Monday, 26 January 2015

Sir Richard Owen: The man who wasn't there

  Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today,
I wish, I wish he'd go away...

- from Antigonish by Hugh Mearns

In 2008 I watched with delight as the Natural History Museum in London placed a massive marble statue of Darwin (he's so famous, I don't even need to say his first name) at the top of the stairs in the Central Hall. Seated there, the founder of modern biology would take pride of place in a museum dedicated to the subject he has become synonymous with.

The statue is white marble, standing out against the warm buff and sooty black terracotta bricks geometrically adorning the walls. Its journey from the museum's North Hall to the top of the stairs was much publicised at the time, and you can now buy postcards of it in its new position in the gift-shop (you can even download a 3D version to print on your 3D printer). Pondering the natural world from the first floor balcony, Darwin's benevolent and thoughtful gaze now greets thousands of visitors to this most famous of museums, some of whom pose beside him for a selfie (google: Darwin selfie museum to see what I mean).
Charles Darwin's statue in the Natural History
Museum. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Darwin's name, and his theory, are known in virtually every household in the western world. He's the Einstein of biology, a lovable, beetle-browed, father-christmas of natural history. 2009 marked the bicentenary of his birth, prompting a plethora of celebrations and projects in his honour - one of which was this relocation of this statue.

Yet when I entered the stunning Central Hall last week, it was with a tinge of sadness that I stole a glance up at Mr D. In all of the publicity, people tended to skim one detail: Darwin wasn't just moved there, he replaced someone else. Another great man's likeness had graced the top of the stairs for the previous 80 years, but that man was being bumped in favour of history's sweetheart.

The man who wasn't there, was Sir Richard Owen.

Cast in bronze, Richard Owen's likeness was an earnest shadow, waiting for you as you ascended the steps. His right hand, slightly outstretched, entreated you to stop so that he could show you the specimen in his left palm: a dinosaur bone. Won't you stop and take a look?

Sir Richard Owen, statue by Sir Thomas Brock, 1896. Image: Robert Freidus

Not any more. Owen was shifted to make way for Darwin.

Darwin is often referred to as a gentleman scientist (though this actually refers to his wealth rather than his disposition), and by all accounts he was a good-natured and gregarious family man. Owen on the other hand, was a prickly character, known to have rubbed many other scientists the wrong way and prone to irrational tempers. He couldn't stand to be criticised, nor admit to mistakes.

Owen was partial to the jealous squashing of other people's work, and accused of taking the credit for the work of others. When Gideon Mantel, discoverer of the first (and many subsequent) dinosaurs, was crippled in an accident, Owen took the opportunity to rename many of his finds and claim himself as their discoverer. He was even thrown out of The Royal Society's Zoological Council for plagarism.

Despite Charles Darwin's efforts to get along - and he really tried, bless him - when On the Origin of Species came out Owen rejected him both as a person and a scientist.

...most of Mr Darwin's statements elude, by their vagueness and incompleteness, the test of Natural History facts.
- Sir Richard Owen

It is painful, Darwin said, to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me. But he was certainly not the only one, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and many more of the most prominent Victorian scientists felt Owen's animosity.

But if Owen was a bit of a diva it was for good reason: he was one of the most important natural scientists in history, perhaps even more important than Darwin. He was the man who conceived and fought for the creation of the Natural History Museum, then ran it for almost 30 years. His acumen secured many of the most important and famous specimens in the collections.

Owen's discoveries, deductions and brilliant insights are staggering: a genius in comparative anatomy thanks to training as a surgeon, by the time of his death he had published over 600 scientific papers, described literally hundreds of new species (including the moa and dodo), solved countless taxonomic mysteries and, most wonderfully of all, coined the name for those giant beasts of the Mesozoic we're all so fond of: Dinosauria.

Owen came up with the name Dinosauria from the Greek deinos, 'terrible', and  sauros, 'lizard'. This lithograph by George
Baxter, made in 1854, was based on his description.

Owen hadn't had Darwin's charmed life of wealth and privilege. His father died when he was 5 years old, and though not exactly poor he had to work his way up, becoming one of Britain's leading anatomists through raw talent and somewhat ruthless ambition. Owen married and had one son, but his wife died and his son committed suicide. He had some friends, but many more enemies. Bug-eyed and severe, he was said to be envious too; an altogether insecure person despite his unsurpassed skill and the recognition of being made a Sir - a privilege never bestowed on Darwin. 

What a strange man to be envious of a naturalist like myself, immeasurably his inferior! Darwin wrote to a friend in 1860. In a way he was right. Darwin was nowhere near as prolific, or astute. In many ways Darwin's work lacks scientific rigour, particularly where it touches on maths or anthropology, both of which Darwin was poor at.

Two things secured Darwin as the father of biology at Owen's expense: his kindness of character (despite upholding some questionable Victorian values); and the theory he outlined in his most famous work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The latter drew upon and expanded the growing natural-selection-esque postulations of the time. Most scientists under 40 years old were already thinking along these lines, and when magnanimous and friendly Darwin elucidated these ideas so accessibly, expanding on them with his own home-grown research, he mobilised a generation of thinkers.

Darwin's great work. Image: Wikimedia
Owen meanwhile, was hardly what you'd call lovable. Most young scientists disliked or even feared him. His memoirs are densely written and hard to read (unlike the eloquent and passionate Darwin). In the end, it is not because he was wrong about evolution (although he was proven to be) that he was forgotten, it was his unfortunate pettiness and unpleasant dealings with others that cast a dark shadow and obscured his incredible contributions to science.

How can you revere a man like him? Who cares to remember him?

The museum were quick to point out in 2008 that Darwin's statue was returning to it's original position. In 1885, two years after Owen's retirement, the world had embraced Darwin's ideas and Owen would have been bitterly green to see the snow-white statue of his recently deceased rival being erected on the stairs of the museum Owen had founded. He would have rubbed his hands with glee if he'd been around in 1927, when it was moved away to make room for an elephant. Shortly after this, Owen's bronze visage was placed there, where he cast a googly eye over all who entered his wonderous institution.

But now, he isn't there.

It's time to recognise this man and try and forgive him his weaknesses of character. Although I once jumped on the Darwin bandwagon (next stop, deification!) I see now both were simply human beings, warts and all. Neither of them were saints (try Paul Johnson's Darwin for some insights into the gentleman scientist's less appealing side). You have to wonder at what shaped Owen's insecurities and bitterness, perhaps including the loss of his father, wife and son. He watched as the world of science raced ahead, leaving him behind in his own lifetime, and beyond.

Surely, you have to feel a little sorry for him?

Owen lived his final years with his deceased son's
family - pictured here with his granddaughter Emily.
Image: public domain.
If you want an audience with Owen at the Natural History Museum today, you have to walk past Darwin and find him sulking upstairs on the landing. I watch visitors walking past him without even glancing. Richard who?

In the time-lapse video of the replacement of statue in 2008, 3 days of difficult work is condensed into 30 seconds.

After only 6 seconds, Owen is gone.

But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn't see him there at all!

...Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away...

- from Antigonish by Hugh Mearns 


For an quick glimpse into the lighter side of Owen's brilliance, take a look at this article by Karolyn Schindler.

The Natural History Museum recognised their founder in 2011, 207 years after his birth. The celebrations were somewhat tame by comparison with Darwin's.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

I’m a Therodontid Eutherian – and so are you

In most disciplines, getting to grips with the terminology is one of the challenges of being a student. This is even more of a problem for those in biology, wrapping their heads around evolutionary taxonomy. You know you are Homo sapiens (you are actually Homo sapiens sapiens, denoting that you are an anatomically modern human rather than one of those old-fashioned ones from >200,000 years back), and doubtless you know you are a primate, and a mammal and an animal. But you are so much more.

simpsons geeksOne of the surprises of studying evolutionary biology and palaeontology is discovering the tongue-twisting, mind-boggling array of names for both extant and extinct creatures. Palaeontology get togethers remind me of similar geek-fests like Comic-Con, where conversations (and often squabbles) are carried out in bewildering detail regarding the backstory of obscure characters with bizarre monikers. (“I think, heh-hem, you’ll find that Morganucodon was a tricodont mammaliophorm that was functionally dyphodont, you fool!”)

I marvel at people’s capacity for memorising film/game/book/comic trivia, but those same skills are often employed in science.

As well as learning terms, a student (and aren’t we all perpetual students?) must learn how to place the terms in context. As for humans, any animal has a plethora of labels that tell you the various taxonomic groupings it belongs to. These labels get more and more inclusive – or exclusive, depending on what direction you approach them from.

Skull holesOne of the major barriers to understanding all of this is that – on top of remembering the terms, what they mean, and what animals they include – you have to overcome the problem that many sources use terms in misleading ways. As you can imagine, mass market documentaries, much as we love them, are especially guilty of this. But even experts can be quite vague about terminology, switching between terms that refer to a clade and a group without explaining the difference, and using outdated classifications. For learners this is really difficult to unpick.
Let me give you an example.

The term synapsid refers to how many holes (fenestra) are in the skull, other than the eye socket and nostrils. There are 3 main clades based on these holes: anapsids (no holes), synapsids (one hole), and diapsids (two holes).

Now take a look at this cladogram below:
Synapsids cladogram
This is a simplified cladogram of synapsid origins and relationships, with an indication of time down the left hand side. You can see how the therapsids – the mammal-like reptiles – arise in the middle of the Permian, and the synapsids then disappeared. Looking at this cladogram – which is based on others in text books and papers – you’d be inclined to think that the synapsids ‘became or were replaced by’ the therapsids, then the therapsids ‘became or were replaced by’ theriodontids. The word replaced is commonly used in the literature, and it seems to support the assumption that one group took over from the other.

But you’d be wrong.

The truth is that everything on that cladogram is a synapsid. You are a synapsid. You are also a therapsid, and a theriondontid, and a cynodont. A way to clarify this is below:

Synapsids cladogram 2

To further confuse the issue, mammal-like reptiles are not related to reptiles and they also aren’t mammals!

If you want to speak with complete technical correctness you’d have to adopt terms like non-therapsid Pelycosauria and non-mammalian therapsid. Despite making things clearer for students, it is also quite a clunky way to talk, so most palaeontologists shy away from it; adopting terms that they admit aren’t ideal. For example Kemp (2006) said when discussing early synapsids “the situation is sufficiently well known and straightforward that no misunderstanding is likely to arise from using the terms Pelycosauria** and Therapsida, rather than the synonymous but awkward expressions ‘non-therapsid Pelycosauria*’ and ‘non-mammalian Therapsida’ ”.

It may be straightforward to an expert, but it’s pretty confusing to everyone else.

The next setback arises when terms that are not at the same taxonomic level are used together. I recently had a conversation with a fellow student about early mammals. We gave up after becoming hopelessly entangled between terms at order level, terms at family level, and terms that referred to the shape of the mammal’s teeth, all of which are thrown together in various textbooks and papers discussing the evolution of early mammals.

This confusion partly springs from the fact that taxonomy isn’t straightforward. Like with the synapsid example, explanation is often required and it can be as hard to convey as it can be to understand. Diagrams help, but with so many terms it will always take time and effort (and lots of repetition and double checking) before you really know your stuff. Perhaps clearer, if a little clunky, terminology is necessary during teaching so that students can get a firmer grasp on how the terms piece together? It means lecturers have to be more exacting. There are some lecturers who already hold themselves to this high standard of specificity, and it shows.

For the public, is it possible to convey these taxonomic complexities to people with no scientific training? As someone who has tackled this issue with the public in previous work roles, I believe it can be done. It takes care with language to prevent yourself from being misleading, but it is worth the effort. The best solution though, would be to introduce taxonomy in schools. It’s not just naturalist pedantism, knowing nomenclature helps us understand  biological relationships. Even a basic introduction would lay the groundwork for appreciating later forays into science, even if it’s just watching the latest BBC natural history documentary.

And when kids get to the point where they are correcting adults… well as long as they are getting it right, I say good for them.

* Pelycosaurs are early synapsids, most famously including sail backed animals like Dimetrodon. The term is not accurate however, and is now used only informally – which in practice means it is still used quite often.