Decorated initial M

uch has been written in the past about the so-called "Darwinian Revolution," particularly by historians and scientists in the mid 20th century. More recently historians have revised this opinion and it is now recognised that no such revolution occurred: instead there was a change of world view which had its origins in the European Enlightenment, and expanded and changed in the course of the nineteenth century. The publication of Vestiges must rank as one of the more important moment in Victorian thought, not least because it brought into the public domain ideas, potentially dangerous ideas, discussed in many smaller circles, including those of radical politics and medicine: Chambers let the evolutionary cat out of the intellectual bag of early Victorian Britain, and later that of Europe and America. By persuading many in the expanding middle class of the fact of evolution, he made a subject of conversation in ways which had hitherto not been possible. Nineteenth-century Evangelical divines, both within and without the established church, argued that evolution permeated and shaped the scriptures: from the Old Testament’s first revelation of the God of Israel to God's presentation of the moral law and thence to the Levitical laws of sacrifice, they saw a path of moral and spiritual development pointing at last to the sacrifice of Christ. In other words, unlike conservative evangelical protestants today, Victorian evangelicals accept that development and spiritual evolution.

Before 1844 only political radicals and a small number of anatomists had been prepared to discuss geological and biological evolution publicly. Vestiges changed that for good — something shown by the huge response in the press and periodicals discussed above, but there were many people who now expressed their ideas freely which previously they had been too afraid to do. Tennyson was in the process of writing In Memoriam in 1844, and his writing until then had portrayed science as negative and depressing. The second part of the poem which was written after he had read Chambers' book began a new cycle in which God is united with nature and leads to an optimistic conclusion, similar to that inherent in Vestiges.

…..and ocean sounds,
A soul shall draw from out the vast
And, star and system rolling past,
And strike his being into bounds,

And, moved through life of lower phase,
Result in man, be born and think,
And act and love, a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race….

A contemporary reviewer of In Memoriam commented: 'The dreams of the author of 'Vestiges of Creation' seem to be realised by the poet". It was Tennyson who popularised the phrase "Nature red in tooth and claw," a phrase which was later to be closely associated with Darwin's natural selection and his understanding of a natural world dominated by competition and the struggle to survive. Actually Tennyson may have been influenced by Herbert Spencer who had started to write on evolution in the early 1850s as a direct consequence of having read Vestiges. In Social Statics (1851) Spencer wrote about Lamarckian evolution thus:

It is clear that any being whose constitution is to be moulded into fitness for new conditions of existence must be placed under those conditions. Or, putting the proposition specifically—it is clear that man can become adapted to the social state, only by being retained in the social state. This granted, it follows that as man has been, and is still, deficient in those feelings which, by dictating just conduct, prevent the perpetual antagonism of individuals and their consequent disunion, some artificial agency is required by which their union may be maintained. Only by the process of adaptation itself can be produced that character which makes social equilibrium spontaneous.

Spencer was a political radical who opposed violent revolution: it was a mark of how the idea had been tamed and made subject to natural law by Chambers that Spencer could write about it as he did, and in doing so he gave it further publicity. He continued to write on evolution for the remainder of his life and was probably more influential in the popularising of this idea than any other single author in the second half of the nineteenth-century .

Alfred Russell Wallace probably read Vestiges in 1846, although he seems to have first heard of the book through newspaper reports on some of the debates that it generated. He had been brought up in North Wales and was a committed socialist, having heard lectures in London on the reformer Robert Owen. The developmental ideas in Vestiges went well with Wallace's interest in phrenology and self-help, and he decided that the development hypothesis needed testing in the field. Therefore he decided to become a commercial collector and in 1847 started on his expedition along the river Amazon. A decade later he was to combine the development hypothesis with other ideas to reach the conclusion that natural selection could be a cause of change in organisms.

George Eliot (Marian Evans) was another early disciple of Chambers. When the Westminster Review gained a new editor in 1852, Evans wrote a new prospectus for the magazine in which: "the fundamental principle of the work is the recognition of the Law of Progress." In Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) and Adam Bede (1859) she included her ideas on the evolutionary philosophy of progress. This, combined with a style of narrative and scene setting which was based on the novels of Walter Scott, meant that developmental evolution started to shape the realist novel genre before Darwin had published his ideas on the subject.

Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke,Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography (also published anonymously, in 1850), was a controversial Christian socialist work which towards the end has a chapter entitled "Dreamland". Kingsley wrote that: "the evolution of man from primitive life forms is traced through a number of stages, and his achievement of a final state of moral and social perfection is prophesied". His later Water Babies (1863) also owed more to Erasmus Darwin and Chambers than it did to the grandson who had deliberately avoided the problem of the evolution of life in the oceans. Thomas Hardy was an acknowledged reader of the Chambers' Journal and it hardly seems likely that he had not read Vestiges too. In his “Two on a Tower” the protagonist is a young astronomer: Hardy had a long-standing interest in astronomy. The "Adonis astronomer" Swithin St Clare who woos Viviette Lady Constantine evokes a universe in constant flux:

For all the wonder of the everlasting stars, eternal spheres, and what not, they are not everlasting, they are not eternal; they burn out like candles. You see that dying one in body of the Greater Bear? Two centuries ago it was as bright as the others. The senses become terrified by plunging among them as they are, but there is pitifulness even in their glory.

These are sentiments which can be readily traced back to Vestiges but hardly Origin of Species.

Conclusion

When Robert Chambers died on 17 March 1871 he was buried according to his wishes in the Cathedral burial ground in the interior of the old Church of St. Regulus at St. Andrews. He was still the anonymous author of one of the most important and influential books on evolution to be published in mid-nineteenth-century England, and his grave is in a quiet, almost anonymous, rarely visited corner. When Charles Darwin died on 19 April 1882, it was his wish that he be buried in the local churchyard at Downe in Kent where he had lived for much of his life. Others had different ideas and he was buried instead in Westminster Abbey, his grave passed by thousands every year. Neither man had courted such publicity, but Chambers at least had had his last wishes respected.

Today if Chambers is remembered at all, it is as an amateur who dabbled in science: he lacked the authority to be taken seriously by scientists. In the mid-1840's however there were no scientists: there were men of independent means, and a few salaried individuals who depended upon the patronage of others for their jobs. Whatever the private views of the latter they had to conform to the ideas of their time or risk losing they posts: Richard Owen is the best known but by no means the only one of them. He may well have been converted to evolution by Vestiges but because he remained cautious in expressing any opinion on the subject, it is impossible to know exactly what he thought. The reaction to the publication of Vestiges by members of the Establishment indicates all too clearly the risk that any authors would have taken if they had published under their own name. It did not stop the wider public from enthusing about the book and the ideas therein, something which the members of the Establishment then and later were very condescending about. Even today professional scientists who write popular science books or articles are frequently regarded with suspicion by their colleagues, and any person who dares to challenge current orthodoxies is treated in the same way that Chambers had been. Human nature and the politics of science have not changed. The real significance of the contributions of Chambers and Darwin to the scientific and general debate about evolution in the nineteenth-century is shown by the following comment by A. W. Benn, written in 1878:

Hardly any advance has since been made on Chambers' general arguments, which at the time they appeared would have been accepted as convincing, but for the theological truculence and scientific timidity. And Chambers himself only gave unity to thoughts already in wide circulation…. Chambers was not a scientific expert, not altogether an original thinker, but he had studied scientific literature to better purpose than any professor. . . . The considerations that now recommend evolution to popular audiences are no other than those urged in the Vestiges.

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


Created 15 March 2017