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Recurrent Themes


Below I consider in more detail some of the major themes that emerge from Matthew’s body of articles and letters:

  1. Matthew believed in a purposeful, designed, anthropocentric universe. This was already clear from a letter that Matthew wrote to Darwin in 1871 (when Matthew was 80), but it was unclear whether this might have been a late-in-life conversion. Wells (1973) argued that this world view extended to Matthew’s younger life, based on scattered references to a “benevolent Providence” and “we never see a provision of nature without a sufficient reason” contained in Emigration Fields (1839, pp. 4, 123, 217), and also to references to variation in nature being for an “apparent use” and to life under natural selection displaying “unity of design” in On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (1831, Excerpts 4 and 2). One might excuse these latter comments as shorthand for “use to natural selection” and “body plan”. However, I have now found a new article from 1849 that also contains a reference to a competitive spirit “implanted for wise ends” in human nature, and several articles from 1860-61 that endorse the idea that Matthew’s world view was consistent and purposeful throughout his life, as befits a man of strong conviction.
  2. Matthew placed limits on the power of natural selection to affect macroevolutionary change. Again, this was clear from Matthew’s 1871 letter to Darwin, when he refers to beauty as a phenomenon not explainable by natural selection, but again the same points are made, and expanded, in articles written shortly after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Most importantly, in an article written in 1861, Matthew makes clear that he did not believe natural selection to be capable of evolving complex organs (idiosyncratically, Matthew choses the rattlesnake’s tooth and rattle as his examples rather than the more usual vertebrate eye, but the point is the same). Matthew does not explicitly say what alternative adaptive mechanisms might be at work.
  3. Matthew believed that a powerful vital force emanated from the Sun, which drove the progressive evolution from inanimate to lower to higher life forms. This helps to explain the rather cryptic reference to “Does organised 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?” in Excerpt 2 from On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. Matthew speculated that it was only once the shroud of cloud cover had been removed from the Earth (some time after it was formed) that evolution of higher life forms become possible, and that only inferior, unhealthy life lived away from sunlight (e.g. in holes). In his 1871 letter to Darwin he also wrote: “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”.
  4. Matthew believed that a healthy “vegetable mould” (fertile soil) was essential for agriculture. This view can be seen as stemming directly from his believe in a purposeful, benevolent universe – the vegetable mould was designed by Mother Nature to feed plants in the best possible way. This led him to criticize Baron Justus von Liebig, one of the founders of organic chemistry, for his championing of artificial rather than natural fertilizers for agriculture, starting with an anonymous article in the Times in 1863. This in turn led to a public spat between Liebig and Matthew, and to Matthew writing a raft of articles on the “vegetable mould” in 1864 that showcased Matthew’s colourful adversarial style.
  5. Matthew’s consistent world view provides a common thread linking all his works. As he wrote in an article on The Origin of Species” in 1860: “The great law of nature in organic life is competition, with a variation-power in accommodation to circumstances: a law not fitted to earth alone, but I have no doubt extended to the whole of the orbs of space that are in a condition to support material life”. This law of competition (natural selection), in turn, justified his belief in free market economics and a disdain of unearned privileges such as hereditary nobility, primogeniture and entail. He extended his belief in a “variation-power in accommodation to circumstances”, which was part natural selection and part Lamarckism, to human races and this justified his belief in the rightful superiority of some races over others. He railed against the “greatest national evil” of the British system of land tenure, presided over by indifferent landlords, because it stifled competition for better land use and, most particularly, created an indifference to what he saw as the looming agricultural catastrophe of an impoverished “vegetable mould” (fertile earth, which “Mother Nature” had designed to be the best of all possible nourishments for plant life).
  6. Matthew’s personality comes through very strongly in his articles. He was something of a force of nature, and when he got agitated about a subject (such as the British land tenancy system or the vegetable mould) he would write letter after letter in quick succession about it. The scorn and disdain he pours on the “landlord-legislator” elite of Britain is extraordinary, and marks him out as a political subversive. In terms of personality, he is almost the complete opposite of Darwin, despite the superficial similarities between them pointed out by Dempster (1996). In summary: Darwin was unquestionably the better scientist, but I suspect that Matthew would have made the better dinner party guest.

1 Comment

  1. Dysology says:

    Mike you write above:

    “In summary: Darwin was unquestionably the better scientist, but I suspect that Matthew would have made the better dinner party guest.”

    I guess it might depend at what point in Darwin’s life. In his later life, he tended to eat alone due to his debilitating. vomiting ailment. In his early days – as a member of the “Glutton Club” at Cambridge he once dined on owl. I’d have like to have seen that – and for Matthew to be there. I can’t imagine how such an evening would have went.


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