"Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" by Robert Chambers 1844

Britain seemed to need a lifetime to overcome its revulsion at the materialism and atheism it saw as responsible for the horrors of the French revolution. Darwin’s natural selection, a purely physical cause of evolution, seems to have been part of that catching up. But a much more significant step was the sensation following publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844. I declare this a great book. It is a wrap up of the science behind all phenomena, from the nebulae, to solar systems, terrestrial geology, stages in the fossil record, evolution of living creatures including us, to human psychology and prospects for our further evolution. With a steady confident tread it made science the standard to look to for accounting for all knowledge. It reads remarkably like a modern synopsis of scientific knowledge.

It was published anonymously by what we would today call a professional non-fiction journalist, as skilled in reviewing novels as reporting on the latest science. Science was still the preserve of gentlemen, reported in formal academic prose. The author wrote Vestiges in a personal and reassuring style. And not being a gentleman he published it anonymously; the book could not then be dismissed for its plebeian roots. It’s a sober but good read.

Herewith, three themes from the book: natural law; development; theory of evolution.

Natural law: The author, Robert Chambers, was or posed as a deist. Of natural laws: “Where have come all these beautiful regulations? Here science leaves us, but only to conclude from other grounds, that there’s a First Cause to which all others are secondary and ministrative, a primitive almighty will, of which these laws are merely the mandates.” Those laws apply both invariably and universally: “... the regulations on which all the laws of matter operate, are established on a rigidly accurate mathematical basis.” And fifty-four or fifty five elements may be “only modifications of a primordial form of matter… Analogy would lead us to conclude that the combinations of the primordial matter, forming our so-called elements, are as universal or as liable to take place everywhere as are the laws of gravitation and centrifugal force.”

Development is how natural law carries forward God’s plan. How can we read that plan? As a Martian presented with Earthlings of various ages would “soon become convinced that men had once been boys, that boys had once been infants, and, finally, that all had been brought into the world in exactly the same circumstance.” The stages are apparent. The author sees development in the creation of stars and solar systems, in the succession of terrestrial geological strata, and in the succession of living creatures found in fossilized form in those strata. “The inorganic has one final comprehensive law, GRAVITATION. The organic, the other great department of mundane things, rests in like manner on one law, and that is, --DEVELOPMENT.” (CAPS are in the original.)

Evolution: In his detailed account of the appearance of fossils in successive geological strata Chambers recorded many instances of extinctions and successions of types of creatures. Then he says: “That God created animated beings… is a fact so powerfully evidenced, and so universally received, that l at once take it for granted. But in particulars of this so highly supported idea, we surely here see cause for some re-consideration. It may now be inquired, -- In what way was the creation of animated beings effected? The ordinary notion may, I think, be not unjustly described as this, -- that the Almighty author produced the progenitors of all existing species by some sort of personal or immediate exertion. But how does this notion comport with what we have seen of the gradual advance of species, from the humblest to the highest? …Some other idea must then be come to with regard to THE MODE in which the Divine Author proceeded in the organic creation…. What is to hinder our supposing that the organic creation is also a result of natural laws, which are in like manner an expression of his will?” Of special creation he says,” Surely this idea is too ridiculous to be for a moment entertained.” Of scripture he says, "I freely own that I do not think it right to adduce the Mosaic record, either in objection to, or support of any natural hypothesis, and this for many reasons, but particularly for this, that there is not the least appearance of any intention in that book to give philosophically exact views of nature.” Later: “Those who would object to the hypothesis of a creation by the intervention of law, do not perhaps consider how powerful an argument in favor of the existence of God is lost by rejecting this doctrine.”

The theory of evolution Chambers came up with we know today is wrong. But for me his account is important for two reasons. First, the question of how life developed is “one which has hitherto engaged no direct attention in almost any quarter.” (He lightly dismisses Lamarck’s proposal.) Chambers seems to have committed to print the first coherent view of life as having evolved. Second, his book caused a sensation and was extremely widely read: Vestiges sold as many copies in its first eight years as Origins did in its first 20, 11,000 copies as an inexpensive “people’s edition,” and Vestiges continued to outsell Origins throughout the 19th Century. In Vestiges, therefore, we see how the issues raised by the fossil record were framed by someone reviewing the available literature, from scratch, prior to Darwin’s formulation by which our imaginations have since become bound. And we see the issues that prevailed when the Origin appeared. It turns out Chambers raised almost all the issues that even today make up most of our discourse on the subject of evolution. In the Origin Darwin merely dotted the Is and crossed the Ts and added credibility to Chambers’ revelation: what got Darwin tarred and feathered was corroborating Chambers’ account of humans having developed from monkeys--his proposal of natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution seems to have made relatively little impact outside professional circles. For the Victorian public, Origins was a footnote to Vestiges. And, if we discount their mechanisms of action, so it could be for us.

Chambers begins his account of the laws behind the development of life by reviewing his times’ knowledge of forms of growth (invoking electrostatic electricity) and biochemistry, then he focuses on more specific findings to support his hypothesis. He plumps for spontaneous generation as supported by experiments he describes. He points out that since new parasitic diseases can arise following domestication of livestock they can be quite recent and induced by a non-natural situation. He introduces the idea of adaptation, that environments can induce species into existence. “Will it, to a geologist, appear irrational to suppose that, just as the pterodactyl was added in the era of the new red sandstone, when the earth had become suited to such a creature, so may these creatures have been added when media suitable for their existence arose. . .?” “The whole train of animated beings, from the simplest and oldest up to the highest and most recent, are, then, to be regarded as a series of ADVANCES OF THE PRINCIPLE OF DEVELOPMENT, which have depended upon external physical circumstances, to which the resulting animals are appropriate.” “It has been one of the most agreeable tasks of modern science to trace the wonderfully exact adaptation of the organizations of animals to the physical circumstances amidst which they are destined to live.”

After adaptation he turns to homology. “The limbs of all the vertebrate animals are, in like manner, on one plan, however various they may appear… These facts clearly show how all the various organic forms of our world are bound up in one—how a fundamental unity pervades and embraces them all … in one system.” For clues to that system he turns to rudimentary organs. He traces organs across a “set of animals on the scale” that are useful in some but functionless in others. An example he gives is teeth in whale embryos “but these, not being wanted, are not developed , and the baleen is brought forward instead. The land animals, we may also be sure, have the rudiments of baleen in their organization.” And here we see him embrace yet another familiar if controversial concept—pre-adaptation. He sees some examples of rudimentary organs as pre- adaptations, revealing an organ not due to become functional until the next creature in the set comes along, adapted to the next environment in the pre-ordained developmental sequence. And finally he brings in recapitulation, how later creatures recapitulate at the fetal stage the development shown in earlier creatures.

Chambers has, in 1844, set out most of the terms of subsequent discourse: succession of types over geological periods, progress from simple to complex, extinctions, homologies, rudimentary organs, adaptation, pre-adaptation.

For his mechanism of “development” Chambers has God embedding into the first creature all the specifications required for natural law to develop the rest of the living kingdoms as the appropriate geological conditions appear, leading of course to us, and perhaps beyond us to even more developed forms. Six years before publication of Vestiges, Darwin, already a non-believer, had found in natural selection a purely physical mechanism for generating those specifications in the absence of a divine plan. Both agreed, though, as Chambers remarks, “ …the stages of advance being in all cases very small – namely from one species to another; so that the phenomenon has always been of a simple and modest character.” And despite calling on god to start the process, Chambers came up with a purely physical mechanism for the origin of the earliest creature: “We are drawn to the supposition that the first step in the creation of life upon this planet was A CHEMICO-ELECTRIC OPERATION, BY WHICH SIMPLE GERMINAL VESICLES WERE PRODUCED. “

A weakness of Darwin’s theory is that it accounts for only evolution. By contrast, Chambers has his natural laws apply equally to evolution and to individual development. “The tendency of all these illustrations is to make us look at DEVELOPMENT as the principle which has been immediately concerned in the peopling of the globe, a process extending over a vast space of time, but which is nevertheless connected in character with the briefer process by which an individual being is invoked from a simple germ.” James Shapiro has just made the same point in his Evolution: a View from the 21st Century. Chambers was already pointing forward to evo-devo!

Chambers had already, in Lamarck, a natural mechanism to weigh against his divine plan plus laws. From his summary of Lamarck's theory: “…experience of wants calling for the exercise of its faculties in a particular direction, by which exercise new development of organs took place, ending in variations sufficient to constitute a new species.” Chambers rebuts this by remarking how marvelously creatures are adapted : “let us, I say, only consider these things, and we shall see that the decreeing of laws to bring the whole about was an act involving such a degree of wisdom and devise as we only can attribute, adoringly, to the one Eternal and Unchangeable.”

Chambers tackles human evolution head on. No evasion here. “...the idea that any of the lower animals have been concerned in any way with the origin of man—is this not degrading?" But “Were we acquainted for the first time with the circumstances attending to production of an individual of our race, we might equally think them degrading, and be eager to deny them, and exclude them from the admitted truths of nature.” “It has pleased providence to arrange that one species should give birth to another, until the second highest gave birth to man, who is the very highest.” Remember, “every individual among us actually passes through the characters of the insect, the fish, the reptile. .. before he is permitted to breathe the breath of life…. If He, as appears, has chosen to employ inferior organisms as a generative medium for the production of higher ones... what right have we… to find fault? …These creatures are all of them part products of the Almighty Conception, as well as ourselves.” He refers to us as a species, most closely related to monkeys. Are humans unique? “Are there yet to be species superior to us in organization, purer in feeling, more powerful in device and act, and who shall take a rule over us? There is in this nothing improbable on other grounds… There, may then be occasion for a nobler type of humanity, which shall complete the zoological circle on this planet, and realize some of the dreams of the purest spirits of the present race.”

That’s as far as Darwin carried evolution in the Origin. But Chambers continues with his version of modern “evolutionary psychology”--he extends the reach of the science behind development to mind and morals. Excepting our immortal spirit, “our ordinary mental manifestations may be looked upon as simple phenomena resulting from organization, those of the lower animals being phenomena absolutely the same in character, though developed within much narrower limits.” He quotes statistical analyses of human behaviors to show that despite our sense of free will we follow simple patterns. “This statistical regularity in moral affairs fully establishes their being under the presidency of law. . ..Man is now seen to be an enigma only as an individual; in the mass he is a mathematical problem. It is hardly necessary to say, much less to argue, that mental action, being proved to be under law, passes at once into the category of natural things. Its old metaphysical character vanishes in a moment, and the distinction usually taken between physical and moral is annulled, as only an error in terms. This view agrees with what all observation teaches, that mental phenomena flow direct from the brain… obedient to law.” This is in 1844, remember; Queen Victoria is still in her mid twenties!

We’re nearing the end of the book. Chambers touches on neuroanatomy. “The brain of the vertebrata is merely an expansion of one of the ganglions of the nervous cord of the molluscae and crustacea… There are many facts which tend to prove that the action of this apparatus is of an electric nature. …So mental action may be an imponderable, intangible, and yet a real existence, and ruled by the Eternal through his laws.” Starting with a God who embeds in us an immortal soul, Chambers somehow ends up enmeshing us in physical determinism. For how brain determines mind and behavior he refers us to phrenology.

He ends with an account of evil. Living creatures are placed here “to be sensible of enjoyments from the exercise of their faculties in relation to external things.” The point of the cosmos is pleasure “conformable to our ideas of a Creator in whom we are constantly discovering traits of a nature, of which our own is but a faint and far–cast shadow at the best.” This is “an arrangement which, it is clear, only admits of the main and primary results being good, but disregards exceptions. …the individual is left, as it were, to take his chance amidst the melee of the various laws affecting him.” He ends with the causes of war, sex, disease and slavery, but the consolation that all is in accord with natural law.

Between them, Chambers and Darwin established how we think about how we evolved, and what it means. I see them both as representatives of the British tradition of Newton's atomism being applied to human affairs, in the tradition of Adam Smith and the utilitarians. Chambers sees natural laws as creating the best of all possible worlds, but only for people on average. For Darwin, the crucial natural law is natural selection; only the fittest matter, surviving to further the evolution of the species. Neither of them takes conscious experience into account, either as something to account for, or as a factor in how evolution works. For an alternative tradition I am inclined to turn to Descartes, Lamarck and Samuel Butler.