Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz / Professor of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Chico
Chico, California 95929-0400
530-898-6220 [Office]; 530-898-6192 [Dept.] FAX: 530-898-6143
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / home page: http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban
8 May 2001 
[This page printed from http://www.csuchico.edu/~curban/VestigesReview.html]
For Configurations, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332-0165. The copyright of this review is held by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Published in: Configurations, Volume 10, Number 1, Winter 2002, pages 195-198.
James A. Secord. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xix + 624 pp., illus., bibl., index. $35.00.
Victorian Sensation is an excellent book and Secord has done it again! In 1986 Secord, Reader in the Department of the History of Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, authored the exceptionally detailed Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute [Princeton: Princeton University Press], wherein he brilliantly examined the controversy between Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) and Robert Murchison (1792-1871) within the context of Victorian times. In 1986, Secord wrote "Geology enjoyed a remarkable popular success in Victorian England" (p. 14) and he pointed out that:
Geology, like the other elements of natural history, had powerful supports from the social order of nineteenth-century England: for all its internal quarrels, classificatory stratigraphy spoke to the public as a science that established position and place. The fundamental appeal of such an activity for a society increasingly conscious of class and an elite troubled by dissent from the "lower" orders is unmistakable. (pp. 33-34)
In Victorian Sensation, Secord continues his masterful contextualization process, focusing on the background, reception, and impact of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers (1802-1871). First published anonymously in 1844, Vestiges went through eleven editions before Chambers' death in 1871 and Chambers was eventually identified as the author in the 12th edition of 1884. Secord describes Vestiges as a "literary hybrid" (p. 522) and well it might have been, considering some of the "potential" authors that Secord points out that were credited with the 1844 anonymous edition: Ada Lovelace, William Makepeace Thackeray, Harriet Martineau, Charles Lyell, and even Charles Darwin (pp. 20-21).
Secord edited a 1994 facsimile edition of Vestiges and alluded to his "forthcoming book, tentatively titled Evolution for the People: Popular Publishing and Scientific Practice in Victorian Britain" (James A. Secord, facsimile edition, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers, 1844, and Explanations: A Sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" By The Author Of That Work, 1845 [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994], p. xxviii). Victorian Sensation is that tour de force. In Victorian Sensation, Secord not only analyzes the impact of the 1844 Vestiges but also examines the way in which books are read by individuals at various points in time. Secord describes "popular publishing" as well as "scientific practice" and the book is divided into (roughly) four equal sections ("Romance of Creation, Geographies of Reading, Spiritual Journeys, and Futures of Science") and each is a delight to read.
In 1989 Secord pointed out that "Chambers had neither the secure position in society nor the scientific reputation that allowed Darwin to put his name on the title page of the Origin of Species [of 1859]" (James A. Secord, Behind the Veil: Robert Chambers and Vestiges. History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, James Moore, ed., [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], p. 186). While the names of Darwin (1809-1882) or Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) are probably familiar to readers, why not Chambers? Chambers' name was eventually associated with Vestiges, but why is he (and the book) not remembered? In Victorian Sensation, Secord asks, "How is it then, that books exercise their power?" (p. 39) and he answers by explaining and interpreting Vestiges within the context of the 19th century world. Secord discusses academic institutions, political affiliations, cities, publishers, and individual readers ("from leisured gentlemen to commercial hacks"), as well as others along the way (including readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean) (p. 40).
In linking Vestiges with probably the best-known scientific name of the 19th century, Secord wrote "Darwin probably learned about Vestiges from an advertisement . Made a note to read it ." And Secord continues:
In many ways, Darwin had been scooped: here was a book advocating natural origin for a species in a framework of material causation and universal law. Only that summer [of 1844] he had outlined his own theory in a manuscript essay, which when copied out occupied 231 pages. (p. 429)
In looking at the influence of Vestiges on Alfred Russel Wallace, Secord notes that in 1847 the following occurred:
Convinced that evolutionary theory of Vestiges needed to be tested, Alfred Russel Wallace abandoned surveying, became a commercial collector, and traveled for most of the next decade. it was partly through Vestiges that he had found his vocation as a naturalist . (pp. 332-333).
In asking how did evolution gain a "pivotal role" in the 19th and 20th century, Secord unequivocally writes: "The answer turns out to have little to do with Darwinian biology or Big Bang astronomy, and the turning point is the response of readers to Vestiges" (p. 2). This what Diana Postlethwaite stressed in a 1988 entry entitled "Robert Chambers" when she wrote that "Vestiges played a major role in introducing the British reading public to the concept of evolution" (Sally Mitchell, ed., Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia [New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988], p. 130). In posing another question, Secord places Darwin into perspective:
Why do some books rather than others become part of our everyday experience? Every act of reading is an act of forgetting: the experience of reading is a palimpsest, in which each text partially covers those that came before. Those books that allow us to forget the most are accorded the authority of the classic. More than any other book of the modern era, the Origin [by Darwin] has been endowed by successive generations of readers with the classic's timeless, transcendent power. (p. 515)
Secord presents a powerful argument on the impact and importance of Vestiges as well as Darwin's Origin. Secord's scholarship is evidenced by his writing: references abound, footnotes are not unwieldy, and the importance of Vestiges is clearly demonstrated. On one modest negative note: Secord makes reference to Darwin's famous closing words from the 1859 edition of Origin: "There is a grandeur in this view of life ." and this reader wishes that Secord could have made reference to the inclusion of the term "Creator" that Darwin added in the 1860 edition of Origin (and maintained in all subsequent editions in his lifetime); Darwin had the following in the Origin editions of 1860, 1861, 1866, 1869, and 1872:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
Victorian Sensation explores "the introduction of an evolutionary account of nature into public debate in order to see what happens when a major historical episode is approached from the perspective of reading" (p. 518) and Secord points out that we read for different things at different times and for different purposes, reconstructing our "history" along the way. The ideas associated with Darwin were not universally accepted at the time and Secord writes that it is only with hindsight that we give Origin the status of a "classic" in science.
As written above, Secord asks the reader "How is it then that books exercise their power?" (p. 39) and this reader responds with the following: when they are as well written as Victorian Sensation! Secord encourages us to "make a different history" and ends Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation as follows:
The texts of science have no meaning apart from what readers make out of them, yet--ironically--they aspire to be a transcript of the truth of nature, needing no interpretation. Any attempt to recover their history is bound to project a different image. In remembering the Origin we forget Vestiges; in remembering Vestiges we forget the Constitution of Man [published in 1826 by George Combe, who was born in 1788 and died in 1858] and the bawdy philosophical books of the Enlightenment. In this way we have forged chronologies of progress, narratives that have prevented our seeing from any other perspective. As readers we can make a different history. (p. 532)
You are encouraged to read Victorian Sensation (and other Secord publications) and consider Secord's "Introduction" to a reprinted work of Lyell (1797-1875) (James A. Secord, ed., Principles of Geology: An Attempt To Explain The Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, By Referencing to Causes Now in Operation, by Charles Lyell, 1830-1833 [London: Penguin Books, 1997], p. xxxv). The "Introduction" could be applied to Victorian Sensation.
It had the classically balanced prose, learned references and gentlemanly form of publication to shift the terms of debate among those whom Lyell recognized as holders of power. Opposing divine intervention in nature, combating the Flood and hammering home the consensus of geologists on the antiquity of the world, the Principles could have been seen as allied to the Enlightenment freethought, and suffered a fate like that of Milman's History of the Jews . But the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The cautious rhetoric, the clever demolition of Lamarck, and the sheer empirical exuberance of the Principles make it possible to revitalize a lawful system based on actual causes, to exorcize the demons of revolutionary deism which had dogged Huttonianism since the 1790s. Only someone with impeccable credentials as a gentleman, with all the independence of character and sense of propriety that being a gentleman entailed, could have used such an unlikely vehicle to advocate controversial views. The Principles had the imprint of conservative classicism, but hid within a secret army of reform.
Secord causes us to re-form our opinions of the history of science. Lyell (and others) influenced Darwin, and the rest is history! Or is it?
Charles F. Urbanowicz is Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Chico, and teaches courses in Cultural Anthropology. He is presently at work on a various publications and videos (some available on the World Wide Web) dealing with Charles R. Darwin.
Darwin, Charles R. 1859 [and editions of 1860, 1861, 1866, 1869, and 1872]. On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Publishers: Various.
Mitchell, Sally, ed. 1988. Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc.
Moore, James R., ed. 1989. History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Postlethwaite, Diana. 1988. Robert Chambers. Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc.
Secord, James A. 1986. Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Secord, James A. 1989. Behind the Veil: Robert Chambers and Vestiges. History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, James Moore, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 165-194.
Secord , James A, ed. 1994. Introduction to facsimile edition of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers, 1844, and Explanations: A Sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" By The Author Of That Work, 1845. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Secord, James A., ed. 1997. Introduction to Principles of Geology: An Attempt To Explain The Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, By Referencing to Causes Now in Operation, by Charles Lyell, 1830-1833. London: Penguin Books.
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Charles F. Urbanowicz
[Slight modification on 15 May 2003] 8 May 2001 by CFU