Matthew, P. Utility of change of place in seed, and still more in life continued by tubers or cuttings. The stages of life of the seedling potato continued by tuber cuttings. Farmer’s Magazine, Ser. 3 Vol 19 (1861, Jan-Jun), pp.283-5
(Letter dated Feb 26)
Despite its unpresuming title, this article contains some important passages clarifying Matthew’s ideas on evolution. The article originally appeared in the Mark Lane Express, before being copied in the Farmer’s Gazette and Journal of Practical Horticulture (Ireland) Saturday 23 March 1861, p.9-10, as well as in the Farmer’s Magazine as cited above.
Written just 5 days after the previous article (Matthew 1861a), it starts as a continuation from the previous piece and considers the best ways to obtain seeds for cereals or tubers for potatoes.
Matthew then digresses on a number of themes. First, he sets out the case for “we farmers” being more capable of advancing natural science than “college-bred, closet-taught naturalists”, most of whom are “mere bundles of old-world prejudices”. As proof of this he cites his “discovery of the fixity of species by natural competitive selection”, 30 years in advance of Darwin and Wallace. It is interesting he choses to emphasise the “fixity” of species, rather than their evolution.
Next, he imposes limits on what can be explained by natural selection. It can evolve feet to fins, but cannot originate new organs, neither the serpent’s highly-adapted tooth, nor the rattlesnake’s rattle:
“The members of locomotion in the higher vertebrates are strikingly similar. Under the law of competitive selection, fins can change to feet, feet to arms, and arms to wings, and vice versa, but not this without a preordained capacity. This law guides the organs to improvement, and alters them in accommodation to circumstances should circumstances change, but cannot originate new organs. No modification of this law could originate the hollow fang of the serpent, so formed as in the forcible insertion to press upon the venom-bag at its root, and so squirt the poison into the bottom of the wound; nor could it plant the rattle of warning on the tail of the most dangerous snake.”
Matthew then argues that beauty is also not explicable by natural selection, and implies that flowers may have deliberately evolved shortly before the emergence of man to allow us to appreciate them:
“Competitive selection embraces the line of utility, not of beauty. This law cannot account for the beauty of nature, especially for flowery vegetable nature (it would seem only begun to be flowery when man, the only organism that we know of, having an extended sense of the beautiful, came to exist)”
In a footnote, Matthew argues that beauty is also seen in other physical phenomena, hinting at a “general law reaching to beauty”:
“The star and branchy forms made of congealed water upon our windows, by the general law of crystallization, are very similar; the stars to many of our flowers; and the branchy forms to the leaves of plants. This points so far at general law reaching to beauty. The beautiful prismatic order, or rather disorder, of the sun’s rays in the rainbow leads in the same direction. We see this also in the peacock’s tail.”
Matthew then denies that sexual selection could operate to produce the plumage of birds (although he does make an exception for peacocks):
“…the organism itself (the peacock and a few others excepted) seem to have little or no sense of the beautiful; at least no feeling of preference, so as to exert a selecting power, gradually to produce that beauty, as might take place in the case of man”
The piece ends with a list of phenomena yet to be explained by science. The mysterious effect of electricity is again mentioned:
“The known effect of sunlight on development, as well uterine as extrauterine; the power of mind or the will over vital development; the aberrations from the general law of like producing like; the electro-magnetic character of life; the mental or living principle of one organism mixing with and paralysing and controlling another; — here is work wants doing.”
Finally a footnote briefly alludes to his view that the Sun represents a vital force directly driving progressive evolution:
“Supposing this orb [the Earth] to have gradually cooled, a dense cloud of aqueous and other vapour must have existed after life had come to exist, the gradual clearing away of which by condensation and increase of light may account for the progression of being: I have often wished I had opportunity to follow out this by experiment.”
The article is reproduced in full below. The important section starts about two-thirds of the way through with a paragraph starting “I am anxious that we farmers keep in advance in natural science…”:
UTILITY OF CHANGE OF PLACE IN SEED, AND STILL MORE IN LIFE CONTINUED BY TUBERS OR CUTTINGS: THE STAGES OF LIFE OF THE SEEDLING POTATO CONTINUED BY TUBER CUTTINGS.
Sir, — In your last number I tried to draw attention to the importance of change of seed, and especially to have it healthy, and not injured by damp mouldiness, free from the disease and weakness which naturally result from a moist ripening and harvesting season. As the subject is very important I shall attempt to explore it a little further.
1ST. AS REGARDS CEREALS.
For seed grain it is advantageous to have it, if possible, from land which has been in pasture — the older the pasture the better. Here the seed is more likely to be possessed of all the requisite (what is termed inorganic) principles, and have a better-proportioned and stronger constitution, than the produce of soil much cropped under cereals, where the fertility has been kept up by manuring, especially by the small manures. I have found it advantageous not to ripen the seed grain too much before cutting; as the fullest ripening, while it increased the quantity or maturity of the farina-supply, seemed to diminish the strength of, or produce a lethargy in, the germinal organs. It seems also probable, that being often wet and dry in the field after it is cut, especially if the germinating process is a little started, though not enough to prevent future germination, is still hurtful. Half a century ago I have seen what was termed dew-ripening practised with wheat in the South of England (Is it so yet?). The standing grain upon being cut was laid down in handfuls on the stubble to dew-ripen for several days — to be moistened nightly with the dew, and dried every day by the sun. This repeated moistening and drying, expansion and contraction, reduced the flinty and fibry connection of the substance of the grain, rendering it when broken of a soft white floury consistency, like the finest chalk. Although this might be advantageous to the miller or baker, I think it would injure the stamina of the germ for seed. This takes place to some extent when our slooks stand for a week or two without hoods in time of dewy nights and sunny days. The effects of this upon the germination and strength of the braird ought to be tested. In testing it, the operator would require to place the trial seeds all at the same depth in the earth. I have found that wheat ploughed down about five inches deep gave a very different braird from that sown above, and only one or two inches deep. The deep-planted braird-leaf rose much slenderer, and much taller above the surface of the ground, than the shallow-planted, the latter being far the sturdiest braird. In dry weather, however, ploughing down the barley with a shallow furrow, or drilling it deep, is to be preferred, the bottom damp more than compensating for the tall slender form of the braird. In the case of the deep-planted seed there may be a want of oxygen-supply to form the farina sufficiently into a sugary nourishment for the germ. This may, along with the distance it has to rise, account for the slenderness of the braird, but not for the tallness, which must be ascribed to a habit or correlation.
But to return from this digression. In the case of wheat exposed to the dew and drying air, there might take place every night a commencement of the imbibing of oxygen, preparatory to germination, altering the character of the farina. Every dewy evening, the living seed would be stimulated by the moisture, and the moistening would raise up the bran, like sprushed up feathers upon a fowl, to allow the oxygen to be imbibed. Many have been surprised at the effect of a slight damping diminishing so greatly the weight per bushel, and I never found any one cognisant of the cause, which is a little complex. The moisture thus raising up the bran enlarges the size, while it (the moisture) gives a stickiness to the bran surface, which prevents the grains from slipping past each other close down in the bushel. Thus, a quart of water given to a quarter of grain, will cause it to diminish in weight, in each bushel fully as much as the weight of a quart of water, while the wheat will increase in measure some ten times the quantity of water. I have seen the Baltic merchants hoist their wheat up some five storeys high in their lofty granaries, and run it down through bushes of thorns tied the whole distance to the hoisting rope. This rubbed bare the downy end, and polished the skin of the wheat, causing it to pack closer together in the bushel, and weigh several pounds per bushel heavier; of course it would inlake more than in proportion. For seed it would not benefit, and might injure.
To recapitulate: the grain of last season’s crop, in the greater part of England, is not healthy. From the rainy, ungenial summer, and bad harvesting, it has been seriously affected with mildew of various kinds, mouldiness, and partial sprout ; is no doubt deficient in stamina, and by no means well suited for seed. It is, therefore, important to procure a sound article from Scotland — especially oats. In Scotland no brimstone fumes are employed, as in Ireland, to give fair colour. Even although the crop of oats in the south half of England were completely sound, the change of seed from Scotland would be highly judicious. The thickest-bodied oats I have seen in any country — thick, in the body as barley — grew within sight of the Orkneys, near Thurso.
2ND, AS REGARDS LIFE CONTINUED BY TUBERS OR CUTTINGS.
I stated, in my last letter, that in the case of seeds proper, attention to change of place is no doubt of great importance; but in the case of tubers and cuttings, much more so. In seeds proper, though the habit of the parent and race — constitutional vigour or weakness, is to a considerable extent communicated, and especially lurking disease, yet the progeny-seed is so far a new individual, often considerably different in variety, and much dependent upon the climate and soil where it has been produced; even the seeds of the same apple, all differ in variety from the parent, and from each other. Here, as the apple blossom is an open flower, the pollen of fructification may be much varied. Even in the case of the seedling of a weak or aged parent, there is something of the freshness of infancy, the vigour of youth, in the progeny, though inferior to that of a healthy parent or parents. In life continued by tubers and cuttings things are different: renovating infancy, vigour of youth, is wanting. It is not a new individual — new from the nucleus monad, or primal germ cell — but a mere continuation of the same individual, varied only a little by soil and climate influence. It gradually, in the course of years, loses vigour; at least, in most cases that we know of; becoming infirm, and liable to disease, and disappears, apparently sinking under old age. The greater portion of the varieties of the potato, continued by tubers for a number of years, loses even the capacity of producing seed. In continued propagation by cuttings, a number of trees, those of soft wood, and which prosper in moist situations — willows, poplars, limes — do not, however, seem to lose vigour, or become dwarfed in size. The old stag’s head, or red wood osier, the wood of which almost equals oak in durability, is the only species of the willow family that seems to be a little infirm in constitution, being much disposed to canker as if it were too far in years. Most of trees whose habitat is dry ground, even at first, do not acquire strong stable rooting when raised from slips, remain dwarfs, soon come into seed, soon look aged, and soon disappear. Here, one defect seems to be, imperfect rooting. The roots given out by the slip do not even swell out sufficiently strong to sustain the tree from being uprooted by the wind, but remain slender and creeping, comparatively like the roots of quickening grass. In the case of slips of trees of dry soil habitat, being grafted upon seedling roots of the same kind, more especially the natural wild species, life is much longer continued, in many kinds almost indefinitely; but in others we find a disposition to infirmity and disease resembling old age, however young and healthy the root.
Recurring to the potato, the most important vegetable next to the cereals, we find it almost useless in the seedling state. In nearly all seedlings the tubers are not larger than cherries, and with few to the stem. And it is only after the tubers are repeatedly planted in rich toil that they attain their maximum size. When this has been first reached, the form is generally coarse — shoulders, and deeply indented large eyes. This largeness and depth of eye, along with stringy leaders inward from the eyes, indicates stamina of constitution. The colour of flesh is also generally bad, the flavour rank when cooked, and the quality of a consistency the opposite of floury. By repeated planting in good rather dry land a great improvement of form and of quality takes place. The figure becomes more regular, more of the oblate oval, the eyes smaller and more shallow (we see this in excess in the fluke variety, where the eyes, except the strong one at the extremity, scarcely retain the power of germinating), the flavour becomes less rank, the inside whiter and more floury — contains more farina, and altogether the tuber is much improved as a table potato. In Germany, however, where the potato after boiling is generally fried in fat, the choice of the seedling to be acted on and the treatment are a little different, as a well-tasted small waxy hundred-fold variety is best suited for this purpose. To obtain a good-sized potato with much farina and good form from the seedling, some eight or twelve years is required, and considerable tact in procuring and choosing the seedling of most improvable character. To effect the improvement in the shortest time, the furthest-back eyes are to be preferred to those at the point, as conducing more to farina, though of less stamina. It unfortunately happens that when a superior quality is thus obtained, a delicacy of the variety is induced, which requires much care to retain it at its maximum of excellence, or preserve it from decline. In a variety brought to an excess of farina, old age or degeneracy is impossible to be warded off. The finest are not only most subject to blight, but to curl and other diseases, and in most varieties the vital stamina can only be maintained for a few years by change of place almost every season, and careful attention to choose seed for a low dry and warm situation, from a rather cool situation of considerable altitude, and which has been much under pasture. May I add that greening the seed tubers would also be advantageous.
I am anxious that we farmers keep in advance in natural science, to which our position, the comparatively quiet leisure, solitary walking, opportunity for and customary practice of careful observation in the fields of nature, and daily experience, lead us. A knowledge of the laws which guide the variability of organic life is a most interesting and important branch of science. By acting upon these laws man becomes not only an improver, but so far a creator — able to render existing forms more perfect or more useful, and to produce even new forms of being without end. In my discovery of the fixity of species by natural competitive selection, I have overturned the only argument worth overturning brought forward by ancient superstition against the law of development. I have shown that we can go ahead of college-bred, closet-taught naturalists, and leave them to follow in our wake at the distance of thirty years. This is nothing remarkable, as most of them are mere bundles of old-world prejudices. May I therefore hope for assistance from my brother-farmers, that we may keep ahead?
Let me not be misunderstood here. There are two modes of change in nature — by variation under competitive selection, and by commixture of species nearly allied in the chain of life. In the attainment of new kinds of being, it is chiefly to the latter that we must have recourse, as the former is slow in progress — at least as has hitherto been carried out. There has been much misunderstanding regarding this power of commixture. Every nurseryman of note knows that if the commixing plants be not too wide in the chain of life, the mule, as it is termed, is reproductive and healthy. In wild animals too the same fact has been proven in many cases by the keepers of menageries. It is only when the commixing organisms are too wide in character and formation that the progeny is non-productive. There may be, or once there may have been, nearer links in the chain of life. Species and even genera are, now and then, disappearing from the earth in the wilds of nature. Some equivalent new ones must be arising. This is the whole affair. Only, in the great geological changes to which the planet has been subject, great loss of life must have occurred, and opened up new fields of extension, placing organisms under new circumstances, and affording more chance of commixture and change.
In the case of vegetable commixture this field of science is not considered improper; nor even is it so in birds, though in quadrupeds it has to some extent been so, in the latter perhaps rightly, as it has embraced those too widely apart. It is only the creature that lives with a false life that is unfruitful, and soon disappears.
The members of locomotion in the higher vertebrates are strikingly similar. Under the law of competitive selection, fins can change to feet, feet to arms, and arms to wings, and vice versa, but not this without a preordained capacity. This law guides the organs to improvement, and alters them in accommodation to circumstances should circumstances change, but cannot originate new organs. No modification of this law could originate the hollow fang of the serpent, so formed as in the forcible insertion to press upon the venom-bag at its root, and so squirt the poison into the bottom of the wound; nor could it plant the rattle of warning on the tail of the most dangerous snake.
Of the arcana of nature, and knowledge of the laws and influences that regulate the chain of life, we are as yet only entered upon the threshold.* Competitive selection embraces the line of utility, not of beauty. This law cannot account for the beauty of nature, especially for flowery vegetable nature** (it would seem only begun to be flowery when man, the only organism that we know of, having an extended sense of the beautiful, came to exist). Nor does it account for the highly ornamental decoration of birds by feather-clothing, arranged to produce united a regular picturesque effect; in both of which — the flowers and birds — the organism itself (the peacock and a few others excepted) seem to have little or no sense of the beautiful; at least no feeling of preference, so as to exert a selecting power, gradually to produce that beauty, as might take place in the case of man. Look at the most ingenious and beautiful construction of feathers, so light, so strong in united effect, so graceful, coloured like the tinged clouds, crimson and gold, of morn and even — both formed of crude matters — both with powers of aerial flight. The law of competitive selection never cultivated this beauty. There are many other phenomena not yet accounted for by general law, in some of which design and balancings seem to appear, and which, remaining in darkness, is a disgrace to the present age. The known effect of sunlight on development, as well uterine as extra-uterine;*** the power of mind or the will over vital development ; the aberrations from the general law of like producing like ; the electro-magnetic character of life ; the mental or living principle of one organism mixing with and paralyzing and controlling another ;– here is work wants doing.
PATRICK MATTHEW. Gourdie Hill, Errol, Carse of Gowrie, Feb. 26th, 1861.
* Threshold — the threshing-floor, where the operation of threshing is holden; the house-barn or hall of entry to the German farmer’s house, allotted to the useful.
** The star and branchy forms made of congealed water upon our windows, by the general law of crystallization, are very similar; the stars to many of our flowers; and the branchy forms to the leaves of plants. This points so far at general law reaching to beauty. The beautiful prismatic order, or rather disorder, of the sun’s rays in the rainbow leads in the same direction. We see this also in the peacock’s tail.
*** Supposing this orb to have gradually cooled, a dense cloud of aqueous and other vapour must have existed after life had come to exist, the gradual clearing away of which by condensation and increase of light may account for the progression of being: I have often wished I had opportunity to follow out this by experiment.