On the origin of 'Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation' : science, religion, and the natural world in early Victorian Scotland
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was the first book published in Britain in the nineteenth century that made a comprehensive case arguing for the evolution of life. It appeared anonymously fifteen years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and it was read and discussed by many leading scientific figures in Britain. This study analyzes Vestiges from the perspective of its author, the people’s essayist, publisher, and popular historian, Robert Chambers. Through a detailed exploration of Chambers’s background and cultural milieu, combined with a close analysis of some of the published sources he used and a rich array of archival materials held by the National Library of Scotland and St. Andrews University Special Collections, this dissertation argues that Vestiges was a genuine and passionate statement of faith in a providential, teleological universe unfolding according to God’s plan. Rather than presenting this religious worldview merely as a step along a path leading to secularization, as have many histories analyzing this period, this study focuses attention on how Chambers used his unconventional natural theology to reconcile seeming oppositions between scientific discoveries and religious ideals and values, and the compromise presented in Vestiges remained a model of deistic, progressive, and purposeful evolution for many in the post-Origin years. Drawing from sources stretching from the Scottish Enlightenment to later nineteenth-century Spiritualism, this study highlights the importance of place in science, and how broader cultural influences combine with social interactions to shape interpretations of the natural world. Of particular significance in mid-nineteenth-century Edinburgh was a climate of transcendental and Romantic conceptions imported from Germany and France and promoted in its clubs, public lectures, private anatomy schools, and university. Chambers and his Vestiges provide a window into a scientific and literary culture that was infused with an alternative vision uniquely influential in post-Enlightenment Scotland.