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Patrick Matthew

29 September 2022

Michael Rampino, in his book ‘Cataclysm:  a new geology for the 21st century Columbia University Press:2017, compares Charles Darwin to Patrick Matthew. Darwin was a gentleman scientist following in the footsteps of Charles Lyell. His family wealth provided him with free time in order to study evolution. He followed Lyell by considering that all change, in the past, geological as well as biological, was gradual. He considered evolution to be a continuous process and took place in small steps. Very small steps. Natural selection took place via small variations. Microevolution led to macroevolution – continuously. Darwin attributed extinctions to interspecific competition. Darwin following Lyells’s lead, interpreted upheavals in the history of life as illusions caused by gaps in the stratigraphic record. Sedimentary rocks had ‘not’ been found during these gaps – or had eroded away. Hence, missing sedimentary rock layers, if they were still there, would show that extinctions had occurred gradually and were spread over an inordinately long period of time. Darwin was therefore a creature of his time, writing his theory in the wake of Lyell’s uniformitarian geological framework.

However, over ten years prior to Darwin, a Scottish horticulturist, Patrick Matthew, published what even Darwin later admitted, was a forerunner of the idea of natural selection. It was contained in an appendix to a book on timber and arboriculture. Matthew has largely been deleted from the history of science – or is brushed aside as his ideas involved catastrophic geology. That was unpopular to say the least. Still is nowadays which is why you don’t hear a lot about him. He does of course pop up in Trevor Palmer’s book, ‘Perilous Planet Earth‘ Cambridge University Press:2003, a well researched and wide ranging history of catastrophism and science, in the past and the present. Critics of Matthew were not keen on his embrace of catastrophic events – the most obvious missing factor in gaps in the fossil record. Matthew was writing prior to Lyell and was coloured by Georges Cuvier. He postulated a series of violent revolutions and successive inundations, during which organisms that had thrived in one epoch were missing from the next epoch. Cuvier envisaged a series of transitory tidal waves that swept over low lying areas of the world. Matthew was well aware of the fossil record of extinctions and favoured a naturalistic interpretation for their episodic occurrences. For Matthew, catastrophic mass extinctions were critical to the process of evolution. Unlike Darwin, Matthew was able to explain both extinctions and the subsequent radiation of species. In his version of natural selection, there were no missing sedimentary layers, and no gaps in the process of evolution. Extinctions caused rapid evolution in the wake of upheaval. Rampino goes on to say that Matthew was unfortunate as he published his ideas, related to catastrophic interpretations of the geological record, just as Lyell brought out his ‘Principles of Geology‘ – which more or less completely contradicted Cuvier. Lyell is still dominant in current geology. However, the idea of mass extinctions has come back – but too late for Matthew and Cuvier.

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