Richard Owen was an intelligent and much maligned 19th century comparative anatomist. It would be fair to say he was completely brilliant — his knowledge of anatomy was encyclopedic, he contributed many concepts to our scientific vocabulary, and he was widely respected and honored. Unfortunately, all people remember him for now is that he was Charles Darwin’s ‘enemy’, that he opposed evolution, and that he was ‘utterly destroyed’ by TH Huxley in debates.
Which are all wrong. He actually favored a historical explanation for similarities between species — he just was dubious about Darwin’s explanation, and had a battery of alternative explanations, including some Lamarckian modes of use/disuse. Ironically, everyone seems to have forgotten that when Darwin got around to postulating a model of inheritance for evolution, he basically proposed the same mechanisms of transformation that Owen was promoting. As for getting crushed in debates…I suggest that the Internet hype machine that makes every argument a resounding victory for one side or the other has a historical precedent.
The hit on Owen’s reputation is largely built on two truths–he was very political (and good at it), and he was disturbed by the idea that one preconception, that humans were the pinnacle of creation, was damaged by Darwinian theory. Of course, Darwin was also troubled by that…why else did it take him decades to publish? But the dethroning of humankind and the rejection of the scala natural was the central iconoclasm of Darwinism. Owen’s ideas were actually very close to those of Darwin, and as is usual, it’s the small differences that inflame the most ferocious antipathy.
And the thing is, the idea that humans aren’t the greatest, that the whole purpose of evolution was not to produce us, is still a major source of…I’ll charitably call it discomfort, but in many cases it is more like wild-eyed frantic loonyness.
I didn’t come from no monkey is a comment that denigrates the rest of nature in an attempt to make their own self more “special”.
This overly long introduction is to point out that creationists still make this argument. One ignorant modern loudmouth is Michael Egnor, who just made a series of posts on the Discovery Institute propaganda site trying to argue that humans are the most specialest beings in all of creation because–well, you’re not expecting a rational argument from this guy, are you? — cats are stupid, and Aristotle.
Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with the Egnorance because Jeffrey Shallit already has. Twice, even, because Egnor can never get an idea out of his head once it’s in there. Ethnologists will tell you that many animals are capable of abstract thought, but Egnor just can’t grasp the facts.
Michael Egnor is no Richard Owen. When Owen was shown that other apes also had a hippocampus minor, the feature he battened on as showing a unique difference between humans and gorillas, he was able to accept it. Egnor is going to go through his entire life thinking of other animals as mindless machines, which will be his loss.