Document Type

Honors Project - Open Access


In popular understanding, the history of evolutionary theory knows one name—Charles Darwin—and one date—1859. Late in the second week of October, 1844, however, the publication of an anonymous work titled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation would alter the course of evolutionary theory in Victorian society. Reaching more than a hundred thousand readers across social classes and politics, Vestiges overtook Origin of Species in popularity, brought evolution—a taboo topic at the time—into mainstream discussion, and became one of the greatest sensations of its time. In this thesis, I argue that a literary analysis of this book of science is central to helping us understand how Vestiges accomplished its contemporary status as one of the definitive sensations of the Victorian era. My analysis, beyond showing how the literary mechanics of Vestiges is central to its mass appeal, further highlights that science is made as much through observation and logic as through the literary mechanics of the prose that expresses it. Directing the lens of literary analysis to Victorian scientific prose reveals the ways in which literary strategies are central to knowledge production and dissemination. Such method therefore affords us a more complete and complicated understanding of the history of evolutionary theory in particular, and science in general. In Chapter 1, I show how Robert Chambers’ (the posthumously revealed author) narratorial voice creates a “democratic” process of knowledge production; and in Chapter 2, I explore the rhetorical strategies Chambers employs to reconcile the growing religious and political anxieties surrounding the emerging disciplines of science. I conclude by situating Vestiges in its broader context of the British empire and tracing its troubling legacies in Darwin’s Origin and modern-day racism. This project demonstrates the importance of Humanities in a STEM-focused world. Literary analysis not only helps us understand how scientific ideas are able to gain cultural authority, but also reveals how science itself is produced through literary strategies.



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