Matthew’s letter of 7 April


Matthew, P. Nature’s law of selection. Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (7 April 1860): 312-313

In this letter, reproduced in full below, Matthew quotes 3 excerpts from his 1831 book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture in order to “clearly prove a prior claim” to the idea that natural selection drives evolution.

The end of his introductory paragraph also claims that, in the same book, he was the first to propose the “steam ram” and “steam gun boats”. See the Schleswig-Holstein entry for a link to the relevant section in On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.

Matthew’s letter was also picked up by the Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, which reproduced his introductory paragraph in a piece titled “Nature’s law of selection” in the Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, Friday 13 April 1860, p.3 col.1 (pdf image) and then reproduced longer extracts from Matthew’s letter in a second piece also titled “Nature’s law of selection” in the Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, Tuesday 17 April 1860, p.4 col.6-7 (pdf image), where the editors also agree that “it appears that Mr Matthew published, nearly thirty years ago, what Mr Darwin now asserts to have discovered”.

This letter is also available from Darwin Online, item A143.


TRUSTING to your desire that every man should have his own, I hope you will give place to the following communication.

In your Number of March 3rd I observe a long quotation from the Times, stating that Mr. Darwin “professes to have discovered the existence and modus operandi of the natural law of selection,” that is, “the power in nature which takes the place of man and performs a selection, sua sponte,” in organic life. This discovery recently published as “the results of 20 years’ investigation and reflection” by Mr. Darwin turns out to be what I published very fully and brought to apply practically to forestry in my work “Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” published as far back as January 1, 1831, by Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh, and Longman & Co., London, and reviewed in numerous periodicals, so as to have full publicity in the “Metropolitan Magazine,” the “Quarterly Review,” the “Gardeners’ Magazine,” by Loudon, who spoke of it as the book, and repeatedly in the “United Service Magazine” for 1831, &c. The following is an extract from this volume, which clearly proves a prior claim. The same volume contains the first proposal of the steam ram (also claimed since by several others, English, French, and Americans,) and a navy of steam gun-boats as requisite in future maritime war, and which, like the organic selection law, are only as yet making way: —

“There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition that its kind, or that organised matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers, 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. As nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, 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, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence.”

“Throughout this volume, we have felt considerable inconvenience, from the adopted dogmatical classification of plants, and have all along been floundering between species and variety, which certainly under culture soften into each other. A particular conformity, each after its own kind, when in a state of nature, termed species, no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries. Geologists discover a like particular conformity—fossil species—through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life on one epoch from that of every other. We are therefore led to admit, either of a repeated miraculous creation; or of a power of change, under a change of circumstances, to belong to living organised matter, or rather to the congeries of inferior life, which appears to form superior. The derangements and changes in organised existence, induced by a change of circumstance from the interference of man, affording us proof of the plastic quality of superior life, and the likelihood that circumstances have been very different in the different epochs, though steady in each, tend strongly to heighten the probability of the latter theory.

“When we view the immense calcareous and bituminous formations, principally from the waters and atmosphere, and consider the oxidations and depositions which have taken place, either gradually, or during some of the great convulsions, it appears at least probable, that the liquid elements containing life have varied considerably at different times in composition and weight; that our atmosphere has contained a much greater proportion of carbonic acid or oxygen; and our waters aided by excess of carbonic acid, and greater heat resulting from greater density of atmosphere, have contained a greater quantity of lime and other mineral solutions. Is the inference then unphilosophic, that living things which are proved to have a circumstance-suiting power—a very slight change of circumstance by culture inducing a corresponding change of character—may have gradually accommodated themselves to the variations of the elements containing them, and, without new creation, have presented the diverging changeable phenomena of past and present organised existence?

“The destructive liquid currents, before which the hardest mountains have been swept and comminuted into gravel, sand, and mud, which intervened between and divided these epochs, probably extending over the whole surface of the globe, and destroying nearly all living things, must have reduced existence so much, that an unoccupied field would be formed for new diverging ramifications of life, which, from the connected sexual system of vegetables, and the natural instincts of animals to herd and combine with their own kind, would fall into specific groups, these remnants, in the course of time, moulding and accommodating their being anew to the change of circumstances, and to every possible means of subsistence, and the millions of ages of regularity which appear to have followed between the epochs, probably after this accommodation was completed, affording fossil deposit of regular specific character.

“There are only two probable ways of change—the above, and the still wider deviation from present occurrence—of indestructible or molecular life (which seems to resolve itself into powers of attraction and repulsion under mathematical figure and regulation, bearing a slight systematic similitude to the great aggregations of matter), gradually uniting and developing itself into new circumstance-suited living aggregates, without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates, but this scarcely differs from new creation, only it forms a portion of a continued scheme or system.

“In endeavouring to trace, in the former way, the principle of these changes of fashion which have taken place in the domiciles of life, the following questions occur:—Do they arise from admixture of species nearly allied producing intermediate species? Are they the diverging ramifications of the living principle under modification of circumstance? Or have they resulted from the combined agency of both? Is there only one living principle? Does organised existence, and perhaps all material existence, consist of one Proteus principle of life capable of gradual circumstance-suited modifications and aggregations, without bound under the solvent or motion-giving principle, heat or light? There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called species; the progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.

“The self-regulating adaptive disposition of organised life, may, in part, be traced to the extreme fecundity of Nature, who, as before stated, has, in all the varieties of her offspring, a prolific power much beyond (in many cases a thousandfold) what is necessary to fill up the vacancies caused by senile decay. As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy than any other kind; the weaker, less circumstance-suited, being prematurely destroyed. This principle is in constant action, it regulates the colour, the figure, the capacities, and instincts; those individuals of each species, whose colour and covering are best suited to concealment or protection from enemies, or defence from vicissitude and inclemencies of climate, whose figure is best accommodated to health, strength, defence, and support; whose capacities and instincts can best regulate the physical energies to self-advantage according to circumstances—in such immense waste of primary and youthful life, those only come forward to maturity from the strict ordeal by which Nature tests their adaptation to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind by reproduction.

“From the unremitting operation of this law acting in concert with the tendency which the progeny have to take the more particular qualities of the parents, together with the connected sexual system in vegetables, and instinctive limitation to its own kind in animals, a considerable uniformity of figure, colour, and character, is induced, constituting species; the breed gradually acquiring the very best possible adaptation of these to its condition which it is susceptible of, and when alteration of circumstance occurs, thus changing in character to suit these as far as its nature is susceptible of change.

“This circumstance-adaptive law, operating upon the slight but continued natural disposition to sport in the progeny (seedling variety), does not preclude the supposed influence which volition or sensation may have over the configuration of the body. To examine into the disposition to sport in the progeny, even when there is only one parent, as in many vegetables, and to investigate how much variation is modified by the mind or nervous sensation of the parents, or of the living thing itself during its progress to maturity; how far it depends upon external circumstance, and how far on the will, irritability, and muscular exertion, is open to examination and experiment. In the first place, we ought to investigate its dependency upon the preceding links of the particular chain of life, variety being often merely types of approximations of former parentage; thence the variation of the family, as well as of the individual, must be embraced by our experiments.

“This continuation of family type, not broken by casual particular aberration, is mental as well as corporeal, and is exemplified in many of the dispositions or instincts of particular races of men. These innate or continuous ideas or habits seem proportionally greater in the insect tribes, those especially of shorter revolution; and forming an abiding memory, may resolve much of the enigma of instinct, and the foreknowledge which these tribes have of what is necessary to completing their round of life, reducing this to knowledge, or impressions and habits, acquired by a long experience. This greater continuity of existence, or rather continuity of perceptions and impressions, in insects, is highly probable; it is even difficult in some to ascertain the particular stops when each individuality commences, under the different phases of egg, larva, pupa, or if much consciousness of individuality exists. The continuation of reproduction for several generations by the females alone in some of these tribes, tends to the probability of the greater continuity of existence, and the subdivisions of life by cuttings (even in animal life) at any rate must stagger the advocate of individuality.

“Among the millions of specific varieties of living things which occupy the humid portion of the surface of our planet, as far back as can be traced, there does not appear, with the exception of man, to have been any particular engrossing race, but a pretty fair balance of powers of occupancy—or rather, most wonderful variation of circumstance parallel to the nature of every species, as if circumstance and species had grown up together. There are indeed several races which have threatened ascendancy in some particular regions, but it is man alone from whom any general imminent danger to the existence of his brethren is to be dreaded.

“As far back as history reaches, man had already had considerable influence, and had made encroachments upon his fellow denizens, probably occasioning the destruction of many species, and the production and continuation of a number of varieties or even species, which he found more suited to supply his wants, but which, from the infirmity of their condition—not having undergone selection by the law of nature, of which we have spoken, cannot maintain their ground without its culture and protection.

“It is, however, only in the present age that man has begun to reap the fruits of his tedious education, and has proven how much ‘knowledge is power.’ He has now acquired a dominion over the material world, and a consequent power of increase, so as to render it probable that the whole surface of the earth may soon be overrun by this engrossing anomaly, to the annihilation of every wonderful and beautiful variety of animated existence, which does not administer to his wants principally as laboratories of preparation to befit cruder elemental matter for assimiliation by his organs.”

“Much of the luxuriance and size of timber depending upon the particular variety of the species, upon the treatment of the seed before sowing, and upon the treatment of the young plant, and as this fundamental subject is neither much attended to nor generally understood, we shall take it up ab initio.

“The consequences are now being developed of our deplorable ignorance of, or inattention to, one of the most evident traits of natural history, that vegetables as well as animals are generally liable to an almost unlimited diversification, regulated by climate, soil, nourishment, and new commixture of already formed varieties. In those with which man is most intimate, and where his agency in throwing them from their natural locality and dispositions has brought out this power of diversification in stronger shades, it has been forced upon his notice, as in man himself, in the dog, horse, cow, sheep, poultry—in the Apple, Pear, Plum, Gooseberry, Potato, Pea, which sport in infinite varieties, differing considerably in size, colour, taste, firmness of texture, period of growth, almost in every recognisable quality. In all these kinds man is influential in preventing deterioration, by careful selection of the largest or most valuable as breeders; but in timber trees the opposite course has been pursued. The large growing varieties being so long of coming to produce seed, that many plantations are cut down before they reach this maturity, the small growing and weakly varieties, known by early and extreme seeding, have been continually selected as reproductive stock, from the ease and conveniency with which their seed could be procured; and the husks of several kinds of these invariably kiln-dried, in order that the seeds might be the more easily extracted. May we, then, wonder that our plantations are occupied by a sickly short-lived puny race, incapable of supporting existence in situations where their own kind had formerly flourished—particularly evinced in the genus Pinus, more particularly in the species Scots Fir; so much inferior to those of Nature’s own rearing, where only the stronger, more hardy, soil-suited varieties can struggle forward to maturity and reproduction?

“We say that the rural economist should pay as much regard to the breed or particular variety of his forest trees, as he does to that of his live stock of horses, cows, and sheep. That nurserymen should attest the variety of their timber plants, sowing no seeds but those gathered from the largest, most healthy, and luxuriant growing trees, abstaining from the seed of the prematurely productive, and also from that of the very aged and over-mature; as they, from animal analogy, may be expected to give an infirm progeny, subject to premature decay.”— See “Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” pages 364 and 365, 381 to 388; also 106 to 108. Patrick Matthew, Gourdie Hill, Errol N.B., March 7.