The second edition of On the Origin of Species, first published at the end of 1859 and sold out on the same day, had just been completed. Charles Darwin had quickly included numerous small corrections to the text and also added his first responses to the wave of religious complaints unleashed by his theory of evolution. He was sitting quietly, reading his copy of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, a botanical and horticultural publication with which he sometimes collaborated. Then he was astonished to come across a letter to the director from “a Mr. Patrick Matthews”, who in the April 7, 1860 issue held that the idea of evolution by natural selection had already been discussed by him in a book in 1831 —the same year in which Darwin began his journey on the Beagle.
Such claims are common even in today newsrooms —where calls are received from scholars who claim to have scientifically proven Einstein wrong, or who, on the contrary, have come to a much simpler demonstration of his theory of relativity, which they are about to encompass within the long-awaited theory of everything. However, Darwin took that letter seriously, in one of the most incredible and unknown episodes of the emergence of the theory of evolution.
Darwin immediately wrote to his close friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, one of the scientists who had most influenced his idea of evolution: “In last Saturday Gardeners’ Chronicle, a Mr Patrick Matthews [sic] publishes long extract from his work On Naval Timber & Arboriculture published in 1831, in which he briefly but completely anticipates the theory of natural selection. I have ordered the book, as some few passages are rather obscure but it, is certainly, I think, a complete but not developed anticipation! Erasmus always said that surely this would be shown to be the case someday. Anyhow one may be excused in not having discovered the fact in a work on naval timber.”
The dispute that never happened
With this humility and naturalness Darwin accepted that, not only had he not been the only one to arrive at the idea of natural selection as the engine behind the evolution of species —as Alfred Russell Wallace, co-author of the theory, had also recently deduced it— but he had not even been the first. And so he quickly responded in a letter to The Gardener’s Chronicle: “I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently 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.”
And boy, was it required… On the Origin of Species was not just an instant and temporary bestseller. In all the countless editions published to this day, the third was corrected by the naturalist himself in 1861 and would include the promised mention. Darwin gave credit to Matthew and also quoted his answer: “To me the conception of this law of Nature came intuitively as a self-evident fact, almost without an effort of concentrated thought. Mr. Darwin here seems to have more merit in the discovery than I have had; to me it did not appear a discovery. He seems to have worked it out by inductive reason, slowly and with due caution to have made his way synthetically from fact to fact onwards; while with me it was by a general glance at the scheme of Nature that I estimated this select production of species as an à priori recognisable fact—an axiom requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp.”
With this gentlemanly exchange of letters, perfectly documented, any possible controversy between the two was settled. And today Matthew, Darwin and Wallace are considered to be the only three people who discovered, each on their own, that natural selection is the mechanism of the evolution of species. It is also true that others had approached the idea (such as Thomas Malthus, who in his population studies of 1798 expressed it in a negative way, such as the struggle for existence or the competition for natural resources). James Hutton suggested in 1794 that natural selection led to improved varieties of species, and William Charles Wells proposed in 1813 that it could give rise to new varieties; in contrast, Edward Blyth concluded that this mechanism served just the opposite purpose —that of keeping species stable and unchanged.
Darwin and the conspiracy theory
The contributions of these scientists have often been used to attack Darwin or to detract from his merit, even going so far as to accuse him of copying ideas. The figure of fruit grower Patrick Matthew would fall into oblivion, although his name appears in every edition of On the Origin of Species since 1861. Some recent attempts to honour his memory have led to a conspiracy theory that Wallace and Darwin plotted to leave Matthew out, as criminologist Mike Sutton suggested in 2014.
However, Darwin’s and Matthew’s letters elucidate a much simpler story, illustrating how science advances. The idea of evolution was something that had already been floating in the scientific ether for decades (Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus, ruminated over it). It was an idea that was more or less evident if one contemplated without prejudice the classification system for species, as developed by Linnaeus. It was an idea that others like Matthew and Wallace also came up with, each on their own, before and after Darwin. But he was the only one to thoroughly examine for decades natural selection —which dismantled his previously-held beliefs— in order to look for weak points and then find counter-arguments to them… and only then was he able to explain it in such great detail, with such strong evidence and substantiation, that his theory of evolution became a unique work in the history of science.