How do we know it was Owen?

Richard Owen
That might well be an excavated femur, Prof. Owen, but you stand here accused of skul-duggery.

I received a very interesting query from a student earlier this week: “I was wondering if you had a source that verifies that Owen wrote the anonymous Edinburgh Review article.”

I assumed that a quick flick through the references in a couple of my many Darwin books would soon resolve that one, but not so: that Richard Owen was the author of the scathing review of On the Origin of Species was simply stated as fact in every book I checked. Charles Darwin was certainly in no doubt whatsoever that Owen was behind the review and wrote Owen's name on the front of his personal copy. But was there a quotable source for this attribution, rather than informed supposition?

I eventually managed to track one down. In a letter to Darwin shortly after the event, Joseph Dalton Hooker wrote:

Bell told me yesterday that Owen avows the Review, I can hardly believe it.

Thomas Bell was president of the Linnean Society. His word reported via Hooker is good enough for me. Guilty as charged, Prof. Owen. (Although, in fairness to Owen, all reviews in the Edinburgh Review were anonymous.)

If anyone knows of a document in which Owen admits to being the author of the review first-hand, I'd be interested to hear about it.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…


  1. Hello - Well, it was me who asked the question last year and after a year of research on Richard Owen, I think I may have found the only "smoking gun." The most compelling evidence that Owen wrote the review is that Owen uses a very similar turn of phrase, “common mistake of confounding the propositions, of species being the result of a continuously operating secondary cause, and the mode of operation of such creative cause,” in his 1860 work "Paleontology", as the reviewer does when accusing Darwin of “the fundamental mistake…of confounding the questions, of species being the result of a secondary cause or law, and of the nature of the that creative law.".
    Not a confession, but this might be as close as it gets, considering this is a pretty dusty old topic!

  2. Thanks, Rececca, very interesting.

    Of course, an alternative explanation for the similar wording might be that Owen was plagiarising the anonymous review author (or vice versa, depending on publication date). But somehow I doubt it. Occam's Razor, and all that!

  3. Hello,

    I'm a student at a higher institude of education in Denmark, and I'm doing a paper om Charles Darwin. I came across your website while browsing for info on Owen. I have a very good book on Darwin called "Som at tilstå et mord" (like admitting to a murder) written by Hanne Strager.
    Here it it stated that even though the review was anonymous, everyone was sure it was written by Owen. The reason for this is the fact that the review includes many references to "Englands ever so talented anatomist Richard Owen".
    At least this is what the book says (loosely translated). It's very new, published this year, and Strager is a cand.scient in biology. So the argument she gives is that the referencres to himself proves that he wrote it.

    Just thought I would let you know 🙂

    - Sophie

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