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Richard Owen and Charles Darwin on Race: A Study in Contrasts

Michael Flannery
Photo: Richard Owen (left); beside him is the skeleton of a giant moa, by John van Voorst [Public domain].

Richard Owen (1804-1892) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) were archrivals. Although Owen has been falsely associated with the special creationists, he never really opposed some form of transmutation. In fact, Giovanni Camardi has convincingly argued that Owen came to a concept of evolution based upon a theory of divergent development drawn from the explorer/naturalist and embryologist Karl Ernst von Bear (1792-1867). But his was a structuralist evolution based upon what Nicolaas A. Rupke has called a “transcendental morphology” while Darwin’s functionalist evolution was reductionist and materialistic. Moreover, as Michael Denton has pointed out in his book Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis, the seemingly non-adaptive forms outlined in Owen’s pathbreaking On the Nature of Limbs (first published in 1849 and available in a modern edition) “pose an existential threat to the whole Darwinian and functionalist paradigm, because they imply that causal factors other than cumulative selection to serve functional ends must have played a crucial role in shaping living systems” (p. 12). You can read more about it here. 

But I’m interested in contrasts of more immediate human interest: their respective views on race. Despite Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s effort to turn Darwin into an egalitarian crusader with their Darwin’s Sacred Cause, even they admit in the end that with Darwin “racial genocide was now normalized by natural selection and rationalized as nature’s way of producing ‘superior’ races. Darwin had ended up calibrating human ‘rank’ no differently from the rest of society” (p. 318). Darwin’s sacred cause wasn’t all that “sacred” after all (see my review here).  

Cranial Capacity and Racial Rank

Darwin was unquestionably a racist. In his Descent of Man (1871) he cited the craniotomists Paul Broca (1824-1880) and Joseph Barnard Davis (1801-1881) approvingly. For them (and apparently for Darwin too), cranial capacity was a mark of racial rank; craniometrics prided itself on constructing “scientific” racial hierarchies. Writing to William Graham (1839-1911) on July 3, 1881, Darwin saw the march of human progress in blatantly racist terms. Civilization would advance even at the cost of inevitable racial extermination:

Lastly I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilisation than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risks the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is. The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world. 

How different was Owen’s view. Owen attacked Robert Chambers’s argument in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) on the emergence man from beast, a position largely reiterated by Darwin just twenty-seven years later only now armed with the alleged “power” of natural selection. According to Owen, “There were,” explains John Hedley Brooke, “. . .  insecure grounds on which one might posit the emergence of the Ethiopian race from the chimpanzee, the Malayan race from the orang; but insecure they remained. His conclusion on this point was unambiguous and devastating: ‘many particulars in the anatomy of both black and red orangs are decisive against such a hypothesis in the present state of physiological knowledge’. The concomitant remark that he had himself investigated ‘the physiological possibility of the development of the Hottentot from the chimpanzee . . . was calculated to point up that negative conclusion.”  In short, science did not support Chambers’s conclusions.

A Scathing Reply

Owen’s scathing reply to Chambers holds equally true for Darwin’s bulldog defender, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895). At the close of the American Civil War, Huxley held out little hope for the newly freed slaves. Writing in the April 20, 1865 issue of The Reader, less than two weeks after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Huxley gave his racialized eulogy to the Confederate cause:

The question is settled; but even those who are most thoroughly convinced that the doom is just, must see good grounds for repudiating half the arguments which have been employed by the winning side; and for doubting whether its ultimate results will embody the hopes of the victors, though they may more than realize the fears of the vanquished. It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man. And, if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to complete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites.

A Debate Owen Should Have Won

Owen engaged Huxley in a longstanding debate over the nature of the alleged simian/human connection, a debate that in hindsight Owen should have won. Huxley’s openly racist formulations were answered by Owen, who pointed out that the large brains of humans compared to apes made Homo sapiens not an example of evolutionary continuity but instead truly unique and distinct. In stark contrast to Huxley’s pessimistic prospect for African Americans, Owen demonstrated that such racist asseverations had nothing to recommend them. Christopher Cosans has shown in Owen’s Ape and Darwin’s Bulldog how Owen’s careful selection of anatomical data from black races “indicated that those individuals were extremely different from orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas. Hence when Owen drew his general conclusion that humans are distinct from apes by comparing blacks with apes, he also presented an unspoken secondary conclusion that anatomical inspection refutes those people [like Huxley] who assert that blacks are an ape-like variety of humans” (pp. 51-52).

Darwin and Huxley’s naturalistic reductionism, as witnessed in their ill-considered persistent attempts to derive animal continuities with humans, exposes their unsightly racism. It will do no good to say they were just “a product of their time.” Richard Owen told them how wrong they were from the beginning, a historic clash of “metaphysical attitudes” worth pondering at the next Darwin Day celebration.