Matthew, P. Origin of species. Farmer’s Magazine, Ser. 3 Vol 18 (1860, Jul-Dec), pp.30-2
(Letter dated May 19)
This piece was written immediately after the public correspondence between Matthew and Darwin in the pages of the Gardeners’ Chronicle. It seems it originally appeared in the Mark Lane Express.
In addition to being reproduced in the Farmer’s Magazine, it was also picked up in a piece titled “Origin of species” in the Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, Tuesday 24 July 1860, p.4 col.6 (pdf image), which reproduced paragraphs 2-8 of the article preceded by the following preamble: “Patrick Matthew, of Gourdie Hill, Errol, has established for himself the claim of originally putting forward the views adopted by Mr Darwin in his great book on the Origin of Species. Some able letters by him on the subject have appeared in the Mark Lane Express, from one of which we make the following interesting extract”. There is a tantalising hint here that further undiscovered articles by Matthew on natural selection and evolution may lie in the pages of Mark Lane Express, an agricultural newspaper which unfortunately is not currently available online.
In paragraph 2, the “great law of nature” is described, and applied beyond the Earth to the whole Universe (in a manner analogous to “Universal Darwinism”): “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.”
Matthew then quotes from Note B and Note F of his appendix to On Naval Timber. Interestingly, he misquotes the end of his passage from Note B – “their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind who are pressing on the means of subsistence” becomes “their place being occupied by the most perfect of their own kind who are pressing on the means of subsistence”. This subtle change of emphasis – “more perfect” to “most perfect” – may be indicative of Matthew’s view of natural selection as a perfect, designed law.
Matthew reveals some idiosyncratic views on electricity in a footnote. He talks of there being “a vacuum around all solid bodies”, and electricity as a power of “suspension and locomotion” used by “minute life such as the aerial spider”.
Matthew then strongly reveals his belief in a benevolent and purposeful universe, years before his letter to Darwin in 1871. The rigidity of nature’s law is there for the benefit and instruction of man, and even the plants are aware of Nature’s goodness and beauty. The reference to “Bridgwater prize origin” refers to the Bridgewater Treatises (also known as the Bridgewater-Prize Essays), which were a well-known set of essays arguing in favour of Natural Theology (the inference of the existence of God from the workings of nature):
The laws of nature are necessarily inflexible and unchangeable. Wisdom and provision in man depend entirely upon Nature’s truth — upon the unalterable security of these laws. Wisdom, or even common sense, could not exist were these laws modifiable in any way whatever. For what is wisdom but a knowledge of these laws?
I challenge anything of Bridgwater prize origin, or of any other higher origin, as showing grandeur of design — means to end — display of infinite wisdom equal, or to be compared to the great self-modifying-adaptive scheme of Nature which I many years ago pointed out in “Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” and which Mr. Darwin has in his recent work so ably brought forward. To some this law of nature may appear rigorous, ruthful, inexorable. But it is necessarily so — could not be otherwise to effect the purposed end — to group all nature in innumerable distinct species, each of the most admirable fitness to circumstance and position, spread out and covering the glad face of earth.
We cannot believe that those compound beings [plants], those charming clusters of life, when they wake from their quiet slumbers at the dawn, to banquet upon dew-drops and bask in the first sloping rays of the glorious sun, are without a glad sense of existence, a sense of their innocent life — do not partake of nature’s joy.
The piece ends with strong words against critics of Darwin’s book.
The piece is reproduced in full below:
ORIGIN OF SPECIES.
Sir, — The theory of Nature’s law of selection and origin of species as explained in Mr. Darwin’s late work having met with some opposition, I forward the following remarks respecting it, with some notice of hostile reviewers.
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. Perhaps the following brief account of this law (extracts from my vol. “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”) may be interesting to those who have not seen Mr. Darwin’s work.
“There is a law universal in nature tending to render every reproductive being the best possibly suited to its condition that its kind or that organized matter is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers to their highest perfection, and continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As nature in all her modifications of life has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing, either a prey to their natural devourers or sinking under disease, generally induced from want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the most perfect of their own kind who are pressing on the means of subsistence.”
“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 their parents, together with the connected sexual system in vegetables and instinctive limitation 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 circumstances occurs, thus changing in character to suit these, as far as its nature is susceptible of change.” It is against this principle of selection that college-taught, closet-bred critics cavil, but which we think every sensible farmer who knows something practically of the subject will at once admit.
In the fields of nature we have economy in the highest possible degree. From the plastic quality of life, no space of earth’s surface, not even the hardest perpendicular rock, is left vacant of life; including also the ocean, and even the atmosphere. It is, indeed, probable that the atmosphere had been inhabited before the crust of the earth or the ocean had become sufficiently cooled and stable to be habitable.* Wherever moisture as the vehicle of floatage-motion in the tubes and cells of life is sufficient, and the temperature not too high, there organic life, adopting every possible form and character in accommodation to circumstances, extends.
The scheme of animate existence (man in some degree excepted) is the greatest possible number of living things in the highest possible health and perfection. This can only be attained by the seeming severe, but inflexible, necessity in following out the power of variation, along with the principle of selection by competition in species. The laws of nature are necessarily inflexible and unchangeable. Wisdom and provision in man depend entirely upon Nature’s truth — upon the unalterable security of these laws. Wisdom, or even common sense, could not exist were these laws modifiable in any way whatever. For what is wisdom but a knowledge of these laws? So great is the economy of Nature in multiplying organic life, that even death itself is made to subserve to life; the cause of death in a larger organism being not unfrequently the invasion, under the name of infection, of animalcule life extending to millions — permeating the whole body of the larger ; while, again, the process of resolution of the dead body into its gaseous and earthy elements affords existence to millions more: and even the healthy living animal is so far inhabited.
I challenge anything of Bridgwater prize origin, or of any other higher origin, as showing grandeur of design — means to end — display of infinite wisdom equal, or to be compared to the great self-modifying-adaptive scheme of Nature which I many years ago pointed out in “Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” and which Mr. Darwin has in his recent work so ably brought forward. To some this law of nature may appear rigorous, ruthful, inexorable. But it is necessarily so — could not be otherwise to effect the purposed end — to group all nature in innumerable distinct species, each of the most admirable fitness to circumstance and position, spread out and coveting the glad face of earth.
Look around at the vegetable creation! No space is left unoccupied, with the exception of the arid desert and the frozen Poles. The whole habitable earth is closely covered with innumerable shapes of beauty, “that toil not, neither do they spin; yet the Queen of Sheba in all her glory was not arrayed like one of these;” the green mead bestrewn with flowers of richest dye and sweetest perfume, “painted with delight;” the magnificent trees, the graceful shrubs, in vestment of green, jewelled over with blossoms, all fresh and pure as the blushing morn, breathing incense, sweetening the atmosphere — though so pure themselves, purifying it of poisonous or corruptive matter prejudicial to the higher orders of animal life. We cannot believe that those compound beings, those charming clusters of life, when they wake from their quiet slumbers at the dawn, to banquet upon dew-drops and bask in the first sloping rays of the glorious sun, are without a glad sense of existence, a sense of their innocent life — do not partake of nature’s joy. The ancient Sclavonic deity Ligho was the Goddess of Spring and flowers and joy. Is a family alliance to be repudiated with those most gorgeous floral developments which embellish nature in the warm climates all the year round; the magnolias, Victoria lily, lily of the Nile, &c., and those magnificent blossom festoons depending from climbers (woodbines) which so gracefully decorate the tropical forest? Is a relationship not to be coveted with those most interesting denizens of nature, which in our colder climates come to visit us in spring: the primrose and the daisy, the violet, hyacinth, and wild thyme, so sweet in beauty, fragrance, and purity — sweet from memories — sweet from associations with spring, and youth, and joy. As instance of the desired connection, we name our fairest pet-children Rose, Lily, Dilly, Flora, Olivia, Susanna, and we plant a rose upon their grave.
In the last number of the Edinburgh Review I observe a critique upon Mr. Darwin’s work, in which the writer tries to throw distrust upon the law of the origin of species. In the old sly way of hackney critics, he attempts first to appear candid, by generously conferring on Mr. Darwin some modicum of praise in regard to some not-important fact stated in his work — just enough faint praise as damn the work. He then proceeds to exhibit his own extended information of the arcana of natural history, collected from every naturalist writer of note, and from the excess of which he seems to suffer from indigestion. Having swallowed so much knowledge as a naturalist, his crowd of ideas appear to have got into confusion, so that he can come to no conclusion about anything whatever, excepting that there is no advance in the knowledge of Nature’s laws in Mr. Darwin’s work. This critic, naturally querulous, and uneasy from repletion, will neither do anything himself nor allow that others do. His condition is to be pitied:
“A surfeit of the sweetest things
The greatest loathing to the stomach brings.”
I hope that this naturalist will not yield so much to an insatiable appetite, and masticate a little better, so as to be in a condition to assist in our advance in this field of natural science, of which we yet remain so ignorant. But he, like the greater part of naturalists, may, like my professor, be afraid of the cutty stool — (see Gardeners’ Chronicle, May 12, I860). Instead of differing with this naturalist, as he seems disposed to do with us, I agree with him that there is in nature a vast field of discovery, but of rather difficult attainment, yet within the compass of human science. But, to advance, something else than cowardice, bigotry, or shamming, or a combination of all three, will be required.
I also notice a critique in the British Review upon Darwin, of which, perhaps, the less said, the critic will fare the better, and to which I wonder the editor gave place. This writer naturally adopts the style of ridicule and low charlatanry generally resorted to by critics when they have no good intentions, and when facts are too strong against them. It is perhaps enough for me to quote the following few words: “Who would place much faith in their conclusions, when, with the appalling fatuity which characterizes all infidel philosophy — .” Here we have a good specimen of the furor caused by the odium theologicum. I would ask the reader, Does this contempt of philosophy — for all philosophy is “infidel,” and admits nothing on faith — not bear upon its face that the writer sees his false position, and tries to avail himself, by means of clerical rodomontade, of bigotry and prejudice? Had such a critic lived two or three centuries ago, and had he had the power, he would have met Mr. Darwin’s work with the torture and the faggot. In every case where a writer has attempted to model science to, or make it subserve, religious doctrine, he has wrecked his work as a work of science.
Critics may carp at, bigots and shammers — or the usual mixture of both — may insult and denounce. Ignorance may not know, and Stupidity may not comprehend, this universal law of nature; but I defy the intelligent, even those who most oppose, to say that they entirely disbelieve it — that it is not true; and I leave these last, like Pistol, to eat the leek and swear.
PATRICK MATTHEW. Gourdie Hill, Errol, May 19.
* There seems to be a vacuum around all solid bodies, on account of the air not coming quite in contact, which in very minute bodies is sufficient to float them: instance the motes in the sunbeams and the suspended steamer-smoke cloud (particles of soot) at sea. Electricity has also a power of suspending minute particles, and which it seems probable that minute life such as the aerial spider can produce and avail itself of, as a power of suspension and locomotion. I once had an opportunity of witnessing the floating effect of the parachute or pappus appendage of thistle-seed. Having found that the annual, or rather biennial cow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceous) was very much relished by cows, horses, and pigs, I gathered a quantity of the ripe heads before the seeds had taken to flight, and laid them to dry in a large empty room; shut up, lest they should get away. After remaining so for a few weeks, I went into the room to gather up my dried seeds, but no seed remained where I had laid them, only the receptacles or basement seats of the seeds. On looking around, not a seed was to be seen, but turning my eyes upwards I discovered they had all gone aloft, and were adhering to the ceiling, and especially clustered about the members of the cornice. This aerial fancy of the seeds put me out of conceit of my plan of thistle culture, and I did not sow them as I intended. Were this plant cultivated in drills, and horse-hoed between, the quantity of bestial food would be great. In my rich soil many of this sow-thistle reach 8 feet high and 1½ inch in diameter of stem as weeds. The pappus is easily destroyed by friction in a bag, which renders the seed manageable. When afloat in the air, the night dew, the fog of a cloud, or a few drops of rain, bring them to earth, where they adhere.