Everything but the Glue

Richard Fortey

  • Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ by James Secord
    Chicago, 624 pp, £22.50, February 2002, ISBN 0 226 74410 8

Published anonymously in 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was a history of everything, from the beginning of the Universe and the solar system to the spiritual destiny of mankind. It purported to include all the latest scientific discoveries. The story was conceived in a progressive mode, and written to be inspirational: the progression from first things to the advent of man manifested the hand of God, and by the same token, species, too, might be capable of natural transformation, progressing from a lower to a higher state in a process of evolution. In the past, science historians have seen Vestiges as paving the way for On the Origin of Species (1859), having drawn the fire, and the anger, of clerical critics. The Origin ultimately eclipsed its precursor so effectively that you wonder how many evolutionary biologists today have even heard of Vestiges. It did its job and then faded from memory. This is, of course, a Whiggish view of history – a past work seen as an appropriate (or inappropriate) step taken towards our present state of perfect enlightenment. As a way of presenting scientific history, however, it is anathema to James Secord.

His method is to investigate almost everything to do with Vestiges except its actual content. He looks, for example, at its contemporary readership to show how different social circles constructed their own interpretation of the book. Each group effectively ‘made’ a new book, its reading contingent on the group’s social status, gender and religious or political conviction. All this has been researched in admirable, frequently astonishing detail; and Secord’s choice of contemporary illustrations is a delight.

His account also covers aspects of intellectual history that have previously escaped the attention of historians of science. The technology of book production, for example, is treated at length. Changes in printing methods meant that books became available more widely than ever before in an increasingly literate society. The establishment – particularly the high-minded clergy – were caught in the awkward position of promoting literacy, but at the same time attempting to guide, if not exactly censor, the texts available to the industrialised masses. A tool intended to spiritualise might just as easily serve to secularise. Vestiges was a particular concern: what if its progressive ideas were to take root? Secord is very good on the appearance of cheap editions in the wake of the de luxe ones intended for aristocratic libraries. He tells us everything about typesetting, paper, distribution and even the binding of books at this pivotal moment in the dissemination of knowledge. We learn the rates of pay for piecework, and the gender of factory workers. Unless I missed it, the only omission is the binder’s glue. The various editions, with their different formats and prices, prolonged the shelf life of Vestiges for 15 years until the Origin was published – and it continued to sell long afterwards.

The compelling thing about the book’s anonymity was that different social groups could each invent their own author. In aristocratic circles authorship was attributed to one of their own – Sir Richard Vyvyan was a popular candidate at fashionable metropolitan soirées when the sensation was at its height, and the name of Prince Albert was, according to one account, also suggested. In ecclesiastical circles any one of a number of free-thinking radicals might have been responsible for what the Rev. Adam Sedgwick, a pioneer geologist, described as a ‘foul book’ in which ‘gross credulity and rank infidelity joined in unlawful marriage’. Under the cloak of anonymity it was uncertain how definitive the science might be, or even whether it should be judged according to the standards of its scholarly respectability or aristocratic imprimatur. When the author of Vestiges was finally revealed to be Robert Chambers, Scottish encyclopedist and prolific publisher of improving works, the exposure curiously diminished the book’s effectiveness, because it could be regarded from that point on as no more than a ‘popular’ book. Its marginalisation had begun. In fact, Chambers had been suggested as a possible author early on, especially in Edinburgh, for he came with the appropriate reforming attitudes. What is surprising is that his few friends in the know, and his intermediary with the publisher, Alexander Ireland, kept the secret so well and for so long. Chambers did not like to tell a lie, and there are some amusing examples here of his dissembling at dinner parties when he was directly challenged to reveal himself as the mysterious author.

Secord brilliantly reconstructs the experience of individual readers grappling with the new transformational ideas for the first time. In the diaries of Thomas Archer Hirst of Halifax he has found the best example of an inquiring mind he could have wished for. Hirst copied passages from Vestiges and stitched them to others from different sources that had caught his eye, effectively constructing his own book. Hirst was clearly an exceptionally able man, rising as he did from Halifax surveyor to lecturer in mathematics at the liberal University College London. The wealth of detail that Secord has amassed about Hirst’s circle is extraordinary: you can almost hear the North Country voices bickering over churchwarden pipes and porter in their private discussion groups.

Secord is equally persuasive about the importance of regional institutions in the reception of ideas. Every industrial centre had its equivalent of the Halifax Mechanics’ Institution, where the aspiring thinker might go to a ‘lecture on Reading as a Means of the Acquirement of Knowledge’. Such provincial institutions embodied a variety of political and religious standpoints, and they were a source of books for those who could not otherwise afford to build up a library. To the local population, their meetings were more significant than the soirées held at the Royal Society in London. There was a comparable variety of local newspapers, some of which had the courage to promote secular ideas in a religious age. All of them published large numbers of letters from readers. Indeed, it seems to have been easier to get into print on matters of philosophical importance in the 1840s than it would be today.

As for the religious opposition, it was mostly concerned about the removal of the hand of God from direct intervention in human life and the destiny of humanity. The virulence of some of the reviews shows that a sensitive underbelly was being exposed. The academic clerics of Oxford and Cambridge regarded themselves as a bulwark against rampant materialism. From the ‘scientific’ side, the forthright T.H. Huxley was scarcely less dismissive. On the other hand, George Eliot – pseudonymously – admired Vestiges for its verve and scope; so did Florence Nightingale. What the book achieved was a kind of inoculation, which rendered its readers immune to future special pleading from the more vituperative clerics. In this limited way, Vestiges really did prepare the ground for the much better argued Darwinian version of evolution.

The history of science has traditionally been presented as a story of progress of a kind that Chambers might well have recognised. Not any more. According to Secord, ‘intellectual history, which used to be written as a story of dramatic changes in worldview (“;The Darwinian Revolution”) can be recast by looking at the basic material products of actual life, and drawing upon techniques developed for studying ordinary action.’ It is undeniable that we need to escape from the view that all was darkness until the coming of Darwin allowed us to see. Individual responses were far more complex and interesting than the ‘now you don’t see it, now you do’ account of scientific progress allows. From my own viewpoint as a practising scientist, though, the extreme democratisation of texts tends to obscure the reasons some have been more enduring and influential than others. Secord acknowledges that the most seminal texts are those which serve most effectively to screen out what went before, to stimulate what he calls an ‘act of forgetting’: ‘Those books that allow us to forget the most are accorded the status of a classic.’ In other words, the Origin eclipsed its precursors, especially Vestiges, and is returned to again and again by practising scientists in an act of homage to the dawning of the era of objectivity.

What makes me uneasy is that the absence of the text itself from Secord’s history leaves the uninformed reader lost as to why Vestiges and Chambers were so easily forgotten once ‘Darwinism’ covered over the pages of the past. There is a hole at the centre of the argument. It is surely relevant that Vestiges espoused much that was soon shown to be nonsense. The Scottish school of phrenology, for example, was already disavowed by many rational thinkers, but Vestiges prolonged its influence for a generation. The experiments of Andrew Crosse, whereby mites were ‘spontaneously generated’ by the application of electricity to stones, were given much prominence in Vestiges; and short shrift by any serious scientist. Even if the spuriousness of such evidence was far less obvious in the 1840s than it is in 2002, it remains the case that Chambers’s credulousness explains very well why he was subsequently overshadowed by those who built inductively on fieldwork, rather than cobbling together mellifluous prose from miscellaneous sources. Unless they happen to know the biology, Secord’s readers will have little idea of these fatal shortcomings.

Present-day biologists repeatedly return to Darwin not because he has been reconstructed in scientists’ collective unconscious as a contemporary figure, but because he seems to show such prescient judgment in so many areas. He really did establish field methods in the study of long-term ecological processes in his work on earthworms; his work on the pollination of orchids by insects provided a model for co-evolution; those interested in ethology really do see his work on the expression of emotions as a foundation stone. Even his work on the systematics and taxonomy of barnacles can still be used as a ‘modern’ reference: I have used it recently myself.

The cumulative effect of historical relativism is to make the scientific reader feel nervous about making any kind of historical judgment at all. It is as if any word used outside its present context must be placed in inverted commas – ‘Darwinism’, ‘science’, ‘transformation’, ‘organism’ – to signal that it would not have meant the same to a 19th, or indeed early 20th-century reader. Where do you stop? The end-product is a slurry of qualifications, which eventually atomise meaning into as many categories as there are groups of readers capable of reconstructing their own text.

Fear of the moral effects of accepting the progressive views of Vestiges expressed in 1845 are not very different from some of the comments made by those who want to see ‘creation science’ taught in schools today. In March I read a quote from a priest at Emmanuel College in Gateshead to the effect that a belief in ‘Darwinism’ was implicated in the nation’s moral decline: it might have been written by an anxious cleric 150 years ago. Are we to accord the ‘readings’ of the creationists in 2002 the same credibility they had in the 19th century, or should we dismiss them as retrograde anachronisms? Science really does move on, and although I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the contemporary creationists, does sincerity alone ensure the validity of a ‘reading’?

Some attitudes revealed in the original reaction to Vestiges seem to have endured with surprisingly little change. Adam Sedgwick spoke of the ‘charm of manner and good dressing’ of the book as if these were the properties of a seductive incubus. True men of science (and men they had to be) should come up with something altogether tougher and more ‘philosophical’. All that charm was a symptom of female thought – superficially appealing but lightweight. Indeed, there were several female candidates for ‘anonymous’, based largely on the perceived ‘femininity’ of the book’s style. Viewed in this light, the comparative dryness of Darwin’s style could be seen as a guarantee of its sincerity and excellence – the word of a gentleman in a particular mid-19th-century context (here we go again).

This attitude persists to a greater degree than you might think. The style of modern scientific papers is desiccated to the point of obliterating the author. This is what current convention demands, and papers that break the rule are always rejected for publication. Every working scientist knows how frantic competition can be in these days of grant proposals and Research Assessment Exercises, yet this distinctly human business is suppressed in the disciplined prose of scientific house style. But then there is ‘popular’ science writing. Snobbery persists in scientific circles about what the French call ‘vulgarisation’: real scientists pursue the frontiers of knowledge and report progress in the passive voice; the popularisers still dress up knowledge in the attractive guise favoured by the long-anonymous writer of Vestiges. This attitude has outlasted the belief in the electrical generation of life forms or the phrenological interpretation of human behaviour. It shows that changes in ways of ‘reading’ do not always move in step with advances in knowledge.