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Historical Sketch


Darwin, C. (1861). An historical sketch of the recent progress of opinion on the origin of species. On the Origin of Species, 3rd Edition, pp. xiv-xv

Darwin included a full recognition of Matthew’s anticipation of natural selection in the Historical Sketch that he inserted into the third (1861) and subsequent editions of Origin of Species. According to Darwin, Matthew “gives precisely the same view on the origin of species” as Darwin and Wallace, and “clearly saw … the full force of the principle of natural selection”.

Below I reproduce the version from the third edition (1861), which includes the verbatim quote from Matthew’s letter of 12 May 1860 to the Gardeners’ Chronicle regarding his “conception of this law of Nature”. Subsequent editions dropped this quote, perhaps because Darwin could detect the tone of condescension that implied that Darwin was, in modern parlance, a ‘plodder’ while Matthew was an ‘ideas man’:

In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on ‘Naval Timber and Arboriculture,’ in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that (presently to be alluded to) propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself in the ‘Linnean Journal,’ and as that enlarged on in the present volume. Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly in scattered passages in an Appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the ‘Gardener’s Chronicle,’ on April 7th, 1860. The differences of Mr. Matthew’s view from mine are not of much importance: he seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then re-stocked; and he gives, as an alternative, that new forms may be generated “without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates.” I am not sure that I understand some passages; but it seems that he attributes much influence to the direct action of the conditions of life. He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection. In answer to a letter of mine (published in Gard. Chron., April 13th), fully acknowledging that Mr. Matthew had anticipated me, he with generous candour wrote a letter (Gard. Chron. May 12th) containing the following passage:– “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 à priori recognisable fact — an axiom requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp.”

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