Darwin beaten to his theory by Scot

MOST Scots know of the massive contribution made by their countrymen to many aspects of science. Though few, I think, will be aware that a Scot actually beat Charles Darwin to the theory of evolution by natural selection.

This may sound like a story conjured up by creationists to discredit Darwin. We know it's true, however, simply because both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (who were both credited with the theory in 1858) admitted as much. Darwin's On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859 but, some 30 years earlier, he was beaten to "his theory" by a relatively unknown Scot called Patrick Matthew. Matthew, an expert on arboriculture, was born near Dundee in 1790 and published his ideas on natural selection in 1831.

Suggestions that someone got to natural selection before Darwin are not going to be accepted lightly by a scientific community that has long eulogised the Englishman. Fortunately, we don't have to go into complex arguments about the merits of Matthew's case because we can simply rely, so to speak, on the words from the two horses' mouths. On 13 June, 1862, Darwin wrote to Matthew, saying: "I presume I have pleasure in addressing the author on naval architecture and the first enunciator of natural selection."

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He also wrote to Wallace, saying about Matthew: "He gives most clearly, but very briefly... our views on natural selection; it is the most clear case of anticipation".

In another letter, Darwin states: "Patrick Matthew appears to have completely anticipated the main idea of the origin of species".

Perhaps Alfred Wallace might have disagreed with Darwin, but instead he stated: "How fully and clearly Mr Mathew apprehended the theory of natural selection, as well as the existence of more obscure laws of evolution, many years in advance of Mr Darwin and myself."

Wallace then referred to Matthew as "one of the most original thinkers of the first half of the 19th century".

How then could Darwin, Wallace and the rest of the early Victorian scientific community have missed Matthew's work? The answer is simple: rather than publish his theory in a single volume, Matthew placed it in an appendix to another book devoted to the production of naval timbers. To us, this may seem a subject of little importance, but the production of trees for warships was a crucial issue to Britain in the 1830s. Darwin and Wallace could perhaps be forgiven for not reading this book and being influenced by Matthew's ideas. The only fly in this ointment, however, is the fact that Matthew's book was reviewed in the Gardener's Chronicle, a magazine widely read by Victorian naturalists, including Darwin. Darwin read such material avidly, but maybe he just missed the edition reviewing Matthew's work.

Darwin was later to point out that another scientist, a certain Charles Wells, had beaten Matthew to natural selection. Wells was born in Charleston in the US, but spent much of his formative years in Edinburgh, so he might be regarded as an adopted Scot. Wells's version of natural selection applied only to man, while Matthew's version was more broad-ranging. By admitting Wells had beaten Matthew, Darwin was, of course, inadvertently strengthening the point that he, and Wallace, were not the first to the theory.

Even more intriguingly, a paper has recently appeared in Nature giving the credit to another Scot, James Hutton, who it is claimed arrived at a version of "Darwin's Theory" as early as 1794: references to Scots appear all over this story. Darwin and Wallace did not know of this revelation, and so never admitted Hutton beat them to their theory.

Unfortunately, most modern evolutionists, unlike Darwin and Wallace, seem loath to accept their hero was not the first to come up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. Instead, they offer all kinds of subtle arguments to deflect from what both Darwin and Wallace freely admitted. Doubtless this is done to avoid giving ammunition to the creationists to attack evolution by attacking Darwin's priority. Not all creationists are stupid, however, and they use this cover-up to wonder aloud what other facts evolutionists are keeping hidden.

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Their can be no doubt, as both Darwin and Wallace admitted, that a Scot, named Patrick Matthew, beat them both to "Darwin's theory". As the 150th anniversary of the appearance of the Origin of Species approaches in 2009, it's time for the scientific community to accept this fact.

• Dr Milton Wainwright is a senior lecturer in molecular biology and biotechnology at Sheffield University.