he subject of mankind's place in the cosmos was the biggest and most controversial that Chambers discussed in his book. Unlike Charles Darwin, who avoided the problem completely in Origin of Species and did not tackle it until 1871, after most of the controversy had blown over, Chambers followed the arguments of Lamarck and Geoffroy St. Hilaire that mankind was a developed species while heading off potential religious critics by suggesting that development led to better forms. Just because our species had evolved from lesser forms, this could not therefore be regarded as degrading:
But the idea that any of the lower animals have been concerned in any way with the origin of man — is not this degrading? Degrading is a term, expressive of a notion of the human mind, and the human mind is liable to prejudices which prevent its notions from being invariably correct. Were we acquainted for the first time with the circumstances attending the production of an individual of our race, we might equally think them degrading, and be eager to deny them, and exclude them from the admitted truths of nature. Knowing this fact familiarly and beyond contradiction, a healthy and natural mind finds no difficulty in regarding it complacently. Creative Providence has been pleased to order that it should be so, and it must therefore be submitted to. Now the idea as to the progress of organic creation, if we become satisfied of its truth, ought to be received precisely in this spirit. It has pleased Providence to arrange that one species should give birth to another, until the second highest gave birth to man, who is the very highest: be it so, it is our part to admire and to submit. The very faintest notion of there being anything ridiculous or degrading in the theory — how absurd does it appear, when we remember that every individual amongst us actually passes through the characters of the insect, the fish, and reptile (to speak nothing of others) before he is permitted to breathe the breath of life! But such notions are mere emanations of false pride and ignorant prejudice. He who conceives them little reflects that they, in reality, involve the principle of a contempt for the works and ways of God. For it may be asked, if He, as appears, has chosen to employ inferior organisms as a generative medium for the production of higher ones, even including ourselves, what right have we, his humble creatures, to find fault? These creatures are all of them part products of the Almighty Conception, as well as ourselves. All of them display wondrous evidences of his wisdom and benevolence. All of them have had assigned to them by their Great Father a part in the drama of the organic world, as well as ourselves. Why should they be held in such contempt? Let us regard them in a proper spirit, as parts of the grand plan, instead of contemplating them in the light of frivolous prejudices, and we shall be altogether at a loss to see how there should be any degradation in the idea of our race having been genealogically connected with them. (233-35)
Chambers placed mankind into the greater story of the cosmos where God still maintained His place as the Supreme Being, but allowed developmental processes to cause our species to come into being by lawful means. This dissociated the idea from the French Revolution, working class atheists and radical reformers in Britain. Instead it made the story into a polite account which could be discussed in any middle class drawing room or aristocratic soiree. Theologians and scientists who opposed the idea would find that opposing it would be very difficult without being, or appearing to be, extremist and intolerant.
Chambers was not prepared to challenge the accepted view of mankind was the pinnacle of development — that was a step too far for him — but he was prepared to follow the logic of his argument and predict that there would be several species of our genus:
Here man is put into the typical place, as the genuine head, not only of this order, but of the whole animal world. . . . and Man, then, considered zoologically, and without regard to the distinct character assigned to him by theology, simply takes his place as the type of all types of the animal kingdom, the true and unmistakable head of animated nature upon this earth. . . . It may be asked, — Is the existing human race the only species designed to occupy the grade to which it is here referred? Such a question evidently ought not to be answered rashly; and I shall therefore confine myself to the admission that, judging by analogy, we might expect to see several varieties of the being, homo. There is no other family approaching to this in importance, which presents but one species. (273, 275)
The origin of civilisation according to Chambers occurred when early man had settled and developed agriculture which allowed the population to increase greatly. Morality then developed in this new human environment:
These, then, may be said to be the chief natural laws concerned in the moral phenomenon of civilization….When… there is leisure and abundance, the self-seeking and self-preserving instincts are allowed to rest, the gentler and more generous sentiments are evoked, and man becomes that courteous and chivalric being which he is found to be amongst the upper classes of almost all civilized countries. (303-04)
This last passage challenged the idea common among the wealthier and aristocratic classes that they were inherently better than their social inferiors because this had been how God had created civilised society: once again a radical political message was being conveyed in a subtle manner. The minds of animals could only be distinguished from those of men as a matter of degree, not quality:
The difference between mind in the lower animals and in man is a difference in degree only; it is not a specific difference. All who have studied animals by actual observation, and even those who have given a candid attention to the subject in books, must attain more or less clear convictions of this truth, notwithstanding all the obscurity which prejudice may have engendered………The unity and simplicity which characterize nature give great antecedent probability to what observation seems about to establish, that, as the brain of the vertebrate generally is just an advanced condition of a particular ganglion in the mollusca and crustacea, so are the brains of the higher and more intelligent mammalia only farther developments of the brains of the inferior orders of the same class. (335-36)
Animals could also have language: what distinguished humans from animals were the sounds, and the sophistication of the sounds, that humans make. These too were regarded as having developed from simpler to more complex forms. Chambers, who believed that the mind is a product of matter, quoted at length from Thomas Hope's On the Origins and Prospects of Man (1831):
Is not God the first cause of matter as well as of mind?…Has not even matter confessedly received from God the power of experiencing, in consequence of impressions from the earlier modifications of matter, certain consciousnesses called sensations of the same? Is not, therefore, the wonder of matter also receiving the consciousnesses of other matter called ideas of the mind a wonder more flowing out of and in analogy with all former wonders, than would be, on the contrary, the wonder of this faculty of the mind not flowing out of any faculties of matter? . . . Cannot the first cause of all we see and know have fraught matter itself, from its very beginning, with all the attributes necessary to develop into mind, as well as he can have from the first made the attributes of mind wholly different from those of matter, only in order afterwards, by an imperceptible and incomprehensible link, to join the two together? (326-27n).
Morality was a product of the development of human behaviour and of the laws of nature which had been created by God:
This statistical regularity in moral affairs fully establishes their being under the presidency of law. Man is now seen to be an enigma only as an individual; in the mass he is a mathematical problem. It is hardly necessary to say, much less to argue, that mental action, being proved to be under law, passes at once into the category of natural things. Its old metaphysical character vanishes in a moment, and the distinction usually taken between physical and moral is annulled, as only an error in terms. (332-33)
To emphasise this point Chambers described the behaviour of cattle and crows to show that they can co-operate for the benefit of the group. This view of nature was very different from the Malthusian version of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin who wrote about nature in competitive terms and came to dominate in the mid to late nineteenth century. Chambers recognised the difference between instinctive and learned behaviour, but believed that they were part of a continuum and that there was no clear separation between them. Intellectual ability, morality and other mental attributes were on a spectrum that extended form mankind into animals without a significant break. Morality was the product of the laws of nature working together: just as in the natural world complex phenomena result from many physical and chemical laws working simultaneously, so human behaviour was a complex affair which resulted from the interaction of many different laws:
the laws presiding over meteorology, life, and mind, are necessarily less definite, as they have to produce a great variety of mutually related results. Left to act independently of each other, each according to its separate commission, and each with a wide range of potentiality to be modified by associated conditions, they can only have effects generally beneficial:— often there must be an interference of one law with another, often a law will chance to operate in excess, or upon a wrong object, and thus evil will be produced. (363-64)
This idea directly challenged Christian theologians who claimed that morality had been created by God, and it also contradicted generations of philosophers who explained and justified morality by starting from other assumptions.
- The Social and Industrial Contexts of Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
- Robert Chambers' New Evolutionary Narrative I: Astronomy and Geology
- Chambers' New Evolutionary Narrative II: Theology and the Origins of Life
- The Critical Response to Vestiges
- Explanations: A Sequel to Vestiges
- Vestiges and The Origin of Species
- The wider cultural significance of Vestiges
Last modified 10 December 2021