decorated initial W hen Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published anonymously in 1844, it found an enthusiastic reader in Alfred Lord Tennyson who read an Examiner review of it stating: "In this small and unpretending volume we have found so many great results of knowledge and reflection, that we cannot too earnestly recommend it to the attention of thoughtful men." Tennyson ordered a copy, and felt that the work contained "many speculations with which I have been familiar for years, and on which I have written more than one poem." Vestiges, one of the first of a genre of what we recognise today as popular science books, became an instant best seller and the subject of discussion in literary and fashionable circles in the London social season of 1844-45: Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his sister Sarah that Vestiges "is convulsing the world" and his wife Mary told her that "Dizzy says it does and will cause the greatest sensation and confusion."

Others were not so enamoured. Many critics who considered themselves members of an educated elite that controlled what the wider public should know were deeply concerned that anyone else could publish controversial ideas in a style that made them easily accessible to a wide readership. They claimed that Vestiges was so filled with mistakes that it was not worthy of serious discussion, a criticism frequently repeated by modern commentators, some of whom ignore the book's importance in the history of the evolution debates in the nineteenth century. In fact, Vestiges made an extremely important contribution to the acceptance of the idea of evolution by providing the first modern vision of nature as a unified, changing, and evolving system. It was a significant landmark in intellectual history which predated Charles Darwin's better known Origin of Species by 15 years.

Robert Chambers had written Vestiges over two years in deep secrecy at his home at Abbey Park on the edge of St. Andrews in Scotland. He remained anonymous for the rest of his life, the secret of his authorship not being broken until the publication of the final (12th) edition in 1884, 12 years after his death. Anonymity of authorship was quite common the the first half of the nineteenth century, but the true authorship of most books and articles soon became known. Chambers' case is unusual because his book was a best seller and a "sensation," yet his secret was kept for such a long time. It was a controversial book which even today is the subject of much discussion concerning its significance in the development and acceptance of evolutionary ideas in the nineteenth century. It recast Enlightenment cosmologies into a form that was acceptable or even inviting to the emerging middle classes in Victorian England by omitting the radical political elements that permeated many contemporary ideas about evolution. Instead it popularised the idea by using devout language and polite prose which allowed it to be discussed in salons, drawing rooms, and other domestic situations. It offered a scientific argument for evolution long before members of the contemporary academic community were prepared to do so.

Chambers was inspired by John Pringle Nichol's Views of the Architecture of the Heavens published in 1837, in which the author focussed on the developmental laws of the universe as described in the nebular hypothesis of Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) and William Herschel (1738-1822) for the formation of galaxies and the solar system. Nicol was professor of astronomy at Glasgow university and was a popular lecturer who captured his audience's imagination. It is very probable that Chambers had also read and been motivated by Alexander von Humboldt's approach to the natural world. In his Personal Narrative, an account of his expedition to South America, Humboldt described the natural world as an integrated whole where the inorganic and organic were tightly interconnected: Charles Darwin was captivated by the book. Chambers certainly followed Humboldt in spirit by attempting to describe mankind as part of a unity in nature and by claiming that this unity was controlled by universal laws, of which others had only described fragments.

Chambers wanted to repeat the approaches of von Humboldt and Nicol, but he also wanted to extend the developmental idea to cover the entire cosmos from nebulae to man. He set out to provide a narrative for the origins of the cosmos and humanity that would replace the Judeo-Christian story found in the Old Testament. He was acutely aware that this would cause a huge backlash from the Anglican and other denominations in Britain and Europe, but particularly from his home country of Scotland where evangelical theologians still had a great deal of political power. To protect his family’s business he remained anonymous his entire life, fearing that if his authorship became known, the family's successful publishing business would be boycotted and destroyed, and he and his family would become targets of his opponents.

Chambers synthesised many new discoveries and ideas in astronomy, geology, comparative anatomy, and psychology in constructing a materialist explanation of the universe that re-interpreted mankind's position within it. He used his considerable writing skills, which he had honed in the hundreds of articles published in cheap penny sheets and other media, to write a book that could be read and understood easily by anyone who had a minimal education. By quoting from original sources he created a best seller that more than any other was to change man's conception of himself. He drew the imaginations of his readers to two of the remarkable discoveries of the period: the size of the universe and the scale of geological time, both of which remain beyond human comprehension.

A year after the publication of Vestiges Chambers published Explanations: a Sequel to answer his critics: later editions of Vestiges incorporated much of the material in Explanations. Vestiges became available as a cheap edition in England in 1847 and later in the Netherlands, and was translated into German twice. In America the book, which could be bought for 50 cents, sold in large numbers. The publication of Vestiges and the events that followed disproves the popular idea that major scientific ideas are first developed and accepted in academia and then passed to the general population; or — to cite a particularly relevant example — that it was the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species that triggered the widespread acceptance of evolution.

Related Material

Last modified 10 December 2021