October 30, 1844 (a Wednesday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, George Combe wrote a congratulatory letter that he sent to the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation through the publisher of the book. Combe was a phrenologist, who claimed to be able to read a person’s character from the shape of his skull, and he was delighted that the unknown author shared his belief in the “truth” of phrenology.

Only two weeks earlier, while they were on a Saturday walk, Combe had told his friend, the English journalist Robert Chambers, that he should read the newly published book. Combe already had received one of the first free copies, which he had skimmed and partially read with care. Ironically, Combe had not known on that Saturday walk that he was speaking to the author of Vestiges in person, namely, Robert Chambers! Evidently, Chambers did not reveal his identity to Combe. In fact, Chambers revealed his identity to only seven people during his lifetime.

In his letter, Combe said that on turning the pages of the book, he experienced a sense of “pleasure and instruction” – that it combined “all the sublimity of a grand poem, and the sober earnestness & perspicuity of a rigidly philosophical induction.” His letter compared Vestiges to “a new sun” in the scientific firmament, which “will probably collect around it innumberable facts, until at length it shall develop itself into a Theory as perfect as a planetary system.”

This was the book that brought the notion of transmutation out into the public arena. It attempted to describe the entire evolution of the universe, from planets to people, as being driven by some kind of self developing force which acted according to natural laws.

Readers of Vestiges included Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Stuart Mill, although not all shared the same opinion of it. The politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet, said it was “like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory.” The freethinker Abraham Lincoln read the book straight through (something he rarely did) when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” On the other hand, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the most vicious book reviews of all time, describing Vestiges as a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author as one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller even published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, to discredit Vestiges. Yet Vestiges sold remarkably well, one of the best-sellers of its time.

In his introduction to On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin assumed that his readers were aware of Vestiges, and wrote identifying what he felt was one of its gravest deficiencies with regards to its theory of biological evolution:

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 the mistletoe, and that these had been produced perfect as we now see them; but this assumption seems to me to be no explanation, for it leaves the case of the coadaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained.

Chambers wrote that “My sincere desire in the composition of the book was to give the true view of the history of nature, with as little disturbance as possible to existing beliefs, whether philosophical or religious.” He wanted to open up the question of evolution by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845 and entitled Explanations, he wrote, “I said to myself: Let [Vestiges] go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it.”

References:

  • James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 38, 264.
  • William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889).
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