Today, a great naturalist vanishes into Darwin's
shadow. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Stephen Jay Gould shows us
two articles in the 1838 Transactions of the
Geological Society of London. The first, by
Charles Darwin, is about earthworms. But it also
hints at his future work on evolution. The next
article is by Richard Owen. It's about a crazy kink
in the tail of ichthyosaurus skeletons.
Owen was five years older than Darwin. In 1838
he was a far more famous naturalist. In fact, young
Darwin sought Owen out as a colleague. They worked
together when they were young. Yet history buries
Owen and exalts Darwin. And therein lies our tale.
In 1838 Darwin was just laying ground for his
theory of evolution, and Owen was studying the
ichthyosaurus. Young Mary Anning had dug the first
whole ichthyosaurus skeleton out of the cliffs of
Lyme Regis a few years earlier. The fact that its
long tail abruptly bent downward had seemed
By 1838 Owen had seen more ichthyosaurus tails.
They all had that funny kink, and he set out to
explain it. His insight was uncanny. His conclusion
was right. Only his reasoning was off.
He argued that the tail must once have ended in a
great vertical fin. The evolutionary processes that
formed this beast, with its reptilian backbone, had
also given it a fishlike tail. This was a reptile
that swam like a fish. You see, Owen figured each
time an ichthyosaurus died, that tail fin bloated
with the gases of organic decay, and bloating
fractured the vertebrae.
Years later, in 1890, new ichthyosaurus specimens
turned up near Stuttgart. This time, the stone
surrounding the bones was discolored by the
original flesh. And there you could see the tail
fin just as Owen had predicted. But you could also
see that the backbone actually turned downward to
follow the lower contour of the fin and to support
it. The bones never had been broken.
A biologist recently CAT-scanned those bones, still
bedded in rock. Sure enough, vertebrae in the bend
are wedge-shaped -- fully evolved to negotiate the
downward turn. Owen had been right about the fin.
He just hadn't realized quite how efficiently
ichthyosaurus had evolved to be both reptile and
Owen was brilliant and difficult. He was harsh in
judging other naturalists. And as Darwin grew, Owen
became a casualty of the 19th-century evolution wars. He
accepted Darwinian evolution, and much of his work
supported it. But he could not accept the mechanism
of natural selection. And he bridled at Darwin's
success. In the end, Darwin's followers simply
It's ironic! Owen's life's work filled in the
details of Darwin's new theory, bone by bone and
species by species. At the same time those labors
simply hastened his own extinction.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gould, S. J., Eight Little Piggies: Reflections
in Natural History, New York: W.W. Norton
& Co., 1993. (See especially Chapter 5, Bent Out
Rupke, N.A., Richard Owen: Victorian
Naturalist. New Haven: Yale University
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
and Dictionary of National Biography
entries on Owen as well as other writings on Owen
by both Gould and Rupke. Engines Episode 863 is about Mary Anning's
discovery of the first ichthyosaurus skeleton.
For more on Owen and Darwinism, see Episode 1371.
The statue of Richard Owen (above) is in the great
hall of the London Natural History Museum. (Photo
by John Lienhard)