Richard Owen

The Newton of Natural History who never was

Portrait of Richard Owen (Smithsonian Institution's photostream).

Portrait of Richard Owen (Smithsonian Institution's photostream).

I feel a lot of sympathy for Richard Owen. The more I read his work the more so. He is a fascinating dark character, both for the peculiar quality of his scientific oeuvre as well as for his eccentric persona. A true representative of Natural History in the Victorian Era.

History has certainly not be kind to him, foremost because it seems almost impossible to talk about him without reference to Darwin (as I am doing right  now). This is quite understandable given the impact that the publication of On the Origin of Species had on defining the period. Problem is that, with a few notable exceptions1, he is wrongly portrayed as the leading antievolutionist of the time, his contribution to science thus construed as coming from a figure on the loser side of the debate and reduced to opponent of the Darwinians, in a type example of whig history.

I have previously wrote about Owen’s archetype and his clarification of the terms homology and analogy, concepts that form the cornerstone of comparative biology. He was indeed against the Darwinians, not because he rejected species evolution but because he thought natural selection, as an external force, was not a viable mechanism that could account for the pattern of shared structures make evident by comparative anatomy, the Unity of Type2. › Continue reading

  1. For example Rupke, N. 1994. Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. and Amundson, R. 1998. Typology Reconsidered: Two Doctrines on the History of Evolutionary Biology . Biology and Philosophy. 13, 153-177.
  2. And he was not alone. The view that natural selection is the main process behind evolution took some decades to gain the wide acceptance it has today. Peter Bowler has documented the extend to which naturalists after The Origin held alternative views to natural selection in his book The Non-Darwinian Revolution
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Richard Owen’s archetype

Caricature of Richard Owen. "Old Bones" <em>Vanity Fair</em>, March 1st, 1873.

Caricature of Richard Owen. "Old Bones" Vanity Fair, March 1st, 1873.

I named this blog after the concept of the archetype as articulated by the Victorian naturalist Richard Owen (1804-1892). For Owen, the archetype was a representation that summed the most basic, most generalized structural arrangement common to all the members of a given group of organisms. Owen’s well-known and most important contribution to modern biological thought is, however, not his archetype concept but the clear distinction he provided between the concepts of analogy and homology. On his words:

Analogue.- A part or organ in one animal which has the same function as another part or organ in a different animal.
Homologue.- The same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function. (Owen, 1843: 374, 379)1

Homology is a concept that expresses the relationship between parts of organisms. It reflects the observation that we can identify a commonality of structure across the diversity of life. Homology thus forms the cornerstone of comparative biology.

› Continue reading

  1. Owen, R. 1843. Lectures on the comparative anatomy and physiology of the invertebrate animals. London: Longman Brown Green and Longmans

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