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Matthew (12 March 1871)


Matthew to Darwin, 12 March 1871. Letter 7576: Darwin Correspondence Project

This letter comes 7 years after the previous known correspondence between Matthew and Darwin. Matthew is now 80 years old. Darwin (now 62) has just published On the Descent of Man, with its speculations on the evolution of man from ape-like ancestors, and this appears to be the event prompting this letter. He would like to write a critique, but claims he is “not sufficiently a restricted Naturalist as be able to enter into the minutiæ of the science”.

Matthew then discusses the mode of reproduction in rye (also repeated in his article in the 28 May 1864 issue of the Gardeners’ Chronicle), and speculates that its “gregarious nature” (i.e. requirement for cross-pollination) may be the result of natural selection acting over the long ages of cultivation by man (due to being grown in fields together).

He then discusses his belief in a purposeful, designed universe: “there cannot be a doubt that in the scheme of nature there exists high design & constructive power carried out by general Laws”. He talks of life, like heat and light, being radiated from the sun, and then that the existence of beauty and of “dual parentage and family affection” in the animal kingdom provide proof of “intellect & benevolence in the scheme of Nature”.

He ends by referring to men being “gifted with a moral sense” and with free will to allow them to “worship God for his own sake & not as mercenary labourers”. He illustrates this, along with his doubts on the existence of Heaven and Hell (“their pretended revelations are wretched nonsense”), with a parable of an old woman of Damascus taken from The Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville (p.229 in the Internet Archive copy) by the medieval knight Jean de Joinville. He wishes Darwin and his family “the enjoyment of doing good”.

In a postscript, he refers to the problem of vestigial organs (“useless parts”), which under a purely adaptationist stance should not exist.

NB. The original article from the Scotsman that Matthew enclosed is lost, but Dempster (1996) claimed it had to be a review of Darwin’s Descent of Man that appeared in the 9 March issue, p.5 (pdf image). In other words, Dempster claimed Matthew was the author of this anonymous review. This claim has been repeated in the footnotes from the Darwin Correspondence Project. However, Matthew’s letter below states that he wishes to write a review, but feels unable to do so. Furthermore the review in the Scotsman makes no mention of Matthew’s ideas in On Naval Timber, which would be counter to Matthew’s usual behaviour. It refers to evolution by natural selection as a “hypothesis” (again, not Matthew’s style), it appears relaxed about the laws of entail (which so vexed Matthew in Note B of his appendix to On Naval Timber), and it starts with the sentence “Of late years, a sect of philosophers has arisen who maintain the doctrine of the evolution of the animals…” which by describing these philosophers as “of late years” implicitly cuts off their continuity from Matthew’s book of 1831. Furthermore, Matthew refers to his Scotsman article following a sentence declaring that he is “now engaged with the cultivation of Peace & of Climate, Also the Philosophy of Agriculture”. In my opinion therefore, this review may well have prompted Matthew to write to Darwin (“I … see by the Newspapers …”), but was written by someone else, while the actual article that Matthew sent to Darwin remains unidentified and is probably not about natural selection.

Gourdiehill, Errol, Scotland,

March 12/71

To Charles Darwin Esq.

Dear Sir,

I am Glad to see by the Newspapers that you have had health & strength so as be able to bring out full illustrations of the variation & selection Laws of Nature. Of which I would desire to be able to write a critique, but am so much taken up with political and agricultural affairs that I fear I will not have time, more especially as I intend in a few weeks to go over to Germany where one of my sons has been settled as an agriculturist for many years & has a large family; and as being known quite as much in Germany as in Britain I may remain some time. I also fear that I am not sufficiently a restricted Naturalist as be able to enter into the minutiæ of the science.

I am now engaged with the cultivation of Peace & of Climate, Also the Philosophy of Agriculture, in which being above 4 score it is probable I may not be able to complete, as you have been able to do in your province. I enclose an Article from the Scotsman Newspaper which will shew I am not yet quite effete. I hope your family are now all well, When you wrote to me long ago, one of your sons was very unwell. I hope he recovered.

I have not had time to give the subject—the modification of life to circumstances—sufficient attention. One strange character of Rye, acquired we may suppose by being so very long cultivated in fields, of taking a gregarious nature, was observed by me when over in Germany. I was walking through wheat fields searching for new varieties of wheat, I found a few scattered plants of rye, which being nearly ripe, had only 2 or 3 grains in the Ear, the other spaces being empty chaff. Also on a few solitary ears of Rye on the high way I found equally unfruitful. This did not seem to be from bird depredation. At the blooming time of fields of Rye, Rye grass, pinus sylvestris & pinaster, in time of a soft S. West Zephyr, there is often seen a pollen mist <cl>oud sweeping along, which in the rye seems necessary to the fecundation probably from being so long used to it.

There cannot be a doubt that in the scheme of nature there exists high design & constructive power carried out by general Laws, And the great probability is that these laws are everlasting, as Nature itself is, tho’ under these laws subject to revolution. It is also probable that the spark of life, like light, & heat &c., is radiated from the sun & has a power of building up to itself a domicile suited to existing circumstances & disseminating sparks of its own kind, but possessed of a variation power. That there is a principle of beneficence operating here the dual parentage and family affection pervading all the higher animal kindom affords proof. A sentiment of beauty pervading Nature, with only some few exceptions affords evidence of intellect & benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design & cannot be accounted for by natural selection. Could any fitness of things contrive a rose, a lily, or the perfume of the violet. There is no doubt man is left purposely in ignorance of a future existence. Their pretended revelations are wretched nonsense.

It is a beautiful parable, the woman walking through the City of Damascus bearing fire in the one hand & water in the other, crying, with this water I will burn heaven & with this water extinguish hell that man may worship God for his own sake & not as mercen<ary> labourers. We are gifted with a moral sense & it is delightful to do good. It is a pleasure to me to wish you & yours the enjoyment of doing good. I regret I cannot do more than wish it.

Patrick Matthew

P.S. I see it stated that you cannot account for useless parts by the laws of variation & competition, general laws cannot provide against accidents in all cases

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