harles Darwin developed his ideas of evolution about the time that Chambers was in the process of writing and publishing his book, but he did not publish for a number of reasons, one of which was that he believed he did not yet have sufficient standing in the scientific community to publish a radical thesis without it severely damaging his reputation as a scientist. In addition, he knew that evolution had long been associated with his grandfather's radical politics, which he did not fully support. He also correctly considered that many influential members of the scientific community were not ready to be persuaded of the fact of evolution, even though this had been proposed by Lamarck in 1809. Writing a book for the general public was one thing, writing a scientific work was quite another.
However, by 1859 when Origin was published, "evolution" spelt "Vestiges," and it was the only text specifically mentioned in the first edition: "The author of the Vestiges of Creation would, I presume, say that, after a certain unknown number of generations, some bird had given birth to a woodpecker, and some plant to a mistletoe, and that these had been produced perfect as we now see them; but this assumption seem to me to be no explanation, for it leaves the case of co-adaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained" (3-4). In the “Historical Sketch” of later editions of Origin Darwin wrote: "The work, from its powerful and brilliant style, though displaying in the earlier editions little accurate knowledge and a great want of scientific caution, immediately had very wide circulation. In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views" (xvi-xvii).
Darwin was persuaded to publish his ideas because by 1859 not only because of the well-known fact that Wallace was about to publish his theories of evolution but also because he political and intellectual mood of Britain has changed significantly — in part because of Vestiges. The composition of the scientific community was changing as an older group of natural theologians and reverend gentlemen naturalists were being replaced by younger, more specialised and secular men who were more receptive to a materialist explanation of nature. The sheer weight of evidence in favour of evolution was forcing older scholars such as Charles Lyell to accept the fact of evolution, even if they retained their belief that Mankind had been created by God and endowed with a soul. Chambers had neutralised the radical political message previously associated with evolution by many: Herbert Spencer had replaced it with a very different, competitive political message, one which was more akin to Darwin's world view, and that of his supporters such as Thomas Huxley and Lyell.
It is frequently claimed that because Origin of Species was a scientific work and Vestiges was one of popular science, the former was the more important intellectually. Darwin included a large number of detailed examples from the natural world to bolster his case for transformism in organisms, whereas Chambers was trying to present to his readers an understanding of the cosmos wherein change was normal. For Chambers organic change was part of a larger whole and his book had a scope which was intentionally much greater than Darwin's. William Wilberforce thought Darwin's book was not a proper work of science, while Richard Owen pointed out many errors, a fact that was often overlooked by Darwin's supporters, many of whom had changed their positions on the fact of evolution. Darwin may have complained of the vagueness of the causes of development in Vestiges, but he admittedly could not offer complete proof of natural selection. It is also noteworthy that most of Darwin's supporters who accepted evolution did not accept natural selection. There is a case for arguing that the only significant contribution that Darwin made to the evolution debate in the nineteenth century was to persuade a few highly influential individuals, including Joseph Hooker, Huxley, and Lyell, of the fact of evolution, something that they had hitherto denied, at least in public.
Marion Evans (George Eliot) astutely commented that:
We have been reading Darwin's Book on the Origin of "Species" just now: it makes an epoch, as the expression of his thorough adhesion, after long years of study, to the Doctrine of Development - and not the adhesion of an anonym like the author of "Vestiges", but of a long-celebrated naturalist. This book is ill-written and sadly wanting in illustrative facts….. This will prevent the work from becoming popular, as the "Vestiges" did, but it will have a great effect in the scientific world, causing a thorough and open discussion of a question about which people have hitherto felt timid. So the world gets on step by step towards brave clearness and honesty!
Chambers had helped to defuse the radical political threat of Lamarckian evolution in 1844 and thus made it acceptable to a middle class readership. Darwin offered a different underlying political message in 1859, rejecting the co-operative ideas of Jean Charles Leonard de Sismondi (his uncle-by-marriage). Instead, he presented a view of the natural world heavily influenced by Thomas Malthus — ideas in harmony with the dominant economic thinking in mid-nineteenth century Britain.In this way Darwin did exactly what the supporters of natural theology had done in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and what neo-Darwinians were to do in the mid-twentieth century.
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 II: Theology and the Origins of Life
- Chambers' New Evolutionary Narrative III: Mankind, Psychology and Our Place in the Cosmos
- The Critical Response to Vestiges
- Vestiges and The Origin of Species
- The wider cultural significance of Vestiges
- Explanations: A Sequel to Vestiges
Created 31 March 2017