obert Chambers suspected that his book would be either a disaster with few sales or else a great success, and it certainly achieved fame. James Secord, who has listed 30 books and well over 50 periodical articles related to Vestiges in British reviews alone, pointed out that over half of the reviews of Origin of Species also discuss Vestiges. Other mentions of Vestiges include letters to newspapers, newspaper accounts of meetings called to discuss the book, and incidental references to it in periodicals. I offer a tiny selection of the criticisms, and no attempt has been made to balance them: that would require a book of its own.
Although he anticipated receiving some hostile criticism, the vehemence of some critics surprised him. The scientific community almost universally condemned Vestiges as the work of a rank amateur. Other reasons for its condemnation, which revealed the very deep divisions and fundamentally different opinions about the aims and purpose of science, cast an interesting light on the nature of the many ways science changed in early nineteenth-century England and Europe.
Take the example of Adam Sedgwick’s review of Vestiges. Chambers cited Sedgwick, the Professor of Geology at Cambridge, in support of his argument because he had claimed that the the fossil record showed progressive development of living organisms. Segdwick was was a creationist who also believed that life had somehow developed through time under God's guidance. The anonymity of the author of Vestiges made Sedgwick's critical task difficult because he did not wish to offend the author should he turn out to be a peer or other person of power and privilege. His article appeared anonymously, as was the custom of the time, in the Edinburgh Review. He admitted that the author was "accomplished, and, in a certain sense, well informed," but he was also credulous, superficial, skeptical, imaginative, childlike, crazed, hypothetical and fantastical. Reflecting the norms of his class and society, he considered that the book must have been written by a woman because for him, scientific discovery involved an "enormous and continued labour" which women were unable to accomplish. Assuming a position of authority gained by years of study in the field, he tried to denigrate the contents of the book as being unworthy of serious consideration:
No man living, who has partaken of this kind of labour, or, to say the very least, who has not thoroughly mastered the knowledge put before his senses by the labours of other men, has any right to toss out his fantastical crudities before the public, and give himself the airs of a legislator over the material world. (4)
Sedgwick, who worried that an outsider challenged the authority of professional scientists, believed that no one could properly understand the complexities of nature in its entirety. Convinced that it was impossible to claim authority even about a single branch of science, he wanted to expose the anonymous author’s audacious ignorance, and to do so he picked on the tiniest of mistakes all the while missing the central aim of the book, which was to provide a unified view of the cosmos. Chambers responded very forcefully to Sedgwick, who had misunderstood the main point of Vestiges. For Sedgwick the key problem was that the author had "annulled all distinction between physical and moral" and therefore threatened the delicate balance between faith and science that he and other religious scientists tried to maintain. They wanted to abandon the old Natural Theology but had not found a bulwark against the increasing popularity of materialist science and its its terrifying corollaries — atheism, democracy, and revolution. Sedgwick believed that readers of Vestiges were at risk of abandoning their hopes of immortality if they accepted the "rank materialism" which he saw on every page. He was not a scriptural literalist — indeed his own scientific work had done much to undermine and discredit that position — but he saw a real threat to his form of faith in the book. By claiming a high moral and intellectual position while using crude, impolite language, he alienated more readers than he persuaded. In particular William Whewell, one of the leading figures of nineteenth-century science, wrote of his review: "the material . . . excellent, but the workmanship bad, and I doubt if it will do its work". John Gibson Lockhart felt that Sedgwick was trying to defend himself against the logical consequences of his own work: "The truth is all the savants are sore at the vestige man because they are likely to be in the same boat as him": a pertinent and accurate comment. The Prospective reviewer wrote that some specialists wanted to secure "immunity to their own speculations, by a cheap display of eloquent zeal against all who dare to go beyond their measure.
Some Evangelical Christians were no less opposed to Vestiges. In Footprints of the Creator (1849), Hugh Miller, an evangelical, argued that because God watched constantly over His creation, miracles were more probable than possible. Miller’s book, which sold 5000 copies in four years, presented the history of mankind as one of increasing degradation after the Fall, not one of progression from an animal state to civilisation. He also believed that because only human beings had souls they existed wholly separate from animals. If transmutation from animal to human had occurred, then in Miller’s view there was no reason why mankind should not be "by nature atheists.
In 1854 Thomas Henry Huxley, who at the time did not believe in evolution, wrote a scathing review of the 10th edition in which he attacked author, book, and and its readers, describing Vestiges as a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction. . . . We really must suggest that difficulty of comprehension is by no means a test of thought, and that this book ... so popular with the mob, is incomprehensible to the thinker" (426; emphasis added). Like Sedgwick he used the tactic of abusing his opponent and setting up straw men rather than taking on the nook’s key ideas and refuting them. Huxley attacked Chambers' progressionist view of cosmic history because he wrongly believed that it was not only rooted in but also justified a theological interpretation of nature. He gave a detailed discussion of zoological classification to demonstrate what he considered to be Chambers' naive understanding of the living world. He argued that Chambers was wrong to claim that simpler life forms always appeared before more complex ones. He also did not like the way that Chambers had treated Sedgwick's comments on the first edition. His late review of Vestiges should be seen as part of a lifelong campaign to establish a scientific elite as the source of widespread scientific knowledge. Later, after Huxley had accepted the fact of evolution, he regretted “needless savagery” of his criticism:
As for the Vestiges. I confess the book simply irritated me by the prodigious ignorance and thoroughly unscientific habit of mind manifested by the writer. If it had any influence on me at all, it set me against Evolution; and the only review I ever have had qualms of conscience about, on the ground of needless savagery, is the one I wrote on the Vestiges while under that influence.
The response to Vestiges in the wider community for whom the book was written reflected the differing political and theological views of individual critics. Science, politics, and religion were closely connected their responses, such that the opinions of individual reviewers revealed their presuppositions as much as the strength or weakness of Chambers' thesis. Secord's account illustrates this extremely well, and I shall therefore provide only a sample of non-specialist opinion. The Reverend Abraham Hume was a lecturer in English Literature at the Collegiate Institute in Liverpool. Like many of his clerical contemporaries including Sedgwick, Hume believed that science should be used to support religious faith, and he was afraid that materialism would ultimately undermine the authority of science. He thought that Chambers' development hypothesis was a mistaken interpretation of both the nebular hypothesis and geological progression: "the one is not proved, and . . . the other is not true." Although he restricted his arguments to some of the scientific facts and their interpretation, he was deeply concerned that the new development cosmology posed a real threat to Tory Anglican education for the masses. For Hume Vestiges posed two dangers to religion. First, it argued for anti-religious free thought, materialism, and atheism. Second, it undermined science as a support for religious faith.
From the same city another critic took a diametrically opposite point of view. John Taylor was a Liverpool cotton broker, astronomer, and poet. He favoured civil and religious freedom and was an advocate of the science of progress. He was disdainful of scientific elitism and thought that only those who had "an M.D., an F.R.S., an F.R.S.L." should not be able to control science. An anonymous author of several letters to the Albion newspaper criticised Hume and his sympathisers: "And what are the views advocated by the author of the Vestiges of Creation. Are they new, singular or recondite? Are they not, on the contrary, clear, explicit, and familiar?……..Is the existence of lawin nature's operations a new or hidden doctrine of the schools?" In the Liverpool Mercury a few months later a similar argument was offered: "In polemics of criticism, nothing can be more unfair than to raise the hue and cry of materialism.
Although Chambers was severely criticised for his lack of biological knowledge, he could not be so easily challenged for his knowledge of geology and astronomy, and it is telling that few critics attempted to address these aspects of his thesis. Modern historians still tend to overlook this important point; most modern scientists ignore it. However contemporaries, who were well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the book, also recognised Chambers' later attempts to improve it. Chambers had achieved what he had set out to do - he had divided his critics and made them expose publicly the theological and political beliefs which influenced their different ways of understanding development and evolution. He was concerned about the negative response that he received from the scientific community, many of whose views he had drawn upon but from which they had then tried to distance themselves. He was not at all surprised or concerned about the negative reaction from the Anglican Tory establishment because he had anticipated their response. The generally positive reactions of his chosen audience, the middle classes who wanted to learn more of recent scientific discovery, did encourage him because it would be this group that would be the main source of pressure for the gradual and orderly social, economic and political reform that Chambers wanted. He understood that if reform was to be the orderly process that most people desired, then the old Tory Anglican world view would have to be replaced by something very different: his book was an important contribution to that change.
- 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
- Chambers' New Evolutionary Narrative III: Mankind, Psychology and Our Place in the Cosmos
- Explanations: A Sequel to Vestiges
- Vestiges and The Origin of Species
- The wider cultural significance of Vestiges
Last modified 10 December 2021