How Charles Darwin was bullied by his teacher Richard Owen

I recently relocated my copy of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the 1968 Pelican paperback version of the first edition, with editor’s introduction.

"Charles Darwin by Maull and Polyblank, 1855-1" by Maull and Polyblank - The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Darwin_by_Maull_and_Polyblank,_1855-1.jpg#/media/File:Charles_Darwin_by_Maull_and_Polyblank,_1855-1.jpg
“My name is DarWIN. Not DarLOSE” (with apologies to Dana Carvey). Darwin aged 46, just four years before ‘Origin’ was published. A portrait of “Charles Darwin by Maull and Polyblank, 1855-1” by Maull and Polyblank – The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the edition that sold out in 1859 on the first day of publication – all 1250 copies. Five more editions followed, all slightly different – and the book (including on Project Gutenberg) is sometimes given a slightly different title. But my one is a reissue of the original, with the original title – which is, in full, The origin of species by means of natural selection: or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

Curiously, when I did my first university degree, I majored in anthropology (including human evolution) without once referring to Darwin, but that’s another story.*

Something we don’t often realise about this book is that in the 1850s many of Darwin’s ideas were not exactly new. Geologists such as Charles Lyell had discovered that the Earth was far older than once thought. Biologists accepted that species were related in great families. But they still struggled with mechanisms by which animals and plants had evolved and diversified into related forms. Lamarck’s concept of individual change – a giraffe got its long neck because each animal strained to reach high leaves and passed the extension on to its progeny – was rejected.

Darwin found the answer in the concept of natural selection, which he developed in 1837-39 but declined to publish beyond hints in the Linnean Society papers. Meanwhile Alfred Russell Wallace independently came up with the same idea, which he published in 1858. He and Darwin then collaborated on a joint paper. But Darwin still felt he had to produce something more substantial – though, to his mind, still but an abstract of his life’s work. So emerged Origin.

Darwin’s theory is often upheld as dislocating period church doctrine, and Darwin himself had concerns about the implications for humans, which is why he explicitly didn’t tackle human evolution in that book. Darwin was actually a man of faith – had originally been tipped for a life of the cloth. He had been taught geology by a churchman, Adam Sedgwick. When the book came out, though, it did not make too many waves with the Church of England – indeed, one of Darwin’s earliest fans and ongoing supporters was the Anglican (broad church) rector Charles Kingsley.

However, there was still enough heat to whip up a public controversy after the second edition of The origin of species appeared in 1860, a public debate buoyed not by what Darwin actually said, but by the way he was misrepresented by critics.**  But the cause wasn’t the Church of England: it was the science community – specifically, Richard Owen, Britain’s top anatomist and paleontologist, and Darwin’s former teacher.

Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!
Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!

Owen began by publishing an abusive review, anonymously, in the Edinburgh Review. This lengthy exercise in ridicule and blatant mis-representation was designed to show how wrong Darwin was by comparison with the unassailable expert in the field, Owen himself – who Owen persistently referred to in the review as ‘Professor Owen’, presumably to maintain his pretence of anonymity. The self-reference and constant reiteration of his own academic title – all the while hiding – underscored the fact that Owen viewed Darwin’s work as a threat to his personal self-worth, but lacked the integrity to actually confront the target of his jealousy, still less admit to the public that he felt that way.

Owen then looked for churchmen willing to write assassination reviews – finding the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce (1805-1873). The Bishop had already tackled evolution during debate in 1847 (as I say, the idea wasn’t new to Darwin) and had apparently gained his nickname from his slipperiness in ecclesiastical debate. He was not much admired for strength of character at the time; Benjamin Disraeli dismissed him as ‘unctuous’, an epithet that perhaps indicates the Bishop was ripe for being loaded into Owen’s academic gun and fired at Darwin. Apart from the Owen-fed review, Wilberforce also led the Oxford debate over the issue in June 1860, which I’ll cover another time.

On my own experience this sort of feeding frenzy is a fairly typical outcome of any collision between a newcomer and the egoes of the academy. Owen was habitually malicious towards anybody he feared might threaten his status – he had fought a similar crusade to destroy Charles Mantell, the dinosaur pioneer. And then, when Mantell died in 1852 after being bullied, excluded and abused by Owen for decades, Owen managed to secure Mantell’s body which he then dissected – presumably ‘for science’.

It took about ten years for Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to be accepted by the scientific community. Would it have been faster had Owen not been so nasty? Maybe. Everything Darwin said was in line with general scientific thinking of the day to the point where, as we saw, Wallace was thinking along the same lines, independently.

The real irony of Darwin’s work – for me, certainly – is the way it was misappropriated as a device for social control. ‘Social Darwinism’ was one of the pillars of the injustices of the later nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries, yet pivoted on something Darwin had explicitly rejected. Of this, more anon. Meanwhile, when it comes to putting stereotypes in their place, there’s always this:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

* I also (double) majored in history and did post-grad in other fields, but the anthro stuff was fun even if they did have funny ideas about the ‘multiregional evolution’ hypothesis.
** This happened to me. A deliberately misleading comment by a hostile reviewer about one of my books, back in 2005, was picked up and repeated ad nauseum, including on national radio.