Chambers c. 1865Robert Chambers was a prolific journalist of Edinburgh. A well-know literary and intellectual figure at his time, he is primarily remembered today as the then secret author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), a work which caused a great sensation in Victorian Britain. His circle of friends included the Combes brothers, Robert Cox, the journalist Alexander Ireland, and the Glasgow professor of astronomy J.P. Nichol. Chambers initially intended his book to be a "philosophy of phrenology". Vestiges drew heavily on the naturalistic rhetoric and especially the doctrine of the natural laws from Combe's Constitution of Man. Vestiges took the phrenological doctrine of natural laws and brought it to cultural territory it might not otherwise have reached. Vestiges is now usually remembered for the controversy it initiated over transmutation (evolution). Charles Darwin later remarked that Vestiges was important in preparing many people to accept his own theory of evolution. Reading the book in a post-Darwinian world often leads to the skewed representation of Vestiges as a flawed precursor of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). However, during the 1840s and 1850s Vestiges was the only 'evolution' book readers in the English speaking world were familiar with. Rather than dismissing the book as flawed, we might be impressed by how remarkably modern the book reads today. Vestiges argues for a general "development" theory. Although much of the critical invective directed against the book focused on the issue of speciation- readers of Vestiges found a grand tale of the "development" or progress of nature from swirling clouds of interstellar gas, to the geological ages of the Earth, to the increasing complexity of organic forms and the improvement of man. Only in 1884 (long after Chambers' death) with the publication of the 12th edition, was it revealed that Vestiges was written by Robert Chambers.

Further Reading

[Chambers, Robert.] Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. London, 1844.

[Chambers, Robert.] Explanations: A Sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" By the author of that work. London, 1845.

Secord, James. Victorian Sensation: The Ext raordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

A a major work on Victorian cultural history- brilliantly written, painstakingly researched, and beautifully illustrated. Secord makes many provocative and insightful revisions to our understanding of the history of evolutionary thought and how history can be studied through one of the most common yet unappreciated human activities- reading. It can be ordered at Amazon.com, and the first chapter is available free online.

Chambers, R. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and other Evolutionary Writings. ed. James Secord, London, 1994. (This re-print also contains Chambers' Explanations and a complete bibliography of the contemporary reviews and more secondary literature than is given here.)

Cooney, Sondra Miles. 'Publishers for the People: W&R Chambers, the early years, 1832-50' Ohio State University, PhD, 1970.

Egerton, F. 'Refutation and Conjecture: Darwin's Response to Sedgwick's Attack on Chambers', in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 1, 1970, pp. 176-183.

Gillispie, Charles. Genesis and Geology: A Study in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790-1850. Cambridge, 1951.

Hodge, M.J.S. 'The Universal Gestation of Nature: Chamber's Vestiges and Explanations' in Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 5, no.1, Spring 1972, pp. 127-151.

Millhauser, Milton. Just before Darwin: Robert Chambers and Vestiges. Middletown, Connecticut, 1959. (The old standard on Vestiges and still worth a look.)

Secord, J. 'Behind the Veil: Robert Chambers and Vestiges', in James Moore ed., History, Humanity and Evolution, Cambridge, 1989, pp. 165-194.


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Last modified 28 September, 2002