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.

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