BOOK REVIEW / Strange case of a museum man: 'Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist' - Nicolaas A Rupke: Yale, 35 pounds
Sunday 13 March 1994
The mid-Victorian controversy over the origin of species was to blame for Owen's posthumous decline. He was systematically written out of the history books by Darwin, Huxley and their followers. Or rather, to the extent that his memory was kept alive, it was only for his critique of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The early development of the theory was often described in terms of enlightened, evolutionary 'forerunners' versus dogmatic, creationist 'opponents'. Because Owen was an opponent, he must perforce be an anti-evolutionist. The role of fall-guy seemed tailor-made for him.
The Darwinists elbowed Owen out of the reckoning in a peculiarly Victorian way, by making his personality an issue. No doubt a sort of jalousie de metier came into play. By 1859, when Origin of Species was published, Owen was already in charge of the natural history collections at the British Museum. A controversial figure, he was feared and hated by colleagues who envied his institutional power and his scientific eminence. His public image, unlike Darwin's, did not invite hero-worship.
Rupke sympathises with the historians who have begun to revise the lopsided portrayal of Owen as given by Darwin, and pays tribute to the man Vanity Fair called 'Old Bones' on account of his strange resemblance to a vertebrate fossil. The biographer himself eschews the cult of personality that ruined Owen's reputation and concentrates instead on his role as leader of the museum movement and on the Victorian system of patronage which he exploited to the full; he received not only such honours as the Order of Merit, but also quite a lot of what he called 'solid pudding'.
The point is not just that Owen became very rich, it is that worldliness was an important part of his life. Unlike Darwin, a man of independent means who worked in the relative isolation of his country home, Owen had to earn a living in the bustle of London. His background was modest. Born in Lancaster in 1802, he went to the local grammar school but, apart from half a year at Edinburgh University, enjoyed no university education, let alone an Oxbridge one. Instead he worked his way up through a series of apprenticeships. Yet he was lucky to be a museum man par excellence in the age of museums: during his lifetime, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert and the National Gallery, as well as 200 other museums throughout the country, were opened.
Rupke recounts the founding of London's monumental Natural History Museum, whose removal from Bloomsbury to a new site in the 'Albertopolis' of South Kensington in 1881 was the highlight of Owen's career. Considered a thoroughly Whiggish enterprise - it was supported by Gladstone, Palmerston and other Liberal grandees - the new museum provoked frequent protests in Parliament, usually from Tories who disliked the middle-class entrepreneurial parvenus to whom scientific culture was a means of social advancement. They hated Owen, believing that he personified that meddling, toadying, self-seeking clique.
Rupke threads his way through the mesh of museum politics with quiet brilliance, handling encyclopedic detail and constant shifts of time and scene without apparent effort. The aristocracy's support for Owen came at a price. In return for promoting the museum cause, his patrons expected him to promulgate their own brand of natural history and palaeontology, namely, the study of nature as a source of design arguments and thus as a form of natural theology.
Rupke has much to say about the Victorian conflict between science and religion. More than a simple clash of new ideas and old beliefs, it was also a fight between institutions, a struggle for intellectual leadership. In a way, the debate about man's place in nature reflected, to a significant extent, a clash about the place in society of the parties who conducted the debate.
Proofs of design in nature, as expounded by Georges Cuvier in France, no doubt appealed to the nobility for the simple reason that the design argument appeared to legitimise the status quo of upper-class privilege by portraying the world as a perfectly functioning unit designed by the Creator.
The belief that Owen himself was a creationist opposed to evolutionary theory dies hard, even though, as Rupke shows, the man spent four decades publicly reiterating his belief in a natural origin of species. That such an extensive body of primary evidence has been systematically ignored is perhaps an illustration of how the historiography of 'Darwin's century' has been used by partisans to vindicate the Darwinists. But it also casts light on the difficulty of making sense of natural history in any age. History is absent from the way we look at nature, and nature is absent from the way we write history. It is hard to describe a thing as vast and pervasive as the world of nature without appealing to final causes.
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