Richard Owen

1Richard Owen (1804-1892) was a comparative anatomist, vertebrate paleontologist and the most distinguished English zoologist of his time. He was educated as a physician and in 1826 became the member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He held the position of Assistant Conservator at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1842 to 1856. He gradually became more interested in comparative anatomy than practicing medicine. In 1836 he became the College’s Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology, and gave a series of lectures to the public, attended by Charles Darwin.

Owen was appointed the first superintendent of the Natural History Department at the British Museum, London, in 1856, and later became the Director of the museum until his retirement in 1884. Owen convinced the government of the need for a new museum. Land was bought in South Kensington and a new building was built, which is known today as the Natural History Museum.

Owen was the leading comparative anatomist of his time, and gave us many of the terms still used in anatomy today. He published over 360 illustrated monographs on recent and fossil animals.

In a letter to J.D. Hooker, dated 1860, Darwin called himself “immeasurably inferior” to Owen as a naturalist. After the apparition of Darwin’s book, a public debate broke out between them in newspapers. It wasn’t Darwin’s habit to tell his critique to a person directly, but he rather plotted behind one’s back, as it is evident from his many letters, so “Darwin, as usual, did not enter into public combat. Instead, the battle was joined by T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog.” .

Darwin’s other ally against Owen was Hooker, to whom he wrote in 1861, “I have always thought that you have more cause than I to be demoniacally inclined towards him.” This was probably an attempt from Darwin’s part, to set somebody else against Owen as well.

Darwin on the Origin of Species
(Edinburgh Review, April, 1860)

Owen begins his article by praising Darwin’s charming writing style in which his observations on the natural world are recorded, such as the narrative of the voyage on Beagle, his observations on the coral reefs etc. He then cites the chief original observations adduced by Darwin as evidence for his theory, such as his observations on certain ants, bees, migratory birds and a few others. He then summarizes the theory of evolution.

After this introduction, Owen presents his objections to the theory. Below we present a couple of them.
Darwin’s observations are not convincing

As Owen tells us, Darwin’s observations not only are unconvincing, but do not even “give a colour to the hypothesis”. As he leaves us without proof, he expects us to believe in his intelligence, “clearness and precision of thought and expression, which might raise one man so far above his contemporaries”, as to reach “deeper and truer conclusions than his fellow-labourers had been able to reach”, “the clearest zoological thinkers, and the most successful generalizers”.

These expectations are not met in Darwin’s book, and Owen cites as an example the very first sentence, in which Darwin claims that he had gotten an idea about the origin of species, while gazing at the “distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.” Owen then asks the right question:

What is there, we asked ourselves, as we closed the volume to ponder on this paragraph, what can there possibly be in the inhabitants, we suppose he means aboriginal inhabitants, of South America, or in their distribution on that continent, to have suggested to any mind that man might be a transmuted ape, or to throw any light on the origin of the human or other species?

This question, with many others, is never answered in Darwin’s book.
Darwin did not invent the transmutation theory, he copied it from others

Owen presents on 14 pages the “transmutative speculations” and mistakes of Darwin’s predecessors such as Lamarck, Demaillet, Buffon. According to Demaillet, external influences or conditions of life raise species on the scale, ex. fish transforming into bird. In Buffon’s theory the same influences lower the species by way of degeneration, as the bear into the seal, and this into the whale. To these influences Lamarck added the effects of increased or decreased use or action of parts. Darwin completes these with the idea of “Natural Selection”. According to his theory, in the “struggle for life” the superior variety survives in each species. Darwin presents his theory as new, and Owen comments:

Mr. Darwin rarely refers to the writings of his predecessors, from whom, rather than from the phenomena of the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, he might be supposed to have derived his ideas as to the origin of species. When he does allude to them, their expositions on the subject are inadequately presented.

Darwin admits the supernatural creation of organic life

Darwin says, 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.” He starts from a single supernaturally created form.

Owen points out, that Darwin as a materialist and atheist, could not deny a supernatural act at least at the formation of organic life. Darwin “restricts the Divine power of breathing life into organic form to its minimum of direct operation.” But this fires backwards, as Owen explains,

All subsequent organisms henceforward result from properties imparted to the organic elements at the moment of their creation, pre-adapting them to the infinity of complications and their morphological results, which now try to the utmost the naturalist’s faculties to comprehend and classify. And we admit with Buckland, that such an aboriginal constitution, ‘far from superseding an intelligent agent, would only exalt our conceptions of the consummate skill and power, that could comprehend such an infinity of future uses, under future systems, in the original groundwork of his creation.’

The simplest organisms are the most numerous, this refutes “Natural Selection”

According to Darwin, all organisms that have lived on earth descended from this primordial form. This prototype’s descendants multiplied and diverged, and they came more and more under the influence of ‘Natural Selection’ and finally rose to man. But what do the facts say? As Owen states:

Are all the recognised organic forms of the present date, so differentiated, so complex, so superior to conceivable primordial simplicity of form and structure, as to testify to the effects of Natural Selection continously operating through untold time? Unquestionably not. The most numerous living beings now on the globe are precisely those which offer such a simplicity of form and structure…

The coexistence of the most simple and most complex structures contradicts Darwin’s theory

Accordingly we find that every grade of structure, from the lowest to the highest, from the most simple to the most complex, is now in being, a result which it is impossible to reconcile with the Darwinian hypothesis of the one and once only created primordial form, the parent of all subsequent living things.

“Natural Selection” could also lead to degeneration

According to Darwin, new species may arise as a result of inherited variations, if these variations give some individuals of an existing species a better chance to survive. Darwin gives the imaginary example of dogs and rabbits on an island. The course of this process is from simple forms to complex forms. But as Owen points out, if “Natural Selection” exists, then it may operate in both directions. He gives the degeneration-theory of Buffon as an example. In Buffon’s example, on an imaginary island the sources of food on the ground decrease slowly, while those on the trees increase, so the wild men try to climb more for food. Suppose that a tiger or other carnivore settles on the island. The humans with the longest and strongest arms  would survive during those years when food is scarcest on the ground, and the best climbers would escape the tigers, the worst would be destroyed. The conclusion:

Buffon would have seen no more reason to doubt that these causes, in a thousand generations, would produce a marked effect, and adapt the form of the wild man to obtain fruits rather than grains, than Darwin now believes that man can be improved by selection and careful interbreeding into a higher, more heroic, more angelic form!

As stupid as it may seem, the same idea—degeneration from complex to more simple—can be found in the 1st edition of Darwin’s book:

In North America the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely opened mouth, thus catching, like a whale, insects in the water. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of insects were constant, and if better adapted competitors did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstruous as a whale.

Variability is the essential condition of life but it doesn’t lead to new species

Plants, animals, human beings differ one from another, which is very normal and it does not lead to new species.

That the variability of an organism to a certain extent is a constant and certain condition of life we admit, otherwise there would be no distinguishable individuals of a species… This true and proved law of variability is, in fact, the essential condition of individuality itself. We have searched in vain, from Demaillet 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 [be led to] 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.

This theory alienates men from God

To him, indeed, who may deem himself devoid of soul and as the brute that perisheth, any speculation, pointing, with the smallest feasibility, to an intelligible notion of the way of coming in of a lower organised species, may be sufficient, and he need concern himself no further about his own relations to a Creator.

The problem of sterility

Darwin assumes that useful variations are reproduced in the offspring, and may be heightened in still further modified descendants of the species. This theory implies the fertility of the individuals during the process of transmutation. This is not the case:

But numerous instances, familiar to every zoologist, suggest an objection which seems fatal to the theory, since they show extreme peculiarities of structure and instinct in individuals that cannot transmit them, because they are doomed to perpetual sterility.

For example, the most important members of the hive are the neuters, or “non-breeding females”, which collect the pollen on their peculiarly expanded thighs and honey in their peculiarly valvular crop or “honey-bag”. In the family of ants, the sterile females are the workers, and their size differs greatly, some of them are three times longer than the others. The castrate bovine has longer horns than the male or female. But as Owen points out, “all these instances of exaggerated peculiarities of structure and instinct are manifested in individuals which never could have transmitted them.”
False statements and “facts” in Darwin’s theory

Owen’s review contains many quotes from Darwins’ false statements. For example, Darwin says in his book, “all recent experience shows that it is most difficult to get any wild animal to breed freely under domestication”, but Owen gives many examples of animals breeding in zoos.
This and other statements leads Owen to conclude:

Such are the signs of defective information which contribute, almost at each chapter to check our confidence in the teachings and advocacy of the hypothesis of ‘Natural Selection’. But, as we have before been led to remark, most of Mr. Darwin’s statements elude, by their vagueness and incompleteness, the test of Natural History facts.

Belief instead of demonstration

Darwin’s use of the word “believe” is inadequate in the case of a scientific theory.

Now, on such a question as the origin of species, and in an express, formal, scientific treatise on the subject, the expression of a belief, where one looks for a demonstration, is simply provoking. We are not concerned in the author’s beliefs or inclinations to believe. Belief is a state of mind short of actual knowledge.

Darwin wanted his hypothesis accepted on grounds of future proofs

Darwin’s hypothesis requires an immense number of intermediate fossil forms, transitional links, which must have existed in the past. During Darwin’s time, they were nowhere. He assured us, that they will come forth, but after 140 years we still cannot find them. This was expected by Owen, saying, “our only ground for prophesying of what may come, is by the analogy of what has come to light.”
Darwin made all barriers between species disappear

The definition of species by naturalists “is annihilated on the hypothesis of ‘natural selection'”.

According to this view a genus, a family, an order, a class, a sub-kingdom—the individuals severally representing these grades of difference or relationship—, now differ from individuals of the same species only in degree: the species, like every other group, is a mere creature of the brain; it is no longer from nature.



1.  David L. Hull, Darwin and His Critics. The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community, Harvard University Press, 1973, pages 171-215.


History of The Natural History Museum, London