Daniel Engber writes in Who Will Debunk The Debunkers?:

Sutton thinks that story has it wrong, that natural selection wasn’t an idea in need of a “great man” to propagate it. After all his months of research, Sutton says he found clear evidence that Matthew’s work did not go unread. No fewer than seven naturalists cited the book, including three in what Sutton calls Darwin’s “inner circle.” He also claims to have discovered particular turns of phrase — “Matthewisms” — that recur suspiciously in Darwin’s writing.

The Wikipedia page on Sutton summarizes his stance as:

In 2014, Sutton published an e-book, Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret, alleging that Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace plagiarised the theory of natural selection from Scottish naturalist Patrick Matthew. Matthew had published On Naval Timber and Arboriculture in 1831, twenty-eight years before Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but Darwin claimed that neither he, nor any naturalist he knew, had read Matthew's work. Sutton rejects this claim, identifying seven naturalists who cited the book before 1858, and that three of those (John Cloudius Loudon, Prideaux John Selby and Robert Chambers) were well known to Darwin and his associates. He also analysed similarities between Darwin's, Wallace's and Matthew's writings, particularly unpublished essays by Darwin and Wallace's 1855 Sarawak paper. [...]

Sutton's claims garnered media attention, and a paper on the topic was also accepted for the British Criminology Conference that year. Sutton's university, Nottingham Trent University, has backed his claims, but Darwin biographer James Moore declared it a "non-issue", and said that "I would be extremely surprised if there was any new evidence had not been already seen and interpreted in the opposite way."

Is it true that Patrick Matthew propogated the theory of natural selection before Charles Darwin to the scientific community?

  • 4
    The idea of evolution is much older than Darwin: his own grandfather had published some ideas about it as had many ancient natural philosophers. What Darwin did was not to invent the idea but to provide a convincing account of the evidence for it and the mechanism driving it. Even then Wallace had very similar ideas. We remember Darwin because he gave the most convincing and detailed account of the mechanism not because he uniquely invented it.
    – matt_black
    Jun 5, 2016 at 13:13
  • 1
    @matt_black : My question is about the theory of natural selection and not the theory of evolution. Evolution as such is generally accepted to be older than Darwin but Darwin is generally credited for natural selection.
    – Christian
    Jun 6, 2016 at 8:32
  • Fair point, but I was providing context. And, even the conventional story of natural selection recognises that Wallace had the idea independently of Darwin so sole ownership was never a realistic claim. Sutton's argument is a straw man.
    – matt_black
    Jun 6, 2016 at 13:03
  • Mark: Please note that my orignal answer did answer the question. Weirdly, however, someone else here has edited my answer to the specific question completely out of my answer. Similarly, someone has also weirdly completely edited out my answer about what can be 100 proven as a fact. That editing then enables "Oddthinkings" comments about editorial policies and empirically correct evidence to make sense/ But such sense is dependent on someone first removing the text from my comment that was the context in my comment that such things are irrelevant when we are dealing with the 100 proven proof
    – user34583
    Jun 24, 2016 at 15:55
  • 1
    Mike, this is not an answer at all, but a comment, and I'll recommend deletion because of that. However, I read your original answer and Oddthinking's edits and I can assure you that the edited version is vastly better (as is to be expected when Oddthinking edits things). This site doesn't operate by hyperbole and editorializing, but by referenced, supportable evidence. Your answer didn't provide that. Citing your own work is generally not going to acceptable as a reference.
    – Mark
    Jun 24, 2016 at 16:59

2 Answers 2


Yes, Patrick Matthew recognized and published the basics of evolution by natural selection prior to Darwin. It is also well-known that Alfred Russell Wallace independently developed the same theory apart from, but at the same time, as Darwin. Neither Matthew nor Wallace, however, devoted a lifetime to researching and publishing a ground-breaking, full explanation of evolution.

Darwin freely acknowledged the prior work by Matthew...

I have been much interested by Mr. Patrick Matthew's communication in the Number of your Paper, dated April 7th. 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.

Quoted from Darwin's letter to the Gardeners' Chronicle in the Darwin Correspondence Project

As he promised, he did in fact insert "a notice to the foregoing effect" in subsequent editions. For example the Sixth Edition of On the Origin of Species contained a section "An historical sketch of the progress of opinion on the origin of species previously to the publication of the first edition of this work" which included:

In 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published his work on "Naval Timber and Arboriculture", in which he gives precisely the same view on the origin of species as that (presently to be alluded to) propounded by Mr. Wallace and myself in the "Linnean Journal", and as that enlarged in the present volume. Unfortunately the view was given by Mr. Matthew very briefly in scattered passages in an appendix to a work on a different subject, so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention to it in the "Gardeners' Chronicle", on April 7, 1860. The differences of Mr. Matthew's views from mine are not of much importance: he seems to consider that the world was nearly depopulated at successive periods, and then restocked; and he gives as an alternative, that new forms may be generated "without the presence of any mold or germ of former aggregates." I am not sure that I understand some passages; but it seems that he attributes much influence to the direct action of the conditions of life. He clearly saw, however, the full force of the principle of natural selection.

The differences in the presentation of the theory by the two authors are profound.

Matthew stated the key concepts of evolution without evidence, references, or other supporting information. His complete presentation consists of a few sentences on page 108 and pages 307-8, and about 8 pages in the appendix to his book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture: With Critical Notes on Authors who Have Recently Treated the Subject of Planting. The fundamentals of evolution by natural selection are addressed in this appendix, essentially by declaration. For example:

The table of contents includes this entry in "Part III Miscellaneous Matter Connected with Naval Timber"

A principle of selection existing in nature of the strongest varieties for reproduction, . . 108

Page 108 includes a discussion of the poor quality of trees produced in nurseries, including the following sentence

May we, then, wonder that our plantations are occupied by a sickly short-lived puny race, incapable of supporting existence in situations where their own kind had formerly flourished--particularly evinced in the genus Pinus, more particularly in the species Scots fir; so much inferior to those of Nature's own rearing, where only the stronger, more hardy, soil-suited varieties can struggle forward to maturity and reproduction?

Within the appendix are a number of passages such as:

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 to 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 by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence.


The self-regulating adaptive disposition of organised life, may, in part, be traced to the extreme fecundity of Nature, who, as before stated, has, in all the varieties of her offspring, a prolific power much beyond (in many cases a thousandfold) what is necessary to fill up the vacancies caused by senile decay. As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals, who are able to struggle forward to maturity, these inhabiting only the situations to which they have superior adaptation and greater power of occupancy than any other kind; the weaker, less circumstance-suited, being prematurely destroyed.

In a completely different approach, Darwin extensively researched every aspect of the theory to develop and present a convincing and supportable argument. Just the Table of Contents of his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life demonstrates the level of detail and wide range of subjects considered:

CHAPTER I. Variation under Domestication. Causes of Variability — Effects of Habit — Correlation of Growth — Inheritance — Character of Domestic Varieties — Difficulty of distinguishing between Varieties and Species — Origin of Domestic Varieties from one or more Species — Domestic Pigeons, their Differences and Origin — Principle of Selection anciently followed, its Effects — Methodical and Unconscious Selection — Unknown Origin of our Domestic Productions — Circumstances favourable to Man's power of Selection 7–43

CHAPTER II. Variation under Nature. Variability — Individual Differences — Doubtful species — Wide ranging, much diffused, and common species vary most — Species of the larger genera in any country vary more than the species of the smaller genera — Many of the species of the larger genera resemble varieties in being very closely, but unequally, related to each other, and in having restricted ranges 44–59

CHAPTER III. Struggle for Existence. Bears on natural selection — The term used in a wide sense — Geometrical powers of increase — Rapid increase of naturalised animals and plants — Nature of the checks to increase — Competition universal — Effects of climate — Protection from the number of individuals — Complex relations of all animals and plants throughout nature — Struggle for life most severe between individuals and varieties of the same species; often severe between species of the same genus — The relation of organism to organism the most important of all relations Page 60–79

CHAPTER IV. Natural Selection. Natural Selection — its power compared with man's selection — its power on characters of trifling importance — its power at all ages and on both sexes — Sexual Selection — On the generality of intercrosses between individuals of the same species — Circumstances favourable and unfavourable to Natural Selection, namely, intercrossing, isolation, number of individuals — Slow action — Extinction caused by Natural Selection — Divergence of Character, related to the diversity of inhabitants of any small area, and to naturalisation — Action of Natural Selection, through Divergence of Character and Extinction, on the descendants from a common parent — Explains the Grouping of all organic beings 80–130

CHAPTER V. Laws of Variation. Effects of external conditions — Use and disuse, combined with natural selection; organs of flight and of vision — Acclimatisation — Correlation of growth — Compensation and economy of growth — False correlations — Multiple, rudimentary, and lowly organised structures variable — Parts developed in an unusual manner are highly variable: specific characters more variable than generic: secondary sexual characters variable — Species of the same genus vary in an analogous manner — Reversions to long-lost characters — Summary 131–170

CHAPTER VI. Difficulties on Theory. Difficulties on the theory of descent with modification — Transitions — Absence or rarity of transitional varieties — Transitions in habits of life — Diversified habits in the same species — Species with habits widely different from those of their allies — Organs of extreme perfection — Means of transition — Cases of difficulty — Natura non facit saltum — Organs of small importance — Organs not in all cases absolutely perfect — The law of Unity of Type and of the Conditions of Existence embraced by the theory of Natural Selection Page 171–206

CHAPTER VII. Instinct. Instincts comparable with habits, but different in their origin — Instincts graduated — Aphides and ants — Instincts variable — Domestic instincts, their origin — Natural instincts of the cuckoo, ostrich, and parasitic bees — Slave-making ants — Hive-bee, its cell-making instinct — Difficulties on the theory of the Natural Selection of instincts — Neuter or sterile insects — Summary 207–244

CHAPTER VIII. Hybridism. Distinction between the sterility of first crosses and of hybrids — Sterility various in degree, not universal, affected by close interbreeding, removed by domestication — Laws governing the sterility of hybrids — Sterility not a special endowment, but incidental on other differences — Causes of the sterility of first crosses and of hybrids — Parallelism between the effects of changed conditions of life and crossing — Fertility of varieties when crossed and of their mongrel offspring not universal — Hybrids and mongrels compared independently of their fertility — Summary 245–278

CHAPTER IX. On the Imperfection of the Geological Record. On the absence of intermediate varieties at the present day — On the nature of extinct intermediate varieties; on their number — On the vast lapse of time, as inferred from the rate of deposition and of denudation — On the poorness of our palæontological collections — On the intermittence of geological formations — On the absence of intermediate varieties in any one formation — On the sudden appearance of groups of species — On their sudden appearance in the lowest known fossiliferous strata Page 279–311

CHAPTER X. On the Geological Succession of Biological Beings. On the slow and successive appearance of new species — On their different rates of change — Species once lost do not reappear — Groups of species follow the same general rules in their appearance and disappearance as do single species — On Extinction — On simultaneous changes in the forms of life throughout the world — On the affinities of extinct species to each other and to living species — On the state of development of ancient forms — On the succession of the same types within the same areas — Summary of preceding and present chapters 312–345

CHAPTER XI. Geographical Distribution. Present distribution cannot be accounted for by differences in physical conditions — Importance of barriers — Affinity of the productions of the same continent — Centres of creation — Means of dispersal, by changes of climate and of the level of the land, and by occasional means — Dispersal during the Glacial period co-extensive with the world 346–382

CHAPTER XII. Geographical Distribution—continued Distribution of fresh-water productions — On the inhabitants of oceanic islands — Absence of Batrachians and of terrestrial Mammals — On the relation of the inhabitants of islands to those of the nearest mainland — On colonisation from the nearest source with subsequent modification — Summary of the last and present chapters Page 383–410

CHAPTER XIII. Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings: Morphology: Embryology: Rudimentary Organs. Classification, groups subordinate to groups — Natural system — Rules and difficulties in classification, explained on the theory of descent with modification — Classification of varieties — Descent always used in classification — Analogical or adaptive characters — Affinities, general, complex and radiating — Extinction separates and defines groups — Morphology, between members of the same class, between parts of the same individual — Embryology, laws of, explained by variations not supervening at an early age, and being inherited at a corresponding age — Rudimentary Organs; their origin explained — Summary 411–458

CHAPTER XIV. Recapitulation and Conclusion. Recapitulation of the difficulties on the theory of Natural Selection — Recapitulation of the general and special circumstances in its favour — Causes of the general belief in the immutability of species — How far the theory of natural selection may be extended — Effects of its adoption on the study of Natural history — Concluding remarks 459–490

  • @Mark : On what basis do you claim that the account that Matthew gave wasn't "full"? What did Darwin publish that Matthew didn't?
    – Christian
    Jun 4, 2016 at 20:37
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    @Christian - Darwin published a 500 page book building the case and describing the mechanisms of evolution, and outlining how complex organs such as the eye could have evolved. Matthew presented a very high level summary in a few pages in one section of an appendix to a book on naval timber and arboriculture.
    – Mark
    Jun 4, 2016 at 22:42
  • 2
    Basically Matthew published a comment in one of his books. Darwin wrote a (very long) thesis.
    – slebetman
    Jun 5, 2016 at 17:10
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    @Christian The first person to come up with an idea is rarely given credit for "discovering" it in science. If that was the case "some Greek philosopher" or maybe "some Indian philosopher" would be the inventor of most ideas in modern science. Credit is given to the first person who can demonstrate something with sufficient evidence. Newton wasn't the first to come up his stuff on gravity (or even inverse square laws), he derived predictive gravitational laws mathematically. Matthew (and others like him) failed to do much substantive in the Naval Timber journal. Darwin did much more.
    – KAI
    Jun 6, 2016 at 18:06
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    @Christian Are you joking? Matthew had an interesting idea that he did nothing with. Darwin had the same idea a few years later that he gathered a tremendous amount of data to support (which Matthew never did), tied to an even larger framework (proposing natural selection as the mechanism behind evolution), and pushed relentlessly in the scientific community. Those things all matter AT LEAST as much as having the idea itself.
    – KAI
    Jun 6, 2016 at 20:08

Both Darwin's and Wallace's friends, influencers and associates did read Matthew's (1831) ideas pre-1858. They cited his book and wrote about his bombshell ideas in the literature. His pre-1858 citations in the literature were by naturalists well known to Darwin and Wallace - and known to have influenced them on the topic.

See my latest peer reviewed science journal article on the newly discovered facts here: "On Knowledge Contamination"

Moreover Matthew wrote a great deal on natural selection. The world's leading evolutionary biologists admit he got the full hypothesis - and not just in the appendix of his book. If you read my article you can find all the references to these facts.

  • 2
    The reader should note the editorial policy of the relevant journal. It is not peer-reviewed for its likelihood of being empirically correct, but just for being well-argued.
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 24, 2016 at 9:14
  • "No belief should be excluded from discussion in advance, as even if it is wrong, it can still be beneficial"
    – giorgian
    Jun 24, 2016 at 11:49
  • Mike, please note that this question does not ask whether Darwin knew about or copied Matthew's work. It only asks whether Matthew came up with the theory before Darwin. Thus, your response really doesn't address the question.
    – Mark
    Jun 24, 2016 at 14:54
  • Mark - this site does not allow me to "comment". I cited work in my "answer" that has citations to the published literature in it. That published literature reveals which leading evolutionary biologists wrote that Matthew was first with the full hypothesis of macroevolution by natural selection. Editing my "answer" - which has my name on it as the author - in order to delete the fact I answered the question - thereby enabling others to write I did not answer the question is hardly a "skeptical" improvement in my humble opinion. Rather, such weirdly biased editing simply enables people here to Jun 24, 2016 at 17:37
  • @MikeSutton: You should be able to comment on your own answers, even if you don't have the rep to comment on others yet. I have converted your "answers" to comments (here and on the question itself), but due to size constraints they have been slightly mangled.
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 24, 2016 at 19:23

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