Robert Chambers. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. 3rd edition, from the 3rd London edition. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1845.   Gift of Esther F. Byrnes, Ph.D. 1898.

 

     
 

 



 
 

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was neither the first nor the most widely read book on evolution in the nineteenth century; that honor belongs to  Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a sensation when it waspublished anonymously in October 1844. The author, Robert Chambers, was the publisher of Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, one of the new, mass-market magazines aimed at educating the middle classes with a mix of articles on history, science, literature and the arts. Out of a justifiable fear that his publishing business would suffer if his name were associated with such a scandalous book, he kept his authorship a secret until nearly the end of his life. 


Vestiges recounts the entire history of creation, starting with a long discussion of the nature of the universe, moving to a history of the earth based on the latest geological theories, and concluding with a description of how life formed spontaneously, perhaps through the action of electrical charges, and has continually evolved ever since. In spite of its serious subject matter, the book was written in a popular, accessible style that appealed to a wide readership. It was reprinted three times in less than a year, was promptly published in America, and had sold nearly 24,000 copies by the time Origin of Species appeared. Although it received its share of positive reviews, it was also the subject of scathing criticism, including one by Darwin’s geology professor at Cambridge, Adam Sedgwick, which denounced the book as leading to atheism and the collapse of English society. The vehemence of the criticism convinced Darwin that he could not publish his own developing ideas on evolution until he had mustered an overwhelming amount of solid evidence to support them.  As a result, the initial essay on natural selection which he wrote in 1844 would not see the light of day for another 14 years. 


Although Darwin was critical of thelack of scientific evidence in Vestiges, he still found much to admire in the book.  He devoted a paragraph to it in the introduction to the Origin of Species, concluding


The work, from its powerful and brilliant style, though displaying in the earlier editions little accurate knowledge of and a great want of scientific caution, immediately had a very wide circulation. 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.

 

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