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Richard Owen

Biology without Darwin

In the mid-1850s, no scientist in the British Empire was more visible than Richard Owen. Mentioned in the same breath as Isaac Newton and championed as Britain’s answer to France’s Georges Cuvier and Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt, Owen was, as the Times declared in 1856, the most “distinguished man of science in the country.” But, a century and a half later, Owen remains largely obscured by the shadow of the most famous Victorian naturalist of all, Charles Darwin. Publicly marginalized by his contemporaries for his critique of natural selection, Owen suffered personal attacks that undermined his credibility long after his name faded from history.

With this innovative biography, Nicolaas A. Rupke resuscitates Owen’s reputation. Arguing that Owen should no longer be judged by the evolution dispute that figured in  only a minor part of his work, Rupke stresses context, emphasizing the importance of places and practices in the production and reception of scientific knowledge. Dovetailing with the recent resurgence of interest in Owen’s life and work, Rupke’s book brings the forgotten naturalist back into the canon of the history of science and demonstrates how much biology existed with, and without, Darwin

368 pages | 20 halftones, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 1994, 2009

A revised edition of Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology, Natural History, Physiology, Biomechanics, and Morphology

History: British and Irish History, Discoveries and Exploration, History of Ideas

History of Science


"A marvellous achievement. . . . Owen comes into clearer focus than ever before. . . . Rupke does us great service in restoring parts of the Victorian world usually neglected in favour of the quest for origins."

Janet Browne | TLS

"Riveting. In relating bitter Victorian debates Rupke shows how science affected great social and religious questions still urgently relevant today."

Financial Times

"One of the many strengths of Rupke’s impressive book is the way in which the institutional framework is convincingly integrated with the style and content of Owen’s science. . . . This is carefully documented, exciting, and convincing history."


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Citation
1 Introduction: PersonalityMatters
Blackened Bronze
Portraits and Caricatures
The Rehabilitation of Owen
2 Museum Politics
The Museum Movement
Attempted Hijack of the Hunterian Museum
Move to the British Museum
By Word of Mouth
The Road to Albertopolis
Reform of Museum Management
Conflict with the Darwinians
Doing the Work of Empire
Australian Possessions
3 Gothic Designs
Oxbridge Patronage
London Clubs
Functionalist Dictates
The British Cuvier
Monster Models
Museum Icons
Parting Company with Lyell
4 The Vertebrate Blueprint
A Metropolitan Scientific Culture
The Great Executor
The Lure of Naturphilosophie
An Edinburgh Diaspora
In the Shadow of the Archetype
Not a Platonic Idea
From Archetype to Ancestor
5 Eclipsed by Darwin
Toward a Natural Origin of Species
Modes of Evolution
Evolution in Disguise
The BAAS Address of 1858
Clash with Darwin
Post-Origin Clarity
The Derivative Hypothesis of 1868
A Copernican Analogy
6 Cerebral Constructs
Contrasting the Frames of Apes and Humans
Delineating the Cerebral Divide
The Hippocampus Controversy Begins: Oxford
The Hippocampus Controversy Broadens: Manchester
The Hippocampus Controversy Culminates: Cambridge
Outflanked by Huxley
7 Frames of Mind
In Owen’s Defense
Glowing Rivalries
Public Perception of the Owen-Huxley Joust
Men, Monkeys, and Mind
Owen on the Mind-Body Problem
The Du Chaillu Affair
Owen’s “Ministry of Truth”
Appendix: Anatomy of Owen’s Scientific Oeuvre

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