The C. Warren Irvin, Jr., Collection
of Charles Darwin and Darwiniana

Overview | Warren Irvin on Collecting Darwin | Boyhood and Edinburgh | Cambridge | The Voyage of the Beagle | Zoology and Botany | Geology | Vestiges and Lamarckianism | Marine Biology and the 1850s | The Origin of Species | After the Origin | After Darwin

Vestiges and Popular Lamarckianism

The ambiguous effects of amateur science
Robert Chambers, 1802-1871.
Vestiges of the natural history of creation.
London: J. Churchill, 1844.

In the 1840s, a recurrently dysfunctional economy and political tension encouraged popular questioning of the perfection postulated by the natural theological tradition. Among the most widely-read books of the decade was this anguished anonymous essay by a hexadactyllic Scottish publisher and amateur scientist. Chambers draws on both Lyell and Lamarck to sketch out a narrative of gradual development from inanimate matter to modern complex species, and is notably frank about the disregard of such a natural process not only for weak individuals but also weak species. Both the popular response to Vestiges, and the reaction against it among senior Cambridge scientists, warned Darwin of the need to move with care in publishing his own theories on species development.

The orthodox counterattack
William Whewell, 1794-1866.
Indications of the creator. Extracts, bearing upon theology, from the History and the Philosophy of the inductive sciences.
2nd ed. London: J. W. Parker, 1846.

While the public bought edition after edition of Chambers'sVestiges, older professional scientists were much less enthusiastic.  Adam Sedgwick, the clerical Cambridge professor of geology, denounced Vestiges  in the Edinburgh Review not only as unscientific but as immoral and irreligious. The fierceness of Sedgwick's review undermined its effect, evoking sympathy and interest in the anonymous author of the work it attacked. Darwin commented that "the dogmatism of the pulpit" that Sedgwick exhibited was "far from popular with non-scientific readers."  Sedgwick's colleague at Trinity College, Cambridge, William Whewell, also rushed into print, offering a selection of passages from his own previously-published work in refutation of Chambers's arguments. The impact of Chambers'sVestiges was sufficiently widely felt for South Carolina College to purchase a copy of Whewell's refutation.

The author of Vestiges responds
Robert Chambers, 
Explanations: a sequel to "Vestiges of the natural history of creation" by the author of that work.
London: John Churchill, 1845.

Chambers's serious purpose in Vestiges is shown by the scrupulous way he revised successive editions in response to his reviewers' criticisms. Through the British Association and other meetings, Chambers and Darwin were personally acquainted. In this separate follow-up volume, Chambers cites support from Darwin's discussion of the Galapagos in the Beagle Journal.  The Irvin collection includes six later editions.

The limitations of scientific popularity
Benjamin Disraeli, 1804-1881
Tancred, or the New Crusade.
3 vols. London: Colburn, 1847.

The popularity of Vestiges attracted the satiric eye of the fashionable novelist and future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. This scene from the third novel of his Young England trilogy describes Tancred's drawingroom conversation with an enthusiastic young lady who recommends the new scientific bestseller, Revelations of Chaos, a book she summarizes as showing that "first we were nothing, and then we were something, and then we were something else."

The imaginative impact of Chambers's Vestiges
Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892,
In Memoriam.
London: Edward Moxon, 1850.

The poet Tennyson, a near contemporary of Darwin's at Cambridge, had been interested in modern geological speculation since his undergraduate years and had read Lyell in the 1830s. By the time Vestigesappeared, much of Tennyson's In Memoriam, an extended meditation on the sudden death of his Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam had already been written. He seems to have been deeply disturbed by the book's depiction of a natural world careless alike of individuals and species. His thumbnail characterization of nature as "red in tooth and claw" and of mankind, "her last work," facing imminent extinction culminates a three canto sequence (numbers 54, 55, and 56) apparently written in direct response to Chambers's Vestiges.

More information on Tennyson is available through the Rare Books and Special Collections online Tennyson exhibit

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