No one disputes that Richard Owen was a scientist par excellence. The thumb-nail description of him on the website of London's Natural History Museum says this:
"An outstanding naturalist, with a special gift for interpreting fossils, Richard Owen was a remarkable man. He produced a vast array of scientific work, and famously coined the word 'dinosaur.' One of Owen's greatest achievements was his campaign for the natural specimens in the British Museum to be given a new home. This resulted in the now world-famous Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. His contribution to science and public learning was enormous."
He was the first to give a clear definition of the term homology: "the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function." He pointed out that all vertebrate species have a common skeletal plan and explained this in terms of a 'vertebrate archetype'. His classic book on the subject has been reprinted and the publisher has this rationale:
"Just as Darwin's ideas continue to propel the modern study of adaptation, so too will Owen's contributions fuel the new interest in homology, organic form, and evolutionary developmental biology. His theory of the archetype and his views on species origins were first offered to the general public in On the Nature of Limbs, published in 1849. It reemerges here in a facsimile edition with introductory essays by prominent historians, philosophers, and practitioners from the modern evo-devo community."
Richard Owen's classic discourse on homology
It is well known that Owen's thinking brought him into controversy regarding Darwinism. "Nothing," Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species, "can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes." Yet one of these options is exactly what Owen advanced! He explained these "similarities of pattern" in terms of design. He spoke of them as archetypes - abstracted common patterns. (Owen's approach has become more interesting today, not because of the design implications, but because they are relevant to structuralist perspectives in biology).
Although Owen is referred to as a "vitriolic critic of Darwin", there are some grounds for his signs of frustration. Darwin should have known of Owen's work on homology, and of his interpretation of the data in terms of archetypes. But instead of acknowledging that design provides an rational explanation for homology, Darwin persisted in saying that a Creator would not do it that way, and that patterns must be regarded as evidence for common descent. The more Owen looked at Darwin's writing, the more he found mental leaps and the dominance of dogma over data. Owen was the empiricist and Darwin was found wanting:
"But, as we have before been led to remark, most of Mr Darwin's statements elude, by their vagueness and incompleteness, the test of Natural History facts." (Source: go here)
The reviewer alludes to another essay in the same issue of Nature:
"A decade before Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Owen very nearly sketched a theory of evolutionary transformation, fragments of which appear here. However, as Padian describes, such were the sociopolitical and philosophical strains on Owen's position that he stalled at the final intellectual leap. Owen's patrons were of the Oxbridge-educated establishment - adherents to the natural theology of the 'argument from design' (for the existence of God) as advocated most influentially by William Paley (now sadly repackaged with a molecular gloss by the proponents of 'intelligent design')."
The best that can be said of this is that it is historical revisionism. Owen did not stall over the intellectual leap of Darwinism: he found it wanting. He did not like the way Darwin made an unwarranted story out of "Natural History facts". The inference that Owen adjusted his message to please his patrons is completely unsupported by evidence: it is a Darwinian spin on history and a slur on a great scholar. What we can learn from history is that it is certainly possible to be a serious biologist, doing good science, and at the same time be a design theorist. Owen is worth recalling next time you hear someone opining that design thinking is antithetical to science.
In Retrospect: Diagnosing deep similarity in nature
Nature, 451, 631 (7 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/451631a
BOOK REVIEWED-On the Nature of Limbs: A Discourse
by Richard Owen
University of Chicago Press: 2007. 119 pp.
On the night of 9 February 1849, Richard Owen, the pre-eminent Victorian anatomist who later founded London's Natural History Museum, delivered a public lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In a strident discourse that set the stage for Charles Darwin's account of evolution, Owen revealed similarities in biological forms from species to species that suggested some underlying ideal plan or archetype. He sought to debunk the prevailing view that anatomical pattern could be explained as a consequence of biological function. With example after example, Owen hammered home the point that structural correspondences between species, or even between parts of the same individual, cannot be explained simply by adaptation. The echoes of his words still reverberate. [snip]
Padian, K. Darwin's enduring legacy, Nature, 451, 632-634 (7 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/451632a
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