03/27/2012 11:44 am ET | Updated May 27, 2012

Evolution Before Darwin

Long before Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" in 1859, lively debates about evolution flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. Virtually unknown to many American readers today, Robert Chambers' fascinating book "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" (1844) was, for instance, a major bestseller in the U.S., Britain and across Europe. Luminaries -- including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Tennyson, Florence Nightingale and even Queen Victoria -- praised its forceful, articulate arguments. Lincoln quickly "became a warm advocate of [its] doctrine." Tennyson found "nothing degrading in [its] theory." And Nightingale joked of one after-dinner discussion, "We had got up so high into 'Vestiges' that I could not get down again, and was obliged to go off as an angel." All told, the book had the distinction of being one of the most read and most talked about works of the century.

Why does it matter that we give due credit to pre-Darwinian thinkers such as Chambers? For starters, it helps reduce some of the reigning fixation on Darwin, including his near-obsessive status among creationists, who view him as a bête noire for undermining the supposed truth of Genesis. Major questions about the veracity of the Bible's opening verses in fact emerged at least a century earlier. And when we grasp that Darwin's contribution, clearly remarkable, also built on decades of already existing argument and discovery -- including by his grandfather Erasmus and the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) -- the notion that evolutionary theory more or less rests on the shoulders of one biologist quickly and helpfully crumbles, replaced by the knowledge that large numbers of 19th-century Americans and Britons embraced evolution as a concept and principle.

One reason they did so, Adrian Desmond notes persuasively in "The Politics of Evolution," was because early arguments about evolution were truly politically radical in unsettling seemingly God-given hierarchies. In Britain, in particular, those assumptions made it seem inevitable that the monarch should lead the Church, with the aristocracy insisting it come close behind. Evolutionary theory in the 1820s-40s made such notions appear antiquated and unacceptable, encouraging a strong alliance among freethinkers, progressive thinkers, and working-class reformers, as all three groups were centrally concerned with enshrining democratic rights, principles, and liberties.

Into this rich, fomenting culture, Chambers, a brilliant Scottish publisher, writer, and scientist, dropped his well-written though anonymous cherry bomb. Partly from widespread speculation about the identity of its author, but also because of the quality of the book's arguments, "Vestiges" quickly became a public sensation, outselling even Darwin's "Origin of Species" when it later appeared, and reaching a 12th edition by 1884. Initial reviews praised it as "a very remarkable book, calculated to make men think" (Lancet), and singled out the author's "extraordinary ability" and "clearness of reasoning," including for "the grandeur of the subjects ... he treats" (Atlas).

Chambers was careful to give his intrigued audience the latest synthesis of geology, natural history, phrenology and chemistry. He also shrewdly appealed to middle-class readers by making it possible for them to discuss evolution without automatically being thought irreligious. That didn't stop critics from making a rear-guard attack, including by accusing Chambers of atheism when his authorship became known. To the charge, however, he responded calmly and reasonably, "I had remarked in no irreverent spirit, but on the contrary, that the supposition of frequent special exertion anthropomorphises the Deity." Variants of the argument Chambers criticized still circulate today, of course, from politicians arguing that God endorses their politics to U.S. football teams that pray for victory before each game, then view their winning one as the sign of heavenly favor.

"How can we suppose," asked Chambers provocatively in "Vestiges":

That the august Being who brought all these countless worlds into form by the simple establishment of a natural principle flowing from his mind, was to interfere personally and specially on every occasion when a new shell-fish or reptile was to be ushered into existence on one of these worlds? Surely this idea is too ridiculous to be for a moment entertained.... Are we to suppose the Deity adopting plans which harmonise only with the modes of procedure of the less enlightened of our race?

The open appeal to "enlightened" and "reasonable" minds helps account for the book's success, as it positioned his angriest critics as unreasonable, and thus wrong. Chambers was in fact wrong about several speculative matters, including whether plants could grow like frost crystals, dogs might be trained to play dominoes, and several other quirky notions. Even so, his rhetorical authority made it seem wise, not blasphemous, to point out that the Book of Genesis is "not only not in harmony with the ordinary ideas of mankind respecting cosmical and organic creation, but is opposed to them."

"When we carefully peruse [Genesis] with awakened minds," he continued, half-flattering some readers and outmaneuvering others:

we find that all the procedure is represented primarily and pre-eminently as flowing from commands and expressions of will, not from direct acts. Let there be light -- let there be a firmament -- let the dry land appear -- let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind -- these are the terms in which the principal acts are described. The additional expressions -- God made the firmament -- God made the beast of the earth, &c., occur subordinately, and only in a few instances; they do not necessarily convey a different idea of the mode of creation, and indeed only appear as alternative phrases, in the usual duplicative manner of Eastern narrative. (Emphasis in the original)

According to Chambers, "reasonable mind[s]" will quickly perceive that "the prevalent ideas about the organic creation" were simply "a mistaken inference from the text," meaning the first verses of the Bible.

With some self-interest and some justification, Darwin wrote a decade-and-a-half later, on the publication of his own treatise on natural selection, that Chambers did "excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views," including Darwin's own. In a chapter of "The Age of Doubt" on Chambers and his readers, I argue that Darwin's line, which has since become received wisdom, has had the unfortunate effect of relegating "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" to a shadow role before "On the Origin of Species," when the impact of the first book on the general reading public in North America, Britain, and Europe was immeasurably greater. Among Chambers' critics in the 1840s and 1850s, including those charging him with atheism and blasphemy, one senses that their overreaction to sensitive topics, including the evolution (or "transmutation") of species, was because Chambers' bestseller tackled the subject so persuasively. His brilliant and accessible book, reprinted a few years ago by the University of Chicago Press, is well worth discovering, not least for the perspective it brings to America's ongoing struggle to accept evolution.