, , ,


Thirteen years after Patrick Matthew’s publication of 1831 Darwin writes … note my red emphasis of Darwin’s words below. But first be aware of Matthew’s book (before reading Charles Darwin’s comments); On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting, This is a book which could have been, should have been, and probably was on board the HMS Beagle when it sailed on 27 December 1831 on a survey trip for naval timber. Here is a sampling of Matthew’s writing. Remember this is almost 30 years before Darwin published the Origin of Species.

page 382. Is the inference then unphilosophical, that living things which are proved to have a circumstance—suiting power—a very slight change of circumstance by culture inducing a corresponding change of character—may have gradually accommodated themselves to the variations of the elements containing them, and, without new creation, have presented the diverging changeable phenomena of past and present organized existence.

The destructive liquid currents, before which the hardest mountains have been swept and comminuted into gravel, sand, and mud, which intervened between and divided these epochs, probably extending over the whole surface of the globe, and destroying nearly all living things, must have reduced existence so much, that an unoccupied field would be formed for new diverging ramifications of life, which, from the connected sexual system of vegetables, and the natural instincts of animals to herd and combine with their own kind, would fall into specific groups, these remnants, in the course of time, moulding and accommodating their being anew to the change of circumstances, and to every possible means of subsistence, and the millions of ages of regularity which appear to have followed between the epochs, probably after this accommodation was completed, affording fossil deposits of regular specific character.

… 384 … There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. [This sentence smacks of the famous last paragraph of Origins.]

… 385 … 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. [More good stuff follows then …] the breed gradually acquiring the very best possible adaptation of these to its condition which it is susceptible of, and when alteration of circumstance occurs, thus changing in character to suit these as far as its nature is susceptible of change.

This circumstance-adaptive law, operating upon the slight but continued natural disposition to sport in the progeny (seeding variety), does not preclude the supposed influence which volition or sensation may have over the configuration of the body.

… 387 … It is man alone from whom any general imminent danger to the existence of his brethren is to be dreaded.

As far back as history reaches, man had already had considerable influence, and had made encroachments upon his fellow denizens, probably occasioning the destruction of many species, and the production of continuation of a number of varieties or even species, which he found more suited to supply his wants, but which from the infirmity of their condition—not having undergone selection by the law of nature, of which we have spoken, cannot maintain their ground without his culture and protection.

It is, however, only in the present age that man has begun to reap the fruits of his tedious education, and has proven how much “knowledge is power.” He has now acquired a dominion over the material world, and a consequent power of increase, so as to render it probable that the whole surface of the earth may soon be overrun by this engrossing anomaly, to the annihilation of every wonderful and beautiful variety of animated existence, which does not administer to his wants principally as laboratories of preparation to befit cruder elemental matter for assimilation by his organs.


Much of Matthew’s book is about trees and this might at first glance seem to be unrelated to HMS Beagle and its surveying voyage around the world until you remember that at that time England was totally dependent upon its wooden ships for making its navy and they were running short on good naval timber. The voyage’s primary purpose was not to send a rich young man on a four year pleasure trip around the world looking for barnacles and worms and keeping company with the captain but to find the most vital thing the British navy needed at that time. Naval Timber! Therefore, one must assume that a book on naval timber would have been on board the Beagle and would be required reading by the surveying officers of that ship, including Darwin. And most especially including Darwin because he was a botanist, not a map maker. Darwin says he read everything on this subject in the following letter to Hooker.

Letter 729 — Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D., [11 Jan 1844]

My dear Sir

I must write to thank you for your last letter; I to tell you how much all your views & facts interest me.— I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”—which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector.[Matthew reference?]— I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil— …

Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wdnot say a very foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species.— I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts—At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a “tendency to progression” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals” &c,—but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his—though the means of change are wholly so— I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.—You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.— I fear you will also groan at the length of this letter—excuse me, I did not begin with malice prepense.

Believe me my dear Sir | Very truly your’s | C. Darwin

Darwin never mentions reading Matthew’s book specifically but it was in his field of interest and he uses key phrases directly out of that particular book like the all important one Natural Selection. Darwin claims he bought a copy of the book after the publication of the Origin of Species because of a review article in the Gardeners’ Chronicle. Perhaps he had misplaced or never personally owned a copy but read one during the four long years on the HMS Beagle while he sailed around the world.

I love much of what Darwin represents but not his grab for fame.