Chambers, Babbage, Lovelace, and the Importance of Models

While reading Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, I was surprised to see the name of Charles Babbage embedded within the text and was even more surprised to see Chambers quote and employ Babbage’s work in order to support his own ideas of natural creation through transmutation. While grappling with exactly how and why one species developed from another, Chambers invites his readers to consider “an illustration of natural law… brought forward by [Babbage] in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise” (7) that is exemplified through Babbage’s calculating machine. Babbage’s calculating machine, moved by a weight, displays a sequence of natural numbers “each of which exceeds its immediate antecedent by unity.” (Chambers, 7) Babbage, as reported by Chambers, asks his own readers whether or not they think that the sequence will continue in the same way and if they believe themselves to be acquainted with the law of Babbage’s machine. Babbage claims that many of his readers will respond in the affirmative to his two questions. However, at a certain point, the law of the machine will shift and the numbers will increase by greater unity and follow the series of triangular numbers, a pattern that will, in turn, be replaced by yet another series.

Furthermore, Chambers believed that Babbage’s calculating machine was an excellent model for his own thinking regarding the transmutation of species, as is shown through his concluding remarks. He states that “Mr. Babbage’s illustration powerfully suggests that this ordinary procedure (transmutation) may be subordinate to a higher law which only permits it for a time, and in proper season interrupts and changes it.” (Chambers 7) It is through such logic that Chambers not only models his own thinking regarding the creation of species through transmutation but also accounts for the lack of intuition and accessibility that surrounded the idea of evolution for many individuals at the time.

Additionally, Chambers’ mention of Babbage immediately made me think back to one of Babbage’s most esteemed contemporaries, Ada Lovelace. Much like Chambers, Lovelace also displayed a fondness for and dependency on models. Many letters exist between Lovelace and her tutors wherein Lovelace asks about the existence and availability of certain models through which she might come to better understand corresponding mathematical principles. While Lovelace was mocked in certain biographies for her need for models, her use of models allowed her to reach dazzling and beautiful conclusions regarding mathematical concepts. Perhaps it was Lovelace’s love of models that led her to not only develop the precursors to modern-day computer science but to write about math and science in a poetically spiritual, yet tangible manner, as well. Indeed, Lovelace, by transforming what some may refer to as “unfeeling” subjects into warm and ethereal poetic entities, was arguably able to better the understanding of math and science for many individuals who perhaps once found such topics inaccessible.

Finally, Chambers and Lovelace both demonstrate the importance of models when it comes to producing understanding. Just as Lovelace’s view of math and science was able to at once mystify, explain, and “soften” said subjects for others, Chambers’ use of Babbage’s model is arguably responsible for the popularity and praise that Chambers’ book received within Victorian England. For while his ideas were radical, his use of a model certainly provided readers with a solid base to which they could cling while being confronted with new ideas, thereby “softening” the idea of evolution for many.

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