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.

Owen, it seems, was a devout theist without being anything of a creationist; he had come to believe in the origin and development of species by secondary causes. He was also, however, a teleological evolutionist whose rejection of natural selection was perfectly sincere. More surprisingly, he objected to the current term for evolution, ‘transmutation’, because to him it implied gradual progression: he was himself drawn to a saltatory version of the emergence of new species. If he was at times overtly and misleadingly Biblical in his language, this was not just, according to Rupke, a matter of general caution or timidity – for which he has paid a heavy price in his exclusion from the evolutionist canon – but more specifically because the late 1850s and early 1860s were a crucially sensitive time for the adoption of the grand project of his life, for which he had been campaigning ever since the 1840s and which he eventually saw crowned with success: the gathering together of natural history specimens in a single, national museum in new premises in South Kensington: the Natural History Museum is Owen’s monument, just as museum curatorship was at the centre of his long professional life. The Darwinians, most notably Huxley, figure in Rupke’s story as would-be wreckers. Suspicious of the dominant and autocratic position Owen threatened to assume in the organisation and control of natural history, they favoured what now seems the unthinkable solution to the problem of overcrowding and inconvenience at the British Museum: dispersing the natural history collection among the various scientific institutions of the capital.

The chief originality of Rupke’s book is not, as he claims, that it is a revision, from Owen’s point of view, of the history of the evolution controversy, but that it displaces that controversy from the central place in Owen’s thought and scientific career. In terms of reputation, the early 1860s were his climacteric, but it is only misleading, Darwin-centred, hindsight that has given the question of evolution the crucial role in his intellectual life. In Owen’s own mind, and in his work, the central and correlative places were occupied by curatorship and its politics, first at the Hunterian and then at the British Museum; and by his anatomical work, of which the issue of evolution was no more than an offshoot. Intellectually speaking, the crux of Owen’s life, though he was not present, was not the British Association meeting in 1860 but the ‘clash of the titans’, in its day no less famous, at the Paris Institut in 1830, between Cuvier and Geoffroy de Saint Hilaire. To see Owen in this way, with all the advantages of not reading history backwards, is immediately persuasive and proves, in detail, highly illuminating.

The significance of the earlier encounter lies, as Rupke shows, in the appropriation by Owen of Cuvier’s position, in England, on behalf of the indigenous Anglican tradition of Paleyan natural theology which, like Cuvier, interpreted organic structure in terms of habitat and the function of organs, from which could be derived the concept of an indispensable and benign creator: the ‘argument from design’. Rupke sees Owen’s work and pronouncements as marked by divided allegiances: an Anglicised and Paleyanised Cuvierian functionalism, as professed by his clerical-scientific patrons, predominantly located in Oxford, in the earlier part of his career, set against an initially cautious but increasingly overt adoption of the rival school of anatomical interpretation, represented in France by Saint Hilaire but more importantly derived from German Romantic transcendentalism – Naturphilosophie – whose best-known representatives were Goethe and Lorenz Oken. In the comparative anatomy of an order such as the vertebrates, transcendental biology saw evidence of an archetypal structure or groundplan common to all its species and manifest in their manifold variety. This was not incompatible with design, though it could also lead (if not in Owen) towards an evolutionary pantheism. But it looked for design in the formal evidence of the plan rather than in the fitness of form to function, emphasised by the Paleyans. Crucial to it were the demonstrations, which Owen came increasingly to provide, of the homologies of structure in different species, through which the archetype could be discerned.

According to Rupke, Owen aspired to synthesise the Cuvierian and transcendentalist traditions, though he never succeeded in doing so and in fact came, as he won increasing independence from his Paleyite backers, to emphasise the latter more and more. They remain distinct strands in his anatomical thinking. In any case, the ambition to create a synthesis was cruelly pre-empted by the Darwinian transformation of the terms of the discussion, with structural homologies interpreted as evidence of genetic relationship and descent, and the latter controlled by a new, non-theological version of function: selective advantage. This left Owen beached like one of his own whales (he paid thirty pounds for one on behalf of the British Museum, thereby considerably enhancing the argument that the Bloomsbury site was too cramped).

The details of Rupke’s exposition of Owen’s anatomical lectures and monographs, and his demonstration of their increasing transcendentalism, are admirably detailed, lucid and persuasive and very helpful to the nonspecialist reader. It would be nice to end here, hailing an important and scholarly book. Rupke wishes to place them, however, as he does Owen’s museum politics, in a wider sociological context, and here there is more that is arguable: at best speculative and essentially plausible if rather rigidly and uncompromisingly presented; at worst clumsily formulated, over-stated and determinedly subservient to current intellectual fashion, particularly in the history of science.

This often looks to the outsider as though Sir Lewis Namier had formed an implausible alliance with Karl Marx, with both of them on more than nodding terms with Michel Foucault. So, either as separate enterprises or in conjunction, we get scientific faction-formation, faction-fighting and clientage as a key to all mythologies (here we have a good deal of gang-hostility, never quite open or acknowledged as such, between ‘Oxbridge’ and ‘the London scientists’ as hypostasised entities), alternating with imaginative homologies – one is tempted to say – between scientific theories and the life-circumstances, imputed class-position and aspirations especially, of their proponents. ‘Owen’s own social background ... led him to adopt a scientific theory that went beyond the functionalism of natural theology.’

This kind of reasoning, unclogged by evidence, is deployed with the confident intellectual abandon of a Freudian sighting a genital analogue. Rupke’s sociologising explanation goes like this: Paleyan functionalism was the creed of ‘Oxbridge’ (he is as fond of this conflation as if he were an educational journalist rather than a historian of the 19th century), not only because it provided natural theology with the argument from design but because it shored up the social position of fellows of colleges and ‘benefited the landed gentry and nobility’. Against them, the London scientists – new men, Edinburgh rather than Oxbridgebred – were strongly drawn, by natural affinity as well as intellectual background, to German transcendentalism. Owen, a London museum-man, medically trained (briefly) in Edinburgh, naturally belonged with them, and his early functionalism is explained in terms of his need to placate the ‘Oxbridge’ establishment which largely controlled the scientific world.

So far so plausible? Well, up to a point. There is nothing contentious in the notions that education and milieu and network are nurseries of intellectual predilections as well as of ideas; that clerical naturalists in the early 19th century prized the argument from design; that new ideas at that time tended to come from Germany; and that young men in a hurry adopt ideas opposed to those of their seniors. Arguably, Rupke underplays the element of generational conflict compared with cultural geography, though no intellectual historian of the 19th century would underrate the possible importance of an Edinburgh education. Oxbridge in the 1840s was not without its Germanising tendencies, however, while Charles Bell, who was Owen’s predecessor as Hunterian Professor, was both an Edinburgh man and an ardent Paleyan (contributor, in fact, to the Bridgewater Treatises), as was that archetypal new man and adoptive Londoner, hardly a reassuring figure to the landed gentry, Henry Brougham. But Rupke wants to do more than illustrate useful truisms about the local fostering of intellectual traditions or clashes of generations and networks in the history of science. He probes the psyche. Admitting that the London scientists were ‘unintegrated’ as a group (step back Sir Lewis, forward Karl), he is convinced not only that they were anxious to assert their independence of Oxbridge – which seems plausible – but that German transcendentalism was ‘tailor-made for them’. The reasoning deserves extended quotation:

Transcendentalism pegged the notion of design at an abstract level by applying it to an ultimate, future goal of the history of life. This suited the upwardly-mobile class of metropolitan naturalists to whose ambitions of social self-advancement the status quo was a constraint. The model of a forward-and-upward-striving cosmic development merged well with the aspirations of Owen cum suis.

Quite so; rise in your profession and you might grow up to be a realised Idea. I am afraid, however, that had the facts to be explained been reversed, we should have been offered a no-less-plausible explanation (high praise is not intended) of the functionalism of the London scientists and the transcendentalism of Oxbridge, in terms of their being respectively ‘tailor-made’ for the practical concerns of such institutions as the Hunterian and the School of Mines, and the rarefied distance from material needs of the Oxbridge establishment. As ideological symmetries go this seems to me an improvement; pity it fails for lack of an explanandum. As for Owen himself, surely his belief in saltatory rather than gradual evolution should have implied that his personal forward-and-upward striving expressed itself at the gaming tables or at least in a career of Disraelian adventurism, rather than in the assiduous practice of a laborious profession.

There is more to come. Whewell, in reactivating the debate on other worlds, discounted the possibility, while Owen, as an outsider to Oxbridge, admitted it:

It must have seemed [Rupke presumably not dissenting] as though Whewell and his traditional fellow dons were trying to secure a permanent niche at the apex of creation in their comfortable college existence. Obviously [sic] the reformminded naturalists, who sought to change the Oxbridge system and were in the process of building their institutional power base in London and the provinces, had no truck with this closed, Oxbridge-centred view of the world.

Surely even the timidest don, his dreams haunted by Royal Commissions on Oxford and Cambridge, could not have supposed that Oxbridge’s hand would be notably strengthened by the discovery of life on Mars, while for Owen, with his own dream of a single national museum of natural history with himself in charge, the absence of inhabited alternatives might surely have seemed – well, tailor-made. Not so; Rupke’s verdict is that ‘it is not surprising’ (a retreat from ‘obviously’? Probably not) that Owen plumped for plurality. For some of us it would have been equally unsurprising had he not.

For this kind of explanation it is no doubt wise not to be too exacting over textual evidence; ideological predispositions are ex hypothesi largely unconscious. Still, something can sometimes be done with sensitive textual reading; ideological bad faith sometimes reste dans les nuances. Here, however, the textual reading is not so much sensitive as imaginative. Take Owen’s relations with Carlyle – an important figure in Rupke’s account of the London transcendentalists; one would like to know more. Certainly, Owen admired Carlyle. Additionally and rather startlingly, according to Rupke, Carlyle’s account of Owen reads ‘like that of one of his heroes’. In support we get a quotation from Caroline Fox which has Carlyle ‘confessing himself convinced by Owen’s “Book on Fossils” ’ (sic), and Carlyle himself acknowledging Owen as ‘a man of talent’ and a source of ‘real information’. The fact that according to Carlyle this makes him ‘an extremely rare kind of man’ says something about the width of Carlyle’s habitual contempt, but Owen would have been unwise, one feels, to offer it as his ticket to Valhalla.

This is simply eccentric, like the claim elsewhere that Owen was offered the Order of the Garter. Other examples of textual glossing are less idiosyncratic and more fashionably predictable: examples of intellectual history in the paranoid style, whose guiding exegetic principles are to ignore register, freely to re-render past utterances in the approved diction of the late 20th century as their uncovered meaning, and to give absolutely no one in the past the benefit of the doubt, or deem them to have meant just what they said (unless highly discreditable). So, here, the public man’s guff-of-the-period gets systematised as an ideological project characterised in terms of imperialism, nationalism, élitism, professional hegemonising and general incorrectness. When Owen, no doubt wisely in the circumstances, puffs his museum scheme, in fairly restrained language, in terms of the opportunities and responsibilities of a great colonial power, he becomes, according to Rupke, the author of ‘a planned strategy to establish national hegemony, international parity and imperial grandeur’. Owen’s systematisation of the language of anatomical classification – a useful service one might have thought, though in (horrors!) a Greek-derived terminology – is for Rupke a Foucauldian act of conceptual appropriation, ‘asserting dominion over them’, while ‘the obscure names marked off the scientific élite from the general public’ and constituted ‘admission charges to his museum. He said as much.’ Actually he said very nearly the opposite, pointing out that Greek-derived polysyllables like ‘rhinoceros’ were now no obstacle to the laity, and claiming that use would remove any difficulty. He may have been overoptimistic – though no one who has heard a child reel off ‘diplodocus’ and ‘pterodactyl’ will be too certain – but at least here he gets a rare opportunity to meet his commentator’s tendentious reformulations head-on. Generally he is smothered by weasel phrases: ‘needless to say’, ‘it is not surprising’, ‘one might say’, or flattened by the bludgeoning ‘obviously’.

It is a pity to end like this. It would have been more agreeable simply to praise a learned and interesting reconstruction of a major 19th-century scientific figure whose contemporary importance has hitherto been obscured by a whiggish, post-Darwinian perspective. Unfortunately, it seems all too likely that Professor Rupke’s in many ways admirable book will appeal, and be appealed to, less for its substantial virtues than for its not negligible flaws.