Vestiges of the history of popular science [Essay Review]

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Topham, J.R. (1995)
  • Publisher: Springer

Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Other Evolutionary Writings, ed. James A. Secord.\ud Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1994. Pp. xlviii, vi, 390, viii, 254. US$ 19.95 PB.\ud \ud \ud The title of Robert Chambers' anonymous evolutionary work, Vestiges of the natural history of creation, has long been familiar to even the most casual readers of the history of evolutionary theorising. From as early as 1861—when Charles Darwin first appended his 'historical sketch of the recent progress of opinion on the origin of species' to the third edition of his own more famous work on the subject—down to the present time, no history of what Loren Eiseley called 'evolution and the men who discovered it' has been complete without a discussion of this book. Yet as Eiseley's rather unfortunate phrase makes particularly clear, such histories of evolution are historiographically problematic. Indeed, it has become increasingly common over recent years to question altogether the value of 'evolution' as an object of historical study for any period before the middle of the nineteenth century, when the word began to acquire its familiar modern sense (viz., the origin of animal and plant species by a process of development from other forms). The great danger of evolution historiography is that it can unwittingly lead to teleological, present-centred history—more subtly so, perhaps, than in Eiseley's case, but nonetheless carrying the implication that Darwin's theory of natural selection (if not the modern evolutionary synthesis) was always out there, waiting to be 'discovered'.
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