Sutton has himself embarked on another journey to the depths, this one far more treacherous than the ones he’s made before. The stakes were low when he was hunting something trivial, the supermyth of Popeye’s spinach; now Sutton has been digging in more sacred ground: the legacy of the great scientific hero and champion of the skeptics, Charles Darwin. In 2014, after spending a year working 18-hour days, seven days a week, Sutton published his most extensive work to date, a 600-page broadside on a cherished story of discovery. He called it “Nullius in Verba: Darwin’s Greatest Secret.”It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if Sutton is correct. Although non-writers don't have much confidence in it, to the expert, or even the experienced amateur, literary style is very nearly as distinguishable as a fingerprint. This is particularly true in cases where the two works are supposed to be entirely unrelated.
Sutton’s allegations are explosive. He claims to have found irrefutable proof that neither Darwin nor Alfred Russel Wallace deserves the credit for the theory of natural selection, but rather that they stole the idea — consciously or not — from a wealthy Scotsman and forest-management expert named Patrick Matthew. “I think both Darwin and Wallace were at the very least sloppy,” he told me. Elsewhere he’s been somewhat less diplomatic: “In my opinion Charles Darwin committed the greatest known science fraud in history by plagiarizing Matthew’s” hypothesis, he told the Telegraph. “Let’s face the painful facts,” Sutton also wrote. “Darwin was a liar. Plain and simple.”
Some context: The Patrick Matthew story isn’t new. Matthew produced a volume in the early 1830s, “On Naval Timber and Arboriculture,” that indeed contained an outline of the famous theory in a slim appendix. In a contemporary review, the noted naturalist John Loudon seemed ill-prepared to accept the forward-thinking theory. He called it a “puzzling” account of the “origin of species and varieties” that may or may not be original. In 1860, several months after publication of “On the Origin of Species,” Matthew would surface to complain that Darwin — now quite famous for what was described as a discovery born of “20 years’ investigation and reflection” — had stolen his ideas.
Darwin, in reply, conceded that “Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection.” But then he added, “I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, had heard of Mr. Matthew’s views.”
That statement, suggesting that Matthew’s theory was ignored — and hinting that its importance may not even have been quite understood by Matthew himself — has gone unchallenged, Sutton says. It has, in fact, become a supermyth, cited to explain that even big ideas amount to nothing when they aren’t framed by proper genius.
Sutton thinks that story has it wrong, that natural selection wasn’t an idea in need of a “great man” to propagate it. After all his months of research, Sutton says he found clear evidence that Matthew’s work did not go unread. No fewer than seven naturalists cited the book, including three in what Sutton calls Darwin’s “inner circle.” He also claims to have discovered particular turns of phrase — “Matthewisms” — that recur suspiciously in Darwin’s writing.