Anonymous. Natural selection – whose is it? Saturday Analyst and Leader Vol 11 (24 Nov 1860), pp.959-60
(Article printed 24 Nov)
This is an editorial reply to a letter Matthew had written to the Saturday Analyst and Review, complaining that an article “Transmutation of species” in their 10 Nov 1860 issue was “scarcely fair in alluding to Mr Darwin as the parent of the origin of species, seeing that I published the whole that Mr. Darwin attempts to prove, more than twenty-nine years ago”. The tenure of this editorial reply is that, even if Matthew did indeed briefly enunciate a contracted form of Darwin’s ideas, this did not detract from Darwin’s achievement. This is exemplified in the following excerpt:
That glimpses have, from time to time, perhaps from time immemorial, been caught of this great natural law which Mr. DARWIN has investigated with such signal success, and stated and explained with such cogency of reasoning, and such fertility of beautiful illustration, rendering his work one of the few grand intellectual achievements, which, like “Newton’s Gravitation”, or “Laplace’s Cosmical Development”, mark important eras in the progress of the human mind; that various sides or phases of this great law have been described by various writers is highly probable; but that would not in the least detract from the value of Mr. DARWIN’s labours, or the merits of his extraordinary book. It would not detract from them even if he had ben acquainted with every word that had been previously written on the subject. But it is very possible that two minds may think out the same original conclusion for themselves without any communication between them. If all that DALTON has written on definite proportions had been previously published, still if he had thought it out for himself, without knowing of the previous discovery, he would unquestionably be entitled to the praise of originality.
Matthew’s protestations regarding primacy, as reviewed in this article, were also referred to (disapprovingly) by Francis Darwin as editor of “Charles Darwin: Life and Letters” (Vol 2, p.96).
Thanks to Mike Sutton, who spent many hours patiently transcribing the original, the full text is available below:
“NATURAL SELECTION” ─ WHOSE IS IT?
Mr PATRICK MATTHEW, of Gourdie hill, Errol, Scotland, writes to us that our article in last week’s Number, entitled “Transmutation of Species,” “is scarcely fair in alluding to Mr Darwin as the parent of the origin of species; seeing,” says Mr MATTHEW, whose letter we quote verbatim, “that I published the whole that Mr DARWIN attempts to prove more than twenty-nine years ago, in my work ‘Naval Timber and Arboriculture’.” Now we were not investigating the title to the discovery of that law ─ in other words that way in which animated nature developes itself ─ indicated in the phrases transmutation and variability of species, natural selection, &c. Our article was a notice of a book written by one author, and purporting to be a refutation of another book written by another author. We alluded to the doctrines contained in Mr DARWIN’S book, as the Darwinian theory, just as we treated the matter in Dr BREE’S book, not marked as quotations from other writers, as his own original composition, in which it seems we gave him credit, or discredit, according to peoples’ way of thinking, for the authorship of things of which he was not really the author. We were not concerned with the original discovery of the law in question, at all. It must not be supposed that what is called a “theory” of this sort is an invention or creation, as a character in a play or a novel of original conception is. The point is, who was the first to see and enounce the law in question? And not only who was the first to see and enounce it, but who has seen and understood it, most completely, and published the fullest and intelligible, and most perfect statement of it? There is a very ancient doctrine that the primary elements of which the universe is composed always existed with their peculiar properties, and that the action and reaction of the elements, their infinitely diversified play and combination, in endless time and boundless space has produced everything we behold; that in short, the universe in its state existent at any given time, is simply one of the possible combinations of the primeval elements. Now, in this ancient theory, we find the germ of DALTON’s definite proportions, though how vague and imperfect the conception of it necessarily was at the time when the primary elements of things were supposed to be less than half a dozen instead of more than half a hundred, we may readily conceive. Nay, perhaps DALTON’s title to the present form of the theory which goes by his name might not prove entirely beyond dispute. But that he stated this form of the theory with greater fullness of illustration and detail, and that it came from his hands in a greater state of completeness than it had ever been made to assume before, is indisputable. That glimpses have, from time to time, perhaps from time immemorial, been caught of this great natural law which Mr DARWIN has investigated with such signal success, and stated and explained with such cogency of reasoning, and such fertility of beautiful illustration, rendering his work one of the few grand intellectual achievements, which like “Newton’s Gravitation,” or “Laplace’s Cosmical Development,” mark important eras in the progress of the human mind; that various sides of this great law have been described by various writers is highly probable; but that would not in the least detract from the value of Mr DARWIN’s labours, or the merits of his extraordinary book. It would not detract from them even if he had been acquainted with every word that had previously been written on the subject. But it is very possible that two minds may think out the same original conclusion for themselves without any communication between them. If all that DALTON had written on definite proportions had been previously published, still if he had thought it out for himself, without knowing of the previous discovery, he would unquestionably be entitled to the praise of originality. And this brings us to the following abstract from the Gardener’s Chronicle of the 21st of April, to which Mr MATTHEW has called attention, and which we print verbatim:─ “Natural Selection, ─ I have been much interested by Mr Patrick Matthew’s communication in the Number of your paper, dated April 7th. I freely acknowledge that Mr Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered as the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor any other naturalist, had heard of Mr Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the appendix to a work on Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect. Charles Darwin, Down, Bromley, Kent.
We are thus particular because it is just that every man’s case, regarding his title to his own views, should be carefully put on his own statement, and his own claims stated with all the corroborative detail that he himself can advance. In our former notice, as we have said, the question of discovery, in connection with this theory, was not discussed. Had it been, the writer himself might have put in a claim on his own account. It has been said that Mr DARWIN’s statement of the law in question is the fullest and most complete that has been given. The writer would have put in no claim in that direction; but he might have claimed to have been the first to see that this law is but one of the cases of a much more general law. Many years ago, the writer framed a generalization, comprehending, among other instances, the facts indicated in the terms natural selection and variability of species. The outline of this he at length published in the year 1856. After enumerating various laws of nature, as illustrative case embraced in the generalisation alluded to, he proceeded to specify other cases; “the evolution, elaboration, education of the lowest types or forms of organic, out of inorganic being; and the higher types of organic existences out of the next lower or next resembling type; and in some cases, the degradation, degeneracy, depression of particular types from the next higher in the scale.” It will be seen that natural selection and variability of species are here stated in other terms; and in other publications he had further explained his view on the same point showing what the tendency in animals is, which is the agency in producing variety and development of form; and adverting to societarian as well as cosmical and animal development. This was three years before the appearance of Mr Darwin’s book made him acquainted for the first time with the views it contains; and of Mr MATTHEW’s work he never heard until the present week. And, from the tenor of Mr Matthew’s letter, it would appear that that gentleman thought out his theory without reference to ROBINET or LAMARCK, who, as their writings published in the last age prove they were acquainted with the workings of the law in question, most decidedly anticipated any writer of the present century. In the “Vestiges of Creation,” LAMARCK is mentioned by name, but if we remember rightly, not ROBINET, the very title of whose book, “The Apprenticeship of Nature,” adumbrates the idea of the “development theory.” In other writers that we could enumerate, did space permit, the doctrine in question is incidentally alluded to.
A large portion of Mr HERBERT SPENCER’s “Psychology” is an admirable exposition of “development” as manifested in animated nature; and, we may add, his essays on “Progress, its Law and Cause,” and (we believe) “Modern Astronomy,” are no less masterly expositions of that principle at work in the material universe; and the merit of these productions, is in no way diminished by the fact that the “Vestiges” was published first. Having published Mr DARWIN’s generous recognition of Mr MATTHEW’s labours, and, as we hope satisfied everybody concerned, we proceed to offer some additional remarks on the theory itself.
It is not sufficient to say there is a law by the operation of which variety of structure in animals is produced and progressive development is brought about. This teaches us nothing. We want to know not only that animals are modifiable, but what is the modus operandi; what is the agency instrumental in accomplishing this modification and development? We will endeavour to make this clear. Animals try to adapt themselves to circumstance, and these to themselves in the best way they can for their own good; any mental advantages in an animal would prompt and suggest a better use of its bodily organs for accomplishing its own good; and this would tend to improve its physical organism, that is, make it better for rendering the external world subservient to the satisfaction of needs, and, again, this improved bodily comformation would react upon and improve its mental capacity, by gaining it additional experiences. The same may be said mutatis mutandis of any bodily advantages that an animal might possess; and the effects of this would of course be accumulative in the race. Now there are animal forms better suited than others for rendering the external world subservient to needs, and towards these superior types it would be the tendency of the causes indicated to make the others approximate. Take one of these humble creatures resembling jelly, thrusting forth a part of itself, and attaching this to the surface it is upon to drag itself along, wrapping itself around its food, and extruding the refuse through its sides, thus improvising locomotive organs, stomach, and vent, as occasion requires. It is easily conceivable how such a creature as this, under the operation of the causes referred to, and the infinite variety of influences and conditions to be found in the world, would, in the course of time, acquire a permanent sac, or stomach, with limbs just where they would be wanted, namely in the neighbourhood of its mouth, thus serving the double purpose of locomotives and feeders. Equally easy is it to conceive how the same causes (the necessity of food-seeking being one of the principal agencies at work) would tend to make the limbs become better suited, and better placed for locomotion; in other words to make the cephalopod approximate towards the quadruped; just as the same causes, the same necessity for food-seeking, the same efforts to render the external world subservient to the satisfaction of needs, would tend to make the quadruped approximate towards the biped, with the front pair of limbs converted into arms terminating in hands. In the same way, and by extension of the principle in a diversified application of means, we see the inventive brain of man fertile in expedients for rendering external things subservient to the satisfaction of needs, contriving artificial organs of locomotion, and of vision in steam engines, telescopes and microscopes. Where his mental capacity has not been adequate to the invention of these artificial prolongations of natural organs, we find the organs themselves under the operation of the influences and conditions acting upon them greatly developed in whole tribes of far-sighted, swift footed, savages. One thing is self evident: there are the “conditions of existence” in the world for the animals now in it; and it is perfectly intelligible and conceivable that any primitive animal type should, in the manner explained, work up to these conditions and develope and diversify itself into conformity with them; while the fact of the variety of animals is inexplicable by any other means. Another thing is equally self evident, that this view as much more consistent and rational, is much less disparaging to theism, than the wild idea that each species of animal was made out of clay or out of ─ nothing.
We have to add in conclusion that one of the passages in Dr BREE’s work, extracted in our last week’s article, is not his own composition, but was taken from anther writer and inserted by him in his book without quotation marks. He writes us that he “most fully endorses the paragraph” we cited, so that having made it his own in every sense, to criticise it was to criticise him. We cannot, therefore, see the pertinency of his letter, which he begins with saying that we “have fallen into error, which he very much regrets, because it was owing to his own carelessness.” He then goes on to the explanation given above, which only shows that there are two persons instead of one responsible for a statement the reverse of dispassionate and philosophic. But while writing to us on a point only to show that it was totally unimportant, and that there was no occasion to write at all, we wonder it did not occur to him to advert to a point that is of importance. He might have shown us how the descent of the various types of mankind now on the earth from one pair of ancestors can be explained, except on the assumption of the gradual modifiability of animals; if there is not more difference between the highest of the simia and the lowest of the human types, than between the highest and the lowest human types, he might have explained why animal-modifiability might bring about the latter differentiation, and not the former; he might have stated whether the peculiarities of the American portion of the Anglo-Saxon race at the present day, which differentiate them form the English people, were, according to his view, brought about by a special and instantaneous miracle, or by the operation of natural causes in the course of a few generations; and if by a sudden miracle, he might, as he appears to be in the secret of these things, have kindly favoured us with the date; but if through the gradual modification of the influences and conditions at work, then he might have enlightened us touching the extent to which such modifications may go, whether there is any ultima linea beyond which it cannot go, and where this is to be fixed; or whether on the other hand, this modifiability may not go to an indefinite extent, according to the potency of the influences and conditions in operation; and lastly whether he does not consider this view as consistent with the theory of Omnipotence, as the supposition that each sort (or so-called species) of animal was created, as occasion required, out of clay or out of nothing, and if not, why not?
Dr BREE not only appropriates the composition of others as his own, but he seems to have taken Dr DARWIN’s views on trust and at second hand from some other writer, otherwise he could hardly fall into the misrepresentations he does (for we suppose he would not misrepresent intentionally), at, for instance, p. 108, where by leaving out the time of sleep, he makes it appear as if Mr DARWIN had said that sleep itself was a habit, though in our opinion, and in the sense that PASCAL called nature a “first habit,” we believe that the description of sleep is correct; and again at p. 166, where he treats the Darwinian theory as teaching that the hexagonal form of cells in a honeycomb is due to pressure, when pressure is neither directly nor directly alluded to. But to point out all these misrepresentations would be cite almost every argument in “the origin of species” with which the doctor attempts to deal.