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Richard Owen, William Whewell, and the Vestiges

  • John Hedley Brooke (a1)


In The life of Richard Owen by his grandson there is an inference to the effect that Owen had objected to his name being used to authorize various statements that Whewell was drafting in opposition to the Vestiges. The inference is drawn from letters that Whewell wrote to Owen on 13 and 15 February 1845. Corroboration of this would corne from a letter of Owen to Whewell, dated 14 February 1845, if extant. Among the Whewell papers at Trinity College, Cambridge, there are several letters from Owen to Whewell, none of which bears that date. There is one, however, dated 14 February 1844 which, on doser inspection, turns out to be the missing link in their correspondance. The evidence for the misdating is not merely that the letter falls naturally into a later sequence. The conclusion is inescapable because Owen refers to an ‘opinion which I have always entertained, and still do strongly, on the subject of a refutation of “Vestiges”’. Since the first edition of Chambers's book did not appear until October 1844, the letter must belong to the following year. My object in this paper is to examine the implications of this letter for a reconstruction of Owen's attitude to that book which Adam Sedgwick could so detest for, among many things, its ‘gross (and I dare to say, filthy) views of physiology’.



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For permission to publish the Owen letters I am grateful to the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. It is a great pleasure to acknowledge the generous assistance both of Dr Michael Bartholomew, who has offered valuable advice at more than one stage in the preparation of this paper, and of Dr Jonathan Hodge, who kindly supplied the lead to Owen's declaration in the Manchester spectator. For the opportunity to study the Whewell papers, I am indebted to the Librarian and library staff of Trinity College, and to the Master and Fellows of Fitzwilliam College who granted a Visiting Fellowship for the Michaelmas Term, 1975.

1 Owen, Revd Richard, The life of Richard Owen by his grandson (2 vols., London, 1894), i. 253.

2 [Chambers, Robert], Vestiges of the natural history of creation (London, 1844). This popular work was published with a much celebrated anonymity. See also Millhauser, M., Just before Darwin (Middletown, Conn., 1959).

3 Trinity College, Add. MS. a21069.

5 Sedgwick, to Napier, Macvey, 10 04 1845, in Napier, Macvey, son (ed.), Selection from the correspondance of the late Macvey Napier (London, 1879), p. 491.

6 See Hodge, M. J. S., ‘The universal gestation of nature: Chambers' Vestiges and Explanations’, Journal of the history of biology, v (1972), 127–51, especially pp. 133–4.

7 Owen, , op. cit. (1), p. 255.

8 The closest to a challenge that I have found occurs in a brief footnote in Millhauser, , op. cit. (2), note 8, p. 202: ‘Owen felt that the parts ofthe book he was most competent to judge were substantially correct. Later, there was some talk about his being secretly sympathetic with Vestiges; however, in a private letter to the author, he indicated detailed technical reasons for his dissent from the transmutation hypothesis.’ Since writing this paper I have discovered that Michael Ruse has referred to an unpublished letter from Owen to Whewell as ‘pretty hard on Vestiges, in contrast to the friendly letter Owen wrote to Chambers’; see Ruse, M., ‘The relationship between science and religion in Britain, 1830–1870’, Church history, xliv (1975), 505–22 (516).

9 Owen, , op. cit. (1), pp. 249–52 and 255.

10 Ibid., p. 249.

11 Ibid., pp. 249–50.

12 Ibid., p. 250.

13 Ibid., pp. 250–1.

14 Ibid., p. 251.

15 Ibid., pp. 255–6.

16 Ibid, p. 248.

17 This is not the place to offer a systematic analysis of Owen's pronouncements on the transmutation question. The following extract from his Fullerian Lectures for 1859 gives a fair impression of his emphasis before Darwin's Origin of species had appeared:

As to the successions, or coming in, of new species, one might speculate on the gradual modifiability of the individual; on the tendency of certain varieties to survive local changes, and thus progressively diverge from an older type; on the production and fertility of monstrous offspring; on the possibility, for example of a variety of auk being occasionally hatched with a somewhat longer winglet, and a dwarfed stature; on the probability of such a variety better adapting itself to the changing climate or other conditions than the old type … but to what purpose? Past experience of the chance aims of human fancy, unchecked and unguided by observed facts, shows how widely they have ever glanced away from the gold centre of truth. (Owen, R., ‘On the extinction of species’, Appendix A to his On the classification and geographical distribution of the mammalia [London, 1859], p. 58.)

Owen frequently suggested that such evidence as there might be for the production of new species by secondary causes could never be compared in kind with that which endorsed the archetypal idea on which a large series of animais had been constructed. For a sensitive account of Owen's priorities and emphases, see Rudwick, M. J. S., The meaning of fossils (London, 1972), pp. 207–14.

18 It was, of course, the dogmatism ofthe Vestiges that most vexed Sedgwick:

The work finds much favour in London, and is now in a fourth edition! Why? Because of the shallowness of the fashionable reading world, and because of the intense dog-matic form of the work itself. He who asserts boldly and without doubt, will be sure of a school of followers. This is true of religions sects from Mahometans to Newmanites, and it is equally true of philosophic schools. I believe the author is a woman … (Sedgwick, to Napier, , 17 04 1845, in Napier, , op. cit. [5], p. 493.)

19 Owen, R., On the nature of limbs (London, 1849), pp. 3940 and 82–6. MacLeod, R. M., ‘Evolutionism and Richard Owen, 1830–1868’, Isis, lvi (1965), 259–80, especially pp. 264–70.

20 There is (admittedly inconclusive) evidence that about the time Owen was writing to Whewell he believed that the author was probably the politician, metaphysician, and geologist, Sir Richard Vyvyan. The following passage occurs in Bunbury, F. J. (ed.), Life, letters and journals of Sir Charles J. F. Bunbury, Bart. (3 vols., London 1894), i. 292:

A good deal of talk about the ‘Vestiges of Creation’, which I perceive is now one pf the most common topics of conversation. Owen agrees with the common opinion in believing Sir Richard Vyvyan to be the author, though he does not regard it as certain. For this reference I am indebted to Dr Jonathan Hodge.

21 Owen, , op. cit. (1), p. 249. The italics are mine.

22 Ibid. The italics are mine.

23 Ibid., pp. 249–50. The italics are mine.

24 Ibid., p. 250.

25 Chambers, , op. cit. (2); reprint of the first edition (Leicester, 1969), p. 185.

26 Ibid., p. 186.

27 Owen, , op. cit. (1), p. 250.

29 Ibid., p. 251.

30 Ibid. The italics are mine.

32 Ibid., p. 252.

33 Chambers, , op. cit. (25), p. 212.

34 Ibid., p. 213.

35 Hodge, , op. cit. (6), pp. 142–4.

36 Owen, R., Lectures on the comparative anatomy and physiology of the invertebrate animals (London, 1843), p. 147.

37 Ibid., p. 249

38 Owen, to Whewell, , 3 02 1845, Trinity College, Add. MS. a 21070.

39 Hodge, , op. cit. (6), p. 144.

40 Owen, to Whewell, , 3 02 1845, op cit. (38).

41 Owen, , op. cit. (1), p. 251.

42 Owen, to Whewell, , 14 02 1844 [5], Trinity College, Add. MS. a 21069.

45 Owen, to Whewell, , 3 02 1845, op. cit. (38).

46 Ibid. The emphasis is Owen's. Dr Michael Bartholomew has evidence that, by a similar sleight of hand, the Revd Owen has given us a misleading account of a correspondence between Owen and Lyell. The account in the Life implies that Lyell rather approved of a review by Owen; whereas, in fact, he was highly critical and wrote ten closely packed pages of argument. As Dr Bartholomew observes, this further proof of the unreliability of Owen's Life raises the question whether the letter to the author of Vestiges might have passed through the editorial mangle. I have not succeeded in tracing the original, but it would certainly be useful if it could be brought to light.

47 Millhauser, , op. cit. (2), p. 120.

48 Whewell, to Forbes, J. D., 04 1845, Trinity College, O. 15. 4759.

49 Whewell, W., Indications of the Creator (London, 1846), Preface, p. 21.

50 Whewell, to Owen, , 13 02 1845; cited in Owen, , op. cit. (1), p. 253.

51 This was Whewell's reaction to Brewster's passionate review of his History of the inductive sciences:

Nothing short of the most blind and bigoted prejudice could have led [the author of the review] to speak of the University of Cambridge, at the present day, as ‘the cloisters of antiquated institutions, through whose iron bars the light of knowledge and liberty has not been able to penetrate’. This wretched rant is the echo of a slavish tradition, handed down from the brighter and prouder days of the Edinburgh Review. (Whewell to the editor of the Edinburgh Review, 28 October 1837, Trinity College, 289 c 80 8414.)

For an introduction to some of the issues which divided Whewell and Brewster, sec Davie, G., The democratic intellect (Edinburgh, 1961), and Christie, J. R. R., ‘The rise and fall of Scottish science’, in Crosland, M. P. (ed.), The emergence of science in Western Europe (London, 1975), pp. 111–26.

52 Brewster, David, ‘Notice of Whewell's Bridgewater treatise’, Edinburgh review, lviii (1834), 422–57; ‘Whewell's History of the inductive sciences’, ibid., lxvi (1837), 110–51; ‘Whewell's Philosophy of the inductive sciences’, ibid., lxxiv (1842), 265–306.

53 Napier, to Whewell, , 8 02 1845, Trinity College, Add. MS. a 21010.

54 Ibid. The emphasis is Napier's.

55 Owen, to Whewell, , 22 02 1845, Trinity College, Add. MS. a 21088.

56 After having initially declined the invitation, Sedgwick wrote to Napier on 10 April 1845, regretting his ‘want of moral courage’ and so deprecating the shallow and mischievous metaphysics of the supposed authoress as to invite a renewal of the invitation; see Napier, , op. cit. (5), pp. 490–2. Never having written an article for a Review before, Sedgwick threw himself into an 85-page critique that was enough to make men blush, that ‘monster paper of Sedgwick's, from which so much was expected’; see Jeffrey, Lord to Napier, , 8 10 1845, ibid., p. 506. For a brief summary of Sedgwick's attack and a suggestion as to how it may have been perceived by Darwin, see Egerton, F. N., ‘Refutation and conjecture: Darwin's response to Sedgwick's attack on Chambers’, Studies in history and philosophy of science, i (1970), 176–83.

57 Whewell, to Sedgwick, , 09 1849, Trinity College, O. 15. 4869.

Richard Owen, William Whewell, and the Vestiges

  • John Hedley Brooke (a1)


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