‘Let us not search further for the mythological animals,’ said Cuvier. ‘The mantichore or destroyer of men which carries a human head on a lion’s body terminating in a scorpion’s tail, or the guardian of treasures, the Griffin, half eagle– half lion … Nature could not combine such impossible features.’ The teeth and jaws of a lion, for example, could only belong to a creature that possessed the other attributes of a powerful carnivore, a muscular frame and skeleton that would confer enormous strength. The Sphinx of Thebes, the Pegasus of Thessaly, the Minotaur of Crete, mermaids – those half-women half-fish that lured sailors to their death with the sweetness of their song – were all myths that crumbled under Cuvier’s scientific scrutiny. ‘These fantastic compositions may be recovered among ruins,’ he said, ‘but they certainly do not represent real beings.’
The Natural History Museum in London is one of my favourite places. It is an amazing building that houses one of the most comprehensive collection of exhibits chronicling the natural history of the world. It is one of those places that makes you think about something new every time you visit.
But the museum does not only house history – the museum itself came about as the result of the endeavours of Britain most influential scientists of his time: Richard Owen.
The Dinosaur Hunters tells the story of the early days of paleontology and how the hunt for fossils led to the emergence of new ways of thinking about the world.
The book starts off with the story of Mary Anning, who was the extraordinary woman from Lyme Regis that found some of the fossils that sparked the discussions about pre-historic life.
Two of Anning’s most famous finds were an ichtyosaur and a pleisiosaur. The pleisiosaur, was the one that caused the biggest stir as the most famous scientist of her time, Georges Cuvier, claimed it to be a scam at first. He later had to reverse his position and give credit to Anning for finding a hitherto unknown species.
I’m a big fan of Anning ever since reading Remarkable Creatures, and was delighted to read more of her story – especially more referenced factual accounts – in The Dinosaur Hunters.
Having laid the foundations with the story of Anning and Cuvier, Cadbury goes into the main part of the story – the rise of Richard Owen, who came from a humble background (compared to some of his competitors) and managed to “work” his way to the top of the scientific society.
I’ll use the word “work” with reservations.
Owen’s story is told by way of contrasting his life’s story to the biography of another naturalist – Gideon Mantell.
A contemporary of Mary Anning, Mantell was a young geologist who caused quite a stir with his
“romantic description of ‘former worlds’ buried in the rock. Each stratum enveloped evidence of a vanished existence, and the geologist could ‘begin to fathom the different revolutions which had swept over the earth in ages antecedent to all human record or tradition’.”
At a time when most scientific societies and universities in the UK were linked to or governed by men of the church, Mantell’s ambition to ‘to unveil God’s secrets … and unravel the mysteries of the beautiful world through which he was destined to pass’ did not meet with much enthusiasm. It was only on Cuvier’s enthusiasm that Mantell found access to the scientific community in London, where he a developed a professional rivalry with a young and ambitious Richard Owen over the classification of a new find of fossils which Mantell had discovered and which he referred to as that of a megalodon or iguanosaur.
And here is where the book turns to Owen:
“For Owen they embodied a form where the ‘Reptilian type of structure made the nearest approach to Mammals’. He decided they needed a special name, in recognition.
Over the next few weeks he discussed possible names with geological friends and philologists. Keen to capture the characteristics that set these beasts apart from any that had ever existed, he seized upon the idea of using the Greek words deinos, meaning ‘terrible’ or ‘fearfully great’, and sauros, meaning ‘lizard’. Deinos, a word used by Homer, also implies ‘inconceivable’, ‘unknowable’.
Back in his study in the Royal College of Surgeons, he added these observations to his report of the previous August.
The combination of such characters, some, as the sacral ones, altogether peculiar among Reptiles, others borrowed, as it were, from groups now distinct from each other, and all manifested by creatures far surpassing in size the largest of existing reptiles, will, it is presumed, be deemed sufficient ground for establishing a distinct tribe or suborder of Saurian Reptiles for which I would propose the name of ‘Dinosauria’.
In these few words, as he quietly redrafted his paper on that fateful afternoon, Richard Owen sealed the fate of Gideon Mantell. In this giant conceptual leap as he defined the characteristics of his ‘Dinosauria’, he cast the spotlight on his brilliance at interpreting the fossil record. Although Mantell had known of the existence of fossil reptiles for years, in coining the term ‘dinosaur’, and presenting them as a distinct group of the most advanced reptiles that had ever lived, Owen was to receive the credit for their discovery.”
Owen never made any attempts to correct this. He took credit for Mantell’s discovery and even copied parts of Mantell’s mistakes into his own publications.
While this discovery firmly established Owen as the ‘the English Cuvier’, Mantell suffered a number of personal tragedies, and while he continued to his scientific work (on top of his medical practice, which paid the bills but failed) he was never able to discredit Owen or eclipse him.
As if it had not been enough for Owen to claim credit, for Mantell’s work, he also made every effort to destroy him professionally. Not only during Mantell’s life time, but also after his death (from a broken back which was misdiagnosed as a tumor).
“Owen’s own reputation was secure. He was, rightly, acknowledged as Britain’s foremost anatomist and an international authority in his field. Yet unlike Mantell, who had been compelled to earn his living as a country doctor, Owen had been fortunate enough to be able to devote his working life to the subject he loved.
By the time of Mantell’s death, Owen’s breadth and depth of knowledge of anatomy far surpassed Mantell’s.
Yet Owen’s achievements and international acclaim seemed to unleash an even greater, almost fanatical, egoism and a callous delight in savaging his critics. Although Mantell’s legacy posed no threat to Owen’s eminence, his death provided an opportunity for him to display a sadistic streak that was needlessly channelled into crushing Mantell’s reputation.”
Owen, however, was not only a plagiarist but also a historical revisionist.
He was also a coward.
When Darwin published The Origin of Species, he
“was extremely anxious to know what position Richard Owen would take on his ideas. Even friends of the family wrote to enquire about Owen’s verdict. ‘Dead against us, I fear,’ Darwin replied. To his relief, Owen’s immediate reaction was not hostile, but ambiguous to the point of even seeming favourable.”
However, he soon after changed his mind when it became evident that Darwin’s work caused excitement and discussion within the scientific community that posed a threat to Owen’s own fame. Owen finally settled to pursue a line of creationism and set out to discredit Darwing, just as he had done with Mantell.
“Darwin was worried. He considered Owen’s review highly damaging. As a close friend of Prince Albert, and embraced by the powerful Anglican hierarchy, Owen was a powerful enemy. ‘It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me,’ Darwin wrote to a friend; ‘the Londoners say he is mad with envy because my book has been talked about.’ Even though Owen was not a Creationist the sides became polarised, with Darwin and his supporters, ‘the Devil’s Disciples’ Huxley and Hooker, standing in opposition to Owen, who was trying to uphold traditional values.
Their ideological clash came to a head on Saturday 30 June 1860. It took place in Oxford, the home of the clergy and the chosen site for the annual meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Only twenty years previously Richard Owen had been the undisputed star of the organisation, the chosen protégé of the BAAS. Now, according to the legend in part created by the Darwinian camp, the BAAS meeting was to prove a decisive turning-point for the supporters of the old order. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce – uncharitably nicknamed ‘Soapy Sam’ – was due to talk on botany and zoology. Professor John Draper, of New York University, had been invited to lecture on Darwinism. Richard Owen, who had stayed with the Bishop the night before, was widely believed to have crammed him ‘up to the throat’ with the best arguments against Darwin. Rumours were flying that the Bishop intended to ‘smash Darwin’. This was to be an ‘open clash between Science and the Church’. Almost a thousand people crowded into the library to witness the fight. Darwin himself was too sick to attend.”
The open clash escalated caused years of open debate and attack. What Owen had ignored at his peril was that Darwin had support that Mantell did not have. And this support set out to take apart Owen’s own theories one by one. And in an ironic turn of events, they started to dismantle Owen’s influence and memory.
So, while the Natural History Museum originally featured a statue of its founder, Richard Owen, today’s main hall prominently features the famous statue of Darwin. Owen is still there, but he is hidden in one of the wings.
Serves him right.
This was a fascinating book which combined biography with the wider social and political context. The only slight problem I had with it is that the story jumped back and forth somewhat and that some of the descriptions were quite long.