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Richard Owen

1804 - 1892

Richard Owen, 1804 - 1892

Richard Owen was a prominent figure in British paleontology at the time of Darwin. Apart from his controversial stance against the theory of evolution as presented by Darwin, which lost him scientific credibility, he was a driving force in the creation of the 'museum for the people' concept.

  • Nationality
  • English

  • Subject
  • Biology

  • Fields
  • Paleontology, comparative anatomy

  • Distinctions
  • Copley Medal, 1851

    Linnaen Medal, 1888

    Royal Medal, 1846

  • Posts
  • Owen was instrumental in the establishment of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London 1881.

    Superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum, 1856 - 1883.

  • Publications
  • Owen penned many scientific papers in the fields of comparative anatomy, zoology, and paleontology.

    Catalogue of the Fossil Reptilia of South Africa, 1876.

    History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds, 1844-6.

    Nature of the Limbs, 1849. In this book , Owen puts forward the hypothesis that humans evolved from fish as a result of natural laws.

  • Theories
  • Owen invented the term dinosauria, which means literally terrible reptile.

    He was an outspoken critic of Darwin's evolutionary explanation of the diversity of life and the fossil record. Although he agreed with Darwin that evolution did occur, he did not believe it was through the mechanism of natural selection. Some of Owen's reservations have been revisited in evolutionary development biology.

  • Experiments/Discoveries
  • Owen was involved in the creation of the first life-size representations of dinosaurs as they may have appeared.

    Owen obtained the carcasses of animals from London Zoo, which he studied and recorded extensively.

    Owen attempted to demonstrate that humans could not have evolved from the great apes through comparisons of the brains of the two species, concluding that humans were a separate sub-class. This public dispute became known as the Great Hippocampus Question.

Owen studied medicine originally, but engaged on a scientific career, applying anatomy to paleontological investigations, at a time when the accelerating access to the British Empire was returning a plethora of specimens. Among these were fossils of such a range of type and age, which challenged the prevailing perceptions of the origin and history of species.

Owen was not opposed to the concept of evolution, and even forwarded his own theory of how humans had evolved from fish. Of the six mechanisms he had identified as contenders for making evolution possible, he thought Darwin's transmutation as the least likely. His stance brought him into public and hostile confrontation with Darwin's supporters, in particular Thomas Henry Huxley.

One of the reasons Owen gave to the British parliament for creating the separate Natural History Museum was that there was insufficient space in the existing British Museum to display the variety of species which Darwin had referred to as evidence of his explanation of evolution. Unfortunately, the more technical reasons for Owen's opposition to Darwin have been interpreted as a rejection of evolution entirely in favour of the religious dogma of creation, which was not the case.

Richard Owen was a brilliant man, and his contributions to science were considerable. It is sad that he failed to help kick the creationist concept into the dustbin of history, to which it has since been relegated, since that took his legacy with it.

Natural History Museum, London
Natural History Museum, London. The statue of Richard Owen seen in this photo was replaced by one of Charles Darwin in 2009

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