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Chambers, Robert

CHAMBERS, ROBERT

(b. Peebles, Scotland, 10 July 1802;

d. St. Andrews, Scotland, 17 March 1871), biology, geology, popular science. For the original article on Chambers see DSB, vol. 3.

Chambers helped popularize science by writing for general interest publications—particularly Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal—to report on scientific discoveries, giving the public access to ideas that were available only to scientists who regularly attended professional meetings or read published transactions of such forums. He had no formal training in the sciences and little interest in advancing the professional status of scientists, but his skillful reporting enabled readers to learn how the ideas that flowed from scientific innovation affected the world around them, and his series of articles in the Journal presenting his rudimentary ideas on evolution served as a prelude to his most important work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

Although the son of a cotton manufacturer, Robert Chambers grew up poor because of a series of reversals in his family’s heirloom business. Robert’s family moved to Edinburgh; initially Robert remained behind to continue his education, but soon he rejoined his family. The move to Edinburgh eventually proved fortuitous: It was a time of scientific and intellectual ferment, called the “Scottish Enlightenment,” growing out of the Medical School of Edinburgh University. Advances in medicine created interest in a wide range of fields, including chemistry, physiology, and botany. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, founded in 1783, further stimulated the growth and professionalization of Scottish science, and Robert benefited from this environment.

In addition to his family’s difficulties, both he and William were hexadactyls; they were born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. This condition was properly remedied in William’s case but Robert’s condition was more difficult to treat; surgery left him lame and he was unable to participate in childhood games. He became more introspective, and his avid reading enabled him to be well versed in a broad range of subjects, with his condition a constant reminder of how biological processes could go awry. He sought explanations for his affliction, as he considered his inherited condition.

With his brother William, Chambers published pamphlets filled with poetry and Scottish folklore. They sold these penny papers to a public eager to buy inexpensive

reading material. The income derived from such sales gave Robert time to write. After carefully examining popular periodicals, he wrote numerous articles on literature and topical subjects as well as Scottish folklore. The Kaleidoscope and Edinburgh Literary Amusement (which sold for three pence in 1821), are early examples of such publications.

Finally, having acquired the comfort and security of a satisfactory income, Robert was able to marry and begin a family of his own. He devoted more time to reading works of science, and his natural curiosity and interest in cosmology drew him to the nebular hypothesis of Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749–1827), which explained the origin and evolution of the universe.

Development of Scientific Interest . William Chambers’s business was flourishing, and because there was a market for popular literature, in 1832 he started Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, a well-produced weekly journal printed on quality paper that workingmen could afford. The Journal soon included articles on science, such as the “Influence of Steam Navigation” and the “Character of Fish.” During the next few years (1833–1835), the number of scientific reports in the Journal increased, with articles on the migration of birds, the naturalist Charles Waterton’s description of the sloth, and the safety lamp of Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829). Robert Chambers’s contributions illustrated his voracious reading of scientific literature and interest in incorporating the information he acquired into his articles in the Journal. In his scientific reports he explored similarities between plant and animal nutrition, but his major efforts were in geology and paleontology. This was a prelude to Chambers’s series “Ages of Animal Life” (1836–1837), the most significant articles he contributed to the Journal, containing the essence of his views on evolution, which he later developed more completely in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation(1844).

Chambers’s lack of practical scientific training and sophistication, which made him vulnerable to errors, also made his work more appealing to the popular audience because of his enthusiasm and fresh approach, unencumbered by the formal restraints and demands that vigorous scientific investigation requires. Although aware of some of the theory’s weaknesses, Chambers was strongly influenced by Laplace’s “nebular hypothesis,” which suggested that the universe had been formed much earlier than stated in scripture, and that it had undergone considerable change. Chambers also read geological works, including those by the Scot James Hutton (1726–1797), that convinced him that Earth’s crust had also changed over time.

Chambers’s initial articles in geology did not create much of a stir. They set the stage for his later work on the transformation of species. In “Werner and Hutton” he discussed Abraham Gottlob Werner’s (1750–1817) “catastrophism” and Hutton’s “uniformitarianism,” making these complex and contrasting theories more understandable for readers. Chambers explained how Charles Lyell (1797–1875) incorporated Werner’s ideas about the power of heat into Hutton’s geology, which emphasized the action of water. A subsequent series, “Theory of the Earth,” further weighed the relative merits of Wernerian and Huttonian geology, indicating how the results of geological inquiry provided the “light” that illuminated the study of the history of “animated nature.” He described stratified rock formations, including the grawache series of rocks containing trilobites, which he referred to as the first living forms inhabiting Earth, and old red sandstone containing “vertebrated animals.” He found it remarkable that this stratum contained shellfish and other “inferior” animals. Other strata contained amphibians of the “lizard and turtle tribes,” or were “mixed with fish, crocodiles, and reptiles” (“Popular Information on Science, Theory of the Earth—Third Article,” in the Journal, 27 May 1837, p. 139).

Chambers’s mistakes in taxonomy were balanced by the sense of wonder he skillfully conveyed to readers. He indicated that new species replaced the extinct forms and discussed the extinction of species and competition in “Popular Information on Science, First Forms of Animal and Vegetable Life” (in the Journal, 8 July 1837, pp. 186–187 and “Popular Information on Science, Second Ages of Animal Life” 22 July 1837, pp. 202–203). The articles contained the same type of scientific errors and flawed reasoning later found in Vestiges but brought provocative ideas to the public as well as Chambers’s remarkable but untutored insight into the relations between different species and how organic change may have taken place. He continued to furnish evidence of evolutionary change, describing the Pterodactyls as “perhaps the greatest wonder of the Reptile Age” with “the wings of a bat, the neck of a bird, and a head furnished with long jaws full of teeth, so that in this last part of its organisation it bore some resemblance to the crocodile (“Second Ages of Animal Life,” p. 202). The “Ages of Animal Life” series contained vivid descriptions of fossil forms and speculation on how one form was transformed into different organisms. The similarity of language and ideas in passages in this series and passages in Vestiges is striking. In the concluding article in the series, (Fourth Ages of Animal Life,” 23 December 1837, pp. 379–380), Chambers focused on the current forms of mammals, indicating that “the earth, then, being now fitted for the animals associated with man … was … the object … of all the changes that had taken place” (p. 380). Because these essays generated little controversy, Chambers felt emboldened to go into retreat in St. Andrews, and while in seclusion there, he wrote Vestiges.

Vestiges is even more explicit in explaining how species were transformed. Chambers expressed his objective more clearly in this work than in his Journal articles. He intended the book to be a complete explication of evolution, one that could be understood by laypeople, not just professional scientists. As a precaution, he insisted he should not be identified as the author because he feared that eventually an issue of this magnitude would create unnecessary problems and endanger his family’s business interests. Only William, his wife, his publisher, and a literary go-between knew the secret of his authorship during his lifetime. It was not until he died that he was revealed as author. In retrospect, it should not have been surprising that he was the author of Vestiges, because the faithful readers of his earlier articles in the Journal had read similar passages almost a decade before in weekly installments.

Although Thomas Henry Huxley believed in a rudimentary form of evolution by the time he was asked to review Vestiges (in 1854, for British and Foreign Medicochirurgical Review, 13, p. 333), he felt that the “progression” theory in Vestiges was deeply flawed. He felt the work did not serve the cause of evolution and actually did it harm because of its errors in biology and geology, and he deplored its faulty logic as well as the idea that amateurs could engage in scientific investigation. In contrast, Alfred Russel Wallace had a more favorable view of Vestiges than Huxley and even Charles Darwin had, and remained a steadfast supporter of the work throughout his career.

Although Darwin’s reaction to Vestiges was not favorable when it was first published in 1844, he developed an understanding of the value of Chambers’s contribution to evolutionary thought, although he fully recognized its shortcomings. He realized the importance of allowing fresh ideas about organic change being properly aired. However, he was primarily concerned with his own theory, viewing all developments in evolutionary biology from this perspective. He did not give full consideration to Chambers and his book early on, mainly because of his feelings that the concepts in Vestiges were very different from his own. However, because Chambers’s work was directed toward a popular audience, his ideas reached a wide audience years before the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Wallace were published. Thus, Chambers prepared the public for the more rigorous scientific ideas of those who followed, making it easier for the ideas of professional evolutionists to be accepted.

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chambers’s articles in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal represent his important early writing.

WORKS BY CHAMBERS

“Popular Information on Science, First Forms of Animal and Vegetable Life.” Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 6 (8 July 1837): 186–187.

“Popular Information on Science, Second Ages of Animal Life.” Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 6 (22 July 1837): 202–203.

“Popular Information on Science, Third Ages of Animal Life.” Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 6 (1837): 298–299.

“Popular Information on Science, Fourth Ages of Animal Life.” Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 6 (23 December 1837): 379–380.

OTHER SOURCES

Schwartz, Joel. “Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley, and Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.” Journal of the History of Biology23, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 127–153. Analyzes the different reactions of prominent Victorian naturalists to Chambers’s work.

———. “Robert Chambers and Thomas Henry Huxley, Science Correspondents: The Popularization and Dissemination of Nineteenth Century Natural Science.” Journal of the History of Biology 32, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 343–383. Discusses Chambers’s early life in the context of the Scottish Enlightenment and illustrates the similarities between passages in his Journal articles and those in Vestiges.

Secord, James. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Discusses Vestiges from the perspective of cultural history.

Joel S. Schwartz

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Chambers, Robert

Chambers, Robert

(b. Peebles, Scotland, 10 July 1802; (d. St. Andrews, Scotland. 17 March 1871),

biology, geology.

The son of a Scottish cotton manufacturer, Chambers was largely self-educated. After operating his own bookstore for a period, he joined his brother William in 1832 to form the well-known Edinburgh publishing firm bearing their names. He wrote many items of antiquarian interest and concerning local, that is, Scottish, history and literature. From the mid-1840’s through the 1850’s Chambers wrote a number of papers dealing with Scottish geology, particularly glacial action and erosion phenomena. These papers, competent although not highly original, earned him a reputation as a scientist; and he was given credit for helping to gain acceptance for the glacial theory.

The scientific work for which Chambers is now best known, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), was published anonymously. By 1860 it had sold over 20,000 copies in eleven British editions plus editions in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands. Chambers had planned to write no more on the subject; but late in 1845, largely in response to Adam Sedgwick’s review of the Vestiges in the Edinburgh Review, he wrote Explanations: A Sequel to “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.” The Explanations was appended to later editions of the Vestiges, several of which underwent substantial revisions.

The main thesis of the Vestiges is that the organic world is controlled by the law of development, just as the inorganic is controlled by gravitation. Within each realm the respective law is the factor unifying all the phenomena. Chambers suggests, although not explicitly, that a higher generalization will someday be found that will unify the phenomena of both the organic and the inorganic realms. He begins with a discussion of the nebular hypothesis, which by the mid-1840’s had lost many of its more scientific supporters but still had many believers among the general public. Chambers emphasized the developmental aspects of that hypothesis, arguing that the solar system had developed from “a universal Fire Mist” to its present configuration.

Chambers then devoted about a quarter of the volume to geology and paleontology, considering each era or formation in turn, beginning with the oldest. This is probably the strongest section of the book, geology being the one area of science in which he had had any firsthand experience. While discussing the formation of the strata, he also discussed the fossil fauna and flora contained therein. Chambers demonstrated that the fossils show a general progression from lower to higher types, with extinctions and new appearances taking place until the “superficial formations” and the appearance of the present species. The appearance of man is a very recent event; and within the human species there has been a development that finally produced the highest race, the Caucasian. To support his doctrine of development Chambers pointed to analogies between three sets of organic phenomena: the order of geological succession of forms, the general taxonomic arrangement of these forms, and the stages through which each embryo passes during development.

Much of the remainder of the volume is devoted to a wide range of biological phenomena, about which Chambers often demonstrates his lack of firsthand knowledge and his naïveté. It must be remembered that essentially all of Chambers’ research for the Vestiges was done in a library and that he had little or no experience with which to evaluate his sources. The topics that he considers range from phrenology and the spontaneous generation of life by means of an electric charge to geographical distribution and taxonomy. For example, he accepts as demonstrated that oats can and do transform into rye, and he argues that birds gave rise to the duck-billed platypus, from which the other mammals arose. On a sounder basis, he relies on Augustin de Candolle’s work on the geographical distribution of vegetation and recognizes the peculiarity of the fauna of Australia. In the first edition Chambers tended strongly toward William Macleay’s circular system of taxonomy. However, he shifted in later editions to a linear branching scheme for representing the relationships of different groups and thus was able to indicate cases of parallel development.

The system that Chambers created was contrary to the contemporary theology. He thought the idea of having God create each species individually at the time at which it appeared in the geological record was belittling to God and unduly anthropomorphized Him. To Chambers it was far more noble to envisage the Creator as working through natural laws and having the organic world develop from humble beginnings. Such a system also provided the basis for an original unity of the entire organic world. Chambers argued that the operation of the natural laws is inherently good because they are God’s laws. However, exceptions to the usual operation of the laws of nature arise as a result of localized conditions; and these exceptions are interpreted as apparent evils. Established religion did not take long to react to Chambers’ views of the Deity and the cause of evil.

Often naïve, often gullible, Chambers still managed in the Vestiges to bring together a large variety of data from geology and the life sciences that bore on the problem of the origin of species. He was writing the Vestiges at the same time that Darwin was writing his “Sketch of 1842” and his “Essay of 1844.” Darwin would not publish until he had accumulated a great deal more supporting evidence. Chambers, with far less experience in science, did not feel such a concern. The Vestiges played a significant role in mid-nineteenth-century biology. By presenting an evolutionary view of nature, it received the first wave of reaction and thus eased the way for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species fifteen years later.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chambers’ most important scientific work was Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (London, 1844). Ten editions appeared by 1853, and Chambers’ last revision was for the eleventh edition (1860), after Darwin had published On the Origin of Species. Chambers appended Explanations: A Sequel to “Vestiges…”(London, 1845) to the later editions, A facsimile of the first edition of Vestiges, with an introduction by Sir Gavin de Beer, is also available (Leicester, 1969). Chamber’s only volume devoted wholly to geology was Ancient Sea-Margins, as Memorials of Changes in the Relative Level of Sea and Land (Edinburgh, 1848). His geological papers are listed in Millhauser.

A very thorough study of Chambers’ life, the background to his work, and his impact in Victorian England is Milton Millhauser. Just Before Darwin, Robert Chambers and “Vestiges” (Middletown, Conn., 1959). This contains a bibliography of Chambers’ principal works.

Wesley C. Williams

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Chambers, Robert (1802-1871)

Chambers, Robert (1802-1871)

British writer and publisher who played no public part in Spiritualism but whose conversion and anonymous activity, especially his writing, were known to his contemporaries. For example, according to William Howitt, he contributed the description of a haunted house at Cheshunt in Mrs. Crowe's Night-Side of Nature (2 vols., 1848). It was this house that novel-ist Charles Dickens wanted to investigate. It was partly pulled down and altered at the time; he could not find it. Also, an article in Chambers' Journal, May 21, 1853, on the mediumship of Maria B. Hayden was understood to have been written by Robert Chambers.

Chambers gave an account of the séances of another American visitor, a Mrs. Roberts, concluding that it was difficult to formulate an opinion but that it seemed to him the phenomena appeared to be natural and the medium the victim of self-deception. A few weeks later, however, his opinion underwent a decided change. He obtained movements of the table and answers by it in his own family circle on matters known only to himself. He wrote: "I am satisfied, as before, that the phenomena are natural, but to take them in I think we shall have to widen somewhat our ideas as to the extent and character of what is natural." His 1859 pamphlet Testimony: Its Posture in the Scientific World examines the scientific idea of evidence with special relation to psychical phenomena. Chambers had many experiences with the famous medium D. D. Home, and he wrote both the anonymous preface to Home's Incidents in My Life and the appendix, "Connection of Mr. Home's Experiences with those of Former Times."

In 1860, in company with Robert Dale Owen, he sat with the Fox sisters in America. They suspended a dining table from a powerful steelyard balance. Under bright gas light and perfect control the table was made heavier and lighter on request, showing variation of weight between 60 and 164 pounds. He had puzzling experiences with Charles Foster, who produced inscriptions on his skin. Chambers sat with Judge Edmonds's daughter, Laura.

In February 1867 he wrote to Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, "I have for many years, known that these phenomena are real, as distinguished from impostures; and it is not of yesterday that I concluded they were calculated to explain much that has been doubtful in the past; and, when fully accepted revolutionise the whole frame of human opinion on many important matters."

Chambers retained his interest in psychic phenomena until his death in 1871. A record of a séance written by him was published by Violet Tweedale, his granddaughter, in Mellow Sheaves. Extracts from further records as preserved by another granddaughter, Mrs. Edward Fitzgerald, were published by A. W. Trethewy in Light, January 6, 1933. Chambers is best remembered today for his many books (on nonoccult themes), especially the many reference books he wrote, and his collections of Scottish poetry.

Sources:

Chambers, Robert. Testimony: Its Posture in the Scientific World. N.p., 1959.

Home, D. D. Incidents in My Life. First series. London: Green Longman, Roberts & Green, 1863. Second series. London: Whittingham & Wilkins, 1872.

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Chambers, Robert

Chambers, Robert (1802–71) The author of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, who in 1844 published anonymously a book called Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation, in which he revived the idea of evolution first proposed by Lamarck 30 years earlier. The book's popularity and notoriety refocused attention on this issue and so paved the way, among the general public, for Darwin's Origin of Species.

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Chambers, Robert

Chambers, Robert (1802–71) The author of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, who in 1844 published anonymously a book called Vestiges of a Natural History of Creation, in which he revived the idea of evolution first proposed by Lamarck 30 years earlier. The book's popularity and notoriety refocused attention on this issue and so paved the way, among the general public, for Darwin's Origin of Species.

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Chambers, Robert

Robert Chambers, 1802–71: see Chambers, William.

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