Matthew’s letter of 12 May

PMP

Matthew, P. The origin of species. Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (12 May 1860): 433

In this letter, Matthew provides insights into why he did not develop his ideas further, and why he thinks they did not receive wider recognition. He notes Darwin’s letter “honourably acknowledging my prior claim relative to the origin of species” and does not doubt Darwin’s honesty in claiming no prior knowledge. He then refers to a conversation he had some 15 years ago with an unnamed professor who refused to teach Matthew’s ideas for being too inflammatory, and notes that the public library of the same city had refused to carry the book (this is claimed to be Perth in W. J. Dempster’s Natural Selection and Patrick Matthew, Pentland Press, 1996). Matthew then proposes “the age was not ripe for such ideas” as one reason for the obscurity and/or resistance to his work. For another reason, he notes that “no direct proof of phenomena embracing so long a period of time is within the compass of short-lived man”. He then expounds that every age, including the current one, harbours a school of “ultra-sceptics” who are impossible to convince. Such people “would deny the axioms upon which the exact sciences are based”. He then likens natural selection to a handsaw: one can see its workings (the precepts on which natural selection is based), but ultra-sceptics would refuse to believe it had constructed a whole building (the evolution of life). By contrast, people who are “not fettered by early prejudices, not biassed by college-taught or closet-bred ideas” should “see intuitively, unless they wish not to see, all that has been brought forward in regard to the origin of species”.

Finally, Matthew implies that, for him, the idea was so obvious that it did not require further development: “To me the conception of this law of Nature came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought … to me it did not appear a discovery”; and “it was by a general glance at the scheme of Nature that I estimated this select production of species as an a priori recognisable fact—an axiom, requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp”. Darwin approvingly quoted this last section verbatim in the “Historical Sketch” included in the 3rd Edition of On the Origin of Species, although it was dropped from later editions.

This letter is also available at HathiTrust.

The Origin of Species.—I notice in your Number of April 21 Mr. Darwin’s letter honourably acknowledging my prior claim relative to the origin of species. I have not the least doubt that, in publishing his late work, he believed he was the first discoverer of this law of Nature. He is however wrong in thinking that no naturalist was aware of the previous discovery. I had occasion some 15 years ago to be conversing with a naturalist, a professor of a celebrated university, and he told me he had been reading my work “Naval Timber,” but that he could not bring such views before his class or uphold them publicly from fear of the cutty-stool, a sort of pillory punishment, not in the market-place and not devised for this offence, but generally practised a little more than half a century ago. It was at least in part this spirit of resistance to scientific doctrine that caused my work to be voted unfit for the public library of the fair city itself. The age was not ripe for such ideas, nor do I believe is the present one, though Mr. Darwin’s formidable work is making way. As for the attempts made by many periodicals to throw doubt upon Nature’s law of selection having originated species, I consider their unbelief incurable and leave them to it. Belief here requires a certain grasp of mind. No direct proof of phenomena embracing so long a period of time is within the compass of short- lived man. To attempt to satisfy a school of ultra sceptics, who have a wonderfully limited power of perception of means to ends, of connecting the phenomena of Nature, or who perhaps have not the power of comprehending the subject, would be labour in vain. Were the exact sciences brought out as new discoveries they would deny the axioms upon which the exact sciences are based. They could not be brought to conceive the purpose of a handsaw though they saw its action, if the whole individual building it assisted to construct were not presented complete before their eyes, and even then they would deny that the senses could be trusted. Like the child looking upon the motion of a wheel in an engine they would only perceive and admire, and have their eyes dazzled and fascinated with the rapid and circular motion of the wheel, without noticing its agency in connection with and modifying the moving power towards affecting the purposed end. Out of this class there could arise no Cuvier, able from a small fragmentary bone to determine the character and position in Nature of the extinct animal. To observers of Nature aware of the extent of the modifying power of man over organic life, and its variations in anterior time, not fettered by early prejudices, not biassed by college-taught or closet-bred ideas, but with judgment free to act upon a comprehensive survey of Nature past and present, and a grasp of mind able to digest and generalise, I think that few will not see intuitively, unless they wish not to see, all that has been brought forward in regard to the origin of species. To me the conception of this law of Nature came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought. Mr. Darwin here seems to have more merit in the discovery than I have had—to me it did not appear a discovery. He seems to have worked it out by inductive reason, slowly and with due caution to have made his way synthetically from fact to fact onwards; While with me it was by a general glance at the scheme of Nature that I estimated this select production of species as an a priori recognisable fact—an axiom, requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp. Patrick Matthew, Gourdie-Hill, Errol, May 2.

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