In the Iguanodon Diner

J.W. Burrow

  • Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist by Nicolaas Rupke
    Yale, 462 pp, £35.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 300 05820 9

At the famous dinner held in the Crystal Palace in 1853, with 22 gentlemen seated inside a reconstructed iguanodon, the head of both the table and the beast was held – as of right – by Richard Owen, universally acknowledged as Britain’s premier anatomist, ‘the English Cuvier’, and arguably the foremost British ‘man of science’ of his generation. It is true that he was not, even then, entirely without detractors. Gideon Mantell, his rival in the kingdom of the ‘dinosaurs’ (Owen’s coinage), was a constant and acid critic, and competitive reconstructionist, while T.H. Huxley, soon to be Owen’s junior colleague as lecturer at the School of Mines, was about to begin, long before the Darwinian controversy, what looks suspiciously like a systematic campaign of detraction, designed to establish his own reputation on the ruin of Owen’s, which was to reach its celebrated climax a decade later.

In fact, ten years on, in 1863, Owen’s pedestal was seriously askew and his career past its climacteric. His conflict with Huxley over the relation of man to the apes, dramatically epitomised at the height of the Darwinian controversy at the notorious Oxford British Association Meeting in 1860, if not so decisively settled in Huxley’s favour as Darwinians and future generations agreed to think, was damaging and somewhat undignified. Above all, Owen had been upstaged; the subject in which his reputation was established – palaeontology and the structural relationships between species – had been transformed by Darwin, with Owen not necessarily an opponent but virtually an onlooker. Unable to keep out of the fray, he cast himself as an opponent, to some extent allowing a misguided version of his own position to become current, so that, in Darwinian eyes, he was the fallen angel of 19th-century science: the treacherous colleague, equivocator and covert critic, the fellow-traveller of the clerical opposition who primed Bishop Wilberforce with anti-Darwinian ammunition. In the Darwinian or Huxleyan historiography which was for long in the ascendant, Owen, out of jealousy or timidity or both, had refused the role that history had clearly assigned to him as one of the supporters of Darwin’s throne.

In fact, there were not 22 seated in the Iguanodon Diner: Nicolaas Rupke reduces them to an apostolic dozen; the others fed outside. That is the kind of thing we have scholars for, but Rupke’s important as well as scholarly book is revisionist in many more significant ways. To re-state the Darwinians v. Owen imbroglio of the early 1860s in ways which do justice to the latter – not that he was always wise or candid – is one of the least of its achievements. Students of the period have long known that the partisanly Darwinian account of the British Association meeting is largely retrospective myth, and that, far from being an outright opponent of evolution, Owen was himself an evolutionist of a sort, though it is good to have Rupke’s careful account of what sort, in so far as it is possible to penetrate Owen’s sometimes murky prose. Owen embodied a combination of views which sometimes, not surprisingly, puzzled his contemporaries, though the number of possible permutations of creationism v. evolutionism, theism, pantheism, teleology and positivism was, in any case, considerably greater in the mid-century than posterity has generally recognised.

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