Phrenological bust by LN FowlerPhrenological bust by LN FowlerThe History of Phrenology on the Web

by John van Wyhe

Robert Chambers c. 1863Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844)

This page leads to the complete first edition of Robert Chambers' (1802-71) anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Chambers was a prolific publisher-author of Edinburgh. His circle of friends included the Combes, Robert Cox, (Combe's nephew and one-time editor of the Phrenological Journal), the journalist Alexander Ireland, and the Glasgow professor of astronomy J.P. Nichol. Chambers initially intended his book to be a "philosophy of phrenology". Vestiges draws heavily on the naturalistic rhetoric and especially the doctrine of the natural laws of Combe's Constitution. Vestiges took the phrenological doctrine of natural laws and brought it to cultural territory it might not otherwise have reached. Vestiges is now usually remembered for the controversy it initiated over transmutation (evolution). Charles Darwin later remarked that Vestiges was important in preparing many people to accept his own theory of evolution. Reading the book in a post-Darwinian world often leads to the skewed representation of Vestiges as a flawed precursor of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). However, during the 1840s and 1850s Vestiges was the only 'evolution' book readers in the English speaking world were familiar with. Although much of the critical invective directed against the book focused on the issue of speciation- readers of Vestiges found a grand tale of the "development" or progress of nature from swirling clouds of interstellar gas, to the geological ages of the Earth, to the increasing complexity of organic forms and the improvement of man. The "development" narrative of Vestiges is one modern readers may find quite familiar- but it was just this that was so odious - so shocking- to many Victorian readers. Only in 1884 (long after Chambers' death) with the publication of the 12th edition, was it revealed that Vestiges was written by Robert Chambers.

See also the sequel to Vestiges: Explanations.

Further reading:

-See James Secord's: Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. A major work on Victorian cultural history- brilliantly written, painstakingly researched, and beautifully illustrated. Secord makes many provocative and insightful revisions to our understanding of the history of evolutionary thought and how history can be studied through one of the most common yet unappreciated human activities- reading. It can be ordered at the first chapter is available free online.

Chambers, R., Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and other Evolutionary Writings. ed. James Secord, London, 1994. (This re-print also contains Chambers' Explanations: A Sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" By the author of that work, and a complete bibliography of the contemporary reviews and more secondary literature than is given here.)

Cooney, Sondra Miles, 'Publishers for the People: W&R Chambers, the early years, 1832-50' Ohio State University, PhD, 1970.

Egerton, F., 'Refutation and Conjecture: Darwin's Response to Sedgwick's Attack on Chambers', in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 1, 1970, pp. 176-183.

Gillispie, Charles, Genesis and Geology: A Study in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790-1850. Cambridge, 1951.

Hodge, M.J.S., 'The Universal Gestation of Nature: Chamber's Vestiges and Explanations' in Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 5, no.1, Spring 1972, pp. 127-151.

Millhauser, Milton, Just before Darwin: Robert Chambers and Vestiges. Middletown, Connecticut, 1959. (The old standard on Vestiges and still worth a look.)

Secord, J., 'Behind the Veil: Robert Chambers and Vestiges', in James Moore ed., History, Humanity and Evolution. pp. 165-194, Cambridge, 1989.


Page images and uncorrected OCR text of an American edition of Vestiges and Explanations (New York, Harper & Brothers 1857.) can be found at Making of America.

A facsimile (pdf) version of Vestiges (1st ed.) is available online at Electronic Scholarly Publishing by Robert J. Robbins.

See the sequel to Vestiges here: Explanations: A Sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" By the author of that work. London, 1845.

See also: Combe's The Constitution of Man and Other phrenological texts on-line

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