Sutton’s book

concise review

Dr. Mike Sutton’s book “Nullius in Verba” (2017) sheds new light on the relationship between the two naturalists Patrick Matthew (1790-1874) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Untill now Matthew has been a footnote in the history of science, Darwin a demigod. His followers, the neo-darwinists, have monopolized biology after World War II with their claim that evolution equals darwinism. The claim is contested on several levels. To locate Sutton’s book in the field of these Darwin-debates, let me briefly point at three debates.

  1. Darwin is not the one who replaced creation with evolution. In the half century before his Origin book, all leading biologists realize that there is evolution. Treviranus, Von Baer, Vogt, Schleiden, Unger, Lamarck, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Grant, Matthew, Wallace and others. Darwin is not a trendsetter but trend follower in this. A nice illustration is the following. It is not until 1871 (“The Descent of Man”) that cartoons appear depicting Darwin as a monkey. But already in 1842 in Paris a cartoon appears of Geoffroy St. Hilaire as a monkey, and in the academic year 1847-‘48 professor Vogt in Giessen is given the nickname ‘Affenvogt’ for teaching the filiation between ape and man.
  2. Evolution is not the same as ‘natural selection’. Evolution takes place in two steps. First there has to be variation, only then can nature select from that varied range, i.e. only then can there be ‘natural selection’. How variation arises is a matter of heredity or genetics, the field of Gregor Mendel. In short, evolution begins with genetics, Mendel’s science. Only then can Darwin’s idea of ​​natural selection play its part. Numerous biologists point to this. Unger, Wiesner, Nägeli, Correns, de Vries, Bateson, Morgan, Dobzhansky, Margulis. A nice recap of their point is Arthur Harris’s one-liner: “Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it can not explain the arrival of the fittest.”
  3. The idea of natural selection is common knowledge. Since time immemorial, people know that a better adapted individual has better chances. Some biologists say that diplomatically, they call Darwin’s idea an “egg of Columbus.” Others are more direct: Bateson calls it a “truism” (1904), J. Tyler Bonner (Princeton) calls it “extremely simple” (1962), and John Maynard Smith states (1999): “… Darwin’s idea is simple – perhaps because it is so simple ….” Darwin’s idea is so simple that in 1940 biologist Dr. Olive D. Maguinness (Sheffield University) muses: “We wonder why it was not thought of earlier”. If only Dr. Olive Maguinness in 1940 could have made a telephone call to Dr. Mike Sutton in 2017.

Mike Sutton works at Nottingham Trent University. He is an international award-winning criminologist. His research method is Big Data, the technique that utilizes the digitization of archives. Big Data show patterns and connections that cannot be discovered with traditional methods. The results are sometimes shocking. In 2011, it appeared that the German Defense Minister, Dr. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had committed plagiarism on an extensive scale in his dissertation. His reaction showed three stages: first aggressive denial, then seeking compromise, and finally his Doctor-title was taken away and he had to resign as minister. Mike Sutton applied this Big Data method to Darwin, and plagiarism came to light there too. Sutton presents a solid case. After the above mentioned Darwin-debates, in which the neo-darwinists lost ground already, Sutton’s result could be the final blow for Darwin’s reputation.

Darwin publishes his theory of natural selection in 1858 and 1859. He calls it “my theory”. Patrick Matthew then reports in his letter (1860) that he has published the exact same theory 28 years earlier. Darwin counters: he writes that Matthew only mentioned the idea in the appendix of an obscure book about a different theme, and that nobody knew that passage, he himself included. Matthew gets little opportunity to reply again, Darwin continues to speak about “my theory” in subsequent editions of his Origin. Since then, Darwin counts as the discoverer of the idea of ​​natural selection. In the biological community a critical utterance about Darwin is professional suicide. But Mike Sutton is not a biologist, he is not sensitive to the coercion in the biology hierarchy. Sutton is a criminologist with a nose for fraud. He investigates what happened between Matthew’s publication (1831) and Darwin’s publication (1858). Here are some of his results.

  • England is the most important seafaring nation in 1831. The British Empire will only stay afloat provided there is enough naval timber. Matthew’s book on naval timber and arboriculture touches on national interests and is well known. In this book about the vital commodity of timber Matthew interweaves his theory of natural selection. In the main text and in the appendix.
  • Nowadays countless scientific publications appear. In Matthew’s time that is different. In 1831 very few books on arboriculture appear in England. Every expert knew Matthew’s book.
  • Darwin claims no one knew Matthew’s book. Sutton starts up his Big Data Power Machine. It thunders through the archives. The result: Matthew’s book has been quoted by 24 people between 1831 and 1858. Seven of them are naturalists, four of whom belong to Darwin’s inner circle. Enough to safely assume that Darwin knew Matthew’s book. The web of connections is dense, Sutton introduces the concept of “knowledge contamination”. It is like a virus: when two people talk, the flu virus jumps. When two naturalists talk, the Matthew virus jumps. Darwin is in the center of the infected group, eager to take it all in. He cannot be virus-free.
  • In 1831, in order to clarify his idea didactically as well as possible, Matthew takes a novel and unusual detour. He first talks about the domesticated situation of nurseries. There the breeder selects the specimen with which he wants to breed. Thus Matthew introduces the word ‘selection’. And then he says that selection also takes place in the wild, where nature itself does the selecting. Hence ‘natural selection’. Later, Darwin takes exactly the same detour: his Origin-book starts with two chapters about nurseries (selection) and then talks about wild nature (natural selection). Darwin’s argument is a copy of Matthew’s argument.
  • Matthew introduces the term “the natural process of selection”. Darwin speaks about “the process of natural selection”. The same. Plagiarism.
  • Sutton’s new evidence, combined with known facts that he puts in the spotlight again, leads to his conclusion : not Darwin but Matthew is the originator of the theory of natural selection.

I recommend Sutton’s book. It has irony and wit. And it has power, you do not want to be on the wrong side of Sutton. A disadvantage are the repetitions. Sutton’s argument draws a dozen partly overlapping circles. Each circle adds something new, but the overlapping parts are repetitions. If he would iron those out, the presentation would equal the content. And if he then would apply the book for a science award or a history award or a criminology award, I would be surprised if it did not win first prize. After all, it is brand new science, executed well, on a remarkable subject, and with remarkable results.

Ton Munnich, april 2018