Book Review: Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin

View Images

There was perhaps no Victorian naturalist so well-known and so misunderstood as Richard Owen. He could be warm to friends, but to his scientific peers he was an obstinate autocrat. He was among the first scientists to start publicly considering life in evolutionary terms, yet he never fully demonstrated the mechanism by which his evolutionary visions might be carried out. He crossed swords with theologians who were rankled by the implications evolution, but at the same time Owen fancied himself as a “high priest” of science. Neither here nor there, neither warm nor cold, Owen was seemingly a walking contradiction, and his scientific work is the subject of Nicolaas Rupke’s biography Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin.

Rupke’s biography is not new. It was originally published in much longer form in 1994 as Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist. As with other useful works on the history of science, however, (such as Eric Buffetaut’s Short History of Vertebrate Paleontology) Rupke’s original work went out of print and prices for the remaining copies soared. Given the resurgence in interest in Richard Owen it seemed appropriate to reissue the biography in modified form through the University of Chicago Press.

I have not read Rupke’s original work so I cannot speak to how the new revision compares, but Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin is not your standard biography. Rather than provide a comprehensive view of Owen’s life, times, and intellectual development as Adrian Desmond and James Moore did for Charles Darwin in Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist and Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Rupke instead recounts Owen’s involvement in several scientific controversies. Owen’s museum-building agenda, his response to the work of Darwin, his conflicts with T.H. Huxley, and other debates comprise the core of the book.

I could not make up my mind about the efficacy of this approach. The more constrained biographical narrative allowed for more emphasis to be placed on Owen’s scientific works, but it simultaneously obscured who Owen was outside the scientific arena. (This has the unfortunate consequence of causing the book to end very abruptly.) Rupke’s book still left me in want of a more comprehensive biography of Owen, but, that aside, the revised volume does much to continue the rehabilitation of the famous English anatomist. Even though Owen was an evolutionist (albeit not of the Darwinian sort) he would be miscast as a religiously-motivated creationist by many later critics. Rupke’s work does much help to undo some of this damage (although how much influence it has will depend upon how widely it is read).

Of particular interest was the last portion of the book in which Rupke examines Owen’s relationship to religion during his twilight years. While Owen was religious and a social conservative he was far more liberal than some of his contemporaries when it came to the relationship between religion and science. Rather than become a theistic evangelist he instead stressed the importance of science to revealing more abstract religious truths. Indeed, if Owen were alive today we might designate him as a theistic evolutionist. As Rupke suggests, Owen saw himself as an almost literal high priest of science; he was the person most able to reconcile the book of Scripture with the book of Nature.

Ultimately, however, Rupke’s book left me with mixed feelings. The unconventional organization and occasional academic tics (i.e. breaks in the narrative to survey differing opinions of other historians of science) hindered my enjoyment of the book. It would have been a better read had it followed a main narrative thread rather than sampling bits of Owen’s work from here and there. Nevertheless, Rupke’s scholarly book is a very useful summary that is an essential read for anyone who wishes to understand Owen’s role in Victorian science and his legacy. It is far superior to Christopher Cosans’ book Owen’s Ape and Darwin’s Bulldog, and for the time being it is the best biographical treatment of Richard Owen available. Perhaps Rupke’s will even act as a springboard for someone to deliver an even more comprehensive account of Owen’s life. I truly hope so.