Frank Sulloway titles his recent review of James Secord's Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of 'Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation with brazen inaccuracy: "He Almost Scooped Darwin." In his response to my contribution to the Theory's Empire event, Sean McCann criticized the distinction I had made between Althusserian interpellation and Foucauldian discourse:
[A]t some level the Althusserian account of the interpellation of the subject and the Foucauldian account (in Archaelogy) of its disappearance are in conflict. But the conflict isn’t really that deep, is it? What the two accounts share, of course, is a sense that autonomous personhood is wholly the illusory creation of larger, limiting structures...In other words, would it really be wrong for a latterday American academic to recognize an affinity here?
As I noted in my response, Sean's right to say that with sufficient conceptual distance the Althusserian account of social determination resembles Foucault's. Much is lost in the acquisition of that distance. (And by much, I mean "the premises.") Granted, McCann's operating in the tradition of the New Historicist, Benn Michaels Brigade. The NHBMB values structural homologies, and McCann's analysis pointed to the possibility of a structural homology between Althusserian and Foucauldian thought which would've belied the historical and personal animus between these two pillars of French post-structuralist thinking.
I spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about the Althusser/Foucault homology and I still don't know where I stand on it. But it's keyed me into the appearance of homologies of this ignore-the-premise-focus-on-the-conclusion sort. Hence my problem with Sulloway's title and the argument sitting pretty beneath it. To claim even titularly that Chambers' nearly scooped Darwin is to fundamentally misunderstand the significance of the theory of natural selection. Such a claim entails a cult of personality based first around the anonymous author (later revealed to be Chambers) of the Vestiges and later around Darwin (after the publication of the Origin). If Sulloway's argument held the water I think drowns it, this cult of personality would have to be founded on the principle that the public adored anyone who said "Things Change!"
Because "Things Change!" is the extent of the connection between the intellectual content of Chambers' Vestiges and that of Darwin's Origin. (Don't take my word for it. Read the Vestiges yourself.) The most significant difference between Chambers and Darwin concerns the mechanism of evolution:
Darwin had natural selection. Chambers had monstrous birth.
He discusses the power of monstrous birth in Chapter 14 of the Vestiges. He first grants that the natural laws of reproduction demand that a mother of a given species give birth to a child of the same species. But what if man in his inability to be everywhere all the time has missed the occasional monstrous birth? Is it possible that every once in a while a goose gives birth to a mouse? According to Chambers, who cites as proof the work of Charles Babbage, we cannot disprove that no geese has ever given birth to a mouse.
Babbage posited that what one person infers to be a natural law may be the result of an inadequate but effectively infinite set of evidence. Chambers sat his readers behind Babbage’s "calculating machine" as it ticks 1, 2, 3, 4, all the way to 100,000,000. Reasoning inductively, he argued, a rational person would assume 100,000,0001 would follow 100,000,000. Instead, the calculating machine ticks 100,010,002. The only conclusion, according to Babbage, is that
the law that each number presented by the engine is greater by unity than the preceding number, which law the observer had deduced from an induction of a hundred million instances, was not the true law that regulated its action, and that the occurrence of the number 100,010,002 at the 100,000,002nd term was as necessary a consequence of the original adjustment, and might have been as fully foreknown at the commencement, as was the regular succession of any one of the intermediate numbers to its immediate antecedent.
Chambers analogized the inability to deduce the engine’s actual programming by induction without a calculation of daunting complexity with the sheer expanse of time within which the natural laws of reproduction have worked. And if one can no more deduce the absoluteness of these laws than the engine’s original programming, it is possible that, at some divinely predetermined time, a goose gave birth to a rat. Chambers noted the occasional retrogression of one species into another, as when the heart of a human fetus "goes no farther than the three-chambered form, so that it is the heart of a reptile."
If the heart of a human fetus can retrogress via an "under-adequacy" into that of a reptile, why should it be beyond the bounds of reason "to imagine an access of favourable conditions to reverse the phenomenon," which is only to say
it is no great boldness to surmise that a super-adequacy in the measure of this under-adequacy (and the one thing seems as natural an occurrence as the other) would suffice in a goose to give its progeny the body of a rat, and produce the ornithorynchus [duck-billed platypus], or might give the progeny of an ornithorynchus the mouth and feet of a true rodent, and thus complete at two stages the passages from the aves [birds] to mammalia. (emphasis mine)
Chambers has naturalized the idea of monstrous births via his appeal to Babbage; now it is as natural for a goose to give birth to a mouse as a gander. But that's not all. According to this logic, birds can "evolve" into mammals in "two stages." (Granted, there's a real logical problem with Chambers logic: if one goose gives birth to one mouse, with whom with that mouse reproduce? A goose? But monstrous births are rare by Chambers' own admission, so the likelihood of two geese giving birth to one male and one female mouse is extremely slim.) The problems with Sulloway's claim should be obvious now:
He pits Chambers' two monstrous births against the imperceptible variations of billions of organisms reproducing over billions and billions of years. To put it another way:
2 vs. 1,000,000,0001,000,000,000
That said, Sulloway isn't wrong to argue for the significance of Chambers' book. It did compel a number of people to think about the laws of heredity and it was (and remained) more popular than the Origin until 1901. What Sulloway doesn't mention is that in Chambers' scheme these monstrous births are the product of divine fiat, a fact which may account for its popularity. Furthermore, Sulloway never mentions the person responsible for priming the well Chambers would later pump so successfully: Erasmus Darwin.
Such is the danger of acquiring any level of abstraction in which all but the grossest of distinctions are leveled. I don't think Sean's proposition abstracts itself into imprecision in the same manner. Still, I do believe this danger lurks behind the quick construction of any structural homology.
Thus concludes today's lesson. If you're still reading, congratulations! You may be a future reader of my dissertation!