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Who Named the Dinosaur? A Real Jerk! - A History of Evolution

Who named the dinosaurs? We know! It was Richard Owen, a plagiarizing, grasping, conniving jerk. Let's dive into dinosaurs, evolution, public education and the question of what constitutes scientific fact.

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To begin with, Richard Owen stole credit for discovering dinosaurs from a man whose spine he kept in a jar. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation

I first heard of Richard Owen in a song. My favorite collection of songs as a kid was called Wee Sing Dinosaur Songs and I used to sing this one all the time:

Shout out to Wee Sing. I had several of their cassette tapes as a kid and relentlessly sang dinosaur songs at my parents, teachers, and friends. And, since the star of my favorite one was Richard Owen, I grew up with quite a positive association with this Victorian-era scientist. It wasn’t until I grew up that I learned that he sucked. He was apparently unpleasant personally, and professionally, he was ruthless and conniving, and used his position to screw over younger scientists seemingly out of spite.

At the same time, Richard Owen was a key figure in the history of public education by rationalizing the British collection of natural history and presenting it to the public. Owen knew how to draw the people into esoteric debates about biology.

I want to use the case of Richard Owen to explore how the scientific community interacts with the world at large and how the process of establishing scientific fact can be shockingly personal.

Richard Owen

Richard Owen

When I see a picture of Richard Owen, the first name that leaps to mind is Ebeneezer Scrooge. The guy looked like an overserious curmudgeon and apparently, he was. Certainly, the description of Scrooge as a “grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” fits Owen well.

He had a split image in the public mind. He was compared to his friend, Charles Dickens, in that they both came up from humble backgrounds to become giants in their fields. To some, he was the “cockney taxidermist,” a straight-shooting, down-to-earth, counter-cultural icon. To many who worked with him, however, he was vain, jealous, cantankerous, rude, and haughty.

Owen grew up an orphan, his father dead by age five. He did well enough in school to be apprenticed to a surgeon’s guild, and used his rising position as a surgeon to focus on his real love: comparative anatomy. He dissected anything he could get his hands on, and apparently had a real knack for it. Despite the extremely cliquish and classist nature of English science in the 19th Century, Owen always managed to be the darling of the establishment.

By all accounts, he was extremely talented. He made a name for himself extrapolating from a single bone fragment that there must have been a large, now-extinct bird that lived in New Zealand. He was confirmed in dramatic fashion when the rest of the skeleton belonging to the Giant Moa was found. Many of his predictions have been validated after his death. In another amazing case, he described an extinct arthropod from the tracks it left on a Cambrian lakeside 150 years before any fossils of the creature were discovered.

That’s why it was all the more tragic that the man regularly stole and plagiarized from his contemporaries. He often did so by abusing his institutional power and hiding his actions behind the bureaucracy of large institutions. Despite repeatedly being exposed for plagiarism, and being dismissed from certain positions because of it, Owen remained a well-respected and well-compensated figure until his death at age 88.

Mantell and the Dinosaur

Gideon Mantell

Gideon Mantell

When I was growing up, most dinosaurs were still depicted in the way that Richard Owen described them: reptilian, slow, plodding, cold-blooded, and dull-witted.

This image of the dinosaur was imprinted on the public imagination in 1854, when the first life-sized dinosaur models were unveiled. Their creator built them on the advice of the most prominent paleontologist of his age: Richard Owen, but not before speaking to the man who discovered the dinos he was sculpting: Gideon Mantell. Mantell passed on the opportunity.

 The Hyde Park iguanodons

The Hyde Park iguanodons

The statues were built on the grounds of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, which had housed a World Exhibition three years earlier. By presenting the dinosaurs, the English were staking a claim on that slice of natural history. Public education can be an expression of power: by deciding what information is easily accessible to the general public, presenters shape conceptions that make their way into books, movies, stories, fun facts, pub quizzes and other fraught sources of information. As a pioneer of public education, Richard Owen played an outsized role in shaping public conceptions of dinosaurs.

Nowadays, depictions are starting to change. In the 1970s, scientists came to believe that dinosaurs evolved into birds. In the 1990s, the first dinosaur fossils were found with intact feathers. We now know that alongside the large, plodding dinosaurs were small, agile, feathered dinosaurs like the velociraptor.

In general, we now think that dinosaurs were more mobile, with higher metabolisms and warmer blood. We also have learned that all dinosaurs descend from an animal that walked upright, and many of the dinosaurs that walked on four legs could rise up on their hind legs. These revelations paint quite a different picture of the prehistoric world than generally appears in movies.

The images I grew up with come out of a scientific debate back in the early 1800s. At that time, dinosaurs were a blank slate. The only templates that matched these huge skeletons were mythic: enormous reptiles and birds in stories, such as the dragon slain by the patron saint of England, Saint George.

The language of fossils was similarly mythic. Some scientists contorted the fossil record to make sure that fossils were found in the “Pre-Adamitic” period of geology. This was the period of five days that preceded the creation of man. If there were any anomalous creatures or geology, they must have existed before Noah’s flood, when God was still working out the kinks in creation. Anything post-flood must exist in perfect, stable harmony to match the Christian worldview of the time.

But, when geologists started cataloging the Earth scientifically, they found wave after wave of now-extinct animals that lived in dramatically different landscapes from today.

Early depiction of an Iguanodon

Early depiction of an Iguanodon

Gideon Mantell was one of many interested private citizens who was chipping away at the fossil record, bringing the contradictions between belief and reality to the surface. He was a country doctor, and had been collecting fossils for some years when he put together his first book, The Fossils of South Downs. It covered many fragments of what appeared to be wildly large bones. The year of its publication, his wife presented him with several large fossilized teeth. They reminded him of an iguana's teeth but much, much larger. In combination with his bone fragments, he correctly deduced that an enormous herbivorous reptile had lived in England around 330 million years ago. He named this creature an Iguana-saurus, meaning Iguana lizard. When a friend pointed out that a normal iguana is an iguana lizard, he changed it to Iguanodon, iguana-tooth. Because he had its teeth.

Mantell, knowing that such a claim would upset the scientific establishment, asked his fellow fossil hunter, William Buckland, for advice, and Buckland told him to keep the discovery quiet until he had collected sufficient evidence to defend it. Meanwhile, Buckland published his own paper, scooping Mantell for priority. This was the first of many times Mantell would get screwed by his peers. (Looking at you, Owen)

Priority was a big deal for scientists at this time. Everyone wanted to be the first, because the first would have a guaranteed prosperous career and scientific legacy. Reputations were built on firsts.

Buckland seized the opportunity to publish his paper on the Megalosaurus, latin for “great lizard”, the first dinosaur in scientific literature. Sure enough, he was rewarded a lucrative position with Christ Church College at Oxford.

Along with scooping Mantell, Buckland had an easy time finding benefactors because he believed in a religiously acceptable theory. He said there was a gap between biblical and natural history. This was a popular way of splitting the difference between bible story and natural history: to claim that the world simply worked differently in the past.

This belief, called Gap Theory, led to misinterpretations. For example, Buckland discovered one of the oldest human skeletons in England, but, because it was in a cave with extinct animals, he reasoned that the person must have gone into the cave much later than the strata of earth she was found in. This was not only bad science, it obfuscated an important find for many decades. Today, the Red Lady of Paviland is now thought to be a man who hunted and ate wooly mammoths, not the Roman-era prostitute Buckland imagined.

Mantell, meanwhile, without money or support, continued publishing his fossil findings at an alarming rate. He described four of the first five dinosaurs. But, being extraordinarily unlucky, Mantell had made a powerful enemy. Recently-appointed professor of the Royal College of Surgeons, Richard Owen, disagreed with Mantell’s ideas about dinosaurs. He argued that these creatures plodded along on four legs, slow and ambling. Mantell argued that Iguanodons had smaller front legs, and therefore could stand upright, perhaps against a tree while eating its leaves. Mantell’s dinosaurs were mobile.

Mantell's drawing of the Iguanodon

Mantell's drawing of the Iguanodon

Despite being a renowned authority on dinosaurs, Mantell could not find a stable research position like Owen and Buckland, partly due to Owen’s efforts. Worse, he lost his standing as a gentleman in polite society by opening his home museum to the public and charging admission. Over time, Owen was able to block more and more of Mantell’s papers from publication. Over time, Mantell had lost interest in medicine, focusing most of his energy on dinosaurs. This led him to deep poverty, and he was ultimately forced to sell his life’s work: his fossil collection.

Owen now systematically published Mantell’s work on the fossils, giving himself priority, and renaming fossils as he saw fit to hide what he’d done. He went so far as to claim the Iguanodon as his own discovery.

In 1849, Owen brought together his research on the prehistoric animals, which he collectively named Dinosaur, meaning terrible (or terrific) lizard. He based his classification on the Megalosaurus and two finds of Mantell’s, the Iguanodon and the Hylaeosaurus.

By now, Mantell was suffering from a severe scoliosis, brought on by a terrible carriage accident and probably exacerbated by a tumor. He lived in poverty and took opium for the pain but continued describing fossils and practicing medicine when he was able. He eventually died of an overdose in 1852, presumably intentionally, after a decade of debilitating pain.

Mantell's spine

Mantell's spine

In the end, Mantell was too sick to consult on the Hyde Park dinosaur statues. Richard Owen had successfully placed himself at the center of dinosaur scholarship. The world came to know dinosaurs as plodding, four-legged reptiles despite the recent discovery of the Iguanadon’s front legs, which confirmed Mantell’s position that they walked on their hind two legs. The Owen-inspired models have been derided as hopelessly inaccurate by scientists over the last century.

In death, Gideon Mantell still had one more indignity to suffer. His body was autopsied and, as was common with interesting specimens, his spine was preserved and stored by the Royal College of Surgeons. That’s right: the master taxonomist collected his enemy’s spine.

Owen, Darwin, and Evolution

Young Charles Darwin

Young Charles Darwin

One thing that’s nice about scientific disputes is that they’re usually solved by objective fact. Scientists eventually have to get with the tide of evidence or get out of the way. Richard Owen refused to get with the tide of facts, to his own detriment, and eventually found himself irrelevant.

Owen was one of many anatomists who speculated on evolution. In his On the Nature of Limbs, he laid out his view. He noted the similarities of structures across all vertebrates and argued that all animals were based on a single archetype of life. Each had slowly transmuted into its current, ideal forms from a similar starting point.

This idea was controversial. The leading anatomist of the previous generation, Georges Cuvier, claimed that every animal was distinct and unrelated. Owen was one of several biologists suggesting that all animals were inherently similar. Several of the examples he used were drawn from specimens collected by the naturalist Charles Darwin on his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle.

Darwin and the Beagle

Darwin and the Beagle

Darwin was of an even more radical vein of naturalists who insisted that there was no difference between life before the creation of man and after. Darwin supported the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, who argued that the same laws that govern geology today had always operated at the same pace, and therefore the world must be millions if not billions of years old. This relegated biblical creation to the realm of myth, unconnected to the actual process of creation.

Upon Darwin’s return to England, Charles Lyell introduced him to the up-and-coming darling of the Royal College of Surgeons, Richard Owen. Owen pored over Darwin’s fossils and deduced from them fantastic and unheard-of creatures including a sloth the size of a city bus and a rodent the size of a hippopotamus, creatures even more stupendous than his giant Moa bird. To both men, it became clear that modern animals were related to massive, extinct versions of themselves.

From here, their paths diverged. Through consultation of the finches he’d collected, with other scientists, Darwin realized that a single species could develop wildly different anatomy over successive generations to suit their environment. From this idea, he became convinced that all species could not only develop different traits, they could develop so differently that they became different species. But, for him to say so publicly would literally be heresy.

Owen stayed closer to an older idea of evolution put forward by Jean-Baptiste Lamark. In 1809, Lamark put forth a theory of evolution in which life forms are continuously generated spontaneously from the earth, and each achieved a higher order of complexity over time. His suggestion was that not only could species arise from simpler species, within a species, traits were gained and lost based on how useful they were to the animal’s survival. At the time, his theories had been roundly rejected, in part, because he relied on alchemy and divine explanations rather than the chemistry and geology of his time.

LaMark's Evolution

LaMark's Evolution

Owen, in a similar vein, held that while species originated in some common, simple forms, each had become its ideal form over time in an “ordained continuous becoming.” This implied an independent track of evolution for each species. Owen agreed with most of his contemporaries that the process was teleological, meaning that it had an end goal that it progressed toward.

Darwin, meanwhile, started sketching a single evolutionary tree where all species evolved out from a common ancestor through random, chaotic series of mutations, some of which proved useful and lived on, others of which died out. He made a comparison, considered offensive by many at the time, to farmers choosing their best crops to sow the next year. Could all life really derive from a process so mundane that a simple farmer could figure it out?

It took over twenty years for Darwin to develop his own evolutionary theory, during which time Owen’s power and status grew and grew, sometimes with the help of plagiarism. He had a right of first refusal on all animals that died in the London Zoo, and naturalists the world over were now sending him specimens to give opinions on. It only took a little bureaucracy for him to keep the best specimens, publish on them first, and claim their discovery as his own.

Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and started a slow revolution. Despite how carefully he worded his claims in the respectable ideas of the time, many reviewers could read between the lines. Darwin’s evolution was inherently atheist. It had no objective, no favoring of any life form over another, and no special place for the creation of man. It was a technical text, first read by scientists before it trickled down into the popular press.

Darwin’s innovation was to say that natural selection, not a divine process, could explain speciation. He put in the terms of the economist Thomas Malthus, whose theories were popular at the time, Darwin explained that an excess of organisms are born to each generation. In each of those generations, some portion will die and some will survive to reproduce. The natural variations that occur between siblings impart some benefit or detriment to survival and those variations will be carried on to the next generation. Over a long enough time scale, millions of years, those slight variations lead to divergences which lead to new species. As a result, the whale, giraffe, squirrel, and monkey could all be variants of a single ancestor mammal.

Darwin's evolution

Darwin's evolution

Even for his supporter, Charles Lyell, this theory was too radical. It not only rejected the scientific consensus that one species could not turn into other species, it rejected the religious consensus that man was made in God’s image. If man arose from a process of survival of variants, how could he be more God-like than any other creature. Darwin had only touched on man obliquely, suggesting that the different races had a common ancestor and had developed traits that improved survival in their particular environments, but the descent of man lurked behind every question about evolution.

Victorians considered themselves paragons of science and of piety, and now scientific theory was threatening to debunk the beliefs of the most pious. Caught between the two, most scientific leaders withheld judgment. Not Richard Owen. He continued to put forward his own theory of platonic ideals and God-ordained becoming. But the evidence was mounting against him.

Victorian England had fallen in love with the ape and the monkey. Colonial expansion had finally brought Europeans face to face with the chimpanzee, the orangutan, and the gorilla, and the irksome feeling that one of these might be our direct ancestor. Owen, ever the taxonomist, pored through anatomical sketches of apes and seized on the one detail he could find: a structure in the brain a few inches long called the hippocampus. Owen argued that man descended from an entirely other animal, possibly a fish, that had this special brain structure that now gave us higher reasoning and thought, the divine parts of our minds that set us apart from nature.

Both Owen and Darwin ran public relations campaigns for their ideas. Both used intermediaries to protect their own reputations, which allowed Darwin to maintain his standing as a gentleman that Mantell had lost at such great cost. Through many public debates and dissections, Darwinists gradually proved beyond all doubt that not only did apes have the hippocampus, other animals had them as well.

In a particularly memorable demonstration, one of Darwin’s acolytes showed how variations between humans and variations between chimpanzees could be greater than variations between humans and chimpanzees. This demonstration was effective for evolution theory but detrimental to black liberation movements, which now had yet another layer of scientific racism to battle through.

In the popular mind and even amongst some scientists, these findings validated the idea that black people were an older and less advanced version of the human species, despite Darwin’s insistence that no species or race was any greater or lesser than any other. Natural selection was meant to be an ongoing series of variations, not progress towards any specific goal. However, old beliefs die hard, and social and racial theories became entwined with Darwin’s evolution.

Owen’s response was simple in its religious and racist footing. While the greatest chimpanzee could be greater than the least human, a great chimpanzee was nothing like the greatest human, i.e., the white ones.

Owen’s Struggles and Downfall

Charles Dickens, a friend and publicist of Richard Owen

Charles Dickens, a friend and publicist of Richard Owen

Richard Owen found an important ally in his friend Charles Dickens. The two men were drawn to each others political beliefs (both Whig reformers) and penchant for drawing publicity. Charles Dickens’ magazine, All The Year Round, was the first to use the word dinosaur in the public press, in an article imagining a voyage through a late-Cretateous English landscape. Dickens himself used a reference in his 1852 serial Bleak House. He wrote, “It would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

Throughout the 1850s, All The Year Round published opinion pieces and analyses that supported the Owenite view of evolution. One piece explained in the tired schoolteacher's manner that Owen espoused, “There is always manifested by the germ-power a striving after perfection, an untiring effort to cast out any disturbing or contaminating influence, but always strictly “after its kind” ! not to attain to the excellence of another race.”

By germ-power, the writer means the evolutionary seed that will become whatever trait is manifested in the “fully evolved” version of the species. Darwin struggled with the idea of the germ. He knew that traits needed to be passed down from parent to child, but had no satisfactory answer for how it occurred. He suggested that each part of the body gets a sort of vote in the traits of the offspring. The question wouldn’t be adequately answered by evolutionary biologists until after Darwin’s death, when the work of Catholic friar Gregor Mendel, on the genetics of his pea plants, was incorporated. Finally, in 1953, English chemists described the structure of the molecule that transmits traits, DNA, and modern evolutionary theory took shape.

Gregor Mendel, genetic theory

Gregor Mendel, genetic theory

As time marched on and Owen’s theory came to be considered more and more ridiculous by mainstream biologists, Dickens helped keep him relevant in the public mind. Many opinion pieces published in All The Year Round were paraphrases of Owen’s talks.

In fact, Owen’s relevance to the general public was only growing. He had moved to a position at the British Museum, one of the first national collections opened to the public. Owen completely reorganized the Natural History collection which had long been neglected in favor of human history, and had declined in quality due to petty rivalries between researchers. He corrected and explained the collection, making it accessible to the public. In doing so, he set the template for natural history museums for the next century. In this way, he created another opportunity to put forth his ideas about the past. The way he mounted skeletons helped cement his views on how prehistoric animals looked and moved for the public.

Owen’s peers in the 1860s feared that his blend of science and religion would make English natural history the laughingstock of Europe. Instead, the establishment rallied around a new orthodoxy of Darwinian evolution, and Owen faded from relevance. It didn’t help that, as Owen demanded more awards from his peers, more of his plagiarism came to light.

I wish there was a dramatic event I could narrate, some great unveiling or downfall, but the truth was, most of Owen’s misdeeds were quietly dealt with by the institutions embarrassed by them. At one point, he lost his position on the Royal Society’s Zoological Council and earlier in his career he had been denied a medal when the work turned out to be plagiarized. But by the time of his retirement, Owen had won just about every award possible and had accepted a knighthood (which he had passed on earlier in his career). To many, he was simply an unimpeachable, inveterate scholar. Many of his detractors, including Mantell and Darwin, Owen simply outlasted. He lived to the ripe age of 88, having seen almost the entire 19th century.

"Richard Owen Riding His Hobby"

"Richard Owen Riding His Hobby"

Richard Owen did a fantastic job of debunking his own theory. Despite his opposition to Darwin’s evolution through life, he stayed true to the facts he discovered. His work on the archaeopteryx, which he identified as a transitional fossil between fish and bird, now known to be a feathered dinosaur, has been considered a major proof of evolution since its publication. His great hippocampus debate proved to the public with direct evidence that man is a member of the ape family. In his last paper, Antiquity of Man, he argues that anatomically modern humans lived in prehistoric England, noting that only scholars outside of geology could still doubt the antiquity of man. In short, Owen popularized the facts even when they contradicted his theories.

In the end, Richard Owen was a cheater who prospered. He shamelessly plagiarized the works of others while gaslighting them. At the same time, he brought natural history into the public imagination, a decision that still shapes how dino-obsessed children like me grow up seeing the world. I’m left with mixed feelings about this complex scientist who stole credit for dinosaurs from a man whose spine he kept in a jar.

Sources and Further Reading

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