Within the pantheon of Victorian-era naturalists, there was no villain more sinister than Richard Owen. That’s what I had always been taught, anyway. Though undeniably brilliant, teachers and textbooks conceded, Owen was a jealous, religiously-motivated scientist who utterly despised the idea of evolution. Among his worst offenses was an anonymous review – which gave away the identity of the author through its purple prose and self-reverential style – which severely criticized Charles Darwin’s masterwork On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. If Darwin is the great hero of late 19th century science, then Owen was his unscrupulous enemy. Given his historical treatment, it is easy to envision Owen wringing his hands and pacing his study as he designs plans to destroy the careers of evolutionists.
Thor Hanson promotes this mythology in his book Feathers, specifically in regard to one of the most important fossils ever found – the London specimen of Archaeopteryx. This Jurassic animal – discovered in a German limestone quarry sometime in 1861 – presented a mosaic of reptilian and avian features. Good reptiles were not supposed to have feathers, and good birds were not supposed to have long, bony tails. This was just the sort of fossil evidence deeply religious naturalists feared – Hanson suggests that Owen “based his career … on the firm belief that species were created and altered only by the hand of God” and therefore could not allow such evidence to fall into the wrong hands. Hanson writes:
If Archaeopteryx could be perceived as an intermediate step between reptiles and birds, it would be dangerous fodder for the Darwinists. They would call it evidence that birds and their most distinctive feature, feathers, evolved from the reptiles. Owen needed to be the first person to study the fossil, to describe it, and to refute any possibility that it was a ‘missing link.’
According to Hanson, Owen wasted no time in pushing his own agenda for the fossil. Purchased for the British Museum (Natural History) from the German fossil collector Karl Häberlein, Owen “unpacked Archaeopteryx himself as soon as it reached the museum, spiriting the fossil away to his offices and rushing to publish a description.” This was Owen’s folly, Hanson says – the fossil would “upend [Owen’s] career, taint his life’s work, and put him forever on the wrong side of history.” Darwin and his ardent defender Thomas Henry Huxley would ultimately be proven right, and Owen would go down in history as a cantankerous old bastard who let his fundamentalist convictions get the best of him.
But this is historical hogwash. The dramatic battle between 19th century evolutionists and creationists over Archaeopteryx makes for a spicier narrative, I will admit, but does not hold together upon close scrutiny. Owen may have been an anti-Darwinian naturalist, but he was an evolutionist of another sort, and the high price he paid for Archaeopteryx had nothing to do with keeping the bird out of the reach of Huxley’s ilk. Rather, the primordial bird was to be one of many jewels that Owen set in the crown of his magisterial museum.
The idea that Owen was a hardcore creationist partly stems from the fact that few understood just what he was talking about. Owen had publicly broached the idea of evolution in the 1840s, but his style was so cumbersome that those who would become his intellectual opponents didn’t understand that he was hinting that organisms might be modified over the course of time. In his discourse On the Nature of Limbs, specifically, Owen pondered how all vertebrates might be greater or lesser variations of a primeval archetype by the course of some natural agency. He didn’t identify a specific, observable mechanism, but he did not insist on the stability of species. In fact, Owen was pissed off when Darwin counted him among the ranks of naturalists who affirmed that species were unchanging. In a letter dated December 10th, 1859, Darwin wrote the following to his friend and colleague Charles Lyell about a meeting he just had with Owen:
I have very long interview with Owen, which perhaps you would like to hear about, but please repeat nothing. Under garb of great civility, he was inclined to be most bitter & sneering against me. Yet I infer from several expressions, that at bottom he goes immense way with us.— He was quite savage & crimson at my having put his name with defenders of immutability. [emphasis mine] When I said that was my impression & that of others, for several had remarked to me, that he would be dead against me: he then spoke of his own position in science & that of all the naturalists in London, “with your Huxleys”, with a degree of arrogance I never saw approached. He said to effect that my explanation was best ever published of manner of formation of species. I said I was very glad to hear it. He took me up short, “you must not at all suppose that I agree with in all respects”.— I said I thought it no more likely that I shd. be right on nearly all points, than that I shd toss up a penny & get heads twenty times running.
I asked him which he thought the weakest parts,—he said he had no particular objection to any part.— He added in most sneering tone if I must criticise I shd. say “we do not want to know what Darwin believes & is convinced of, but what he can prove”.
Owen even discussed the ancestry of whales with Darwin, particularly in reference to Darwin’s thought experiment that – over the course of many generations – swimming bears could be modified into something “as monstrous as a whale.” Darwin was embarrassed by criticism of the passage and decided to cut it from future editions, but Owen was disappointed to hear this and affirmed that whales and bears actually shared a close relationship. “[B]y Jove,” Darwin wrote, “I believe he thinks a sort of Bear was the grandpapa of Whales!”
If there was anyone who was disturbed by the possibility that Archaeopteryx might be used to support evolutionary hypotheses, it was the German paleontologist Johann Andreas Wagner. Before the Archaeopteryx specimen was purchased for the British Museum, Wagner was able to obtain a sketch of the fossil and issued his own description. While the buzz was that this creature was a bird, Wagner cast the animal as a bizarre reptile that had nothing at all to do with evolutionary change. The fossil was clearly an enigmatic reptile, he thought, and, as a tribute to the animal’s strange nature, tried to rename the specimen Griphosaurus problematicus (though this name was not used by others). And, in an attempt to stave off any evolutionary speculation, Wagner added this warning:
At first glance of the Griphosaurus we might certainly form a notion that we have before us an intermediate creature, engaged in the transition from the saurian to the bird. Darwin and his adherents will probably employ the new discovery as an exceedingly welcome occurrence for the justification of their strange views upon the transformation of animal but in this they will be wrong.
Contrary to these fears, though, Darwin, Huxley, and other naturalists in their circle didn’t immediately jump on Archaeopteryx. While Darwin and his friends were privately excited about the discovery – paleontologist Hugh Falconer called Archaeopteryx a “a strange being à la Darwin” in an 1863 letter to Charles – Darwin did not immediately cast the bird as an evolutionary icon. In fact, when Darwin got around to talking about Archaeopteryx in the fourth, 1866 edition of On the Origin of Species he primarily cited the fossil as an example of the wonders which remained hidden in the earth. Archaeopteryx was a lesson that there was more left to find – prehistory was still unfamiliar and poorly understood, no matter how well geologists thought they had mapped the story of the world. And, as I have argued multiple times, Thomas Henry Huxley didn’t perceive Archaeopteryx as a perfect transitional form, either. Huxley thought Archaeopteryx was an aberrant offshoot of early bird evolution – the actual origin of birds, he believed, occurred through a dinosaur-like animal akin to Compsognathus through flightless, ostrich-like birds before culminating in flying birds. Darwin, Huxley, and others knew that a single fossil would not make their case, especially when the direct ancestors and descendants of something as ambiguous as Archaeopteryx were unclear.
Within this context, Owen’s description of what is now called the London Archaeopteryx shows no indication of being a rushed effort to hold back the Darwinian tide. Owen quickly described the fossil after acquiring it – dubbing the animal as the “by-fossil-remains-oldest-known feathered Vertebrate” in an 1863 paper – and, despite the creature’s smattering of reptilian characteristics, he affirmed that Archaeopteryx was a bird.
Of course, Huxley did write a rebuttal to Owen’s description in 1868. But this had more to do with the acrimonious competition between the naturalists than the question of how birds evolved. At the very end of the paper Huxley was clear that Archaeopteryx was a bizarre animal that had little to do with bird origins – “I am disposed to think that, in many respects, Archaeopteryx is more remote from the boundary-line between birds and reptiles than some living Ratite [ostriches, etc.] are.” What the paper really represented was a chance to cast doubt on Owen’s highly-vaunted powers of paleontological interpretation. Huxley shamed Owen by saying the elder naturalist had improperly interpreted the slab – what Owen identified as the right leg was actually the left. Furthermore, Huxley made a joke of Owen’s “law of correlation.” There was no reason to expect that Archaeopteryx had a beak, as Owen expected, simply because the animal was categorized as a bird, especially since beaks were a widespread trait among vertebrates – sometimes associated with fleshy lips or teeth, and sometimes not. The paper was a quick and neat attack on Owen’s science, although, contrary to Hanson, the line “It seems that Professor Owen cannot tell his left foot from his right” does not appear anywhere in Huxley’s 1868 paper. (Such a direct comedic jab would have been inappropriate in a descriptive paper presented before London’s Royal Society. I do not know where Hanson retrieved this quote from.)
But there is one more part of Hanson’s portrayal of Owen that distorts reality. Owen certainly was a hoarder of important fossil specimens, and he wasn’t above using his influence to get other naturalists to give over their best bits to him, but this wasn’t because he had nefarious plans to keep them out of the hands of evolutionists. As pointed out by historian Nicolaas Rupke in his biography Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin, the British Museum paleontologist was trying to build a world-class museum filled with unique wonders.
Owen cultivated academic influence during a time when England was only just beginning to develop museums which could compete with those in Germany and France. The naturalist’s life was primarily driven by the goal of creating an institution which surpassed all others. Rather than simply being a collector and describer, Owen wanted to shore up national pride and a sense of enchantment through museum collections and displays. During the early 1860s, for example, Owen pushed for a great whale gallery. Any old museum could present glass cases of common specimens, but only an institution as grand as the British Museum – now the Natural History Museum – could pull off a full display of the largest examples of every known whale species. He had similar designs for displays of the biggest terrestrial mammals, as well as the largest – and therefore best – examples of prehistoric monsters. Such displays would not only educate – they would be a symbol of the reach and power of the British Empire.
But Owen wasn’t just after the most gargantuan natural history specimens. Anything of significant value or interest would help build the reputation of the museum. Rupke writes:
A major reason for acquiring, displaying, and describing particular specimens was to enhance the ranking of a museum. Adding a rare specimen, a very large specimen, or a specimen from a newly explored region expanded the museum’s sphere of public influence. The scientific interpretation could be controversial or doubtful and could change over the years, but a rare specimen was always an adornment to the collection. As Owen repeatedly proclaimed, every European nation possessed its national museum of natural history, and the quality of its contents bore a direct relationship to the level of civilization of each national community.
Specifically in the case of Archaeopteryx, Rupke continues, the purchase of the bird probably had more to do with museum reputation than anything else:
The physical possession of this rare specimen, as a symbol of institutional sway, was the primary significance of the acquisition. The Archaeoptereyx represented, first and foremost, an object of competitive museum building. Its chief importance did not derive from its bearing on evolution theory as an apparent transition from reptile to bird but was the same as, for example, that of the dodo, of which Owen was very keen, too, to acquire a specimen for the museum and about which he wrote a classic memoir at just about this time.
Indeed, German naturalists were cross that such a valuable specimen from their own country had gone to a foreign collection. Regardless of what Archaeopteryx turned out to be, there was significant importance in describing and displaying something no one else possessed or had seen before. Museums have played this game ever since – institutions compete to collect, describe, and display the biggest, best, and strangest examples of dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and other tidbits of natural history. (Read Paul Brinkman’s The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush for a detailed example of how superlative specimens have played essential roles in museum reputation and identity.)
For as much as has been written about Victorian science for general audiences, particularly during the recent Darwinian fiestas of 2009, there is a migraine-inducing lack of historical context. Charles Darwin was the hero; Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Lyell, and Joseph Hooker were his obedient disciples; and Richard Owen was the powerful arch-nemesis who foolishly believed he could stand in the way of scientific Truth. Bullshit. Owen was a cranky scientist, but his views and aims were far more complicated than virtually anyone writing popular nonfiction gives him credit for. And, despite winding up on the “right side of history” due to their allegiances, Huxley, Lyell, and Hooker disagreed with Darwin on many different points – their work has often been misinterpreted and narrowed down to their friendship with Darwin. There is no shortage of what Stephen Jay Gould aptly deemed “textbook cardboard” – the kind of historical storytelling which perpetuates legends about simple, ideological struggles between scientific heroes and villains. If we wish to tell the stories of highly-influential scientists like Darwin and Owen, the least we can do is try to accurately comprehend their words and what they meant by them.
Top Image: The Thermopolis Archaeopteryx – one of the most recently-described Archaeopteryx specimens, and also one of the most controversial since it is housed in a small, Wyoming museum and not a German institution. Photo by the author.
Gould, S.J. 1987. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hanson, T. 2011. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. New York: Basic Books.
Huxley, T.H. 1868. Remarks upon Archaopteryx lithographica. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 16 (1867 – 1868), pp. 243-248
Rupke, N. 2009. Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Switek, B. 2010. Thomas Henry Huxley and the reptile to bird transition Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343 (1), 251-263 DOI: 10.1144/SP343.15
Wagner, J. 1862. On a new Fossil Reptile supposed to be furnished with Feathers. The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 3 (52), 261-267