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.



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.

Darwin was so disappointed by the factual inaccuracies in Vestiges—which included misspelled species names and unfounded assertions, such as that mites could be spontaneously generated by electric currents—that he did not even purchase a copy of the first edition. Later, however, he read and took notes on the heavily revised sixth edition of 1847 after the publisher—at Chambers’s instigation—sent him a presentation copy. (Having recently met Chambers for the first time, Darwin correctly surmised from this gift that Chambers was the book’s author.)

For every sympathetic reader of Vestiges there were many more who became vocal critics, and the book aroused heated opposition from a broad range of British society. Theologians naturally tended to rail against it. “We readily attribute to it,” blasted one evangelical critic,

all of the graces of the accomplished harlot. Her song is like the syren for its melody and attractive sweetness…. But she is a foul and filthy thing, whose touch is taint; whose breath is contamination.

Darwin’s former geology teacher, Adam Sedgwick, published a much-discussed diatribe against Vestiges in the Edinburgh Review—one of the most distinguished British quarterlies. To Macvey Napier, his editor at the Edinburgh Review, Sedgwick vowed to stamp his “iron heel upon the head of the filthy abortion, and put an end to its crawlings.”3

Sedgwick might have done better to ignore Vestiges than to write a self-righteous critique that only served to bolster the book’s stature. With demand fed by the continuing controversy, a steady stream of new editions followed. As late as 1854, Thomas Henry Huxley was trying to dissuade readers from the handsomely illustrated tenth edition, which he savaged so badly that he actually felt compelled, three decades later, to apologize to Chambers’s family.4 Vestiges, he opined, was “a mass of pretentious nonsense,” “a weed,” and a work deserving “unmitigated reprobation.”5

Robert Chambers’s decision to publish Vestiges anonymously becomes readily understandable in the light of such attacks. Chambers was a prominent Edinburgh publisher of popular textbooks and of Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, which had a weekly circulation of nearly 90,000 copies. He, his business partner and elder brother, William, and nearly a hundred employees were vulnerable to economic boycotts that would surely have been directed against them by Scottish evangelicals had the true authorship of Vestiges been known. Many years later, when the controversies had substantially subsided, Chambers’s son-in-law asked him why he still had not revealed his greatest achievement. Pointing to the house in which his eleven children lived, Chambers replied, “I have eleven reasons.”

Secord gives a fascinating account of how the authorship was kept secret. Every manuscript page, including all of the corrections for subsequent editions, was recopied by Chambers’s wife, Anne. These copies were then sent to a trusted intermediary in Manchester, Alexander Ireland, who transmitted them to the publisher, John Churchill, in London. All correspondence related to the project included code words to prevent government agents, who sometimes opened private letters sent through the Penny Post, from discovering the authorship. Chambers was “Ignotus” or “Mr. Balderstone,” his wife was “Mrs. Balderstone,” Ireland was “Alexius,” while Vestiges was simply called “the opus.”

To begin with, only four people were let in on the secret—Chambers’s wife, his brother William (who detested the book), Alexander Ireland, and Robert Cox, a trusted friend and editor of the Phrenological Journal (Chambers himself having been influenced by phrenology). Later, at least three other people were told, but even Chambers’s eleven children and four other siblings did not know he was the infamous “Mr. Vestiges.” From the outset Chambers was certainly among the group of people suspected of being the Vestiges’ author (there were inevitable parallels between passages in his book and topics previously covered in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal). But the important point was that Chambers had not taken official responsibility for the book. Anonymity and the use of pseudonyms were respected conventions for preserving privacy among novelists (and nearly universal among book reviewers), and it was considered a violation of etiquette for people to probe too deeply into the question of authorship of such books. Secord notes, however, that Chambers could not deny writing Vestiges outright, since this would undermine his honor and integrity if it could ever be shown that he had done so. When occasionally asked if he was the author, Chambers would reply evasively, “I wonder how people can suppose I ever had time to write such a book.”

As Secord tells us, this need for public probity exacted a significant cost. In 1848 Chambers was nominated for the post of lord provost of Edinburgh, the city’s most distinguished civic honor. In response, an anonymous letter to the Witness, a newspaper with strong religious leanings, accused Chambers of being the author of Vestiges and also emphasized that he had never publicly denied being the author. Two days later Chambers decided to withdraw his candidacy rather than engage in a public lie. Only in 1884, thirteen years after Chambers’s death, did Alexander Ireland—the last surviving member of the small group that had initially shared the secret—finally reveal his authorship. By then, Darwinism had long since triumphed in England, and the revelation that Vestiges had been written by a popular writer and amateurish geologist, rather than by a scientist such as Darwin or Lyell, proved to be something of an embarrassment for the evolutionists, who had successfully employed Darwin’s scientific stature and empirical rectitude to buttress their case.


What may have been a modest embarrassment for the evolutionary cause in 1884 had nevertheless been one of its greatest catalysts forty years earlier. As Secord shows, it was a catalyst that has been much underestimated in accounts of Darwin’s revolution. And there is no doubt that one of the primary beneficiaries of Vestiges—despite his claims to the contrary—was Darwin himself. Darwin profited greatly from the extensive public criticism of Vestiges. He was especially attentive to the critique of his old geology teacher, Adam Sedgwick, which he called “a grand piece of argument against the mutability of species.” Commenting to his close friend Lyell in October 1845, Darwin wrote that he had read Sedgwick’s attack “with fear & trembling, but was well pleased to find, that I had not overlooked any of the arguments, though I had put them to myself as feebly as milk & water.” As he later remarked in a set of notes on Sedgwick’s antievolutionary views, “The publication of the Vestiges brought out all that c[oul]d be said against the theory excellently if not too vehemently.”

By carefully examining these arguments, Darwin turned them into a dress rehearsal for the Origin’s critical reception, which he was significantly able to anticipate by his responses in the Origin’s strategic sixth chapter (“Difficulties on Theory”). If Alfred Russel Wallace occupies the historical role of “Darwin’s moon,” as one Wallace biographer has called him, then the anonymous author of Vestiges surely represents Darwin’s most brilliant morning star, boldly attempting to illuminate the case for evolution fifteen years before the Origin was published.6

Charles Darwin was not the only serious student of the criticisms of Vestiges. Chambers himself sought to improve the quality of his arguments in successive editions, and he also published a separate work (the 206-page Explanations, A Sequel, 1845) to address some of his critics—particularly the outraged Adam Sedgwick. These ongoing exchanges between Chambers and his critics serve to reinforce one of the central arguments of Victorian Sensation. Books in nineteenth-century England, Secord argues, were not simply conduits for disembodied ideas. Rather they reflected and were a part of a continuous dialogue between authors and readers—what Secord, following similar ideas by the historian Robert Darnton, terms “literary replication”7 :

Once readers become fundamental to the making of meaning, then the ink on the 750 copies of the first edition of Vestiges becomes merely one step—and in some ways not a particularly important one—in a much wider process of literary replication.

Secord shows how Chambers was helped in this process by his savvy as a commercial publisher. His intimate understanding of the changing technology and economics of book production—such as the advent of the steam press and the manufacture of cheaper kinds of paper—allowed Vestiges to be substantially revised, without great expense, from one edition to the next. As University of Edinburgh natural philosopher James David Forbes remarked in 1846, the author of Vestiges, through four additional editions and a sequel,

has shewn himself a very apt scholar, & has improved his knowledge & his arguments so much since his First Edition that his deformities no longer appear so disgusting.

Secord argues, in Part Two of his book, that readings of Vestiges were inevitably local—conditioned by the intellectual, social, and economic features of distinct parts of Great Britain. In Liverpool, for example, the claim in Vestiges that human progress depended on adequate physical conditions of air, food, and water was seen as relevant to the city’s need for urban reform. Considered the most unhealthy town in England, Liverpool was an industrial “black spot” in which tens of thousands of people lived in cellars, population density had reached 138,000 people per square mile, and more than half of all children died before reaching the age of five. By contrast, readers in Oxford and Cambridge—university towns where half of the students became clergymen—tended toward more theologically minded responses. These included the hostile attacks on the book by Sedgwick and by another of Darwin’s old Cambridge acquaintances, the eminent philosopher and natural scientist William Whewell.

Secord also concentrates, in the third section of his book, on the way in which Vestiges helped younger readers to construct their spiritual identities in an age of increasing opposition between science and religion. This is the story of the way Vestiges entered into the ongoing tug-of-war between conservative evangelicals and libertarian freethinkers, and how young readers tried to navigate an acceptable personal pathway between these two spiritual alternatives. In a series of case histories of individual readers, Secord argues that “books have no single meaning, no coercive ‘impact'” and hence do not affect people “in any determinate way.” Part of his approach is to present these case histories without telling us first about the subsequent lives of their subjects, some of whom later became noteworthy figures in British intellectual life. Relating such stories from the perspective of their subjects’ later careers, Secord argues, would obscure the struggles these young readers underwent before they were secure in the knowledge of how their lives would turn out.


The concluding part of Secord’s book chronicles how Vestiges prepared the way for a new kind of science. Ironically, this new science turned Vestiges itself into a forgotten work whose ideas were essentially cannibalized by the field of inquiry it had helped to create. To understand this part of Secord’s story it is important to note that Vestiges was published at a time when science was mostly carried out by unsalaried gentlemen of independent means—fortunate souls such as Charles Darwin, whose well-to-do father bankrolled his voyage on the Beagle and subsequent scientific career. Natural science had yet to establish itself within university curriculums with their narrow emphasis on Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Government jobs in science were rare. The reigning group of gentlemen scientists tended to measure their competence through specialized, monographic attainments. By these standards, a book written for a popular audience was considered suspect, as was any book written mainly for profit.

Thomas Henry Huxley was especially vulnerable to the economic pressures of being a scientist without personal wealth. “In literature,” he wrote, around the time he penned his angry review of Vestiges, “a man may write for magazines and reviews, and so support himself; but not so in science.” In the 1840s and 1850s, Huxley and other young aspiring scientists were pinning their desperate hopes on gaining one of the few available jobs in universities, natural history museums, or government organizations like the Geological Survey. These jobs paid so little that multiple positions were sometimes required for a scientist to earn a decent living. Basing their aspirations on seemingly commercial-free expertise meant that unestablished scientists such as Huxley resented a popularizer like “Mr. Vestiges,” who had repeatedly trespassed in their specialized domains.

Seen from this perspective, the relationship between Vestiges and Darwin’s Origin can be cast in a new and revealing light. As Secord notes, Darwin approached Vestiges “as a botched version of his own manuscript.” Partly in response to the furious criticisms that greeted Vestiges, Darwin initially planned to publish his own ideas about evolution in a multivolume work addressed to specialists. In addition, the Vestiges debate probably contributed to the delay in Darwin’s undertaking of this magnum opus, which he put off in 1846 in order to conduct an exhaustive, eight-year study of living and fossil barnacles.

Ironically, Wallace’s anticipation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in 1858, which was in turn a consequence of his own reading of Vestiges, ultimately forced Darwin to abstract his huge project on evolution into a far more readable 490-page volume. So Darwin, whose publication plans were directly and indirectly affected by Vestiges, ultimately made his greatest mark on history as something of a popularizer himself. Yet the dryness of Darwin’s prose, Secord points out, was critical to the Origin’s scientific success: “The book was just readable enough to sell, but unreadable enough not to be easily bracketed with journalism or cosmological potboilers.” Once Darwin had turned the tide in favor of evolution, it finally became possible for younger, struggling naturalists such as Huxley to safely champion a heterodox theory they had previously ignored or spurned. At this point, the cause of evolution finally attained the critical mass of support that it needed to gain ascendancy in British science, which it did within just a few years.

If there is a unifying theme to Secord’s book, it is perhaps that the intellectual impact of Vestiges cannot be reduced to a single story. Secord shows that there are complex contemporary factors that affect the lives of books such as Vestiges, and he dismisses attempts by scholars such as Walter Houghton and Robert Young to argue for a characteristic temper to Victorian intellectual life (and hence a characteristic reading and interpretation of a given work).8 Such arguments, in Secord’s view, eventually undermined themselves by revealing diversity, not unity, in the intellectual and social life of the period. They also highlighted the importance of everyday practices in understanding the interpretations of readers.

In this and other arguments Secord rejects approaches to writing history that are based on great thinkers (especially those centering around Darwin), or on facile notions of historical progress—such as the so-called Whig interpretation of history, which views civilization as moving toward ever- greater scientific enlightenment.9 Secord also discards approaches based on the search for statistical generalizations about the reception of a work. Instead, he relentlessly demonstrates how Vestiges gains meaning from its different readers and their local settings. Yet Secord himself seems, from time to time, to yearn for broader patterns even as he is concerned about the possibility that, in proposing such patterns, he might somehow betray his intention to show the uniqueness of individual readings.

Good storytelling ultimately requires historians to go beyond the accumulation of detail and provide a conceptual frame in which to make sense out of, and to remember, discrete facts. Secord’s admirable book is at times difficult and even exhausting, because it has not found a sufficient substitute for the kind of unifying conceptual approaches, such as those relying on Zeitgeist to define history, that were offered by historians of previous generations. His bold “experiment in a different kind of history” remains just that—a fledgling narrative form that has not yet achieved its full potential. Still, these pioneering efforts will doubtless last. Secord’s extraordinarily inventive scholarship and the subtlety of his overall argument have given us a fascinating account of the book that almost scooped Darwin.

This Issue

June 9, 2005