hambers' religious beliefs changed during his life. It is known that he kept a pew in two different churches so that "when I am not in the one, it will always be concluded by the charitable that I am in the other": outwardly at least he was conforming to the religious norms of his native Scotland. He was a moderate Deist who opposed evangelical enthusiasm and doctrinal controversy: religion generally mattered little to him. He knew that his book would inevitably provoke a storm of protest from the Anglican establishment and members of presbyterian and evangelical churches, some of whom were influential scientists in their own right. He was aware that there was an increasing number of readers who shared his deistic views and even an increasing minority of atheists and materialists.
Chambers had read Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-1833) and found that natural causes could account for the origin and development of life. He had also read John Pringle Nichol's Views of the Architecture of the Heavens (1837) in which evolving nebulae had become a symbol for an evolving astronomy. Nichol had also written of "the germs, the elements of LIFE, which in coming ages will bud and blossom": Chambers decided that he would extend this idea into the living world of plants, animals and even human origins. His problem was that transmutation was associated with Erasmus Darwin and Frenchmen such as Jean Baptiste de Lamarck and St. Hilaire, who were either atheists or agnostics, and the kind of radical politics which had few supporters among the middle or upper classes who were to be his target readership. He knew that transmutation was being used as a weapon in popular radical political pamphlets and among members of the working classes, so he had to find a way of assimilating it and making it acceptable to his audience. He argued that all elements of the natural world are controlled by laws, and because the organic world and human mind are part of the material world, they too must be the products of evolution. The political message was clear: liberal reform determined by law was more natural than violent revolution: indeed reform was both inevitable and progressive.
He presented a new story to explain mankind's place in the cosmos: one that would bridge the old Judeo-Christian stories with a new account which unambiguously placed mankind in a materialist evolutionary narrative. This left a place for a Creator who could cause the cosmos to come into being, but One who then left things to follow the laws of nature which He had also caused to come into existence:
The surface has also undergone a gradual progress by which it has become always more and more variegated, and thereby fitted for the residence of a higher class of animals…..In pursuing the progress of the development of both plants and animals upon the globe, we have seen an advance in both cases, along the line leading to the higher forms of organization. ………A candid consideration of all these circumstances can scarcely fail to introduce into our minds a somewhat different idea of organic creation from what has hitherto been generally entertained. That God created animated beings, as well as the terraqueous theatre of their being, is a fact so powerfully evidenced, and so universally received, that I at once take it for granted. But in the particulars of this so highly supported idea, we surely here see cause for some re-consideration. It may now be inquired, — in what way was the creation of animated beings effected? The ordinary notion may, I think, be not unjustly described as this, — that the Almighty author produced the progenitors of all existing species by some sort of personal or immediate exertion. But how does this notion comport with what we have seen of the gradual advance of species, from the humblest to the highest? How can we suppose an immediate exertion of this creative power at one time to produce zoophytes, another time to add a few marine mollusks, another to bring in one or two conchifers, again to produce crustaceous fishes, again perfect fishes, and so on to the end? This would surely be to take a very mean view of the Creative Power-to, in short, anthropomorphize it, or reduce it to some such character as that borne by the ordinary proceedings of mankind. And yet this would be unavoidable; for that the organic creation was thus progressive through a long space of time, rests on evidence which nothing can overturn or gainsay. Some other idea must then be come to with regard to the mode in which the Divine Author proceeded in the organic creation. Let us seek in the history of the earth's formation for a new suggestion on this point. We have seen powerful evidence, that the construction of this globe and its associates, and inferentially that of all the other globes of space, was the result, not of any immediate or personal exertion on the part of the Deity, but of natural laws which are expressions of his will. [148, 152-54]
Chambers, who rejected any literal reading of the Book of Genesis, stated clearly that the authors of that work had never intended that it should be read in that way:
What is to hinder our supposing that the organic creation is also a result of natural laws, which are in like manner an expression of his will? More than this, the fact of the cosmical arrangements being an effect of natural law, is a powerful argument for the organic arrangements being so likewise, for how can we suppose that the august Being who brought all these countless worlds into form by the simple establishment of a natural principle flowing from his mind, was to interfere personally and specially on every occasion when a new shell-fish or reptile was to be ushered into existence on one of these worlds? Surely this idea is too ridiculous to be for a moment entertained…..It will be objected that the ordinary conceptions of Christian nations on this subject are directly derived from Scripture, or, at least, are in conformity with it. If they were clearly and unequivocally supported by Scripture, it may readily be allowed that there would be a strong objection to the reception of any opposite hypothesis. But the fact is, however startling the present announcement of it may be, that the first chapter of the Mosaic record is not only not in harmony with the ordinary ideas of mankind respecting cosmical and organic creation, but is opposed to them, and only in accordance with the views here taken. When we carefully peruse it with awakened minds, we find that all the procedure is represented primarily and pre-eminently as flowing from commands and expressions of his will, not from direct acts. Let there be light — let there be a firmament-let the dry land appear — let the earth bring forth grass, the herb, the tree-let the waters bring forth the moving creature that hath life-let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind — these are the terms in which the principal acts are described. The additional expressions,-God made the firmament-God made the beast of the earth, &c., occur subordinately, and only in a few instances; they do not necessarily convey a different idea of the mode of creation, and indeed only appear as alternative phrases, in the usual duplicative manner of Eastern narrative. Keeping this in view, the words used in a subsequent place, "God formed man in his own image," cannot well be understood as implying any more than what was implied before, — namely, that man was produced in consequence of an expression of the Divine will to that effect. Thus, the scriptural objection quickly vanishes, and the prevalent ideas about the organic creation appear only as a mistaken inference from the text, formed at a time when man's ignorance prevented him from drawing there- from a just conclusion. At the same time, I freely own that I do not think it right to adduce the Mosaic record, either in objection to, or support of any natural hypothesis, and this for many reasons, but particularly for this, that there is not the least appearance of an intention in that book to give philosophically exact views of nature. [154-56]
To counter the possible criticism that he was belittling God, Chambers attempted to show that in fact he was enhancing rather than diminishing God's omnipotence:
To a reasonable mind the Divine attributes must appear, not diminished or reduced in any way, by supposing a creation by law, but infinitely exalted. It is the narrowest of all views of the Deity, and characteristic of a humble class of intellects, to suppose him acting constantly in particular ways for particular occasions. It, for one thing, greatly detracts from his foresight, the most undeniable of all the attributes of Omnipotence. It lowers him towards the level of our own humble intellects. Much more worthy of him it surely is, to suppose that all things have been commissioned by him from the first, though neither is he absent from a particle of the current of natural affairs in one sense, seeing that the whole system is continually supported by his providence. Even in human affairs, if I may be allowed to adopt a familiar illustration, there is a constant progress from specific action for particular occasions, to arrangements which, once established, shall continue to answer for a great multitude of occasions. Such plans the enlightened readily form for themselves, and conceive as being adopted by all who have to attend to a multitude of affairs, while the ignorant suppose every act of the greatest public functionary to be the result of some special consideration and care on his part alone. Are we to suppose the Deity adopting plans which harmonize only with the modes of procedure of the less enlightened of our race? Those who would object to the hypothesis of a creation by the intervention of law, do not perhaps consider how powerful an argument in favour of the existence of God is lost by rejecting this doctrine. When all is seen to be the result of law, the idea of an Almighty Author becomes irresistible, for the creation of a law for an endless series of phenomena — an act of intelligence above all else that we can conceive-could have no other imaginable source, and tells, moreover, as powerfully for a sustaining as for an originating power. On this point a remark of Dr. Buckland seems applicable: "If the properties adopted by the elements at the moment of their creation adapted them beforehand to the infinity of complicated useful purposes which they have already answered, and may have still farther to answer, under many dispensations of the material world, such an aboriginal constitution, so far from superseding an intelligent agent, would only exalt our conceptions of the consummate skill and power that could comprehend such an infinity of future uses under future systems, in the original groundwork " (p 156 — 158)
William Buckland was the first reader in geology at Oxford University and Dean of Westminster, who had written Relique Diluviane (Relics of the Flood), in 1822 to interpret recent fossil discoveries from a cave in Yorkshire as evidence for the Flood of Noah. Buckland had continued to describe recent geological sediments in Britain as proof of his biblical thesis, although other geologists were becoming increasingly skeptical of this idea. In a direct challenge to supporters of natural theology Chambers quoted from John Macculloch's On the Attributes of a Deity, which described the lives of corals as being the products of God's direct intervention in life:
The Great Architect himself must execute what he planned, in each case equally. He uses these little and senseless animals as hands; but they are hands which himself must direct. He must direct each one every-where, and therefore he is ever acting" (p 159), to which his response was unambiguous: "This is a most notable example of a dangerous kind of reasoning. It is now believed that corals have a general life and sensation throughout the whole mass, residing in the nervous tissue which envelops them; consequently, there is nothing more wonderful in their determinate general forms than in those of other animals". 
Then in a passage that echoes the famous and oft-quoted opening passage of William Paley's Natural Theology Chambers parodies his reasoning:
Suppose that the first persons of an early nation who made a ship and venture to sea in it, observed, as they sailed along, a set of objects which they had never before seen-namely, a fleet of other ships-would they not have been justified in supposing that those ships were occupied, like their own, by human beings possessing hands to row and steer, eyes to watch the signs of the weather, intelligence to guide them from one place to another-in short, beings in all respects like themselves, or only shewing such differences as they knew to be producible by difference of climate and habits of life. Precisely in this manner we can speculate on the inhabitants of remote spheres. We see that matter has originally been diffused in one mass, of which the spheres are portions. Consequently, inorganic matter must be presumed to be everywhere the same, although probably with differences in the proportions of ingredients in different globes, and also some difference of conditions. [161-62]
By using the inductive approach Chambers showed that evidence can be interpreted to prove the presuppositions of the author, a weakness in Charles Darwin's thesis.
Chambers believed that electricity had played an important part in the origins of life and drew upon the work of Andrew Crosse, who claimed to have created mites using electric currents. Modern critics have used part of his book to claim that he was naive and careless of the need for rigorous scientific proof, but he discussed this controversy in a manner which showed a much greater awareness of contemporary knowledge of the problem than most of them:
I allude, of course, to the experiments conducted a few years ago by Mr. Crosse, which seemed to result in the production of a heretofore unknown species of insect in considerable numbers. Various causes have prevented these experiments and their results from receiving candid treatment, but they may perhaps be yet found to have opened up a new and most interesting chapter of nature's mysteries. . . .Mr. Crosse soon discontinued them (the experiments); but they were some years after pursued by Mr. Weekes, of Sandwich, with precisely the same results. . . . the first attempts of Mr. Weekes required about eleven months, a ground of presumption in itself that the electricity was chiefly concerned in the phenomenon. The changes undergone by the fluid operated upon, were in both cases remarkable, and nearly alike. In Mr. Weekes' apparatus, the silicate of potash became first turbid, then of a milky appearance; round the negative wire of the battery, dipped into the fluid, there gathered a quantity of gelatinous matter, a part of the process of considerable importance, considering that gelatin is one of the proximate principles, or first compounds, of which animal bodies are formed. From this matter Mr. Weekes observed one of the insects in the very act of emerging, immediately after which, it ascended to the surface of the fluid, and sought concealment in an obscure corner of the apparatus. The insects produced by both experimentalists seem to have been the same, a species of acarus, minute and semi-transparent, and furnished with long bristles, which can only be seen by the aid of the microscope. . .
The reception of novelties in science must ever be regulated very much by the amount of kindred or relative phenomena which the public mind already possesses and acknowledges, to which the new can be assimilated. A novelty, however true, if there be no received truths with which it can be shewn in harmonious relation, has little chance of a favourable hearing. In fact, as has been often observed, there is a measure of incredulity from our ignorance as well as from our knowledge, and if the most distinguished philosopher three- hundred years ago had ventured to develop any striking new fact which only could harmonize with the as yet unknown Copernican solar system, we cannot doubt that it would have been universally scoffed at in the scientific world, such as it then was, or at the best interpreted in a thousand wrong ways in conformity with ideas already familiar. The experiments above described, finding a public mind which had never discovered a fact or conceived an idea at all analogous, were of course ungraciously received. It was held to be impious, even to surmise that animals could have been formed through any instrumentality of an apparatus devised by human skill. The more likely account of the phenomena was said to be, that the insects were only developed from ova, resting either in the fluid, or in the wooden frame on which the experiments took place. . . . [>
For the presumption that an act of aboriginal creation did take place, there is this to be said, that, in Mr. Weekes's experiment, every care that ingenuity could devise was taken to exclude the possibility of a development of the insects from ova. The wood of the frame was baked in a powerful heat; a bell-shaped glass covered the apparatus, and from this the atmosphere was excluded by the constantly rising fumes from the liquid, for the emission of which there was an aperture so arranged at the top of the glass, that only these fumes could pass. The water was distilled, and the substance of the silicate had been subjected to white heat. Thus every source of fallacy seemed to be shut up. In such circumstances, a candid mind, which sees nothing either impious or unphilosophical in the idea of a new creation, will be disposed to think that there is less difficulty in believing in such a creation having actually taken place, than in believing that, in two instances, separated in place and time, exactly the same insects should have chanced to arise from concealed ova, and these a species heretofore unknown. [185-90]
He quoted two authorities concerning the chemical composition of life and he recognised that it had started as simple forms, possibly through the action of electrical currents:
All animated nature may be said to be based on this mode of origin; the fundamental form of organic being is a globule, having a new globule forming within itself, by which it is in time discharged, and which is again followed by another and another, in endless succession. . . . Now it was given out some years ago by a French physiologist, that globules could be produced in albumen by electricity. If, therefore, these globules be identical with the cells which are now held to be reproductive, it might be said that the production of albumen by artificial means is the only step in the process wanting. This has not yet been effected; but it is known to be only a chemical process, the mode of which may be any day discovered in the laboratory, and two compounds perfectly co- ordinate, urea and alantoin, have actually been produced. [172-73]
There followed an extended but inconclusive discussion on the possible origins of life given the state of knowledge in 1844, which allows the modern reader an insight into contemporary knowledge and thought. Far from being naive, Chambers was discussing in everyday language some very difficult questions concerning the origins of life, a problem that is unsolved today.
Chambers recognised the unity of form in the larger animal groups, including mammals, reptiles, fish etc, and that common structures could be found in each of these groups. He presented the philosophical anatomy of the French anatomists Bory de St Vincent and Geoffroy St Hilaire, who had argued that there was a unity of form which demonstrated a common ancestry for these animal groups. Similar arguments based on form had already been already been made for the plant kingdom by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and other continental scientists:
The whole train of animated beings, from the simplest and oldest up to the highest and most recent, are, then, to be regarded as a series of advances of the principle of development, which have depended upon external physical circumstances, to which the resulting animals are appropriate. I contemplate the whole phenomena as having been in the first place arranged in the counsels of Divine Wisdom, to take place, not only upon this sphere, but upon all the others in space, under necessary modifications, and as being carried on, from first to last, here and elsewhere, under immediate favour of the creative will or energy. . . . When I formed this idea I was not aware of one which seems faintly to foreshadow it-namely, Socrates's doctrine, afterwards dilated on by Plato, that "previous to the existence of the world, and beyond its present limits, there existed certain archetypes, the embodiment (if we may use such a word) of general ideas; and that these archetypes were models, in imitation of which all particular beings were created. . . . I suggest, then, as an hypothesis already countenanced by much that is ascertained, and likely to be further sanctioned by much that remains to be known, that the first step was an advance under favour of peculiar conditions, from the simplest forms of being, to the next more complicated, and this through the medium of the ordinary process of generation. [203-05]
His "principle of development" may seem vague but in fact it is no different from our contemporary lack of understanding of the processes of speciation. Chambers' explanation reads much like a modern account of genetic mutation. Basing his analogy on Charles Babbage's calculating engine, he showed how a law of progress could be devised such that like need not reproduce like. (See 205-11 for this discussion).
In the first edition of Vestiges Chambers presented two conflicting ideas of how embryos developed. The first followed the theories of Friederich Tiedemann and Etienne Serres who had argued that the embryonic stages recapitulate the actual adult forms of their ancestors (198-201). In subsequent pages he discussed Karl Ernst von Baer's hypothesis that organisms vary from the general to the more specialised as illustrated in a branching diagram (on 212) and in the following quotation:
It has been seen that, in the reproduction of the higher animals, the new being passes through stages in which it is successively fish-like and reptile-like. But the resemblance is not to the adult fish or the adult reptile, but to the fish and reptile at a certain point in their foetal progress; this holds true with regard to the vascular, nervous, and other systems alike. It may be illustrated by a simple diagram. The foetus of all the four classes may be supposed to advance in an identical condition to the point A. The fish there diverges and passes along a line apart, and peculiar to itself, to its mature state at F. The reptile, bird, and mammal, go on together to C, where the reptile diverges in like manner, A and advances by itself to R. The bird diverges at D, and goes on to B. The mammal then goes forward in a straight line to the highest point of organization at M. This diagram shews only the main ramifications; but the reader must suppose minor ones, representing the subordinate differences of orders, tribes, families, genera, &c., if he wishes to extend his views to the whole varieties of being in the animal kingdom. Limiting ourselves at present to the outline afforded by this diagram, it is apparent that the only thing required for an advance from one type to another in the generative process is that, for example, the fish embryo should not diverge at A, but go on to C before it diverges, in which case the progeny will be, not a fish, but a reptile. To protract the straightforward part of the gestation over a small space — and from species to species the space would be small indeed — is all that is necessary. [212-13], diagram below)Pasted Graphic.tiff
In Explanations and later editions of Vestiges Chambers only included von Baer's interpretation. He discussed the possibility that external environmental factors may have caused species to change following Lamarck, but admitted that this was conjectural because the geological evidence was not preserved. He also discussed the possibilities of sexual selection following Erasmus Darwin, but admitted that this process had never been seen to cause speciation and so was equally speculative and unproven. He did believe however that nutrition could cause changes in the embryo and this might lead to speciation and regression as well as progression:
bees can so modify a worker in the larva state, that, when it emerges from the pupa, it is found to be a queen or true female. For this purpose they enlarge its cell, make a pyramidal hollow to allow of its assuming a vertical instead of a horizontal position, keep it warmer than other larv are kept, and feed it with a peculiar kind of food. From these simple circumstances, leading to a shortening of the embryotic condition, results a creature different in form, and also in dispositions, from what would have otherwise been produced…..All these changes may be produced by a mere modification of the embryotic progress…..But it is important to observe that this modification is different from working a direct change upon the embryo. It is not the different food which effects a metamorphosis. All that is done is merely to accelerate the period of the insect's perfection. By the arrangements made and the food given, the embryo becomes sooner fit for being ushered forth in its image or perfect state. Development may be said to be thus arrested at a particular stage-that early one at which the female sex is complete. In the other circumstances, it is allowed to go on four days longer, and a stage is then reached between the two sexes, which in this species is designed to be the perfect condition of a large portion of the community. Four days more make it a perfect male. It is at the same time to be observed that there is, from the period of oviposition, a destined distinction between the sexes of the young bees. The queen lays the whole of the eggs which are designed to become workers, before she begins to lay those which become males. But probably the condition of her reproductive system governs the matter of sex, for it is remarked that when her impregnation is delayed beyond the twenty-eighth day of her entire existence, she lays only eggs which become males……Let it not be said that the phenomena concerned in the generation of bees may be very different from those concerned in the reproduction of the higher animals. There is a unity throughout nature which makes the one case an instructive reflection of the other. [214-16]
Thus we see nature alike willing to go back and to go forward. Both effects are simply the result of the operation of the law of development in the generative system. Give good conditions, it advances; bad ones, it recedes. Now, perhaps, it is only because there is no longer a possibility, in the higher types of being, of giving sufficiently favourable conditions to carry on species to species, that we see the operation of the law so far limited….. A human foetus is often left with one of the most important parts of its frame imperfectly developed: the heart, for instance, goes no farther than the three-chambered form, so that it is the heart of a reptile. There are even instances of this organ being left in the two-chambered or fish form. Such defects are the result of nothing more than a failure of the power of development in the system of the mother, occasioned by weak health or misery. Here we have apparently a realization of the converse of those conditions which carry on species to species, so far, at least, as one organ is concerned. Seeing a complete specific retrogression in this one point, how easy it is to imagine an access of favourable conditions sufficient to reverse the phenomenon, and make a fish mother develop a reptile heart, or a reptile mother develop a mammal one. It is no great boldness to surmise that a super-adequacy in the measure of this under-adequacy (and the one thing seems as natural an occurrence as the other) would suffice in a goose to give its progeny the body of a rat, and produce the ornithorynchus, or might give the progeny of an ornithorynchus the mouth and feet of a true rodent, and thus complete at two stages the passage from the aves to the mammalia. [218-19]
This provided an argument for radicals against the Malthusians and providentialists, and later Herbert Spencer, who believed that the world was a highly competitive place and that to help the poor was to work against natural law. It is interesting that his conclusion about human beings has been justified in modern studies of the impact on the children and grandchildren of women who experienced severe malnutrition in pregnancy.
Speciation was for Chambers a process of slow progressive change, but because he believed that the laws of nature must apply across the universe it followed that life would develop and evolve in a similar fashion on other planets around other stars:
The idea, then, which I form of the progress of organic life upon the globe-and the hypothesis is applicable to all similar theatres of vital being-is, that the simplest and most primitive type, under a law to which that of like-production is subordinate, gave birth to the type next above it, that this again produced the next higher, and so on to the very highest, the stages of advance being in all cases very small — namely, from one species only to another; so that the phenomenon has always been of a simple and modest character. Whether the whole of any species was at once translated forward, or only a few parents were employed to give birth to the new type, must remain undetermined. . . .Thus, the production of new forms, as shewn in the pages of the geological record, has never been anything more than a new stage of progress in gestation, an event as simply natural, and attended as little by any circumstances of a wonderful or startling kind, as the silent advance of an ordinary mother from one week to another of her pregnancy. Yet, be it remembered, the whole phenomena are, in another point of view, wonders of the highest kind, for in each of them we have to trace the effect of an Almighty Will which had arranged the whole in such harmony with external physical circumstances, that both were developed in parallel steps-and probably this development upon our planet is but a sample of what has taken place, through the same cause, in all the other countless theatres of being which are suspended in space. [222-23]
To reinforce his belief in the operation of natural law, and the importance of recognising that the animal and plant kingdoms show unities of form which could not have been caused by random changes as suggested by Lamarck and later Charles Darwin, Chambers wrote:
I also go beyond the French philosopher to a very important point, the original Divine conception of all the forms of being which these natural laws were only instruments in working out and realizing. . . . a regularity in the structure, as we may call it, of the classification of animals, as is shewn in their systems, is totally irreconcilable with the idea of form going on to form merely as needs and wishes in the animals themselves dictated. Had such been the case, all would have been irregular, as things arbitrary necessarily are. But, lo, the whole plan of being is as symmetrical as the plan of a house, or the laying out of an old-fashioned garden! This must needs have been devised and arranged for beforehand….and all these animals were to be schemed out, each as a part of a great range, which was on the whole to be rigidly regular: let us, I say, only consider these things, and we shall see that the decreeing of laws to bring the whole about was an act involving such a degree of wisdom and device as we only can attribute, adoringly, to the one Eternal and Unchangeable. 
Other Sections of Robert Chambers and The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
- The Social and Industrial Contexts of Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
- Robert Chambers' New Evolutionary Narrative I: Astronomy and Geology
- Chambers' New Evolutionary Narrative III: Mankind, Psychology and Our Place in the Cosmos
- The Critical Response to Vestiges
- Explanations: A Sequel
- Vestiges and The Origin of Species
- The wider cultural significance of Vestiges
Created 15 March 2017