Richard Owen, the forgotten evolutionist


There are few scientific figures as misunderstood as the English anatomist Richard Owen. More often than not, he is portrayed as a sort of Grinch, brooding in his museum and muttering "I must stop this 'evolution' from coming, but how?" Not only was he a severe and vicious old man, generally disliked by all who knew him, but his brilliance was marred by a reliance on the Bible, which caused him to lash out at anyone who dared suggest that life might evolve.

So goes the story, anyway. Owen was a figure of such importance to biology in Victorian England that it is impossible to ignore him, yet when he does earn a mention it is often as the "archetypal villain" to Darwin's conquering hero. Owen certainly did plenty to deserve his poor reputation, primarily his horrible treatment of paleontologist Gideon Mantell, but most people don't know about that. What most people are aware of is what countless books, articles, and television programs have told them, which is that Owen was representative of the religious backlash against Darwin's work. Like much of the information that "everyone knows," such an assertion is patently false.

The problem with Owen's theoretical ideas, in his time and in our own, is that they are extremely difficult to understand. Owen was a man caught up in between social and religious factions that required he walk a very fine line between science and religion, investigating the first but always with due respect towards the second, and this was a recipe for confusion. Owen was a skilled anatomist, there is no doubt, but he often had to protect his more controversial ideas (like those about evolution and form, which I will get to in a moment) by wrapping them in pious prose. Rivals like T.H. Huxley jabbed at Owen for using abstruse phrases like "the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things," and Owen does not seem to have clarified his position.


Owen's vertebrate "archetype."

As Kevin Padian pointed out in an introductory essay attached to a recent reprint of Owen's On the Nature of Limbs, Owen was essentially caught in the middle of a debate over morphology and evolution. (The two could be connected and argued together, but it is better to think of them as distinct arguments that could be combined with each other in different ways.) On the one side there were the "functionalists," or those primarily concerned with adaptation and the general submission of form to a particular mode of life. They were represented by the natural theologian William Paley and the French anatomist Georges Cuvier, and this view was popular in England when Owen began his career. Yet while Owen was called "the English Cuvier," he had much more in common intellectually with "formalists." Rather than looking at the "ends" to which organs were used, this second school (exemplified by Cuvier's rival Etienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire) was fascinated by the unity of form among organisms. For them, commonality of form could not be explained by function alone.

This function vs. form debate can be difficult to understand; there seems to be no modern analog for it. (See The Cuvier-Geoffroy Debate and the first few chapters of S.J. Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory for more.) Recognizing its existence, though, gives us a substantial clue about why Owen was reluctant to accept Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. What Darwin had done was turn Paley's natural theology on its head; the "designer" of life was nature. Indeed, Darwin's theory was one primarily concerned with change due to adaptation, which put it somewhat at odds with Owen's work (even if Darwin was successfully able to co-opt Owen's work on homology and archetypes for his own ends). In terms of his archetype, Owen saw it as a kind of "lowest common denominator" for vertebrate form which could then be modified in different ways to different functional ends. Owen recognized both the need for a commonality of form and its adaptation, but he does not seem to have gone beyond stating these points.

Unfortunately, Owen never fully developed his own evolutionary program. This is strange, for he outlived many of his rivals and was productive well into old age. Did he feel that he could not out-compete Darwin? If he was convinced that evolution progressed by natural selection, why didn't he work hard after the publication of On the Origin of Species to formulate a competing idea? The most we have to date are some telling phrases that illustrate Owen's acceptance that life did change over time via the action of "secondary laws." From On the Nature of Limbs;

To what natural laws or secondary causes the orderly succession and progression of such organic phaenomena may have been committed we as yet are ignorant. But if, without derogation of the Divine power, we may conceive the existence of such ministers...

As Ron Amundson points out in his essay about Owen (also attached to the reprint of Limbs), Darwin and his allies may have missed such passages, but Owen's allies saw them for what they were. According to Amundson, there was a backlash against Owen for such "liberal" ideas, forcing Owen into a rough spot. Owen reasoned that there was at least one secondary law that dictated the evolution of organisms, but his conservative allies (like Adam Sedgewick) did not want to hear it. Owen wanted to show through his work on archetypes that mind had existed before matter, that commonality of form revealed a ground plan by which diversity was formed for different functions, but apparently this did not toe the line closely enough for some of his allies and simply confused his intellectual opponents.

As Amundson speculates, Owen may have stopped work on his own "theory of development" because he was "neither hot nor cold." Beyond issues of reputation, he could not make his ideas comprehensible to adaptation-oriented evolutionists and he somewhat alienated his own base by considering a natural origin for species at all. This frustration only mounted when On the Origin of Species was published, which brought considerations of adaptation back into play and also stirred other arguments (which Owen engaged in) about "man's place in nature."

Richard Owen was an almost maddeningly complex character. He was brilliant, yet he sometimes made simply mistakes that allowed rivals like Huxley to rake him over the coals in public (as with his description of Archaeopteryx and the "Hippocampus Debate"). Owen's work was held in high esteem, yet he could be so vicious and underhanded when dealing with colleagues that he seems to have been a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Much has been done to rehabilitate Owen's reputation in regards to evolution in recent years, but there is much more biographical work that remains to be done. The man seems to have been a walking contradiction, and we have only begun to try to untangle the truth about who he really was.

Further reading;

Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist - Nicolaas Rupke

Archetypes and Ancestors - Adrian Desmond

Terrible Lizard (also known as The Dinosaur Hunters) - Deborah Cadbury

More like this

The cadbury book you reference was excellent I thought.....though it really makes it hard not to despise Owen thereafter which kind of clouds my judgment on these things a little.

Yup. He was a hugely complicated fellow who, on first glance, looks like a prick.

But I go to the Natural History Museum every time I go to London. :D

Woops, sorry for the double post there.

A Laelaps link to my Owen piece on exactly the same day that my own copy of 'On the Nature of Limbs' (ordered in June) arrives in the post. Spooky coincidence, or what?

I hope it's clear from my Archetypal Villain piece that I have considerable respect for Owen: one of the most interesting if enigmatic figures of Nineteenth Century science.

No worries. I've been having a little trouble, too, but I've junked the superfluous comments.

Enjoy On the Nature of Limbs, Richard. It's quite good.

Superb post - thank you :-) I have to agree with tai haku - I read Cadbury's book, & Owen's treatment of Mansell certainly earned him some black marks in my eyes.

I dunno. There's still that "anonymous" review of OoS that Owen wrote. Can't get much vitriolic than he did there. And his fawning over his own work in a purportedly anonymous piece is a bit much.

At the very least Owen denied smooth transitions between species, opting for single step origins. For example, in that review he wrote

The natural phenomena already possessed by science are far from being exhausted on which hypotheses, other than transmutative, of the production of species by law might be based, and on a foundation at least as broad as that which Mr. Darwin has exposed in this Essay. (503)

Owen is arguing for some sort of step function relating species, not a continuous process of change. He returns repeatedly to Buffonian and Cuverian archetypal roots.

I have to admit, I'll have a little fondness for any scientist who poses next to a Moa skeleton.

Can I request that you submit this post to the next The Giant's Shoulders?

As the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, that was an excellent post. As you say, Owen's views were definitely a lot more complicated than often suggested, and there is no denying that his concept of homology was critical in our developing understanding of evolution.

I wasn't sure in reading Terrible Lizard if I was being manipulated to hate Owen but I sure came away unsympathetic. And in truth, my only knowledge before reading Cadbury's book was that he had invented the word "Dinosaur." Thanks for giving me more information on him.

Still don't think I would have trusted him with anything I held dear.