Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Reaction to Darwin's theory

Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was a book published anonymously in England in 1844. It proposed a natural theory of cosmic and biological evolution, tying together numerous speculative scientific theories of the age, and created considerable political controversy in Victorian society for its radicalism and unorthodoxy.

For many decades there was speculation, often correct, as to its authorship. The 12th edition, published in 1884, finally revealed officially that the author was Robert Chambers, a Scottish journalist, who had himself died in 1871.



The book was a best-seller for many decades after it was published, despite being publicly denounced by scientists, preachers, and statesmen. Since around 1800, similar ideas of evolutionism had been suppressed as a dangerous heresy which attacked the current orthodoxy of Created kinds ( which we would now call creationism). It was propagated by lower class Radicals seeking to overturn divine justification of the (aristocratic) social order, and for this reason Vestiges was ferociously attacked by the scientific establishment. However, the political climate had eased as increasing prosperity reduced fears of revolution, and the book was widely considered to be merely scandalous and titillating. Perhaps as a result, it was read not only by members of high society, but also — thanks to the rise of cheap publishing — the lower and middle classes.


Specific criticisms of the book ranged from religious to scientific.

Among religious criticisms, some maintained that Chamber's use of "natural law" to explain the creation of the planets and the successive creation of new species, including man, excluded the possibility of miracles and providential control. In other words, under this scheme, God did not personally interact with His creation after bringing forth these initial Laws. For these critics, this was akin to denying the central miracle of Christianity and, therefore, Christianity itself.

The North British Review, for instance, wrote, "If it has been revealed to man that the Almighty made him out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, it is in vain to tell a Christian that man was originally a speck of albumen, and passed through the stages of monads and monkeys, before he attained his present intellectual pre-eminence." The book, while attributing all natural law directly to God, didn’t seem to leave any room for God’s intervention — no indication that "any law was thundered from Sinai, or preached from Mount Tabor."

This left some wondering if the book's references to the Divine were really genuine, and not just a façade. Sir John Cam Hobhouse, second Baron Broughton, wrote these thoughts in his diary upon reading Vestiges: "In spite of the allusions to the creative will of God the cosmogony is atheistic—at least the introduction of an author of all things seems very like a formality for the sake of saving appearances—it is not a necessary part of the scheme—the attempt to reconcile moral & physical evil with ye benevolence & omnipotence of the deity is pretty much an expansion in prose of a few lines of the Essay on Man...(the book) does not meddle with revealed religion—but unless I am mistaken the leaders of revealed religion will meddle with it."

Others were afraid of the moral consequences of accepting that humans had evolved from the lower animals. Adam Sedgwick, the Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge, wrote a scathing review in the July, 1845 edition of the Edinburgh Review. For Sedgwick, moral truths (the obtainment of which separates man from beast) were to be distinguished from physical truths, and to combine these or blur them together could only lead to disastrous consequences. In fact, one’s own hope for immortality may ultimately rest on it. Vestiges "comes before [its readers] with a bright, polished, and many-coloured surface, and the serpent coils a false philosophy, and asks them to stretch out their hands and pluck the forbidden fruit," he wrote in his review. Accepting the arguments in Vestiges was akin to falling from grace and away from God’s favor. Charles Darwin was particularly interested in what his former mentor had to say about evolution. Darwin wrote that he read the review "with fear & trembling," but was "well pleased to find" that he "had not overlooked any of the arguments".

Sedgwick lashed out at the book in a letter to Charles Lyell, bemoaning the consequences of it conclusions. "...If the book be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts!" Later, Sedgwick would add a 400+ page preface to the 5th edition of his Discourse on the Studies of the University of Cambridge (1850), including a lengthy attack on Vestiges and theories of development in general.

Scientific criticisms took the book to task for its reliance on speculative scientific theories. The April 1845 issue of the North American Review published a long review, the beginning of which states:

"The writer has taken up almost every questionable fact and startling hypothesis, that have been promulgated by proficients and pretenders in science during the present century...The nebular hypothesis...spontaneous generation...the Macleay system, dogs playing dominoes, negroes born of white parents, materialism, phrenology, - he adopts them all, and makes them play an important part in his own magnificent theory, to the exclusion, to a great degree, of the well-accredited facts and established doctrines of science."

Darwin and Vestiges

Charles Darwin, who was working on his own theory of evolution at the time the book was first published, admired its prose, but wrote in a letter to a friend that the author's "geology strikes me as bad, & his zoology far worse." He would, only a few years later, correctly deduce that Chambers must have been the author. Darwin chose to refer directly to the Vestiges in his introduction to On the Origin of Species, 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 took the publication of the Origin as an opportunity to release a new edition of Vestiges and respond to Darwin's comments, lamenting that Darwin had misunderstood the Vestiges. "It seems to the author," Chambers wrote, "that Mr. Darwin has only been enabled by his infinitely superior knowledge to point out a principle in what may be called practical animal life, which appears capable of bringing about the modifications theoretically assumed in the earlier work. His book, in no essential respect, contradicts the present: on the expresses substantially the same general ideas." In perhaps a gross simplification, Chambers concludes that "The difference seems to be in words, not in facts or effects." At the very least, Chambers saw in Darwin a much needed ally - one that the former simply could not afford to have against him.

It is probable that Darwin read Chambers's comments, because he removed the offending passage from the 3rd edition of the Origin (1861) and all subsequent editions. In a historical sketch, newly added to the 3rd edition, Darwin softened his language a bit:

"The author apparently believes that organisation progresses by sudden leaps, but that the effects produced by the conditions of life are gradual. He argues with much force on general grounds that species are not immutable productions. But I cannot see how the two supposed "impulses" account in a scientific sense for the numerous and beautiful co-adaptations which we see throughout nature; I cannot see that we thus gain any insight how, for instance, a woodpecker has become adapted to its peculiar habits of life. The work, from its powerful and brilliant style, though displaying in the earlier editions little accurate knowledge and a great want of scientific caution, immediately had a very wide circulation."

Darwin even suggested that Chambers' book helped pave the way for the publication of his theory of evolution by natural selection. "In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views."

The harsh reception that Vestiges received, and the mockery which was made of its evolutionary ideas, has been cited by historians as one of the factors leading to Charles Darwin's own delay in publishing his own theory of evolution. In a letter to Thomas Henry Huxley in 1854 (five years before his own book on evolution was published but twelve years after its ideas had first been sketched out in an unpublished essay), Darwin expressed sympathy for the (still anonymous) author of Vestiges in the face of a savage review by Huxley:

"I must think that such a book, if it does no other good, spreads the taste for Natural Science. But I am perhaps no fair judge, for I am almost as unorthodox about species as the Vestiges itself, though I hope not quite so unphilosophical."

However a year later, in a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, Darwin mentioned Vestiges in a more sober tone:

"I should have less scruple in troubling you if I had any confidence what my work would turn out. Sometimes I think it will be good, at other times I really feel as much ashamed of myself as the author of the Vestiges ought to be of himself."[1]

According to the historian James A. Secord, Vestiges outsold The Origin of Species up until the early 20th century.

Influence on A.R. Wallace

It was reading Vestiges in 1845 that first convinced Alfred Russel Wallace of the reality of the transmutation of species. It was this belief that would lead him to plan his early field work with the idea of collecting data on the geographic distribution of closely allied species in hopes of finding evidence to support the idea. Wallace made the following comments on the concept of transmution of species as described in Vestiges in a letter to Henry Bates a few months after first reading it:

I do not consider it a hasty generalization, but rather as an ingenious hypothesis strongly supported by some striking facts and analogies, but which remains to be proved by more facts and the additional light which more research may throw upon the problem. It furnishes a subject for every observer of nature to attend to; every fact he observes will make either for or against it, and it thus serves both as an incitement to the collection of facts, and an object to which they can be applied when collected.


Because the book was published anonymously, speculation on the authorship naturally began as soon as it was released. Many people were suspected, including, Charles Darwin ("I ought to be much flattered & unflattered"), the geologist Charles Lyell, the phrenologist George Combe, as well as many of the people whose work the book often cited. Early on, Sir Richard Vyvyan, the Tory leader of the parliamentary opposition to the Reform Bill, was a popular suspect. Vyvyan held interests in natural philosophy, phrenology, and lamarckian evolution. Only three years earlier he had privately printed his own evolutionary cosmology, a copy of which he sent to the English anatomist Richard Owen. The latter likely explains the discrepancy between Owen's critical letter to William Whewell on the Vestiges and his flattering letter to the author, whom he probably thought was Vyvyan. It was even suggested at one point that Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha may have secretly written it.

Adam Sedgwick, as well as others, initially thought that the work was likely written by a woman, either Harriet Martineau or the Countess Ada Lovelace. A feminine authorship was thought to explain all of the book's scientific failings.

Robert Chambers became a prominent suspect as early as the spring of 1845. In 1854, following the publication of the 10th edition of Vestiges along with its anonymous biographical sketch, a former assistant named David Page accused Chambers directly. The accusation was printed in the Athenaeum, but because Page was an embittered former employee of the Chambers's firm, his testimony was not taken all that seriously. Vyvyan finally denied that he was the author outright and the British Museum listed the book under George Combe's name as late as 1877.

After Robert's death in 1871 his brother, William, penned a biography for Robert but refused to reveal the secret. He only mentioned the Vestiges to note that Robert's suspected authorship was used as a means to discredit him when he ran for the office of Lord Provost of Edinburgh in 1848. The secret was finally revealed at last in 1884 when Alexander Ireland issued a new 12th edition with Robert's name and an introduction explaining the circumstances behind its publication.

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