Darwin and Owen

While Sir Richard Owen is best remembered today for coining the term “dinosaur” (or in the realm of the scientific historian, perhaps for his work on homology),  his personal affinities are often forgotten.  Richard Owen is remembered through the records we have of his life as a brilliant anatomist, but also as an arrogant jerk.  Here, we will look at Owen specifically through his relationship with Charles Darwin.  I choose Darwin here because he is both familiar to most people, and also because the historical record has preserved a large body of material on Darwin’s life, work, and interactions.

As Darwin began his work on the Beagle, he developed a professional relationship with Owen. This is evidenced by the fact that Darwin sent fossil specimens discovered while on the HMS Beagle (such as Toxodon; this letter is from their correspondence over the fossil) to Owen for study and description.  The working relationship between Darwin and Owen lasted at least into the early 1850s, as evidenced in this letter, written in 1850, where Darwin asks Owen for assistance in borrowing a specimen for study from a Mrs. Dixon.  This suggests that Darwin and Owen had at least a working relationship in 1850.

However, great discoveries often lead to hurt feelings.  In 1858, Darwin’s idea of natural selection was presented to the Linaean Society, along with a paper by Alfred Russel Wallace presenting an extremely similar concept.  The material presented by Darwin would soon be utilized in his best known work, On the Origin of Species (which you can read here).  While the work of Darwin and Wallace provided a working mechanism for evolution, Owen never embraced Darwin’s concept of natural selection, as evidenced by this review of On the Origin of Species from 1860.

Thus, Owen disagreed with Darwin on a scientific level.  This disagreement also helped fuel tensions between the two men.  In a letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell, dated 10 December, 1859, Darwin states the following about Owen:

I have [had a] 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

This passage should turn some heads, as it makes me sound like a hypocrite.  Initially, I stated that Owen disagreed with Darwin on natural selection.  But here, we have Darwin relating (to Lyell) criticism from Owen for a statement claiming that Owen defended “immutability”.  This sounds like Owen supports evolution, and by Victorian standards, he occasionally did.  Owen vaccilated  between accepting and denying some sort of evolutionary process throughout his career.  However, Owen never accepted natural selection.  This dichotomy sounds strange today, where the sole working model of evolution that we have is based on natural selection, but in the mid-1800s, natural selection was not yet an acceptable paradigm.  Thus, in light of this fact, it is perhaps easier to understand Owen’s position. 

But I digress.  One other major component of the letter quoted above is the supposed anger that Owen showed towards Darwin.  While I hesitate to read too much into one letter, especially one between Darwin and a third party (Lyell) rather than Owen, this letter suggests that tensions between Owen and Darwin were at least building in 1859.  Judging from later sources, it is obvious that the professional relationship between Owen and Darwin would soon end.  Consider the following passage from Darwin’s autobiography:

I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him.  After the publication of the Origin of Species he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success.  Poor dear Falconer….had a very bad opinion of him, being ocnvinced that he was not only ambitious, very envious and arrogant, but untruthful and dishonest.  His power of hatred was certainly unsurpassed.  When in former days I used to defend owen, Falconer often said, “You will find him out some day, and so it has proved.” (Darwin 1887)

This statement, perhaps more than any other, describes Darwin’s experiences with Owen.  Darwin admired Owen as a scientist, and sought assistance from Owen early in his career.  Darwin and Owen, while not necessarily friendly, worked well together for a period of time from the 1830s until the 1850s, until the publication of The Origin of Species.  Perhaps Owen truly did feel slighted when Darwin claimed that Owen accepted “immutability” rather than an evolutionary worldview.  Or perhaps Owen actually did become Darwin’s “bitter enemy” as a result of jealousy.  Personal feelings are difficult to pin down in situations such as this.  However, it is clear that Darwin, at least early on in his career, admired Owen and even defended him against attacks by Hugh Falconer (a Victorian paleontologist who Darwin also corresponded with).  After the publication of The Origin of Species, however, Darwin’s respect for Owen faltered, likely as a result of Owen’s attacks on Darwin. 

The relationship between Darwin and Owen can be instructive to anyone interested in science.  The dynamic nature of the relationship, one that started out as a working relationship between colleagues and ended with the two men being driven apart, serves as a reminder that scientists are people, not just brains that are stored somewhere in a box with no personal lives or relationships.  Science is a constructive process that requires the input of others in order to help with one’s own research, as evidenced by Darwin sending fossils to Owen for study in the 1830s.  Science, then, is a constructive enterprise.  If one scientist has a weak background in a subject area, they consult another scientist who is an expert in that subject.  Science is based not only on testable hypotheses but also on teamwork.

Explore posts in the same categories: 1800s, evolution, history of science

6 Comments on “Darwin and Owen”

  1. johnG Says:

    I enjoyed your first two articles and I appreciate the links you’re providing. I’ll be back.


    • darwinaia Says:

      Thanks! I’m a bit of a geek with this stuff; I’m hoping to do a history of science PhD relating to evolutionary theory eventually (I’m currently a history undergrad). Thanks a lot for the feedback, and glad you link the links. I’ve been trying to find some useful ones for people interested in the topics I’m covering.

  2. darwinsbulldog Says:

    Hi Michael – I just came across your blog. Even more cool was seeing that you are at Montana State. I was an undergrad in history (SETS) at MSU, and now a graduate student in history here as well, working with Professor Reidy on the John Tyndall Correspondence Project. My master’s paper will be on Tyndall too. For a little over two years I have been blogging here:


    Michael D. Barton

    • darwinaia Says:

      Cool to hear! Best of luck with your work; Tyndall is an interesting figure; some of his work on the Greenhouse Effect is pretty interesting and revolutionary. I don’t have a deep background in his work, but I’m at least somewhat familiar with him. Awesome blog by the way; thanks for the link! I’m pretty new to this end of things (just started this up earlier this week). Next semester should be fun; finally getting to take Darwinian Revolution. I’m looking forward to it.

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