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.

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