Charles Darwin and Richard Owen
Wars occur everyday, whether it be pushing and shoving or shooting and bombing. During the 1800's, a
different war of conflict took place. This so-called war between Charles Darwin and Richard Owen circled on the
topic of evolution. As much as it would liked to have this essay based upon a physical war between these two
opposing figures, it is not the case. This war involved the use of text written by Darwin and meanwhile having
Owen misinterpreting it and trying at his very best, falsifying it.
Prior to describing events that took place during the 1800's, it would be best to briefly account for the
characteristics of Owen and Darwin. Richard Owen was born in 1804, and was considered lazy and impudent by
teachers. He attended Lancaster Grammar School to pursue a medical career and later entered the University of
Edinburgh medical school in 1824. However, due to the lack of quality in teaching, Owen transferred to Barclay
School, and it was here that John Barclay, an anti-materialist, greatly influenced Owen. Through Barclay's
recommendation of Owen to John Abernathy, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, Owen was granted
membership to the Royal College in 1826. Owen was later appointed assistant in the cataloging of a collection
containing thirteen thousand specimens (known as the Hunterian Collection (Rupke 17)). It was probably this that
lead Owen interest in the field of anatomy, which eventually lead him into becoming a naturalist. By 1836, he
published anatomical work on the Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (Rupke 119). Within a year, he was giving
lectures to the public on the the Hunterian Collection. These lectures were often attended by important and
royalty figures of Victorian England. Charles Darwin was also one of the many that attended Owen's lectures.
His death in 1892 was treasured with a bronze statue of him placed in the main hall of the Natural History Museum
in South Kensington.
Darwin was born in 1809, he was considered as a man of having a lot of patience and humility. Unlike Owen, he
grew up in a wealthy family with an above average status. His father was an English country doctor, but it was
Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who received the most fame, prior to Charles' popularity. Erasmus Darwin
could be best remembered as the one that declined King George III's grant to take the post of the Royal Physician
in London. He was an English doctor with a high reputation and was also a poet, a philosopher, mathematician,
and a strongly liberal pursuer of human rights (Edey 39). Getting back to Charles Darwin, he was one that loved
the outdoors, his hobbies included collecting shells, moths, butterflies, and beetles. Following his father and
grandfather's footsteps, he was told to be become a doctor, a surgeon, more specifically. However, Darwin's lack
of interest in the subject and the frightfulness of surgery lead him to withdraw from Edinburgh School. His father
then send him to Christ's College, in Cambridge, and it was here, that eventually lead Darwin to become known
as the most famous natural scientist in the world. Through many recommendations by teachers at Christ's
College, Darwin was asked to take the post of a naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle (Edey 43). This expedition,
along with many others followed by, enticed his interest in evolution, botany, and zoology. His works, theories,
and natural selection can be seen through numerous publications, notably his Origin of Species and The Descent
Darwin's theory of evolution was the primary reason that had caused the fade out of Owen's name, or as one
could call it, the 'now forgotten natuarlist' (Rupke 3). Obviously, Owen, being furious of his diminishing
reputation, had to somehow turn this around. Owen attacked back by various strategies including : misquoting
Darwin's publications, setting up traps such that Darwin's theories would become inaccurate, etc. Owen's anger
toward Darwin's publication of the Origin of Species, can be seen in his following expression :
The great value of Darwin's series of works, summarizing all the evidences of embryology,
palaeontology, and physiology experimentally applied to producing varieties of species, is exemplified in the
general acceptance by biologists of the secondary law, by evolution, of the origin of 'species'. As a rule, additions
by summaries and monographs now published in natural history are in the terms of such 'law'.
In this respect Charles Darwin stands to biology in the relation in which Copernicus stood to
The rejection of the origin of species by primary law or miraculous creation, is equivalent to
the rejection of the fixity, centricity and supreme magnitude of our earth, i.e. to the substitution for the geocentric
of the heliocentric hypothesis. The accelerated progress of natural history under the guidance of 'evolution'
parallels that of astronomy under the guidance of heliocentricity.
But the adoption of Darwin's hypothesis of the evolutional way of work is not general.
Lamarck's hypothesis is found in some cases to be more applicable. So it seems to me that Darwin parallels
Copernicus. The latter knew not how the planets revolved around the sun: to know that required the successive
labours of a Galileo, a Kepler and finally a Newton. Analogy raises a cheerful hope and confident expectation
that the science of living things will also be blessed with its Galileo, its Kepler and finally its Newton. And that the
way of operation of the secondary law originating species will then be as firmly established as the 'law of
gravitation'. (Rupke 255-256)
In Owen's first paragraph, it seems that he gives respect to Darwin and the works that he did. This can be seen in
the part that goes ' is exemplified in the general acceptance by the biologists of the secondary law ' (Rupke
256), which can be derived that Owen is saying that Darwin is accepted by the biologists in a general or
recognized to the public. However, in the following paragraph, Owen begins his attack. He first compares
Darwin with Copernicus. After this, Owen explains how Darwin rejects the origin of species by the primary law.
He then continues in saying that rejection of such law is like rejecting accepting a few and disregarding others.
The next paragraph can be said as Owen's final argument in which he further compares Darwin to Copernicus.
He states that Darwin is like Copernicus in that Darwin establishes his points from the secondary law, with no
regards to the primary laws. He uses the example that in order to establish the 'law of gravitation' (Rupke 256),
the works of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton must first be recognized. It is probably due to Owen's knowledge that
he knows Darwin will not be able to defend at this, that has lead him to write in such a negative manner, since
Darwin was dead already when he published this. Giving Owen the name 'chicken' to publish this after Darwin's
death may seem appropriate, however, when one looks at the numerous followers of Darwinism after Darwin's
death, it would seem a perfectly smart move by Owen. Not only would this persuade away others from further
continuing and believing Darwin's work, but it would also help re-establish Owen's once-famed reputation.
Although it may appear that Owen was always the one arguing at Darwin's theories. This was certainly
not the case, as Darwin also criticized Owen's works. For example, in Owen's On the Invertebrate Animals, he
mentions in the glossary :
'Analogue' : a part in one animal which has the same function as another part or organ in another animal.
'Homologue' : the same origin in different animals under every variety of form and function. (Glass 402)
It is clear that Owen's definitions are inaccurate, in that it is not applicable for every species. Darwin noticing this,
responded by stating the following in Chapter V of his Origin of Species :
Several years ago I was much struck by a remark, to the above effect made by a remark, to the above effect,
made by Mr. Waterhouse. Professor Owen, also, seems to have come to a nearly similar conclusion. It is hopeless
to attempt to convince any one of the truth of the above proposition without giving the long array of facts which I
have collected, and which cannot possibly be here introduced. I can only state my conviction that it is a rule of
high generality. I am aware of several causes of error, but I hope that I have made due allowance for them. It
should be understood that the rule by no means applies to any part, however unusually developed, unless it be
unusually developed in one species or in a few species in comparison with the same part in many closed allied
species. (Darwin 112)
Darwin's response with Owen's idea is an attempt to show that Owen's work is not full of evidence. He refers to
Owen's definition as hopeless in convincing the truth. Furthermore, Darwin makes himself look good by
mentioning that he has facts from which he had collected, thus giving himself a better image than Owen.
However, he states : ' and which cannot possibly be here introduced.' (Darwin 112), which may query one to
think whether the evidence that Darwin has, was actually existent at all.
Darwin and Owen were obviously two prominent naturalist figures, reading each other's publications
would definitely not be surprising. Some of the publications were even intended for each other, rather than for
the general public. For example, in The Origin of Species, Darwin writes :
Several writers have misapprehended or objected to the term Natural Selection. Some have even imagined that
natural selection induces variability, whereas it implies only the preservation of such variations as arise and are
beneficial to the being under its conditions of life. No one objects to agriculturists speaking of the potent effects of
man's selection; and in this case the individual differences given by nature, which man for some object selects,
must of necessity first occur. Others have objected that the term selection implies conscious choice in the animals
which become modified, and it has been urged that, as plants have no volition, natural selection is not applicable
to them! In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a false term; but who ever objected to
chemists speaking of the elective affinities of the various elements? - and yet an acid can be said to elect the
base with which it in preference combines. It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power
or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets?
Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary
for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean Nature, only the aggregate
action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little
familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten. (Darwin 62)
In Darwin's first line in the above quote, it is quite evident that he must be referring to someone or several people.
The probability of Darwin referring to Owen would be extremely high, because during that time, Owen was never
a supporter of Darwin's natural selection. Thus, it wouldn't be surprising to see Owen criticizing Darwin's natural
selection in the Origins of Species, which maybe one of the reasons that Darwin further describes about the
definition natural selection. Darwin could have simply gave his definition of natural selection and continue along,
however, he continued by giving examples like the chemist and the various elements that is related. Darwin
definitely must of been criticized in this issue of natural selection, otherwise he would not have mentioned the
line, 'Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions ' (Darwin 62). This line
merely implies that whoever had criticized him, was trying to misinterpret him, and this, Owen was very good at.
After this publication was out, it was evident that Owen had read this. This is because, there must of been a
trigger that made Owen switch his views toward natural selection. In Owen's Anatomy of the Vertebrates, he
accepts by saying :
Derivation holds that every species changes in time, by virtue of inherent tendencies thereto. "Natural Selection"
holds that no such change can take place without the influence of altered external circumstances. "Derviation"
sees among the effects of the innate tendency to change irrespective of altered circumstances, a manifestation of
creative power in the variety and beauty of the results. (Bowler 95)
Although Owen does not specifically mention that he accepts Darwin's theory of natural selection, he does
however, parallel to Darwin's theories in that he acknowledges that changes take place due to the influence of
altered external circumstances. One may ponder why Owen changes his viewpoints toward Darwin's natural
selection, but the main reason would probably be that Owen doesn't want to loose his reputation (as he has lost
enough of it through the existence of Darwinism).
As mentioned previously, one of Owen's strategy in getting back at Darwin's theory is to create a trap, find a weak
point, and attack. For example, in Owen word's :
[w]e have searched in vain from Demillet to Darwin, for the evidence or the proof, that it is only necessary for one
individual to vary, be it ever so little, in order to [validate] the conclusion that the variability is progressive and
unlimited, so as, in the course of generations, to change the species, the genus, the order, or the class. We have
no objection to this result of 'natural selection' in the abstract; but we desire to have reason for our faith. What we
do is object to is, that science should be compromised through the assumption of its true character by mere
hypotheses, the logical consequences of which are of such deep importance. (Rupke 239)
In this quote, Owen is referring to the topic of spontaneous generation, a topic in which Darwin himself, wasn't
quite able to account for. One of the reason that Owen maybe writing in the plural form (the use of we) was due
to the knowledge that, if anyone were to criticize the above, the blame would not be shifted upon him directly.
Thus, the probability of Owen being criticized would be very minimal, since if one were to criticize the above,
they would not only be criticizing Owen alone, but rather all those that supported Owen's topic of spontaneous
generation. Darwin, having read the above, followed suit by also claiming that he too knows not much about the
topic of spontaneous generation. He mentions :
Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from
some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common,
in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and
reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants
and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree.
Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth
have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed. (Darwin 370)
Darwin here uses various examples to show that he knows what is going on, however, the reason behind it is
still unexplainable. Unlike Owen, who admits he has no explanation to spontaneous generation, Darwin uses
God as his reason. He mentions in his last line : ' Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the
organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which
life was first breathed.' (Darwin 370). If one were to look at Darwin's reasoning, by using the same method in
answering to the question - why are there chicks from eggs?, one could answer - because God created it.
Although it would not be incorrect, but this form of answering is basically a universal answer. It was perhaps this
weak point that Owen was looking for, that lead him to criticize Darwin once again. Owen does this by saying :
We have no sympathy whatever, with Biblical objectors to creation by law, or with the sacerdotal revilers of those
who would explain such law. (Rupke 240)
Once again, Owen uses the plural format - we, for self-protection of his criticism. Owen remarks that there is no
sympathy or any type of sorrow for having Darwin base his reasoning of spontaneous generation upon the use of
creation. In other words, Owen is trying to state that it is hypocritical for Darwin to suddenly use the Biblical
support and evidence to back his point, when all along, Darwin based his theory of evolution upon the primary
and secondary laws. Even the Bible states that such judgement would be inappropriate (As in Matthew 5:19, 'So
whoever disobeys even the least important of the commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be
least in the Kingdom of heaven '). Even though this issue relates to the fact that neither Darwin nor Owen have a
satisfactory answer to, Owen still has the urge to wanting to look better than Darwin, or as Neal Gillespie puts it -
'a chance to out-naturalize Darwin' (Rupke 240).
In the conflict of between Darwin and Owen, it seems clear that Darwin had the better of it. Owen was
a naturalist that came and went. Darwin in the other hand, established his name, even till this day, his theories
still stand true and are currently been used. Had Owen not got into this mess with Darwin, Owen's name would
still be remembered by most. The foundations of Owen's views were relatively similar to that of Darwin, and had
he been a supporter of Darwin, his once-high reputation would still hold today.
In conclusion, two brief quotes from Darwin's letters could be seen :
"Owen says my book will be forgotten in ten years, perhaps so; but, with such a [short but prestigious] list [of
scientific supporters], I feel convinced that the subject will not." (Darwin in a letter to J. D. Hooker, 3/3/1860)
"I have read lately so many hostile views [of The Origin of Species], that I was beginning to think that perhaps I
was wholly in the wrong, and that Owen was right when he said the whole subject would be forgotten in ten
years; but now that I hear that you and Huxley will fight publicly (which I am sure I never could do), I fully believe
that our cause will, in the long run, prevail." (Darwin in a letter to J. D. Hooker, 7/2/1860)
It seems certainly true that Darwin's prediction of "the subject (of evolution) would not be forgotten," and that,
"our cause will, in the long run, prevail," proved true. Whereas, Richard Owen's prediction that the "whole
subject" would be "forgotten in ten years" proved false. If we were to put Darwin and Owen under Biblical
standards, and refer to prophets as a person of foretelling future events, Owen could be recognized as a false
prophet and Darwin, indeed a true prophet.