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o understand why this volume achieved simultaneous success and notoriety, we must recognise the changing circumstances in mid-nineteenth century Britain. In retrospect it can be argued that the decade of the 1840s were as significant a period of change as the 1960s were to be in the following century. The 1840s witnessed what historians have called the second industrial revolution: the steam engine had been perfected to the point where it could be used to move goods and people between towns and cities at a speed and cost that had hitherto been impossible. This had the effect of shrinking the geography of distance as people were able to travel more freely and take their ideas with them. Towns and cities which previously had been provincial and relatively isolated now became part of a wider unity as trade and prosperity increased. Steam was also used to drive printing presses, and paper manufacture made cheaper so that books, periodicals, and newspapers could now be printed and published at prices which many could afford. Cheap editions of books, (the equivalent of modern paperbacks), began to appear in the late 1830s and this, combined with rapidly increasing literacy rates, helped to create a demand for more publications.

The huge increase in cheap news sheets and radical pamphlets, many of which ignored the newspaper tax of the time, helped to spread information and ideas to people who hitherto had lacked access. The introduction of the penny post in 1837 improved communication between the literate middle classes, which also contributed to the spread of news and ideas. There was a general acceptance that society was undergoing exceptionally rapid change, but people could not agree about either the direction or how to control the changes. Nearly all were agreed that government by a meritocratic elite elected by the majority of the population should replace the existing hereditary aristocratic system supporting patronage. Ideas which had been discussed in intellectual circles in the eighteenth century and formed the basis of what today is known as Enlightenment thinking, had been largely suppressed in Britain in the first decades of the nineteenth century because of the French Revolution, subsequent Napoleonic wars, and the repression which accompanied them. After 1815 agitation for parliamentary reform in Britain had started again, initially accompanied and stoked by social unrest caused by a post-war economic recession and the consequent widespread unemployment and poverty. By the early middle decades of the nineteenth century the existential debates of the late eighteenth century had transformed into arguments about how to accommodate or reconcile Christian orthodoxy with Enlightenment ideas about society and nature and with the new discoveries being made by science. The traditional view that God created the world collided with a predominantly materialistic — and sometimes atheistic — understanding of the cosmos.

The industrial revolution increased middle—class incomes and educational opportunities, making increasingly larger numbers of people keen to learn about the new discoveries about the natural world, in particular in astronomy and geology. Church attendance was slowly falling and more people were beginning to question the position of the Anglican church in British society and politics, together with its preaching from the Sunday pulpit: non-conformism was widespread in the industrial towns and cities, and especially among the families of industrialists. There was constant agitation for political and social reform among the disenfranchised artisan and middle classes, and ranged from those who argued for measured changes in the law to those who wanted a revolution similar to that of France in 1789. The Chartist Movement, which was popular among the artisans and labouring groups, was particularly active at this time, and was perceived as a real threat to social and political stability by the Anglican political establishment.

Many radical reformers used the idea of evolution to justify their calls for change. In particular they used the ideas of the Frenchmen J. B. de Lamarck and Geoffroy St. Hilaire who were early proponents of evolution, but the works of Erasmus Darwin who had been an advocate of both evolution and reform in the eighteenth century were also well known to them. There were good scientific reasons why some questioned the fact of evolution, the most important of these being that nobody had ever witnessed a new species coming into existence. This argument was challenged by the rapidly accumulating knowledge of both comparative anatomy, which indicated common ancestry for many groups of species, and the fossil record, which demonstrated change within life forms over long periods of time. How individuals interpreted these discoveries depended very much upon the assumptions of the observer: those who held to traditional theological beliefs tended towards some form of creation, but also included some who accepted the fact of evolution. During the early decades of the nineteenth century as more people questioned the literal interpretation of the bible even when they maintained a religious outlook, they also refused to accept the Judaeo-Christian creation story and were prepared to consider alternative explanations for the origins and development of life. The discoveries of astronomy and geology also challenged traditional Christian teachings, although the new knowledge of the heavens and great age of the Earth also served to increase the awe of the magnitude of God's Creation.

Chambers was a friend and disciple of the phrenologist George Combe whose book The Constitution of Man (1828) became one of the best selling books of the nineteenth century: by 1848 alone over 80,000 copies had been sold. It was extremely controversial, far more so than Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which had only sold 50,000 copies by 1900. The central idea of Constitutions was that man is as much a part of the natural world as any other species and is therefore as subject to natural laws as the rest of nature. These laws, physical, organic, and moral were universal, and Combe drew on the standard interpretations of geology to demonstrate that because the world was arranged "on the the principle of gradual and progressive improvement," it must be following them too. The first steps towards the good life were to study and obey these distinct natural laws, not those of the Bible, which led to some Christian evangelicals burning copies of Constitutions in public. Phrenology played an extremely significant part in the conversion of individuals from the Christian to the Enlightenment world view and thus the acceptance of evolution during the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Other Sections of Robert Chambers and The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation


Created 15 March 2017