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He Almost Scooped Darwin

In June 1860, Thomas Henry Huxley was planning to depart early from the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Scheduled for the next day at the Oxford meeting was a discussion of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which had appeared seven months earlier and was causing a stir in Britain and much of the rest of the Western world. While walking on the street, Huxley—who was one of the rising young stars of British biology—happened to meet Robert Chambers, a successful Edinburgh publisher. When Chambers learned that Huxley was not going to attend the expected showdown over Darwin’s controversial theory, he “broke out into vehement remonstrances” and accused Huxley of “deserting” the Darwinians.1 Moved by Chambers’s ardent appeal, Huxley had a change of heart, and the Darwinian revolution took a dramatic turn.

What happened the next day has become one of the legendary episodes in the history of science. An audience of between seven hundred and one thousand people attended the meeting, including some of the most distinguished scientists in Britain. Following a lengthy, pro-Darwinian paper, Samuel Wilberforce, the slickly eloquent bishop of Oxford, began a half-hour-long attack on Darwinian theory. With glib lines like “Is it credible that a turnip strives to become a man?,” Wilberforce’s speech met with peals of sympathetic laughter, and his rhetoric hit home. Finally he turned to Huxley, who was seated near him on the speaker’s platform, and asked him whether it was on his grandfather’s or grandmother’s side that he claimed descent from an ape.

Slapping his thigh and turning to the man seated next to him, Huxley muttered, “The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands.” He then rose to give a spirited, point-by-point rebuttal of the bishop’s ill-informed attack. He saved the best for last:

[Asked] if I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence, and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

Such was the amalgam of wit and ferocity that later led Huxley to proclaim himself “Darwin’s bulldog.”

Although eyewitnesses were divided about who won that day, one relevant fact is no longer in dispute. The contributions of Robert Chambers, whose chance encounter with Huxley helped to turn the tide of public opinion in Darwin’s favor, went well beyond the 1860 debate. For the previous sixteen years, Chambers had done more to prepare the way for the Darwinian revolution than any of Darwin’s most energetic defenders.

Unknown to most of his countrymen (although suspected by some), Chambers was the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. This extraordinary book, which first appeared in 1844, presented an evolutionary account of the origins of the stars, the solar system, life on earth, and all of its di-verse species over geological time. Vestiges envisioned the earth as having gradually solidified out of a nebular “fire-mist,” after which it cooled and laid down geological strata by the natural processes of weathering, chemical change, and sedimentation. Through repeated acts of spontaneous generation, Vestiges maintained, this lifeless world had eventually given rise to primitive globules of animated matter. Within these various lines of arising life, primitive species had transformed themselves over time, doing so, Chambers argued, through the ordinary process of gestation, which produced variations in inherited characteristics.

Although Darwin would not have approved of Vestiges‘ sweeping attempt to unite cosmic, geological, and biological evolution under a single universal law of nature, Chambers effectively put across Darwin’s fundamental idea, that the human and other species had emerged by a gradual process of material causation. (Chambers, as it turns out, was poignantly familiar with the kinds of “mutations” that sometimes arise with each new generation of living beings, having been born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. He had had the extra digits amputated with less than satisfactory results.)

Vestiges became an instant sensation. As one contemporary recalled, “the name of the book was in every mouth, and one would be accosted by facetious friends, ‘Well, son of a cabbage, wither art thou progressing?’” Prince Albert read the book out loud, every afternoon, to Queen Victoria. Across the Atlantic, a young Springfield, Illinois, lawyer named Abraham Lincoln read it from cover to cover and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” Born the same day as Charles Darwin, the future US president shared Darwin’s abhorrence of slavery—an institution then being legitimized in scientific circles by the claim that blacks and whites had been separately created.

Over the course of its fourteen British editions from 1844 to 1884, Vestiges sold almost 40,000 copies and was probably read by more than 100,000 people in Great Britain alone. With each new edition there were more reviews, new readers, and further discussion about the merits and demerits of the controversial theory. Not until after 1900 did Darwin’s Origin (1859) decisively overtake Vestiges in sales.

1.

James A. Secord’s Victorian Sensation tells the story of this extraordinary success. He does so, however, in an unconventional manner. He is less interested in what Chambers actually wrote (and why he wrote it) than in how Vestiges was produced and disseminated, and who its many diverse readers were. For Secord has set his sights on what he calls “the most comprehensive analysis of the reading of any book other than the Bible.” He describes his approach as “an experiment in a different kind of history.” As he explains:

Its foundations are in the everyday practices of diary keeping, letter writing, debating, displaying, book production, lecturing, listening, and conversation.

Secord’s story is not only about readers and book publishers, but also about the newly invented steam press, binding machines, and manual laborers that teamed up to produce books at ever-lower costs; and the steam railway system, tax reforms, and the Penny Post, which permitted the cheap dissemination of literature to a mass audience. Secord has sifted through tens of thousands of microfilmed manuscripts, old newspapers, and publishers’ production and expense ledgers for information that is generally lost to history or, if accidentally stumbled upon, rarely examined systematically. He has also included more than 150 well-chosen illustrations documenting the print culture and reading public for which Vestiges became so important.

Secord’s approach to Vestiges and its readers is designed, in significant part, to distinguish nineteenth-century debates about evolution from the subsequent history of Darwinian theory into which they are usually subsumed. In conventional accounts, Vestiges is often portrayed simply as a “failed precursor” to the Origin—a “popular” work anticipating the triumph of Darwinism. By contrast, Secord argues that “the Origin was important in resolving a crisis, not in creating one.”

The story of the crisis that Darwin later resolved is the subject of Victorian Sensation, which won the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society (2001) as well as the Association of American Publishers award for history (2002). The debate over Vestiges, in Secord’s sweeping narrative, becomes a window into Victorian culture—the problems of urban life, the place of women in society, the fiercely competitive world of commercial publishing, and the gradual transformation of science from a pursuit by gentlemen amateurs into an emerging field for salaried professionals like the hot-tempered Thomas Henry Huxley.

Prodigiously researched, Secord’s book also demands a great deal from its readers. One of the consequences of Secord’s novel approach is that we are not told, in any one place, what exactly Chambers’s book was about, although the first three chapters provide repeated glimpses. Instead, Secord allows our understanding of Vestiges to grow slowly, and piecemeal, as we see the book’s contents through the diverse readings it received from aristocrats, scientists, theologians, apprentice surveyors, handloom weavers, evangelicals, and diehard atheists, among others.

Part One of Victorian Sensation addresses the way Chambers’s anonymity contributed to the book’s notoriety. Contemporary readers, Secord argues, were unable to establish the author’s intellectual pedigree and motives. Anonymity also made it more difficult for critics to dismiss the book’s arguments by engaging in ad hominem attacks. Readers repeatedly sought to determine the identity of the author, and candidates included more than sixty people—among them Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, George Combe, Harriet Martineau, Prince Albert, and Charles Darwin, who commented that he was “much flattered and unflattered” by the attribution.

Despite the apparent materialism and atheism of its arguments, Vestiges made a surprising number of converts to the idea of evolution. Secord provides a perceptive discussion of Chambers’s accomplished prose, showing how a man who called himself an “essayist of the middle class” adapted ordinary metaphors of family life, including gestation and birth, to explain his radical argument. For example, Chambers compares seeing stars in different stages of development to “a child, a boy, a youth, a middle-aged, and an old man together,” and he refers to planets as “children of the sun.” The effect was seductive, as Chambers anticipated; and he addressed his readers’ doubts in remarkably accessible language.

Vestiges of Creation had a particular influence on Alfred Russel Wallace, then twenty-two, whose fate in the history of science later became so closely entwined with Darwin’s. “I have a rather more favorable opinion of the ‘Vestiges’ than you appear to have,” he wrote to his friend Henry Walter Bates in December 1845.

I do not consider it as 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 & the additional light which future researches may throw upon the subject.

Two years later, Wallace abandoned a career as a surveyor and set out with Bates to explore the Amazon River. He spent the next four years there collecting evidence to test the theory of evolution so boldly advocated by “Mr. Vestiges.” Thus, Vestiges swept young Wallace into a study of species affinities and distributions in Brazil, and subsequently in the Malay Archipelago, that would culminate, in 1858, in his stunning anticipation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. While traveling through the Spice Islands, Wallace had new insights into the way species change, and he wrote a scientific paper, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” describing the same process that Darwin had already termed natural selection. He sent his unpublished manuscript to Darwin, who was compelled to quickly bring to publication On the Origin of Species. Wallace’s own contributions to evolutionary theory were subsequently overshadowed.2

Charles Darwin, who was already convinced of the existence of evolution as a result of his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle (1831–1836), also read Vestiges, in the flea-infested British Museum library. In contrast to Wallace, Darwin saw the author of Vestiges as a rival and was relieved to find that he had not been completely scooped. In fact, Vestiges was a far cry from the painstaking empirical approach that Darwin had adopted for himself over the previous seven years. “The writing & arrangement are certainly admirable,” he wrote to his botanical colleague Joseph Hooker in January 1845, “but his geology strikes me as bad, & his zoology far worse.” Vestiges was a “strange unphilosophical, but capitally-written book,” he wrote to another correspondent.

  1. 1

    For the story of Huxley’s participation in the British Association debates over Darwinism in 1860, see Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Knopf, 2002), pp. 120–125.

  2. 2

    On Wallace’s anticipation of Darwin’s theory and the remarkably amicable manner in which a potential dispute over priority was resolved, see Michael Shermer, In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace (Oxford University Press, 2002).

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