Robert Chambers (1802-1871), British publisher and amateur geologist, was most noted for his contributions as depicted in the book titled Vestiges of Natural History (1844). This controversial work, first published anonymously then later credited to Chambers, directly challenged both theological circles and the scientific community during the Victorian era (1837-1901). Chambers’s unique interpretation and synthesis of religion and science promoted several controversial issues. Among these issues, Chambers questioned the barrier between science and the general population—professional versus amateur—and more importantly, the use of science to discredit the literal interpretation of scripture found in the Holy Bible. Although Chambers received a hail of criticism from all directions, his
iconoclastic work did provide the possibility for future scientists and “unorthodox” theories to be offered for serious consideration, particularly in the case of Charles Darwin and the publication of his On the Origin of Species (1859).
Chambers held that, contrary to scripture, the universe, stars, and planets are beyond humankind’s conception of time. Utilizing the nebula hypothesis, Chambers stated that our planet and solar system are but one part within common and innumerable systems contained within the vastness of the cosmos. Each planet, of which there are infinite variations, is subject to the same stages of development and is governed by infinite laws as established by Divine Providence. As for Earth and humankind, science and rational speculation could unravel the divine mystery of our planet’s history, its relation to the solar system, and the processes of the divine creator. Geology, not theology, would be essential in uncovering this dynamic concept of time and history.
Chambers speculated, correctly to varying degrees, that geology and fossil remains could expose and explain the history of Earth that had been lost to the sands of time. As the earth proceeded from one stage of development to another, life gradually developed, as depicted by the fossil record within geological strata. Plants, fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals conformed to the principles of development established by providence; arranged in perfect unity within a hierarchal framework from lowest to highest. This process toward greater complexity set forth by Divine Providence was preordained for the arrival of humankind.
Humankind is regarded by Chambers as the apex of temporal creation. Influenced by the laws of nature, established and governed by God, the mental capabilities of humankind are distinct, by degree, from other animals. Thus, this unity of humankind as depicted by mental capabilities is dependent upon the creation of the human brain. Unlike the rest of life, which is defined and finite, the human animal mind progresses from finite to infinite and gives a sense of consciousness within terms of individuality. Consciousness, intellect, and memory (conception and imagination) are the driving force not only for reproduction but also for creative contemplation of God and eternity. During this act of contemplation, humankind can understand moral laws established by God and that can be found within nature itself. Humankind has autonomy within these natural parameters, for example, design, from which the “good” can be derived and developed. This moral nature of humankind is eternal and fixed. Essentially, our species is depicted as a natural creation, driven by design to discover its natural morality, the divine, and to know God on a personal level.
In assessing Chambers’s interpretation of then- known scientific principles, scientists of his era were understandably critical. Today it is Chambers’s concept of time that appears most valuable. The age of the universe, as well as of the planets, must be taken beyond the traditional anthropocentric concepts of time. His conceptual framework for the gradual and distinct appearance, in geological terms, of plants and animals, which ultimately culminated in the sudden appearance of our species, denoted the slow and progressive natural state of designed life. Built upon natural geological and atmospheric conditions, the design set forth by the designer or creator resulted in the plethora of life on this planet. Although Chambers believed in the “vestiges of creation” while denying their actual philosophical implications, his synthesis of time directly challenged the traditional interpretation of scripture and some assumptions made by some scientists of his day.
See also Charles Darwin; Organic Evolution; Ernst Haeckel; Thomas Henry Huxley; Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck; Saltationism and Gradualism; Herbert Spencer
Chambers, R. (1967). Traditions of Edinburgh. London: W. & R. Chambers.
Chambers, R. (1969). Vestiges of the natural history of creation. New York: Humanities Press.