The historical context of natural selection: The case of Patrick Matthew View Full Text


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Article Info

DATE

1973-09

AUTHORS

Kentwood D. Wells

ABSTRACT

ConclusionsIt should be evident from the foregoing discussion that one man's natural selection is not necessarily the same as another man's. Why should this be so? How can two theories, which both Matthew and Darwin believed to be nearly identical, be so dissimilar? Apparently, neither Matthew nor Darwin understood the other's theory. Each man's viewpoint was colored by his own intellectual background and philosophical assumptions, and each read these into the other's ideas. The words sounded the same, so they assumed the concepts must als be the same.123As Ghiselin has pointed out, historians attempting to evaluate Darwin's predecessors have been similarly blinded by a preoccupation with words, without regard to their proper context.124 In the case of Matthew, the practice of quoting only brief passages from the appendix to Naval Timber and Arboriculture, without relating them to the rest of his work, has suggested a greater resemblance to Darwin's theory than actually exists.It is clear, both from the use which Matthew made of his ideas and from the philosophical roots of his natural world view, that he could not have arrived at the concept of natural selection by the same thought process which Darwin employed. His discussion of natural selection is presented not as an argument, but as an axiom. No theory is proposed, no evidence marshaled to support it. Natural selection is stated as a fact, a Law of Nature, unquestioned, and presumably, unquestionable.Despite his clamor for recognition as the discoverer of natural selection, Matthew recognized and acknowledged this very fundamental difference between Darwin and himself. In a letter to the Gardener's Chronicle of May 12, 1860, he wrote: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 a priori recognisable fact—an axiom, requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp.125In the same letter, Matthew maintained that his ideas had not been accepted because “the age was not ripe for such ideas.”126 Nor, he said, was the present age. He considered the inability of most of Darwin's critics to grasp his theory to be “incurable.” Yet he did not argue that natural selection should be accepted because of the evidence, but rather, that it should be accepted on faith:Belief here requires a certain grasp of mind. No direct proof of phenomena embracing so long a period of time is within the compass of short-lived man. To attempt to satisfy a school of ultra skeptics, who have a wonderfully limited power of perception of means to ends... would be labour in vain.... They could not be brought to conceive the purpose of a handsaw though they saw its action, if the whole individual building it assisted to construct were not presented complete before their eyes... Like a child looking upon the motion of a wheel in an engine they would only perceive and admire... without noticing its agency in... affecting the purposed end.127Here, then, is the final irony. In a passage urging acceptance of Darwin's theory, a theory which was to banish design and purpose from the natural world, we find echoes of Paley and of Providence.Loren Eiseley has lamented the fact that Matthew “did not bring his views into the open, because the amount of ground he was able to cover in a few paragraphs suggests that he might have been able to sustain a longer treatise.”128 Now that the intellectual and historical context of Matthew's ideas are known, this statement is no longer tenable. Matthew was not a scientist, and his books were not written as biological treatises. His discussions of natural selection were not attempts to “cover ground” in advancing a particular scientific theory, but were simply reflections of his own assumptions about the natural world.Furthermore, despite Matthew's acceptance of evolution and natural selection, his biological thought was basically conservative on points where Darwin's was radical. Where Matthew saw a series of stable worlds interrupted by violent upheavals, Darwin saw a continuous process of change in an ever-fluctuating world. Where Matthew conceived of species in terms of Aristotelian classes and essences, Darwin revolutionized our concept of species by treating them as populations. Where Matthew saw a world of design and beauty functioning according to natural laws laid down by benevolent Providence, Darwin abolished design and Providence from nature and ushered in a world which cycles ever onward according to laws of chance and probability.It is not even particularly useful to point to Matthew as evidence that evolution was “in the air” prior to 1859.129 His ideas did not represent the first wave of a coming revolution, but were the product of his own personal philosophical outlook, as expressed in the context of the biological thought of the 1830's. Matthew is important in the history of ideas, not simply because he accepted the concept of evolution or thought of something resembling natural selection, but because he did so without overthrowing, in his own mind, any of the basic philosophical assumptions which had underlain biological science since Aristotle. In recognizing Matthew's failure to do so, we are in a position to appreciate more fully the significance of the Darwinian Revolution. More... »

PAGES

225-258

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URI

http://scigraph.springernature.com/pub.10.1007/bf00127609

DOI

http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/bf00127609

DIMENSIONS

https://app.dimensions.ai/details/publication/pub.1012575789

PUBMED

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11609722


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The words sounded the same, so they assumed the concepts must als be the same.123As Ghiselin has pointed out, historians attempting to evaluate Darwin's predecessors have been similarly blinded by a preoccupation with words, without regard to their proper context.124 In the case of Matthew, the practice of quoting only brief passages from the appendix to Naval Timber and Arboriculture, without relating them to the rest of his work, has suggested a greater resemblance to Darwin's theory than actually exists.It is clear, both from the use which Matthew made of his ideas and from the philosophical roots of his natural world view, that he could not have arrived at the concept of natural selection by the same thought process which Darwin employed. His discussion of natural selection is presented not as an argument, but as an axiom. No theory is proposed, no evidence marshaled to support it. 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The words sounded the same, so they assumed the concepts must als be the same.123As Ghiselin has pointed out, historians attempting to evaluate Darwin's predecessors have been similarly blinded by a preoccupation with words, without regard to their proper context.124 In the case of Matthew, the practice of quoting only brief passages from the appendix to Naval Timber and Arboriculture, without relating them to the rest of his work, has suggested a greater resemblance to Darwin's theory than actually exists.It is clear, both from the use which Matthew made of his ideas and from the philosophical roots of his natural world view, that he could not have arrived at the concept of natural selection by the same thought process which Darwin employed. His discussion of natural selection is presented not as an argument, but as an axiom. No theory is proposed, no evidence marshaled to support it. Natural selection is stated as a fact, a Law of Nature, unquestioned, and presumably, unquestionable.Despite his clamor for recognition as the discoverer of natural selection, Matthew recognized and acknowledged this very fundamental difference between Darwin and himself. In a letter to the Gardener's Chronicle of May 12, 1860, he wrote: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 a priori recognisable fact—an axiom, requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp.125In the same letter, Matthew maintained that his ideas had not been accepted because “the age was not ripe for such ideas.”126 Nor, he said, was the present age. He considered the inability of most of Darwin's critics to grasp his theory to be “incurable.” Yet he did not argue that natural selection should be accepted because of the evidence, but rather, that it should be accepted on faith:Belief here requires a certain grasp of mind. No direct proof of phenomena embracing so long a period of time is within the compass of short-lived man. To attempt to satisfy a school of ultra skeptics, who have a wonderfully limited power of perception of means to ends... would be labour in vain.... They could not be brought to conceive the purpose of a handsaw though they saw its action, if the whole individual building it assisted to construct were not presented complete before their eyes... Like a child looking upon the motion of a wheel in an engine they would only perceive and admire... without noticing its agency in... affecting the purposed end.127Here, then, is the final irony. In a passage urging acceptance of Darwin's theory, a theory which was to banish design and purpose from the natural world, we find echoes of Paley and of Providence.Loren Eiseley has lamented the fact that Matthew “did not bring his views into the open, because the amount of ground he was able to cover in a few paragraphs suggests that he might have been able to sustain a longer treatise.”128 Now that the intellectual and historical context of Matthew's ideas are known, this statement is no longer tenable. Matthew was not a scientist, and his books were not written as biological treatises. His discussions of natural selection were not attempts to “cover ground” in advancing a particular scientific theory, but were simply reflections of his own assumptions about the natural world.Furthermore, despite Matthew's acceptance of evolution and natural selection, his biological thought was basically conservative on points where Darwin's was radical. Where Matthew saw a series of stable worlds interrupted by violent upheavals, Darwin saw a continuous process of change in an ever-fluctuating world. Where Matthew conceived of species in terms of Aristotelian classes and essences, Darwin revolutionized our concept of species by treating them as populations. Where Matthew saw a world of design and beauty functioning according to natural laws laid down by benevolent Providence, Darwin abolished design and Providence from nature and ushered in a world which cycles ever onward according to laws of chance and probability.It is not even particularly useful to point to Matthew as evidence that evolution was “in the air” prior to 1859.129 His ideas did not represent the first wave of a coming revolution, but were the product of his own personal philosophical outlook, as expressed in the context of the biological thought of the 1830's. Matthew is important in the history of ideas, not simply because he accepted the concept of evolution or thought of something resembling natural selection, but because he did so without overthrowing, in his own mind, any of the basic philosophical assumptions which had underlain biological science since Aristotle. In recognizing Matthew's failure to do so, we are in a position to appreciate more fully the significance of the Darwinian Revolution.
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