On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting (1831) is a book that addresses best practices of the cultivation of trees for ship building. As Matthew was at pains to point out, this was a vital concern for what he saw as Britain’s rightful place as ruler of the waves and civilizer of the world. Matthew did not suffer those he considered fools gladly, and much of his book is a forthright criticism of previous writers on the subject. Part of this criticism rested on his natural law of “circumstance-adaptation” (his term for natural selection). While Nature always selected the fittest to perpetuate the species, he argued that certain tree-rearing practices selected the less fit and therefore led to long-term deterioration of commercially important tree species (see Excerpt 3 and Excerpt 4).
In two sections of a long, multi-part appendix, Matthew develops his “circumstance-adaptive” law in two directions. First, in an example of what would nowadays be called Social Darwinism, in Note B (Excerpt 1) he applies it to human society in order to critique the laws of entail (laws of inheritance via first-born sons, regardless of their ability). Second, and most importantly, at the end of the Appendix (Excerpt 2) he applies it to the fossil record as it was known at the time. He argues that, while his circumstance-adaptive law would in general work to keep species in stasis during periods of environmental constancy (presumed to hold within geological epochs), the situation would be different in the transition periods between one epoch and the next (when prevailing catastrophist theories proposed tumultuous changes in the environment). Here, the same law would act on isolated groups of organisms to effect rapid evolutionary change, resulting in the large-scale changes in fauna and flora evident from the fossil record.
Natural selection had been proposed before as a microevolutionary mechanism – one that could generate changes in varieties or races within a species – in particular by James Hutton in 1794 and William Charles Wells in 1818. But Matthew’s End-Appendix is the first known account promoting natural selection as a mechanism for the evolutionary origin of species.
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Page created: 8 September 2014
Last modified: 3 August 2017