[Review] Richard Owen. Biology Without Darwin.

Nicolass Rupke. Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin. xxiv + 344pp., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. $29.00, (paper).

The Natural History Museum in London recently unveiled its Darwin Center, the most significant expansion of the Museum since it opened at its present site in 1881. Instrumental to the original formation of the Museum was Sir Richard Owen, the anatomist who served as superintendent of the natural history department of theBritish Museum, whose driving vision it was to see a national museum of natural history. The work under review sees Owen’s advocacy for the museum as being key to understanding his oeuvre and furthermore attempts to rehabilitate Owen from previous depictions.

Rupke’s book is an abbreviated version of his out-of-print (and expensive) monograph Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist (Yale, 1994). In omitting some material and slimming the work down from 480 pages, Rupke seeks to streamline his argument and make it more accessible to students. In so doing, he has succeeded admirably. While not a traditional biography, the work offers specialists and tyros an accessible overview of both Owen’s accomplishments and the institutional politics of nineteenth century science. As such, it will maintain Rupke’s status as the premier expositor of Owen’s ideas and remains a vital source for students of the time period.

After a brief introduction, Rupke offers an examination of how Owen negotiated the political landscape – both at the national level and that of the metropolitan anatomists & surgeons – to successfully advocate for a natural history museum in South Kensington. This is followed by two chapters examining Owen’s opportunistic adoption of both Continental transcendentalism & Cuverian functionalism. The former was associated with the metropolitan scientists while the latter was of interest to the Paleyite Oxbridge set and Owen had to please both camps if his vision was to be fulfilled. The remaining three chapters deal with matters Darwinian and are likely to be more familiar to historians of this period.

Rupke’s work is most certainly a needed corrective to earlier depictions of Owen and he skillfully demonstrates that Owen was not a fundamentalist objector to transmutation but had his own theory of evolution through what he termed the “continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things”. Yet much is still missing here even given the non-biographical approach that is adopted. While Rupke briefly notes the prickly nature of Owen’s personality, he generally omits how that personality must have influenced his interactions with the very scientists and administrators who were central to his project. The rivalry between Owen and Gideon Mantell is quickly glossed over (with Rupke clearly siding with Owen) and no mention is made of his appropriation of the work of Chaning Pearce, the revelation of which resulted in Owen being voted off the councils of the Zoological Society and the Royal Society. This criticism should not be seen as undermining what Rupke has achieved in Richard Owen, merely to point out that a fuller understanding of Owen requires the integration of Rupke’s scholarship with that of others.

After Owen’s death, a bronze statue was erected to him on the grand staircase of the Museum, replacing a marble Darwin that was eventually relegated to the tea-room. In 2009, no doubt due to the bicentennial celebrations, Darwin replaced Owen. This timely re-issue of Rupke’s work reminds us that without Owen there would be no Darwin Center and that perhaps Owen’s statue should have remained in place.

This review appeared in ISIS 102(2): 374-375.

About John M. Lynch

teacher, historian, biologist, beer snob. not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Biology, Book Reviews, History, Institutions, Museums, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to [Review] Richard Owen. Biology Without Darwin.

  1. Pingback: Owing Owen | What's In John's Freezer?

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