This excerpt is the most important pertaining to natural selection in Matthew (1831), because it is here that Matthew proposes natural selection as a mechanism for the origin of species (i.e. macroevolution, following a definition where speciation is treated as a subcomponent of macroevolution). It is also a self-contained piece that can be read in isolation from the other excerpts, as it recapitulates all the necessary preconditions for natural selection to act. It spans 12 paragraphs from “Throughout this volume…” to “It is, however, only in the present age…”.
Because this excerpt is the most important pertaining to natural selection, and because some modern commentators still question whether whether Matthew originated a version of macroevolution by natural selection at all (see for example Norman 2013 and a 2015 blog piece by George Beccaloni), I have annotated the text below with my own comments. I hope the reader will find these illuminating and not too intrusive. Darwin’s own comments and Wallace’s own comments on Matthew’s writing are also insightful. In essence, while there are parts which are confusing and difficult to interpret, the majority is a clear exposition of evolution by natural selection that rewards careful reading.
NOTE. A careful examination of the indentation formatting of the book’s Contents suggests that this section does not form part of Note F (as I’d previously thought), but is rather a separate closing section in its own right, not assigned a section letter and placed just before a concluding “Retrospective glance at our pages”. Thematically, it has little connection to the material in the preceding Note F apart from a vague link to geology. Unlike the preceding Notes A to F, this section neither refers to nor is referred from any part of the main book (Note A is referred from p.2; Note B from p.3; Note C from p.4; Note D refers to p.4; Note E from p.135; and Note F from p.293). See also the 2015 blog piece by Joachim D.
Throughout this volume, we have felt considerable inconvenience, from the adopted dogmatical classification of plants, and have all along been floundering between species and variety, which certainly under culture soften into each other. A particular conformity, each after its own kind, when in a state of nature, termed species, no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries. Geologists discover a like particular conformity—fossil species—through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life on one epoch from that of every other. We are therefore led to admit, either of a repeated miraculous creation; or of a power of change, under a change of circumstances, to belong to living organised matter, or rather to the congeries of inferior life, which appears to form superior. The derangements and changes in organised existence, induced by a change of circumstance from the interference of man, affording us proof of the plastic quality of superior life, and the likelihood that circumstances have been very different in the different epochs, though steady in each, tend strongly to heighten the probability of the latter theory.
When we view the immense calcareous and bituminous formations, principally from the waters and atmosphere, and consider the oxidations and depositions which have taken place, either gradually, or during some of the great convulsions, it appears at least probable, that the liquid elements containing life have varied considerably at different times in composition and in weight; that our atmosphere has contained a much greater proportion of carbonic acid or oxygen; and our waters, aided by excess of carbonic acid, and greater heat resulting from greater density of atmosphere, have contained a greater quantity of lime and other mineral solutions. Is the inference then unphilosophic, that living things which are proved to have a circumstance-suiting power—a very slight change of circumstance by culture inducing a corresponding change of character—may have gradually accommodated themselves to the variations of the elements containing them, and, without new creation, have presented the diverging changeable phenomena of past and present organized existence.
The destructive liquid currents, before which the hardest mountains have been swept and comminuted into gravel, sand, and mud, which intervened between and divided these epochs, probably extending over the whole surface of the globe, and destroying nearly all living things, must have reduced existence so much, that an unoccupied field would be formed for new diverging ramifications of life, which, from the connected sexual system of vegetables, and the natural instincts of animals to herd and combine with their own kind, would fall into specific groups, these remnants, in the course of time, moulding and accommodating their being anew to the change of circumstances, and to every possible means of subsistence, and the millions of ages of regularity which appear to have followed between the epochs, probably after this accommodation was completed, affording fossil deposit of regular specific character.
There are only two probable ways of change—the above, and the still wider deviation from present occurrence,—of indestructible or molecular life (which seems to resolve itself into powers of attraction and repulsion under mathematical figure and regulation, bearing a slight systematic similitude to the great aggregations of matter), gradually uniting and developing itself into new circumstance-suited living aggregates, without the presence of any mould or germ of former aggregates, but this scarcely differs from new creation, only it forms a portion of a continued scheme or system.
In endeavouring to trace, in the former way, the principle of these changes of fashion which have taken place in the domiciles of life, the following questions occur: Do they arise from admixture of species nearly allied producing intermediate species? Are they the diverging ramifications of the living principle under modification of circumstance? Or have they resulted from the combined agency of both? Is there only one living principle? Does organized existence, and perhaps all material existence, consist of one Proteus principle of life capable of gradual circumstance-suited modifications and aggregations, without bound under the solvent or motion-giving principle, heat or light? There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called Species; the progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.
The self-regulating adaptive disposition of organized life may, in part, be traced to the extreme fecundity of Nature, who, as before stated, has, in all the varieties of her offspring, a prolific power much beyond (in many cases a thousandfold) what is necessary to fill up the vacancies caused by senile decay. As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy than any other kind; the weaker, less circumstance-suited, being prematurely destroyed. This principle is in constant action, it regulates the colour, the figure, the capacities, and instincts; those individuals of each species, whose colour and covering are best suited to concealment or protection from enemies, or defence from vicissitude and inclemencies of climate, whose figure is best accommodated to health, strength, defence, and support; whose capacities and instincts can best regulate the physical energies to self-advantage according to circumstances—in such immense waste of primary and youthful life, those only come forward to maturity from the strict ordeal by which Nature tests their adaptation to her standard of perfection and fitness to continue their kind by reproduction.
From the unremitting operation of this law acting in concert with the tendency which the progeny have to take the more particular qualities of the parents, together with the connected sexual system in vegetables, and instinctive limitations to its own kind in animals, a considerable uniformity of figure, colour, and character, is induced, constituting species; the breed gradually acquiring the very best possible adaptation of these to its condition which it is susceptible of, and when alteration of circumstance occurs, thus changing in character to suit these as far as its nature is susceptible of change.
This circumstance-adaptive law, operating upon the slight but continued natural disposition to sport in the progeny (seedling variety), does not preclude the supposed influence which volition or sensation may have over the configuration of the body. To examine into the disposition to sport in the progeny, even when there is only one parent, as in many vegetables, and to investigate how much variation is modified by the mind or nervous sensation of the parents, or of the living thing itself during its progress to maturity; how far it depends upon external circumstance, and how far on the will, irritability and muscular exertion, is open to examination and experiment. In the first place, we ought to investigate its dependency upon the preceding links of the particular chain of life, variety being often merely types or approximations of former parentage; thence the variation of the family, as well as of the individual, must be embraced by our experiments.
This continuation of family type, not broken by casual particular aberration, is mental as well as corporeal, and is exemplified in many of the dispositions or instincts of particular races of men. These innate or continuous ideas or habits, seem proportionally greater in the insect tribes, those especially of shorter revolution; and forming an abiding memory, may resolve much of the enigma of instinct, and the foreknowledge which these tribes have of what is necessary to completing their round of life, reducing this to knowledge, or impressions, and habits, acquired by a long experience. This greater continuity of existence, or rather continuity of perceptions and impressions, in insects, is highly probable; it is even difficult in some to ascertain the particular stops when each individuality commences, under the different phases of egg, larva, pupa, or if much consciousness of individuality exists. The continuation of reproduction for several generations by the females alone in some of these tribes, tends to the probability of the greater continuity of existence, and the subdivisions of life by cuttings, at any rate must stagger the advocate of individuality.
Among the millions of specific varieties of living things which occupy the humid portion of the surface of our planet, as far back as can be traced, there does not appear, with the exception of man, to have been any particular engrossing race, but a pretty fair balance of powers of occupancy,—or rather, most wonderful variation of circumstance parallel to the nature of every species, as if circumstance and species had grown up together. There are indeed several races which have threatened ascendency in some particular regions, but it is man alone from whom any general imminent danger to the existence of his brethren is to be dreaded.
As far back as history reaches, man had already had considerable influence, and had made encroachments upon his fellow denizens, probably occasioning the destruction of many species, and the production and continuation of a number of varieties or even species, which he found more suited to supply his wants, but which, from the infirmity of their condition—not having undergone selection by the law of nature, of which we have spoken, cannot maintain their ground without his culture and protection.
It is, however, only in the present age that man has begun to reap the fruits of his tedious education, and has proven how much “knowledge is power.” He has now acquired a dominion over the material world, and a consequent power of increase, so as to render it probable that the whole surface of the earth may soon be overrun by this engrossing anomaly, to the annihilation of every wonderful and beautiful variety of animated existence, which does not administer to his wants principally as laboratories of preparation to befit cruder elemental matter for assimilation by his organs.
Summary by paragraph
- Matthew starts by noting that variety in plants is ‘plastic’ and not easily pigeonholed into discrete species, especially when under cultivation. In the wild, however, discrete species are more easily observed, and this conformity is also seen in the fossil record. The fossil record also displays periods of apparent stability separated by wholesale changes in the forms of fauna and flora. One explanation for this pattern is destruction followed by miraculous new creation (as in Cuvier’s Catastrophism), but Matthew prefers an evolutionary explanation driven by changes in circumstance (environment). In favour of this idea, he cites the plastic quality of superior life under artificial cultivation, and the likely large differences in physical environment between epochs (with environmental constancy within epochs). There is some confusion over what Matthew means by “the congeries of inferior life, which appears to form superior”. It’s unclear whether he is referring to progressive evolution, or to multicellular life being made up of simpler unicellular components.
- Matthew reflects on the great physical changes in the composition of the oceans and atmosphere that are reflected in the geological record, and repeats his point that life may have evolved, incrementally and gradually, to adapt itself to these changes.
- Matthew proposes that catastrophic worldwide floods in between each epoch resulted in mass extinction events, destroying most but not all life. The survivors grouped themselves according to their own kind and, “in the course of time”, evolved to adapt to the new stable environmental conditions and to occupy “every possible means of subsistence”.
- While Matthew’s comments in parentheses are difficult to decipher, he seems to propose spontaneous generation as an alternative to both miraculous creation and evolution for the generation of new species. He notes that spontaneous generation differs from miraculous creation in deriving from natural universal laws.
- Returning to the question of evolution, Matthew asks whether new species arise from hybridization of closely related species (as Linnaeus proposed), or by branching descent with modification (“diverging ramifications”) from ancestral species, or both. He then asks whether there is a single “living principle” that may apply to all material existence and which drives change and adaptation wherever heat and light are present. Matthew notes the “beauty and unity of design” in this idea, and greater accord with observed facts, compared to a model of total destruction and new creation. He notes that hybridization must be a limited force, because it can only occur between species that are already very similar. Finally, in a direct reference to branching evolution, Matthew proposes that “the progeny of the same parents, under great difference of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction”.
- Matthew now proposes natural selection as a driving mechanism for adaptive evolution. He starts by noting the extreme over-reproductive capacity of Nature, as also stated in the opening sentences of his Note B. This leads to competition for limited resources, which in turn leads to selection for the “hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals” which have “superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy”. He notes the principle is in constant action, and regulates “the colour, the figure, the capacities, and instincts”. Examples include camouflage and more generally anything improving “health, strength, defence, and support”. Favoured individuals who pass Nature’s test of “fitness” continue their kind by reproduction.
- Matthew proposes that natural selection, together with the principles of heritability (“the tendency which the progeny have to take the more particular qualities of the parents”) and sexual reproduction, generally acts as a stabilizing force that keeps species to their currently optimal form, and indeed induces the discrete groupings known as species in the first place. When circumstances change, so too does the species “as far as its nature is susceptible of change”.
- Matthew notes that natural variation (“the slight but continued natural disposition to sport in the progeny”) is the raw material upon which natural selection (“this circumstance-adaptive law”) acts. He then turns to Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics (“the supposed influence which volition or sensation may have over the configuration of the body”) as an alternative evolutionary mechanism. He notes that natural variation exists even in asexual organisms, and notes that further study and experiments are needed to elucidate the causes of natural variation, including the possible roles of inherited (‘racial’) memory, external circumstance and mental and physical use-and-disuse. He notes (as Mendel also appreciated years later) that experiments should be conducted in parents and their offspring in order to elucidate how natural variation is passed on.
- Matthew then considers the inheritance of mental characteristics. Matthew believes that ‘racial’ memory is a fact that is well illustrated by the differing character of human races (see also his Note C). He sees a direct link between this and the inheritance of complex behaviour in social insects. He hints (without naming it) at the possibility of a ‘hive mind’ which is greater than the intellectual capacity of a single individual.
- Matthew ends with some reflections on the influence of mankind on the natural world. He starts by noting that humans appear to be unique in the way they have spread and dominated everywhere, in contrast to the apparent balance and co-adaptation seen in other species. This dominance is such that it presents an “imminent danger” to other species.
- Matthew notes that humans may have already driven past species into extinction. Others have been domesticated to serve our needs. By removing the process of “selection by the law of nature”, these domesticated species have become unsuited to life in the wild and can now only survive through our continued care and protection.
- Finally, in a dark vision of the future, Matthew predicts that human over-population may lead to the whole world being “overrun by this engrossing anomaly, to the annihilation of every wonderful and beautiful variety of animated existence”. Only we and our domesticated species will remain.
- The title of this section is given in the book’s Contents.
- “Accommodation to circumstance” is Matthew’s term for “adaptation”.
- “Diverging ramifications” is Matthew’s term for “branching evolution”.
- It’s unclear why Matthew precedes the word “life” with the adjective “organised”. My speculation is that this derives from Matthew’s belief in spontaneous generation – “organised” life is what you get after the building blocks of life have been spontaneously assembled into animate matter.
- Matthew understands the slipperiness of the species concept, especially in plants under cultivation. See also his footnote on p.76. This is a problem for Creationists, as they would hold that species are separately created by God, whereas varieties are part of the allowed variation within species.
- At the same time, Matthew notes that in the wild the diversity of nature can often be parcelled into discrete groupings one may term “species”.
- This is likely a reference to the Noachian Flood, calculated by Archbishop Ussher’s Biblical chronology to have happened in 2348BC, 41½ centuries before Mathew’s writing. Matthew was opposed to organized religion – see for example his 5th letter in “Schleswig-Holstein” and also his footnote on p.131. But this does not mean he was opposed to using the Bible as a historical record.
- At the time of Matthew’s writing, enough was known of the fossil record to suggest a punctuated pattern, with distinctive assemblages of fauna and flora occupying different epochs. However,Uniformitarians like Lyell denied or downplayed this pattern.
- Matthew may be alluding to Lamarck’s view of progressive evolution from “lower” to “higher” life forms. Alternatively, Samuel Butler in Evolution, Old and New (1879) suggests this refers to the hierarchical composition of complex, multicellular life from simpler, unicellular components (also expounded in Butler’s Life and Habit (1878)).
- Matthew notes that domestication and cultivation often reveals great plasticity in organisms due to changes in rearing conditions, suggesting they might also change under natural changes in circumstance. Matthew does not yet discuss the mechanisms involved (artificial or natural selection).
- Note that the depositions may be gradual even when the environment is constant, so this sentence does not contradict Matthew’s view from the previous paragraph that “circumstances have been very different in the different epochs, though steady in each”.
- Matthew is proposing evolution but it’s not yet clear that he’s proposing natural selection as the mechanism.
- This is Catastrophist thinking, here presumed to be a series of worldwide catastrophic floods, with the last one presumed to be the Noachian flood (see Note 7).
- In Matthew’s day, the factors that bound a species together were ill-defined.
- Matthew’s views on mass extinction and stability are in sync with certain modern evolutionary views, but at the same time they suggest evolution as a process that responds only to changes in the physical environment, not biological co-evolution.
- Matthew discusses spontaneous generation, an idea still prevalent in 1831. This differs from “new creation” in being a continuous, natural process.
- Linnaeus had proposed that hybridization could lead to the generation of new species, although this presupposes the existence of two distinct species to begin with.
- Proteus refers to a Greek sea-god associated with change or mutability.
- Matthew proposes a single “living principle” acting on all material existence, both animate and inanimate, driving change and adaptation wherever heat and light are present. Matthew’s views on sunlight as a vital force are also seen in his later writings (e.g. his letter to Darwin of 12 March 1871). See also his footnote to p.78.
- This sentence has been compared to Darwin’s final sentence of On the Origin of Species: “There is a grandeur to this view of life…”. However, Wells (1973) has suggested the phrase “unity of design” implies Matthew believed in a designed Universe. Certainly by 1860 he did. See also Opinions > Matthew & God.
- Matthew is being inconsistent with the term “species”, but his point is fair – only closely allied species can hybridize.
- Matthew clearly sees evolution as a process that can originate new species (macroevolution).
- In the next 3 paragraphs Matthew makes clear that he sees natural selection as a major mechanism for adaptive evolution. His combination of shared phraseology (“circumstance-suiting power” in Paragraph 2; “circumstance-suited modifications” in Paragraph 5; “self-regulating adaptive disposition of organized life” in Paragraph 6; “circumstance-adaptive law” in Paragraph 8; “selection by the law of nature” in Paragraph 11), together with his declared preference for a unified “principle of life” in Paragraph 5, all point to natural selection as his preferred explanation for both stasis (within epochs) and macroevolution (between epochs).
- “Self-regulating” neatly sums up the idea that natural selection emerges from simple properties of life itself.
- Unclear whether “in part” refers to other mechanisms than natural selection, or to “extreme fecundity” being only one of the generating components of natural selection.
- See, for example, the start of Note B (Excerpt 1).
- This is a proto-ecological, population-level concept. The same concept (“superiority in population”) is employed by Wallace in his 1858 essay on natural selection.
- Matthew aptly describes one of the preconditions for natural selection: over-reproduction leading to competition for limited resources.
- Darwin also emphasized this.
- Both physical and behavioural traits are regulated.
- Biological selective forces.
- Physical environment selective forces.
- Matthew emphasizes viability selection rather than fecundity selection.
- Wells (1973) notes that Matthew saw natural selection as allowing species to achieve “perfection”, whereas Darwin saw it in more relative terms, allowing better rather than best adaptation.
- Note Matthew’s use of this key Darwinian term.
- This brief reference to heritability recognises another key precondition for natural selection to work. The details of heritability were a mystery to Matthew, Darwin and Wallace, and required the rediscovery of Mendel‘s work.
- The reasons for sexual reproduction were not clear in Matthew’s day. 40 years later, in a private letter to Darwin (12 March 1871), Matthew saw it as proof of design: “That there is a principle of beneficence operating here, the dual parentage and family affection pervading all the higher animal kingdom affords proof”.
- Matthew repeats a point from earlier in his book, that domestication induces a greater degree of variety than is sustainable in nature. Wallace makes the same point in his 1858 essay.
- This implies that Matthew acknowledges that selective constraints are possible, which might therefore limit the ability of a species to change to a new “perfect” form under a change in circumstances. 30 years later, in 1861, he used this to deny the evolution of complex organs.
- “Circumstance-adaptation” refers to adaptive evolution, and does not imply natural selection. However, the preceding two paragraphs make it clear that Mathew’s “circumstance-adaptive law” is indeed “natural selection”.
- A tendency to variation is the final precondition required for natural selection.
- Matthew accepts that Lamarckian evolution (use-and-disuse plus inheritance of acquired characteristics) may also occur alongside natural selection. Darwin also accepted this (Wallace did not).
- Matthew correctly notes that sexual reproduction is not required for variation to occur.
- A reference to “racial memory” as one type of inheritance of acquired characteristics.
- The mechanism of heritability was unknown in Matthew’s day, and remained so until the rediscovery of Mendel‘s work. It was widely accepted (Matthew and Darwin included) that environmental modifications could be passed on (inheritance of acquired characteristics). Matthew later saw the generation of natural variation as a separate, more “divine”, process to natural selection (see his letter to Ernst Hallier, published 1866).
- Matthew sees “racial memory” in humans as a fact (see also his Note C). He speculates on a link between this and the instinctive behaviour of insects which displays “continuity” from one generation to the next.
- Matthew notes that the concept of separate, individual consciousness is difficult to apply to social insects (as adduced evidence for the concept of “racial memory” in humans).
- The last 3 paragraphs are devoted to some strikingly proto-Environmentalist writing.
- Matthew seems to appreciate that species diversity is highest in humid regions.
- Matthew is, perhaps, hinting at biological co-evolution here.
- Matthew may be the first commentator on Man as a historical agent of species extinction.
- “Selection by the law of nature” is about as close as Matthew gets to the term “natural selection”. He also uses the phrase “natural process of selection” in Part IV (VI) of his book (Excerpt 4).
- Another reference to domestication leading to weaker varieties.
- A warning against over-population.
- “This engrossing anomaly” is a remarkable way to describe mankind.
- Matthew may be the first commentator on Man as a potential future agent of global mass extinction.
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Last modified: 26 August 2016