Robert Chambers (1802-1871)
The idea then, which I form of the progress of organic life upon the globe-and the hypothesis is applicable to all similar theatres of vital being-is, that the simplest and most primitive type, under a law to which that of life-production is subordinate, gave birth to the type next above it, that this again produced the next higher, and so on to the very highest, the stages of advance being in all cases very small – namely, from one species only to another…(Vestiges)
Robert Chambers was an Edinburgh publisher who anonymously penned a best selling book on evolution in 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The book was an absolute sensation and was read by Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln. Within a matter of years, it would pass through ten separate editions and would continue to maintain total sales exceeding those of On the Origin of Species through the 1880s. In the absence of international copyright law, at least four different publishers reprinted Vestiges in the United States. Robert Chambers’ authorship was only revealed after his death.
The prominence of Vestiges and the rampant speculation about the identity of its author is reflected in this piece from Punch (1847). The cartoons provide a wonderful insight into the many denials of authorship and the book’s orphan status. In Charles Lyell’s A Second Visit to the United States of North America, based on his travels in 1845 and 1846, he related the following while in Alabama: “Sometimes, in the morning, my host would be the humblest class of ‘crackers,’or some low, illiterate German or Irish emigrants, the wife sitting with a pipe in her mouth, doing no work and reading no books. In the evening, I came to a neighbour, whose library was well stored with works of French and English authors, and whose first question to me was, ‘Pray tell me, who do you really think is the author of the Vestiges of Creation?’”
For an excellent account of the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, please read Victorian Sensation, The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, by James A. Secord, 2000.