Richard Owen is best known for naming the Dinosauria and for opposing Darwin's "On the origin of species". For the former, he is (usually) celebrated, as the name is in common usage around the world. For the latter, he is reviled as a bigot and his stance allowed subsequent generations of evolutionists to tar him as an obscurantist (although conveniently overlooking his scientific arguments). Owen's statue used to have pride of place in London's Natural History Museum (he oversaw the transfer of the natural history collections to the new South Kensington museum in 1881 and he was knighted in 1884). However, in the lead up to the bicentennial celebrations for Charles Darwin, Owen was moved and a marble statue of Darwin was put in his place. Notwithstanding this treatment, the man does not deserve to be shrouded in the mists of history. His achievements were immense, not least of which was his role in the construction of the Natural History Museum. Owen's expertise was in comparative anatomy applied to living and fossil animals, and his status is that of the best known 19th Century naturalist. Today, few know of his contribution to science by the way he approached the numerous contemporary reports of sea-monsters.
The sea serpent spotted by the crew of HMS Daedalus in 1848 (source here)
From the 1830s, Owen kept a special scrapbook containing letters and newspaper reports of sea-serpents and sea-monsters. He was at pains to point out that he did not have an axe to grind on the authenticity of the claims. He wrote to The Times saying: "I am far from insensible to the pleasure of the discovery of a new and rare animal." We should note that sea monsters were regularly spotted by mariners, that newspapers were keen to run stories on reported sightings, and that these stories captured the interest of readers.
Owen's first public comment came in 1848. The crew of HMS Daedalus was near the Cape of Good Hope when they spotted a serpent-like creature pass their ship. It was 30-40 feet long, had a mouthful of jagged teeth, a mane like a horse and it moved through the water at 15 miles per hour. Several officers witnessed the beast and when the warship arrived back in England, the captain supplied The Times with an account and they went to press on 9th October. Owen's response appeared two days later and pointed out that eye-witness accounts without physical evidence need to be treated cautiously. Without a body or body parts, the possibility of misidentification must be considered very real. The public was fascinated by the story and even the Prince Consort became curious. When Owen suggested to him that the sighting was of a large sea lion or seal, the prince described him as a "sea-serpent killer".
The following year, the Duke of Northumberland took possession of the remains of a monster. Owen identified the specimen as a Ribbon Fish.
"Building upon his growing reputation as a deflater of sea monsters, the magazine Punch ran a satirical poem which read in part, 'who killed the sea-serpent? "I", said Professor Owen'" (page 66).
Sightings continued and Owen continued to dismiss the claims that sea-monsters had been discovered. Believers considered the quality of the observers to be definitive; Owen stood by his argument that the failure to find any bones or bodies was more than an absence of evidence - it was evidence of absence. To give greater credibility to the witnesses, those who supported the veracity of sea monsters took recourse to magistrates and lawyers.
"It had become common practice with sea-serpent sightings to hurriedly collect written eyewitness reports of the events preferably before a local magistrate, lawyer or other official government representative. This was thought an acceptable way of proving the veracity of a creature's existence. Reputable witnesses backed up by the imprimatur of law could not possibly be challenged." (page 67).
As might be anticipated, Owen objected to this practice. For him, it was essential for the eye-witness accounts to be supported by physical evidence. His experience told him that eye-witnesses could be wrong. There is a link here with his museum work. Natural history is a discipline based on evidence, and museums are the places to archive evidence of interest to scholars, to educators and the public. Owen was committed to evidence-based science and he found nothing of substance in the "rival expertise of jurisprudence".
It is something of a paradox to find Owen presented here as championing evidence-based science as the antidote for speculation, whereas his critique of Darwinism is usually portrayed as Owen in speculative mode in the face of evidence-based science! No doubt there is a resolution of this paradox that vindicates Owen from inconsistency, but first we shall consider more closely one aspect of the sea-serpent controversy noted above. It is curious to find that magistrates and lawyers were approached to add their authority to eye-witness accounts of sea-serpents.
Today, we might think this a foolish practice because we know instinctively that the skills of magistrates and lawyers are unsuited to underwriting the authenticity of witnesses of sea-monsters. Yet something similar has happened in recent years when US courts have been asked to make judgments about creationism and intelligent design (ID) in science education. At stake is not just state influence over what teachers can and cannot bring before their students, but also the status of the scientific claims of creationism and ID. In particular, the Kitzmiller vs Dover case in 2005 is widely considered to have inflicted a mortal blow to the credibility of ID. The courts are being used by organisations and individuals with a secularising agenda to gain legal authority for their stance and thereby enhance their credibility. Richard Owen would not have been impressed. He would have stressed the importance of evidence-based scholarship. Scientists are supposed to be good at weighing evidences and testing hypotheses. This is where the emphasis should be placed - in education as well as in the laboratory. (for more, go here).
It is this focus on evidence-based science that explains Owen's critique of Darwinism. Despite the claim to have collected a vast array of evidence to support his theory, Darwin was regarded by many of his peers as strong on hypothesis but light on evidence. To treat any critic coming with this perspective as religiously motivated and anti-scientific is to indulge in rhetoric, not scientific discourse. Owen deserved better. There is nothing paradoxical about his cautious approach to sightings of sea-serpents and his critique of Darwin - he was consistently arguing for evidence-based science. Since rhetoric confirmed by legal judgments has become the norm in the US, the recent ruling by Tennessee State to protect teachers who introduce their students to critiques of Darwinism is justified and is to be welcomed.
Abstract: The well known naturalist, Richard Owen, had a career long engagement with monstrous creatures. In the 1830s he famously christened large fossil reptiles, Dinosauria. He investigated fossil marine reptiles as well as the giant moa. He also looked into the sea-serpents and sea monsters then drawing wide public attention. He actively collected letters and analyzed correspondence on the topic, consulted with the admiralty on reports of Royal Navy encounters and sightings, and commented in the public press. He concluded that such reports were based upon misidentifications of whales and other large marine mammals, and not run-ins with mythological creatures. His work on the sea-serpent shows that rather than discount the idea out of hand, a number of high profile naturalists were intrigued by monsters and attempted to understand what they were. His work is key to understanding the skepticism over monsters held by modern mainstream science. This skepticism opened the field to later amateur investigators.
Tyler, D. Remembering Richard Owen as a "non-evolutionary biologist" (ARN Literature Blog, 8 February 2008).
Tyler, D. Evolution, Museums and Society (ARN Literature Blog, 15 November 2008).
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