Where Did Owen Go Wrong?

Richard Owen (1804-1892), Britain’s foremost anatomist and paleontologist, was in the right place at the right time to counter the fledgling evolutionary movement. He saw what transmutationists (as evolutionists were known in those days) would do with the similarities between apes and humans, and he liked it not one whit. Ironically, Owen saw change and progress in the fossil record, but he would have nothing to do with a materialistic theory of biological change. Although his views never were clear, Owen appears to have consigned change to an idealistic realm of Platonic archetypes, not the ordinary world of flesh and blood. For Owen, similarities were evidence of an other-worldly plan, not common descent (Milner, 1990, p. 348).

Owen set about highlighting the differences between apes and humans. In 1841, he condemned “talk of an ape ancestry,” and “denied it emphatically when describing the first chimpanzee skeleton” (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 291). When the first gorilla specimens came from West Africa, Owen took every opportunity to assure worried gentlefolk that there could be no possible link between themselves and the great ape.

By the late 1850s, Owen had developed a lecture in which he pointed out three structures unique to the human brain. Unfortunately, he made some outlandish statements, including the suggestion that these differences justified a separate mammalian subclass for Homo sapiens. This would imply that physically a human and an ape are as different from each other as a human and a platypus. Darwin’s supporters could not pass up this tactical error. They decided to attack, and were led into battle by a bright, angry young man known as Thomas Henry Huxley. Again, there is irony here, because at the time, Huxley was not fully convinced of the validity of Darwin’s concept of natural selection and gradual change (Milner, 1990, p. 230). However, the former ship’s surgeon had several axes to grind. He resented science’s being in the hands of the privileged classes, of which he was not a member. He resented his earlier reliance on Owen for scientific advancement, and hated Owen’s condescending attitude on those occasions. He resented the Anglican church’s influence on science, and despised the well-paid clerical naturalists at Cambridge. In short, he was bound and determined to drive an everlasting wedge between religion and science. The outcome, he hoped, would be a new breed of secular, professional scientists wielding authority over all knowledge (Russell, 1989). A glance at the current state of affairs suggests that Huxley would not be disappointed with the results.

By studying a variety of apes and monkeys, Huxley and his allies were able to show that the three features cited by Owen did, in fact, occur in nonhuman primates. [The word “primate” was coined by Linnaeus to include all creatures closest in appearance to humans, whom he believed occupied the first (primary) place in God’s creation.] In the gorilla—the focus of Owen’s comparison—these features were present, but in a much smaller form. Further, some primates exhibited one or more of these features on the same scale observed in humans (Gould, 1995, p. 72).

Huxley took every opportunity to embarrass Owen publicly. In 1860, the two men clashed at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford. A few days later, in that same meeting, Church of England bishop Samuel Wilberforce critiqued Darwin’s theory—thanks to some coaching from Owen. Wilberforce wondered, in an attempt at levity, whether Huxley would rather have an ape on his grandmother’s or grandfather’s side of the family? Huxley responded that, if given a choice between an ape for a grandfather, and a man who would ridicule science, he would prefer the ape. With time, this legendary encounter came to symbolize evolution’s victory over religious authority.

Where did Owen go wrong? At first glance, his knowledge and position would seem to have given him an ideal platform from which to counter the claims of Darwinism. Admittedly, he had none of Huxley’s organizational support, and he was fighting an uphill battle. As noted in the feature article, evolution was “in the air” long before Darwin published his book.

People were vulnerable, too, because it was relatively easy for Darwin to disprove the prevailing religious view of species fixity. His work demonstrated the possibility of variation within species, and anybody who challenged Darwin on this issue (especially the clerical naturalists so despised by Huxley) would appear discredited in the eyes of the general public. If Darwin could make these people doubt the fixity of species, they were open to the most speculative and challenging part of his theory—the possibility of infinite variation.

Yet it seems, also, that Owen was his own worst enemy. Certainly, his scientific missteps on the ape/human debate did not help. But where he faltered the most was in not making a clear stand against the idea of long-term, large-scale change. Although Owen utterly rejected Darwin’s gradualism, he suggested that change from one species to another could occur suddenly, at birth. In other words, he saw no problem with the idea that God could use the womb of an ape to produce the first human. Owen called this a “continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things.” His critics could see no scientific value in this convoluted phrase, and ridiculed it along with Owen’s archetypes. Meanwhile, the British lay public was left without a credible scientific defense of biblical creation. By affirming a continuity between apes and man, Owen ceded victory to the evolutionists.


Desmond, Adrian and James Moore (1991), Darwin (New York: Warner Books).

Gould, Stephen Jay (1995), “A Sea Horse for All Races,” Natural History, 104[11]:10-12,14-15,72-75, November.

Milner, Richard (1990), The Encyclopedia of Evolution (New York: Facts on File).

Russell, Colin A. (1989), “The Conflict Metaphor and its Social Origins,” Science & Christian Belief, 1:3-26.


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