continues to this day to be the first person in history known to have proposed natural selection as a mechanism for the “problem” of how species arose, by evolution from other species.

3. Eiseley’s calling card fallacy. Darwin’s comment has transmogrified into an urban myth that Matthew had calling cards printed presenting himself as “Discoverer of the principle of natural selection”. There is no evidence that Matthew ever had calling cards made saying this or anything else. The urban myth is traceable back to Loren Eiseley’s influential book “Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It” (1958).

4. Dempster’s fallacy. In his letter to Darwin of 6 June 1864, Matthew promises to send Darwin a copy of his Schleswig-Holstein pamphlet. No copy is recorded in Darwin’s library, but Dempster (1996) argued that this letter from Darwin proves he did receive it. This doesn’t ring true to me. Darwin was a meticulous person. If the pamphlet had been in his library, he would have checked the title page to make sure that he got the quotation right before sending his letter to Hooker. I believe it more likely that some third party had mentioned the claims in Matthew’s title page to Darwin, and Darwin had retained an imperfect memory of what it said. Alternatively, it is possible that Darwin had received the pamphlet and then given it away to somebody else, but it is also possible that Darwin never received it.

Talking of the Origin, a Yankee has called my attention to a paper attached to Dr Well’s famous Essay on Dew, which was read in 1813 to Royal Soc. but not printed, in which he applies most distinctly the principle of N. Selection to the races of man.– So poor old Patrick Matthew, is not the first, & he cannot or ought not any longer put on his Title pages “Discoverer of the principle of Natural Selection”!

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