Evolutionists celebrate Darwin's opponent

SNOB: The man who identified the dodo and coined the word `dinosaur' saw creation as a series of experiments by a Creator, and was outraged by Darwin's famous theory


Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 6

Britain's leading evolutionary biologists are preparing to celebrate the 200th birthday of one of Charles Darwin's most ferocious opponents.

Richard Owen went to his grave believing Darwin was wrong to argue that life evolved by natural selection operating on random mutation -- but he also discovered the gorilla for science, identified the dodo, coined the word "dinosaur" and founded London's famous Natural History Museum in 1881. A special exhibition and a Richard Owen trail open at the museum today.

"This is not to say he was a nice character, because we know he wasn't," said Angela Milner, a palaeontologist at the museum and one of the organizers of the exhibition.

"Owen was an extraordinarily clever scientist, he was the leading comparative anatomist of his day, there is absolutely no doubt about that. He was a brilliant man, but he was also very competitive, very arrogant and he didn't want anybody taking his crown away from him," she said.

Richard Owen was born in Lancaster in northern England on July 20, 1804. He trained at Edinburgh, went to the Royal College of Surgeons and then moved to superintend the natural history collections of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. This priceless assortment of gems, minerals, dried plants, pickled fish and reptiles, fossils, skeletons, skins and stuffed mammals gathered by Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Hans Sloane and other 18th century explorers was growing and deteriorating at the same time. Owen promptly began a 25-year campaign that climaxed in the present "cathedral of nature" in South Kensington.

He had originally enjoyed a working relationship with the younger Charles Darwin, but having been a devout Christian from the beginning, Owen saw creation as a series of experiments by a Creator, and he was outraged by Darwin's masterwork On the Origin of Species.

Owen was a tall, imposing figure with a charismatic public presence and a mission to educate: people flocked to his lectures. He hobnobbed with royalty and cultivated relations with the powerful.

"I suppose one could use the word snob, by today's standards," Milner said. "Darwin was a very shy, introvert, reclusive figure who didn't want any of this, whereas Owen was quite the reverse."

Owen also identified New Zealand's giant flightless bird, the moa or dinornis, from a piece of shin just 15cm long.

"It was a small fragment of tibia, but there was enough anatomy there for Owen to know that it was a bird bone, and there was just enough of the muscle scars on part of it for him to be able to place which bone it was. He deduced it must have been flightless," Milner said.

"And two or three years later when complete moa skeletons were discovered, he was proved to be spot on," he said.