Things aren't as simple as they seem

According to tradition, Richard Owen is the great "villain" of Victorian biology; brilliant, arrogant, and jealous, the "British Cuvier" was the greatest threat to On the Origin of Species. In turn, his arch-nemesis was T.H. Huxley, a heroic young scientist who zealously defended Darwin and successfully made a fool of the creationist Owen. So goes the common treatment, anyway, and like most other quick-and-dirty historical synopses the popular caricatures of both Owen and Huxley present a rather jaundiced view of each figure and their importance to science. Much like Charles Lyell constructing (and knocking down) a straw-man version of catastrophists in his Principles of Geology, so too did Huxley and other members of the x Club try to keep Owen out of positions of power and cast him as an old fool who couldn't tell the left side of a fossil from the right.* As ever, the truth is much more complex, and as tempting as it is to cast historical figures in favor of one side or another of a modern debate, sometimes their words and actions don't allow them to be co-opted for modern causes.

*And I mean this quite literally, as Huxley's analysis of the London Archaeopteryx criticized Owen for confusing the right and left legs of the fossil, among other points.

Richard Owen is probably one of the most famous misunderstood scientists in biology, mostly because he seemed to hold back on controversial issues during his time and made some unfortunate alliances. Perhaps most remembered as the coach of "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce during the over-hyped Oxford debate in the summer of 1860, Owen is often viewed as a creationist who could not abide any natural explanation for the origin of species. In truth, Owen was not a "British Cuiver" but instead was closer to being a "British Geoffrey"; although he was most known for his skill in comparative anatomy, his view about how species might change over time had more to do with development and changes made to an ancient Archetype rather than adaptation. He was arrogant and not a friendly man to his enemies, but he was not the brooding arch-villain of evolution that he is often assumed to be.

What is especially frustrating, then, is that Owen never exactly made clear his view of a "secondary Law of nature" that could produce species. He did not accept the Mosaic account of creation that Wilberforce based his criticisms of Darwin on, yet he did not accept Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection. If Owen had a competing hypothesis, though, it never fully emerged despite requests from some of his friends to make clear what he meant. Huxley especially grilled him on one particular phrase, "the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things," a concept so ambiguous that it was difficult to determine what Owen meant. Obviously it would not be in line with a young earth creationist view, and his work on fossils reflected his acceptance of a branching process, but his distaste for the concept of human ancestry being among apes and his opposition to evolution by natural selection did not make him many friends among the young naturalists who would ultimately professionalize the biological sciences. In this way Owen is like Cuvier; there are questions which he must have considered, but his answers to them seem to be lost.

Huxley, on the other hand, is often hailed as a hero of science, but few people seem to know much about him other than in his role as "Darwin's Bulldog." Admittedly I do not know much about him myself as yet (besides his role in professionalizing science and that he thought that evolution could happen by "jumps" whereas Darwin held to an evolutionary uniformity of rate), but Huxley was deeply aware of the politics of his science and much of what we might hail him for today had more to do with trying to refute Owen than offer new insights into evolution. Indeed, some of Huxley's ideas from before he became known as a great spokesman of science appear to have been heavily influenced by opposition to the views of Owen and others, including Huxley's notion of "persistence."

While Owen recognized changes in the fossil record and a progression of types towards certain ends (although in some cases, like that of the dinosaurs, there seemed to be more of a regression, spectacular ancient forms "degrading" into pitiful modern creatures), Huxley promoted a view during the 1850's that certain fossil groups remained essentially unchanged and there was no progression of forms through time. According to this view it could be expected that there could be Silurian birds or Devonian mammals; they existed but just had not been found yet. As the years rolled by, though, Huxley had to come to grips with the fact that there were never any such ancestors of birds or mammals during those periods and that there were larger faunal changes over time. In the conclusion of Man's Place in Nature, for instance, Huxley said that the ancestors of humans might be far older than was presently thought. Possibly with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, he even speculated in a letter to Lyell that there might have been a Homo ooliticus, clubbing marsupial mammals in the shadow of the lumbering dinosaurs, and that the ancestors of our species might be so old as to never be found.

Perhaps most troubling to Huxley was that Owen's paleontology was much closer to Darwin's than was his own view. Huxley certainly welcomed Darwin's naturalism, but he needed to reconcile it with his geological views, and so he tried to have things both ways. According to historian Adrian Desmond in his book Archetypes and Ancestors, Huxley figured that most evolution had occurred before the geological record was formed, in a time when the earth was still cooling and was subject to more turbulent forces of nature that would have caused the formation of the diversity of life. Since the earliest records, then, little was new, and this is why Mesozoic crocodiles didn't seem to be very different from the living representatives. Other scientists saw "persistence" in a different way; because creatures like mammoths ranged widely but didn't seem different despite differences in climate, something other than natural selection much be at work. This view was opposed to what Darwin was suggesting, especially when an inner force or formalist type explanation was offered, and Huxley's version of persistence was at least in part a reaction to the formalist arguments of Owen and others.

The continent of Australia seemed to be a good example of what Huxley was looking for to prove his point. The fact that the island continent was inhabited by many marsupials that were considered to be backwater throwbacks to more ancient times led Huxley to propose that the continents once were much different, and that there was even a lost Mesozoic continent that was the center of dispersal for marsupials that eventually died out except in a few places. During this time speculation about "lost continents" was somewhat in fashion, and while Darwin found it distasteful it appeared to serve Huxley's needs well.

The way the story of Owen and Huxley is handed down to us unfortunately often, though, is in opposition to the relationship of Owen and Huxley. While Owen might have opposed Darwin, his ideas came painfully close to an evolutionary view and even could be marshaled in support of Darwin's idea of a branching, undirected process of evolution (although Owen would never admit it). Huxley, on the other hand, was a great defender of Darwin but had his own ideas about how and when evolution occurred. If nothing else, Huxley admired naturalism and strove to bar theology from science, and even though he did not see eye-to-eye with Darwin, Darwin's theory was the best explanation for the evolution of life on earth. The story is probably even more complex than I have been able to illustrate here, but it offers some glimmer of the idea that "accepted" stories can sometimes be more convenient than accurate, especially during a time when geology, paleontology, and evolution were undergoing major growing pains.

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Bravo! It's so good to see someone dissecting one of the 'received wisdom' stories. I'll link to this for my students - they need to see that science is not a case of 'goodies' vs 'baddies' & that the individuals concerned are much more complex than the simple textbook stories indicate. Thank you :-)

While the truth may be that complex, do you think perhaps that people turned on this golden boy after they finally saw the dastardly way that Owen had treated Mantell?

Owen was a fascinating and complex character. He was certainly no saint and he was wrong in many areas, but it's good to see some of his reputation as a scientific genius beginning to be restored.

Mike; It seems that Owen was "obnoxious and disliked" by a number of people even before Mantell's death (the fact that Owen had Mantell's spine removed and put in the Hunterian Museum still skeeves me out a bit). He was the best and he didn't let anyone forget it, and even though he did a bit to help Huxley early on Huxley still found him unbearable. I'm not fan of Owen as a person and it's easy to see why many people turned against him, but at the same time I think his opposition to Darwin is often seen as a sin so great that it almost negates anything else he accomplished or thought about. The Mantell story might make a good blog post though (if you don't beat me to it, that is).

I've always thought the received wisdom that Owen was a complete arse was down to his treatment of Mantell (in life and in death) more than the later clashes with team Darwin. I read a really good book on the two a while back but can't remember the name sadly.

Huxley especially grilled him on one particular phrase, "the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things," a concept so ambiguous that it was difficult to determine what Owen meant.

"...ordained becoming..." Sounds like frontloading to me, the idea that the "blueprint" for all life was somehow encoded into the first simplest living thing, which then sprouted into all the pre-determined species we know today.

Current ID creationists who promote this idea are equally vague about how such a process would actually work.