Decorated initial V

estiges of the Natural History of Creation is a continuous argument, but for the ease of following it, I have divided my discussion into three sections, (1) astronomy and geology, (2) theology and the origins of life, and (3) humankind and psychology. Chambers opened with a description of the nebular theory of stellar and planetary formation whereby clouds of dust and gas are drawn together into a spiral by the force of gravity. This idea, which Pierre Simon Laplace and Herschel first suggested, obviously challenged the biblical account of a single act of Creation:

The formation of bodies in space is still and at present in progress. We live at a time when many have been formed, and many are still forming. Our own solar system is to be regarded as completed, supposing its perfection to consist in the formation of a series of planets, for there are mathematical reasons for concluding that Mercury is the nearest planet to the sun, which can, according to the laws of the system, exist. But there are other solar systems within our astral system, which are as yet in a less advanced state, and even some quantities of nebulous matter which have scarcely begun to advance towards the stellar form. On the other hand, there are vast numbers of stars which have all the appearance of being fully formed systems, if we are to judge from the complete and definite appearance which they present to our vision through the telescope. We have no means of judging of the seniority of systems; but it is reasonable to suppose that, among the many, some are older than ours. [21-22]

Chambers also challenged the idea that the Earth is a unique planet created by God for the benefit of mankind when he described it as but one of an infinite number of planets in an unimaginably large universe:

Our globe is a specimen of all the similarly-placed bodies of space, as respects its constituent matter and the physical and chemical laws governing it, with only this qualification, that there are possibly shades of variation with respect to the component materials, and undoubtedly with respect to the conditions under which the laws operate, and consequently the effects which they produce. Thus, there may be substances here which are not in some other bodies, and substances here solid may be elsewhere liquid or vaporiform. We are the more entitled to draw such conclusions, seeing that there is nothing at all singular or special in the astronomical situation of the earth. It takes its place third in a series of planets, which series is only one of numberless other systems forming one group. It is strikingly — if I may use such an expression — a member of a democracy. [32]

His use of the word democracy to describe the earth is not without significance. It would have left readers in no doubt about both the author's political convictions and that he was using nature to justify them. He therefore argued against the contemporary theological interpretation of the cosmos, which emphasized not only that that God created it but that he organized it as a hierarchical system. Chambers went even further in a later part of the book, challenging the Christian assumption that either mankind or even life is unique to this planet:

It may here be remarked that there is in our doctrine that harmony in all the associated phenomena which generally marks great truths. First, it agrees, as we have seen, with the idea of planet- creation by natural law. Secondly, upon this supposition, all that geology tells us of the succession of species appears natural and intelligible. Organic life presses in, as has been remarked, wherever there was room and encouragement for it, the forms being always such as suited the circumstances. . . .Admitting for a moment a re-origination of species after a cataclysm. . . .it harmonizes with nothing so well as the idea of a creation by law. . . . It is also to be observed, that the thing to be accounted for is not merely the origination of organic being upon this little planet, third of a series which is but one of hundreds of thousands of series, the whole of which again form but one portion of an apparently infinite globe-peopled space, where all seems analogous. We have to suppose, that every one of these numberless globes is either a theatre of organic being, or in the way of becoming so. [161-62]

These ideas had been discussed by philosophers in the eighteenth century and probably much earlier than that, but this was the first time that such ideas had been presented in a form that was accessible to a general readership and as such were truly revolutionary. For orthodox theologians they were heretical in the extreme, representing the worst of materialism and hinting at atheism, and were therefore very dangerous to faith. He demonstrated that the basic chemistry of Earth is based on a few common elements, but that these elements can take different forms to make different minerals:

The metal silicium, which unites with oxygen in nearly equal parts to form silica, the basis of nearly a half of the rocks in the earth's crust, is, of course, an important ingredient. Aluminium, the metallic basis of alumin, a large material in many rocks, is another abundant elementary substance. So, also, is carbon a small ingredient in the atmosphere, but the chief constituent of animal and vegetable substances, and of all fossils which ever were in the latter condition, amongst which coal takes a conspicuous place. The familiarly-known metals, as iron, tin, lead, silver, gold, are elements of comparatively small magnitude in that exterior part of the earth's body which we are able to investigate….. It is remarkable of the simple substances that they are generally in some compound form. Thus, oxygen and nitrogen, though in union they form the aerial envelope of the globe, are never found separate in nature. Carbon is pure only in the diamond. And the metallic bases of the earths, though the chemist can disengage them, may well be supposed unlikely to remain long uncombined, seeing that contact with moisture makes them burn. [34]

Chambers then took the reader on a journey through Earth history as it was understood at the time, describing the rocks and fossils of each major period. His descriptions of the different fossil faunas, although brief, was sufficient to inform readers that not only individual species, but major groups of animals and plants had become extinct in the distant past. He also focussed on the increasing complexity of life, with its origins in water, only later colonising the land and air. He concluded his account of geological history with evidence that mankind is a relatively new species: "Still, however, there is no authentic or satisfactory instance of human remains being found, except in deposits obviously of very modern date; a tolerably strong proof that the creation of our own species is a comparatively recent event, and one posterior (generally speaking) to all the great natural transactions chronicled by geology” (144).

Chambers may have been a radical but he was not a revolutionary, and he well understood the political implications that Cuvier's catastrophism could have in some quarters. He also recognised that Cuvier's catastrophism had been interpreted by geologists like William Buckland and other clergymen, to justify a belief in the Noachian Flood story in Genesis, so he used the interpretations of Adam Sedgwick and other British geologists such as Charles Lyell who were in favour of more gradual changes in earth history. In particular he quoted Lyell as a source of authority for what has since been called the uniformitarian approach:

If there is any thing more than another impressed on our minds by the course of the geological history, it is, that the same laws and conditions of nature now apparent to us have existed throughout the whole time, though the operation of some of these laws may now be less conspicuous than in the early ages, from some of the conditions having come to a settlement and a close. That seas have flowed and ebbed, and winds disturbed their surfaces, in the time of the secondary rocks, we have proof on the yet preserved surfaces of the sands which constituted margins of the seas in those days. Even the fall of wind-slanted rain is evidenced on the same tablets. The washing down of detached matter from elevated grounds, which we see rivers constantly engaged in at the present time, and which is daily shallowing the seas adjacent to their mouths, only appears to have proceeded on a greater scale in earlier epochs. The volcanic subterranean force, which we see belching forth lavas on the sides of mountains, and throwing up new elevations by land and sea, was only more powerfully operative in distant ages. To turn to organic nature, vegetation seems to have proceeded then exactly as now. The very alternations of the seasons has been read in unmistakable characters in sections of the trees of those days, precisely as it might be read in a section of a tree cut down yesterday. The system of prey amongst animals flourished throughout the whole of the pre-human period; and the adaptation of all plants and animals to their respective spheres of existence was as perfect in those early ages as it is still. [146-47]

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


Created 15 March 2017