July 10, 1802 (a Saturday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, the Scottish author and publisher Robert Chambers was born. He was the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which was released in 1844. Literary anonymity was not uncommon at the time, especially in periodical journalism. However, in the science genre, anonymity was especially rare, due to the fact that science writers typically wanted to take credit for their work in order to claim priority for their findings. Chamber’s identity as the author of Vestiges was not officially revealed to the public until 1884, several years after his death.

During the 1830s, Chambers had become particularly interested in the then rapidly expanding field of geology — he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1840 and elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1844. He had taught himself the basics of geology and botany, and was strongly influenced by Lamarck and Buffon. Chambers’ motivation for writing Vestiges was in part to open up the question of evolution (at that time referred to as “development”) by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845, entitled Explanations, he wrote of the Vestiges:

I said to myself: Let this book go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it…

Chambers had chosen anonymity in writing Vestges for a very pragmatic reason: he feared, and with reason, that the controversy over the book would hurt his publishing business. Vestiges began with an explanation of the nebular hypothesis of the formation of the Solar System, and went on from there to present a grand picture of the progressive evolution of life on Earth. By implying that God might not actively sustain the natural and social hierarchies, the book threatened the social order and could provide ammunition to Chartists and revolutionaries.

Anglican clergymen/naturalists attacked the book, with the geologist Adam Sedgwick predicting “ruin and confusion in such a creed” which if taken up by the working classes “will undermine the whole moral and social fabric” bringing “discord and deadly mischief in its train.” Physicist Sir David Brewster warned that Vestiges stood a “fair chance of poisoning the fountains of science, and sapping the foundations of religion.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller, never a man to avoid an argument, published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, as a rebuttal to Vestiges. Thomas Henry Huxley penned one of the most venomous book reviews of all time: the book was a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.”

In contrast, Vestiges was liked by many Quakers and Unitarians. The Unitarian physiologist William Carpenter called it “a very beautiful and a very interesting book”, and helped Chambers with correcting later editions.

Vestiges was undoubtedly a sensation. It sold remarkably well — over 20,000 copies in a decade — making it one of the best-sellers of its time. Not only many naturalists, like Charles Darwin, but also Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria read it; so did poets like Alfred Tennyson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, statesmen like William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, and philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill. Chambers’s book contained little that proved of lasting scientific value. However, Vestiges brought widespread discussion of evolution out of the streets and gutter presses and into the drawing rooms of respectable men and women.

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