In 1844 the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation provided the first full-length exposition in English of an evolutionary theory of biology; it was the most sensational book on its subject to appear prior to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. By stating the case for evolution in a manner comprehensible to the general public, if not acceptable to the scientific community, the book absorbed the worst of the general public opposition to the concept, thus helping to prepare the way for the Origin. Vestiges was one of the greatest scientific best-sellers of the Victorian age, going through at least twelve large editions in England, numerous American editions, and several foreign-language translations. Remarkably, the identity of its author, the Scottish publisher, writer, and geologist Robert Chambers, was kept secret throughout his lifetime, and only divulged after Chambers's death in 1871. Secrecy of authorship undoubtedly contributed to the sensationalism surrounding the work.
Vestiges also played a significant role in transmitting some of Charles Babbage’s pioneering ideas on programming and coding mathematical operations. Babbage, in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837), had likened the Creator to a kind of master computer programmer (although this term did not exist in Babbage’s time), and the operations of the universe to a gigantic program whose myriad changes over time had been set up from the very beginning. Babbage’s ideas were alien to most of the Victorian public, since virtually no one in Babbage’s time was accustomed to thinking in terms of a programmed series of mathematical operations. However, Babbage’s ideas about natural laws resembling “programs” received a much wider audience through the Vestiges. The thirteenth chapter of Vestiges, entitled “Hypothesis of the development of the vegetable and animal kingdoms,” is devoted to the question of how the earth’s most complex organisms could have evolved from its simplest, given the observed fact that “like begets like.” On pages 206-211 of the 1844 edition, Chambers showed that evolutionary change occurring over long periods of time could be seen as similar to the workings of Babbage’s Difference Engine, programmed from the beginning of its operation to produce in sequence several different series of numbers according to a succession of mathematical rules. This is one of the very earliest references to computing within the context of biology.
"During the whole time which we call the historical era, the limits of species have been, to ordinary observation, rigidly adhered to. But the historical era is, as we know, only a small portion of the entire age of our globe. We do not know what may have happened during the ages which preceded its commencement, as we do not know what may happen in ages yet in the distant future. All, therefore, that we can properly infer from the apparently inevitable production of like by like is, that such is the ordinary procedure of nature in the time immediately passing before our eyes. Mr. Babbage’s illustration powerfully suggests that this ordinary procedure may be subordinate to a higher law which only permits it for a time, and in proper seasons interrupts and changes it" (Chambers 1844, 211).
Hook & Norman, Origins of Cyberspace (2002) no. 55.
J. Norman (ed) Morton's Medical Bibliography 5th ed (1991) no. 218.