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Selective memories: Charles Darwin, obsession, and Internet dating

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘obsession’ as “(i) a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal; (ii) someone or something that a person thinks about constantly or frequently, [and] (iii) an activity that someone is very interested in or spends a lot of time doing”. By these definitions my good friend and work colleague Dr. Mike Sutton would himself admit that he has had (for the last three or four years) an obsession with the work of English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Scottish landowner and fruit farmer Patrick Matthew (1790-1874). Dr. Sutton is a criminologist and we have published various articles and book chapters over the last 15 years on various topics including emails with unintended consequences, far right wing groups on the internet, and (most recently) the crime substitution hypothesis (which I’ve covered in a previous blog).

Over the past few years, I can’t think of a single conversation that we have had that both Darwin and Matthew’s didn’t get talked about at some point. In 2014, Sutton published his book Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret (“Nullius in verba” is Latin for “on the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it”) and as a result of it has experienced a torrent of verbal abuse on social media. So why has Dr. Sutton been the victim of such abuse? In a nutshell, Sutton has asserted that Darwin is a fraud and that his main thesis on natural selection was stolen from Matthew without any acknowledgement. Furthermore, using a new methodological technique that Sutton developed, he believes Darwin lied about his knowledge of Matthew’s work.

Over the last few years, I have read over a dozen of Sutton’s online articles about Darwin and Matthew, and I was also one of the first people to read Sutton’s book before it was published. Sutton’s work is meticulous, rigorous, and fully referenced. Most of his critics have never read (or simply don’t want to read) his book. Instead they appear to take potshots at his research and reputation without bothering to read the original source.

The first thing to note concerns Sutton’s methodology. His method – sometimes referred to ‘internet dating’ in his articles (but nothing to with people meeting up online, so apologies if the use of the words ‘internet dating’ in my article lured you to read this blog on false pretences) but called ‘Internet Date-Detection’ (ID) in his book – relies on the 30+ million books and documents that the Google Books Library Project has digitized and dating back centuries. Using the ID method, Sutton has used a search engine to track down obscure books, articles, and letters (and short phrases within these documents) to work out who published what and when with pinpoint accuracy. (For instance, back in the 1990s, I thought I had first coined the word ‘screenager’ but Sutton used his ID method and proved that others before me had used the word in print prior to my own articles).

The second thing to note is that all Darwinists concede that the process of natural selection was first written about in Patrick Matthew’s 1831 book On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (written 28 years before Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection). However, Darwin claimed he had never read the book (which might be the case) but also claimed in 1860, 1861, and in every edition of the Origin of Species thereafter, that no other naturalist, and no one at all, in the preceding 28 years had read Matthew’s original ideas on macroevolution by natural selection because it was buried away in the book’s appendix. Darwin claimed he had independently formulated the theory of evolution through natural selection. At around the same time as Darwin, the naturalist Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) also (independently of Darwin and supposedly of Matthew) developed a theory of natural selection and together their papers were read on their behalf before the Linnean Society, and then published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of London in 1858.

Using 21st century search engine technology via his ID method, Sutton originally discovered that – as opposed to the various claims of Darwin and the world’s leading Darwin scholars that no naturalists (or no one at all) read Matthew’s (1831) original ideas before 1858 – in fact Matthew’s book was cited 25 times before that date, seven of whom were naturalists, four of whom were known to Darwin and Wallace, and three that played major roles and had major influence on the exact same topic (botanist Prideaux John Selby, publisher and geologist Robert Chambers, and botanist John Loudon).

Like Sutton, a number of recent scholars – most notably the microbiologist Dr. Milton Wainwright – have researched some of the same historical ground as Sutton (arguing that Darwin and Wallace were beaten to a theory of macroevolution by Matthew). Whereas Wainwight wrote his papers after reading some of the original key texts from the early 1800s, Sutton used the ID technique to collate every single book, article and letter written by anyone in the period up to 1859 that had been digitized in the Google Books Library Project. What Sutton found is fascinating and does seem to indicate that Darwin lied about his knowledge of Matthew’s work. Darwin certainly lied after 1860 by claiming that no naturalist had read Matthew’s ideas because Matthew had twice written to inform Darwin that the opposite was true. Using the ID method, Sutton conclusively demonstrated that:

  • Matthew’s original (1831) theory concerning the “natural process of selection” was only slightly different to Darwin’s (1859) the “process of natural selection”. Darwin also used the same analogy as Matthew had written in the opening chapter of Origin of the Species when discussing artificial versus natural selection, but claimed the analogy as his own without citing Matthew.
  • Matthew’s prior-published conception of macroevolution by natural selection was not unread by naturalists and biologists before Darwin and Wallace replicated it. In fact, seven people cited the book in the pre-1859 literature, and Darwin and Wallace (and their influencers) knew four of these people well.
  • Matthew’s conception of natural selection was not just contained solely in the appendix of his 1831 book but was also in the main text. In fact, Matthew even referred Darwin to some of the relevant extracts in the main text of his book (something that Darwin admitted in a letter to his closest friend Joseph Hooker [1817-1911], the botanist and explorer). In short, Darwin lied when he asserted that Matthew’s ideas were only contained in the appendix of his book.

Sutton has been trying to get the Royal Society to acknowledge Matthew as the originator of the macroevolution by natural selection. Sutton notes in his essay on Rational Wiki:

“As Robert Merton (1957) made clear in the classic and authoritative text on priority in science, the Royal Society has not officially changed its position on the rules of priority since those rules were established in the first half of the 19th century. Since that time, the Arago Effect (Strevens 2003), is the rule that has always been seen as a totally inflexible principle and has been followed as such in all other disputes over priority for discovery in science, except in the Matthew, Darwin and Wallace case. The Arago Effect, described by Merton, and also by Strevens, as a norm in cases of scientific discovery, is that being first to publish to the public, and most importantly in print, is everything when it comes to deciding who has priority for an idea or discovery in cases where one scientist claims to have made the same discovery independently of another”.

In the same essay, Sutton then discusses Richard Dawkins‘s reasoning for not giving Matthew priority of scientific discovery (i.e., that his work went “unnoticed”):

“Totally ignoring the Arago Effect convention of priority for scientific discovery, Richard Dawkins (2010) has built upon prior rationale for denying Matthew full priority over Darwin by creating a new, unique in the history of scientific discovery, ‘Dawkins’s Demand Rule’. Effectively, Dawkins demands that Matthew should not have priority over Darwin and Wallace based upon the recently proven fallacious premise (Sutton 2014) that Matthew’s unique views went unnoticed. Moreover, Dawkins demands also that Matthew should have ‘trumpeted his discovery from the rooftops’. However in making this post-hoc demand, Dawkins does not, as other writers (e.g. Desmond and Moore 1991; Secord 2000) have done with regard to the fears and difficulties of writing on natural selection at this time, which faced Darwin and Chambers, explain that the first half of the 19th century was a time of great social unrest, tension and violent rioting, which made writing on the topic of natural selection a great threat to the social controlling interests of natural theology. Is Dawkins willfully ignorant of the fact that in the year 1794 Pitt passed his notorious Two Acts against ‘Seditious Meetings’ and ‘Treasonable Practices’? In particular, the former curtailed topics of discussion at institutional scientific societies by requiring them to be licensed and proscribing discussion of either religion or politics (Sutton 2015). Perhaps it is for reasons of historical ignorance that Richard Dawkins, whilst holding forth as an expert on the history of science, fails also to address the issue that Matthew’s Chartist political ideas were in his book and that he linked these seditious ideas quite clearly to the implications of his heretical natural selection discovery. Consequently, it should go without saying, that this meant his unique ideas were especially both seditious and heretical in the 1830s and 1840s. How then was Matthew meant to trumpet his discovery when he had effectively silenced himself from doing so under the scientific conventions that followed in the wake of the laws of the land? Matthew explained this very fact to Darwin in 1860, in his second letter in the Gardeners’ Chronicle”.

My own reading of all Sutton’s work is that there is no good reason for Matthew not to be credited with being the originator of the theory of macroevolution by natural selection and that Matthew has full priority over Darwin and Wallace.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Darwin. C.R. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London. John Murray.

Darwin, C.R. & Wallace, A.R. (1858) On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society of London.

Dawkins, R. (2010). Darwin’s five bridges: The way to natural selection. In Bryson, B (ed.), Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society. London: Harper Collins.

Desmond, A. & Moore, J. (1991). Darwin. London. Penguin Books.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2015). Screen time and crime: The ‘Crime Substitution Hypothesis’ revisited. Education and Health, 33, 85-87.

Matthew, P. (1831) On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; With a critical note on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting. Edinburgh. Adam Black.

Matthew, P. (1860). Nature’s Law of Selection (Letter). The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 7 April, pp. 312-313.

Matthew, P. (1860). Nature’s Law of Selection (Letter), Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, 12 May, p. 433.

Merton, R.K. (1957) Priorities in scientific discovery: A chapter in the sociology of science. American Sociological Review, 22(6), 635-659.

Secord. J.A. (2000). Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Strevens, M. (2003) The role of priority in science. Journal of Philosophy, 100, 55-79.

Sutton, M. (2014). Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret. Thinker Books.

Sutton, M. (2016). On knowledge contamination: New data challenges claims of Darwin’s and Wallace’s independent conceptions of Matthew’s prior-published hypothesis. Filozoficzne Aspekty Genezy (Aspects of Origin), 12: Located at

Sutton, M. (2016). Patrick Matthew: priority and the discovery of natural selection. Located at:

Sutton, M. (2016). Darwin’s Greatest Secret Exposed: Response to Grzegorz Malec’s De Facto fact denying review of my book. Filozoficzne Aspekty Genezy (Aspects of Origin), 13, 1-10. Located at:

Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Far Right Groups on the Internet: A new problem for crime control and community safety? The Criminal Lawyer, 123, 3-5.

Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Emails with unintended criminal consequences. The Criminal Lawyer, 130, 6-8.

Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Emails with unintended consequences: New lessons for policy and practice in work, public office and private life. In P. Hills (Ed.). As Others See Us: Selected Essays In Human Communication (pp. 160-182). Dereham: Peter Francis Publishers.

Wainwright, M. (2008) Natural selection: It’s not Darwin’s (or Wallace’s) theory. Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences, 15(1), 1-8

Wainwright, M. (2011). Charles Darwin: Mycologist and refuter of his own myth. FUNGI, 4(1), 13-20.