51. [Chambers, Robert] (1802-1871).
Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. London: J. Churchill, 1844.
In 1844, just after he completed a 230 page manuscript (usually called “The Essay”) outlining his theory of the transformation of species, Darwin heard about a new publication that was all the rage in London literary circles. Published anonymously, the Vestiges, as it was referred to, proposed a full-blown theory of evolution. Reasoning from what physicists understood about the formation of organized planetary systems from unorganized nebulous matter, the unknown author argued that Development was a law of the universe, every bit as universal as Gravitation. Things naturally tend to move from a state of disorder to one of order. Just as solar systems develop and evolve, so do living things, as embryos, and as species, genera, and orders.
The public was excited and titillated by the Vestiges, but the scientific community was appalled, and a number of critical and often vitriolic reviews were published in literary journals, by men that Darwin knew and respected. One criticism was common to nearly all the reviews: the author, whoever he was, obviously lacked the qualifications to be talking about the origin of species, for he was mistaken in many details. Darwin, surprised by the icy reception met with by the Vestiges, seems to have promised himself that when his book appeared, no one could accuse him of a lack of qualifications. He also seems to have resolved that, until those qualifications were impeccable, he would remain silent about evolution.
The identity of the author, Robert Chambers, an Edinburgh publisher, was not revealed until after his death.