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Richard Owen Calls Darwin the "Copernicus of Biology" (November 5, 1882)


Following the death on April 19, 1882 of Charles Darwin, English Paleontologist Richard Owen wrote to Spencer Walpole, Home Secretary in several governments and a trustee of the Natural History Museum in London, which had been built largely as a result of Owen's efforts. The purpose of the letter was to recommend that a statue of Darwin be placed in Westminster Abbey. This was the highest honor that England could bestow.

In the 1970s I acquired this letter as part of the Paul Victorius collection on Darwin and evolution. I sold it at auction in 1992 when I dispersed my Darwin's Century collection. It was described as lot 311 in the auction catalogue. I had always thought of the letter as a remarkable tribute to Darwin's achievements by his greatest opponent, and had viewed the letter as a kind of reversal of Owen's opposition to Darwin's ideas in Owen's old age. In the letter Owen acknowledges the general acceptance by scientists of Darwin's theory of natural selection and points out the progress that has occurred in science by its acceptance. He compares Darwin to Copernicus in the sense that Darwin caused caused rejection of the origin of species by "primary law' or creation, replacing it with the "secondary law" of natural selection, while Copernicus caused rejection of the geocentric theory of the solar system, replacing it by the heliocentric.

In February 2011 at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair David Archibald pointed out the criticisms of Darwin's work which were cached, so-to-speak, in Owen's letter, and sent me a copy of the article by Kevin Padian "Owen's Parthian Shot," Nature, 412, July 12, 2001, 123-124. In this paper Padian pointed out various subtle criticisms of Darwin expressed in the letter, for details of which see his paper.

Where Owen expresses ambivalence seems primarily to be in the continuation of his comparison of Darwin with Copernicus. To me, just comparing the two is a reflection of Owen's appreciation of Darwin's place in history. However, Owen points out that Copernicus did not understand how the planets rotated around the sun and it took Galileo, Kepler, and Newton to answer these questions. Similarly Darwin did not understand the specific nature of the biological processes that caused natural selection to work, and Owen expresses the expectation that biology will eventually have its own Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. But, while Copernicus wrote a theoretical work, Darwin did understand the phenomenon accurately enough in terms of species populations. The hereditary mechanisms did not become understood in any detail until Watson and Crick's discovery of the "double helix," which had an impact on biology similar to Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Owen also points out that the "adoption of Darwin's hypothesis of the evolutional way of work is not general. . . ." Clearly, as Padian points out, Owen remained ambivalent about Darwin's contributions to science even as he acknowledged Darwin's place in history. 

Here is the text of Owen's letter:

"Sheen Lodge, Richmond Par, E. Sheen, S.W.

"5th November 1882

"Dear Mr. Walpole,

"In compliance with your request I have the pleasure to send the following on the subject we last discussed. Charles Darwin had peculiar claims to fitting posthumous recognition of his services to natural science. Of independent means, he devoted himself to the successful termination of his University career to the advancement of natural history. His desi re to accompany as naturalist the circumnavigatory expedition of H.M.S. Beagle under Captain Fitzroy was granted. The results to his favorite science were equal to, if they did not surpass, those of the naturalist Banks and Solander in the circumnavigatory voayge of Captain Cook. Darwin brough home rich collections in zoology, botany and palaeontology, and liberally made them over to national museums, on the condition of their being described by the competent officers.

"The results are the richly illustrated quartos, published by the Government, forming with Darwin's own Notes on the Voyage, in the well-known 8vo work, the most instructive and exemplary record of the natural-history gains of the circumnavigation. Perhaps the most important and novel researches made during the voyage are those in the nature and growth of coral-formations classified by him as 'atolls', barrier-reefs' and 'fringing-reefs', the description and explanation of which Darwin gives in his classical work on The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (8vo, 1842).

"Since that date he has enriched his favorite science from time to time by monographs throwing most acceptable light on structures and vital actions of plants and animals; they are classical and perennial acquisitions to biology. The guiding principle underlying these works is that advocated in the Philosophie Zoologique of Lamarck, on the origin, viz., of species by secondary law, or evolution. But Lamarck's notion of the way of operation of that 'law', viz., by conditions affecting the exercise or disuse of parts of the body, is but partially accepted by Darwin; he substitutes another, a wider, and as he deems, a truer way of the operation of such 'secondary law', which he sums up under the term 'Natural Selection'.

"The great value of Darwin's series of works, summarizing all the evidences of embryology, physiology, paleontology then accessible, with experiments on the variation of species, is exemplified in the general acceptance by biologists of the 'secondary law by evolution' of the 'origin of species.' As a result, summaries and monographs now published in natural history are penned under the influence or in acceptance of that 'law'. In this respect Charles Darwin stands to biology in the relation in which Copernicus stood to astronomy. The rejection of the origin of species by primary law, or direct creation, is equivalent to the rejection of the fixity, centrality, and supreme magnitude of the Earth; it parallels the substitution of the heliocentric for the geocentric hypothesis. The accelerated progress of natural history under the guidance of 'evolution' resembles that of astronomy under the guidance of 'heliocentricity.'

"But the adoption of Darwin's hypothesis of the evolutional way of work is not general: Lamarck's hypothesis is found in some cases to be more applicable. And so it seems that Darwin parallels Coperncicus; save that the latter no only knew not, nor feigned to know, how the planets revolved round the sun.

"For that knowledge were requisite the subsequent labours of a Galileo, a Kepler, a Newton. Analogy raises the cheerful hope, if not condident expectation, that the science of living things will also be helped by its Galileo, its Kepler, finally its Newton; and that the way of operation of the 'secondary law originating species' will be as firmly established as the 'law of gravitation'. Meanwhile our British 'Copernicus of Biology' merits the mainfestation of gratitude and the honour which the Empire confers by a Statue in Westminster Abbey. In the British Museum sculptural memorials have been accorded to meritorious offers;—to Panizzi in relation to the Department of Printed Books; to John Edward Gray, in relation to the Department of Zoology. Whether the estimate of scientists at home or abroad of Charles Darwin's claims to posthumous honour be met, or their expectations fulfilled, by placing a statue in the Museum of Natural History may be a question for 'Administration.'

"Believe me,

   "Faithfully yours,

      "Richard Owen

"Rt. Hon. Spencer Horatio Walpole, M.P.