ollowing early reviews of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation Chambers published a second volume to answer his scientific critics, whom he considered had a narrow and limited view of nature and were unable or unwilling to address the questions that mattered to the public, such as man's place in nature and human destiny. As he wrote to his friend and collaborator Alexander Ireland about the fierce opposition he had received from “scientific men”,
The condemnation so liberally dealt in by the scientific men must surely spring in great measure from inferior feelings, not from offended philosophy. It seems so spiteful. If, however, these men had generally any comprehensive ideas of science, they could not, I think, blind themselves to the harmony of the opus with nature in at least her general character. And they would see that, so far from being a hindrance to the advance of science, it tends to promote its progress by exciting an interest in the first place, and in the second by showing the way to bringing All within the range of investigation.
Explanations differs from Vestiges by being sharply analytical and emphasizing the strong case for natural law. It attempted to deflect detailed criticism of factual errors made people like Adam Sedgwick, and it used much more moderate language than they had done. He thereby sought to show that many of his critics were men of limited vision who paid close attention to minutiae while being blind to the wider picture. He therefore urged that
It is a mistake to suppose this (nebular) hypothesis essential, as the basis of the entire system of nature developed in my book. That basis lies in the material laws found to prevail throughout the universe, which explain why the masses of space are globular; why planets revolve around suns in elliptical orbits; how their rates of speed are high in proportion to their nearness to the centre of attraction; and so forth. . . .The philosopher . . . learns his first great lesson — that the natural laws work on the minutest and grandest scales indifferent. (5-6)
Chambers knew that three of his important critics, William Whewell, Sedgwick, and David Brewster had praised the nebular hypothesis before Vestiges had been published: now they seemed to be opposed or equivocal. He repeated that the hypothesis was supported by sufficient observational evidence to confirm that natural laws were operating at the cosmic scale and that they led to progress:
It [the nebular hypothesis] approaches the region of ascertained truths, and may reasonably be held as a strong corroboration of what first appears from the material laws of the universe, that the whole Uranographical arrangements were effected in the manner of natural law. . . . The formation of worlds and their arrangement now appear but as steps in a Historical Progress, for matter is necessarily presumed to have existed before in a different form. (23).
Turning to the development of the human mind, Chambers appealed to the same explanation, based on natural laws:
We have fixed mechanical laws at one end of nature. If we turn to the mind and morals of man, we find that we have equally fixed laws at the other. The human being. . . .becomes a simple natural phenomenon when taken in the mass, for a regularity is observed in every peculiarity of our constitution and every form of thought and deed of which we are capable, when we only extend our view over a sufficiently wide range. (24)
Similarly, after referring to Adolphe Quetelet's statistical studies of human behavior, Chambers claimed that “these are doctrines . . . rest on the most powerful of all evidence, that of numbers. . . . the simple fact that Morals — that part of the system of things which seemed least under natural regulation or law — is as thoroughly ascertained to be wholly so, as the arrangement of the heavenly bodies” (25-26).
Unlike some many of his critics, Chambers was careful not to insert any values or beliefs into the result of this understanding of mankind, except that our species is a product of progressive development. Charles Darwin, who later challenged the idea that evolution is fundamentally progressive, argued that it is non-directional, a view which is still dominant today.
Chambers devoted the bulk of his second book to justifying his claim that the geological record demonstrated progress. In support of his argument, he pointed out the genuine disagreement among scientific specialists and quoted authors who argued for such progress. He also defended his reliance on the experiments of Crosse on spontaneous generation, quoting from a letter by William Henry Weekes that gave details of the latest research on the subject:
During the last three years, Mr Weekes, of Sandwich, has continued to subject solutions to electric action, and invariably found insects produced in these instances, while they as invariably failed to appear when the electric action was not employed, but every other condition fulfilled. (120)
Chambers contrasted his reliance on evidence from experiment with that of his critics who merely offered "empty jests". He went on to illustrate the huge discrepancies between the pre-Vestiges and post Vestiges statements on law of Sedgwick, Whewell, Louis Agassiz and Herschel. His critics, being unable to disprove his hypothesis, had turned to other methods, such as obfuscation:
One of the most remarkable reservations made of late years from the system of invariable order is that presented in Dr Whewell's History of the Inductive Sciences. Admitting that nature, as revealed to our senses, is a system of causation, this writer halts when he comes to consider the origin of language and of arts, the origin of species and formation of globes.These he calls palaetiological sciences, because, in his opinion, we have to seek for an ancient and different class of causes, as affecting them, from any which are now operating. . . . Here, we have the view of exceptions which is entertained by one of the chief writers of the day, and the superior of one of our greatest academical institutions. . . . It is remarkable, but not surprising, how weak is the barrier which he has raised to stop our course towards a theory of universal arrangement by ordinary natural law. (127-28, original emphasis).
Then having provided considerable evidence from recognised geologists about the formation of sedimentary strata with fossils, and igneous formations, Chambers offers this riposte: "In short, all the common operations of the physical world were going on in their usual simplicity, obeying that order which we still see governing them (132-33, original emphasis).
Chambers gave the anonymous critic in The Edinburgh Review (Adam Sedgwick) equally short shrift, remarking that “he informs us that we have only these faculties to look for information on this very subject, (natural law operating on a universal scale); and they tell us — what? — that the world is a system of law!" (137). He attacked Agassiz as well, accusing him of the very shortcomings that Agassiz found in Vestiges: "Where men are so much perplexed between two opposite principles, led by science in the one direction and drawn by ‘intellectual indolence or timidity’ (Agassiz's words) in the other, it is not surprising to find them expressing opinions wholly contradictory" (141). He also quoted Herschel against himself, claiming that "Sir John Herschel some years ago announced views strictly conformable to those subsequently taken of organic creation in my book. . . ."the origination of fresh species, could it ever come under our cognisance, would be found to be a natural, in contradistinction to a miraculous process. . . . In his address to the British Association at Cambridge, (1845), he said, with respect to my hypothesis of the first step of organic creation — "The transition from an inanimate crystal to a globule capable of such endless organic and intellectual development, is as great a step — as unexplained a one — as unintelligible to us — and in any sense of the word as miraculous, as the immediate creation and introduction upon earth of every species and every individual would be!" (141-42, Chambers' emphasis).
Chambers left his readers in no doubt as to who had been the most logically consistent in their argument:
The reader will now be able to judge of the views opposed to the theory of universal order. He observes that they are of no distinct unique character, but for the most part follow the measure of ignorance, and are maintained at the expense of consistency. . . .The whole question, then, stands thus. For the theory of universal order — that is, order as presiding in both the origin and administration of the world — we have the testimony of a vast number of facts in nature, and this one in addition, — that whatever is reft from the domain of ignorance and made undoubted matter of science, forms a new support to the same doctrine. (142, 148-49)
In a passage that reiterated the point that life and species were the products of natural processes, he argues “This prepares the way for a few remarks on the . . . . origin of organic nature. The great difficulty here is the apparent determinateness of species" (149). Having dismissed the hypothesis of the Rev. Dr. Pye Smith on the "separate and original creations, perhaps at different and respectively distant epochs," it seems hardly conceivable that rational men should give an adherence to such a doctrine, when we think of what it involves. In the single fact that it necessitates a special fiat of the inconceivable Author of this sand-cloud of worlds to produce the flora of St. Helena, we tread its more than sufficient condemnation. . . . Time is the true key to difficulties regarding appearances of determinateness in species. (152-53, original emphasis; 158).
Chambers quoted Darwin's Journal of a Voyage Around the World to describe some of the unique species found on the Galapagos islands, but unlike Darwin who suggested that the ancestors of these species had migrated to the islands from South America, Chambers argued that they represented species which were in a lesser stage of development than those found elsewhere: “It is his supposition, that the birds in those instances are immigrants, but I must advert to the fact, as strikingly in harmony with my hypothesis of development, which was certainly formed without any knowledge of this illustration" (164-65). In this he was consistent but wrong. For Chambers this was but a secondary problem: for him the main point was that life formed and evolved on earth following natural laws: "If we can regard the origin and development of life upon our planet having been equally under natural law, the whole point is gained; for we are not so much inquiring in order to say how? as was it within or beyond the natural?. . . . in the balance of the two sets of evidences, those for a universality of natural law down weigh the other beyond calculation" (168-69, original emphasis).
He had clearly stated and published the case for the origins and evolution of life based on scientific evidence at a time when Darwin was still writing a short essay on a possible process of speciation. which he then locked away in a drawer. For those critics (in this case Sedgwick in the Edinburgh Review), but also to those historians in the 20th century who have accused him of being Deistic and therefore a believer in Creation, Chambers wrote: “I must firmly protest against this mode of meeting speculations regarding nature. The subject of my book (Vestiges), whatever may be said of the manner in which it is treated, is purely scientific” (170).
His response to the reaction of the academic scientists of his day to new and challenging interpretations of their data, was timeless:
[N]]early all the scientific men are opposed to the theory of the Vestiges. As this objection, however, is one likely to be of some avail with many minds, it ought not to be entirely passed over. If I did think that there were reasons independent of judgement for the scientific class coming so generally to this conclusion, I might feel more embarrassed in presenting myself in direct opposition to so many men possessing talents and information. As the case really stands, the ability of this class to give at the present time, a true response upon such a subject, appears extremely challengeable……Experiments in however narrow a walk, facts of whatever minuteness, make reputations in scientific societies; all beyond disregarded with suspicion and distrust. The consequence is, that philosophy, as it exists amongst us, does nothing to raise its votaries above the common ideas of their time. There can, therefore, be nothing more conclusive against our hypothesis in the disfavour of the scientific class, than in any other section of educated men…… For the very purpose of maintaining their own respect in the concessions they have to make, they naturally wish to find all possible objections to any theory as that of progressive development, exaggerating every difficulty in its way, rejecting, wherever they can, the evidence in favour, and extenuating what they cannot reject: in short, taking all the well recognised means which have been so often employed in keeping back advancing truths. (175-77)
This condemnation of the narrowness of academic scientists was then further emphasised by quoting Herschel's Discourse on Natural Philosophy followed by some scathing comments about the consequences of Herschel's and his colleague's attitudes:
The natural sense of men who do not happen to have taken a taste for coleoptera or for the laws of fluids, revolts at the sterility of such pursuits, and, though fearful of some error on its own part, can hardly help condemning the whole to ridicule . . . can we say that where such views of "the uses of divine philosophy" are entertained, there should be any right preparation of mind to receive with candour, or treat with justice, a plan of nature like that presented in the Vestiges of Creation? No, it must be before another tribunal, that this new philosophy is to be truly and righteously judged. (178-79)
After reinforcing this position with references to Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill, Chambers emphasized the universality of natural law and the unity of life: "Life everywhere is One ... We are yet essentially connected with the humbler vehicles of vitality and intelligence" (184-85).
There had not previously been a clearer or more positive statement of Man's place in an evolving universe in modern times: it was an idea which was to be taken up and developed instantly by many people from all disciplines and none, including Herbert Spencer, Alfred Wallace, Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Eliot, and countless other, lesser known individuals. Charles Darwin was rather late on the scene as he did not broach this subject until 1872, long after it had become a topic for respectable discussion. Evolution had been put on to the popular intellectual map and despite the attempts of his critics to remove it, it was there to stay. It was not accepted by much of the academic elite in Britain until the following decade, by which time it had become sufficiently uncontroversial for C. Darwin to be able to break cover and publish his Origin of Species.
- 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
- The Critical Response to Vestiges
- Vestiges and The Origin of Species
- The wider cultural significance of Vestiges
Last modified 10 December 2021