Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Factual selection

I read an article this morning calling for a reappraisal of the work of Patrick Matthew, a Scottish farmer who is credited with the initial idea of evolution through natural selection, some 27 years earlier than Darwin's famous work was published. Matthew addressed the subject in an appendix to his 1831 book 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture'. Not surprisingly perhaps, his revelation flew under the radar somewhat while Darwin and Wallace went on to greater fame.

The essay, by a geologist at New York University, points out that Matthew placed greater importance on the effect of extinction events and the spates of rapid evolution that followed them, suggesting Darwin was inclined to stress a more linear evolutionary process. This seems a little like a tip to the old punctuated equilibrium versus gradualism argument. Well - okay - a lot like that. I find the insistence on divisions like these an oversimplification and helpful only in the very limited sense of understanding the processes that take place. As we know, evolution is far too complicated to state that one method is the one true way and that the others are wrong. Undoubtedly the blank canvas of a post-extinction event world offers the opportunities for speedy adaptation to new roles and habitats, but the continuous reaction to constant environmental change is always there in the background.

Essentially, Darwin produced a fully developed theory and while Matthew got there first (as Darwin later acknowledged, though he had been unaware of the work while he was working on his own theory) it was not the thorough examination the idea merited. That aside, Matthew was not the only one to have put forward the notion before Darwin. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that Darwin was the one to fully explore and expand on the concept of natural selection, and that's why his place in the history of science is entirely justified.

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