Gowan Dawson, “On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone”

Abstract

In 1839 Richard Owen inferred the existence of a hitherto unknown giant flightless bird in New Zealand from the evidence of just a small fragment of femur bone. This prediction was spectacularly confirmed three years later with the arrival of a consignment of bones from which Owen was able to reconstruct the entire skeleton of the wingless Moa or, as he named it, Dinornis. This essay explores the scientific and religious implications of Owen’s famous feat of inductive reconstruction, and also examines how it was represented in the Victorian print media.

Richard Owen is today chiefly remembered as one of the most savage and unscrupulous critics of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), of which he wrote an anonymous but identifiably intemperate notice for the Edinburgh Review in 1860.  Owen’s often scathing, though actually quite complex, attitude towards Darwinism has ensured that he has either been entirely written out of those triumphalist narratives of scientific progress predicated on evolution or else cast as the malevolent enemy of everything that is enlightened and secular.  While his sometimes rather spiky personality did not help matters, Owen was actually one of the most prominent scientific figures of the Victorian period.  He was “Britain’s leading biologist of the mid-nineteenth century,” as Nicholaas Rupke has recently claimed (xi).  Owen was feted, in particular, for his accomplishments in the rapidly expanding field of vertebrate paleontology, especially the identification and reconstruction of extinct creatures from fossilized bones and teeth, many of which were brought back by collectors from the furthest reaches of the British Empire.

Owen and Moa skeleton

Richard Owen and a Moa Skeleton

Most notably, in 1839 Owen inferred the existence of a hitherto unknown giant flightless bird in New Zealand from the evidence of just a small fragment of femur bone.  On 18 October, Owen, as Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, received a letter “offer[ing] for Sale a portion or fragment of a Bone” recovered from the “mud of a river that disembogues into one of the Bays in New Zealand” (Pantin 21).   The seller, a retired naval surgeon named John Rule, alluded to a native tradition “that it belonged to a Bird of the Eagle kind,” although Owen saw at once that it had not come from a bird of flight (23).  After initially surmising that the fragment was merely the marrow-bone of an ox (a “tavern delicacy,” as he dismissively called it), Owen compared its surface texture with that of similarly sized bones from various animals in the Hunterian Museum (Memoirs 1.iii).  On the basis of these comparisons, he soon came to a very different conclusion.

On 12 November 1839, Owen announced to the Zoological Society of London:

So far as a judgement can be formed of a single fragment [and] so far as my skill in interpreting an osseous fragment may be credited, I am willing to risk the reputation for it on the statement that there has existed, if there does not now exist, in New Zealand, a Struthious bird nearly, if not quite, equal in size to the Ostrich. (“Exhibition” 170–71)

Owen’s bold conjecture and dramatically avowed risking of his reputation was at first declined by the Zoological Society’s publication committee on the grounds that it was too speculative, and only appeared in their Proceedings early in the following year after Owen agreed that responsibility for the paper rested solely with himself.  Owen’s paper was soon picked up by Richard Taylor’s Annals of Natural History, which had a circulation of around 500, but seems not to have been noted elsewhere in the press, either in scientific publications or more general periodicals.

This was to change three years later when, in January 1843, a missionary stationed in New Zealand sent a consignment of bones to the Oxford home of William Buckland, the University’s leading proponent of Cuvierian paleontology, who in turn passed them on to Owen at the Royal College of Surgeons.  From these bones Owen was able to reconstruct a giant wingless bird that appeared to confirm his earlier inference to a remarkable extent, although actually the Dinornis Novae Zealandiae, as Owen soon named it, was of considerably larger stature than an ostrich.  This seemingly miraculous feat of induction was, as Jacob W. Gruber has observed, “an exciting public relations event in the maturing of the natural sciences,” and it became a popular causes célèbre in the print media of early Victorian Britain (339).  The practitioners of paleontology and comparative anatomy, it appeared, could wield the same predictive powers as mathematicians or astronomers.

Owen accomplished his extraordinary vindication of the power of inductive reasoning through the technique of functional correlation.  This was a method of paleontological reconstruction in which each element of an animal is presumed to correspond mutually with all the others—so that a carnivorous tooth must be accompanied by a particular kind of jawbone, and so on, that facilitates the consumption of flesh—and thus any part, even the mere fragment of a bone, necessarily indicates the configuration of the integrated whole.  This principle, which proposed that animal structures were shaped to their adaptational needs, or in other words that form was determined by function, had been developed in the 1810s by the French anatomist Georges Cuvier, but it had become increasingly central to the English tradition of natural theology maintained by the Oxbridge clique around Buckland, and closely tied to a conservative political agenda.  Natural theology was the influential doctrine that God’s existence and wisdom was disclosed not only through scriptural Revelation but could also be inferred from the evidence of design in the natural world.  It had been articulated at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the Anglican priest William Paley and brought to wider attention in the mid-1830s by the eight Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation commissioned from the leading scientific authorities of the day, including Buckland.  Owen’s startling discovery of the Dinornis, or Moa as it was also known, was now welcomed as a further, and indisputable, affirmation that only providential design could have produced such a perfectly integrated mechanism. Owen himself, however, remained more concerned with the secondary laws by which the deity worked and, as Nicolaas A. Rupke has shown, later adopted an alternative archetypal understanding of vertebrate design.

On 20 January 1843, William John Broderip, who was with Owen when the consignment of bones was first opened, wrote to Buckland:

. . . yesternight we supped upon the mysterious bones.  It is no joke and I look upon this as the greatest zoological discovery of our time. . . . We went over Owen’s paper on the fragment of bone, the work of a man in the dark with the exception of the glimmering that he could collect from that fragment.  Every word comes true to the letter and he had drawn the terminations of the imperfect bone on his copy of the plate, which might have been sketched from the perfect bone which we had before us on the table.  All this not from any guess but from severe philosophical induction.  This is not only another proof of the powers of our great philosophical friend; but it comes well in aid against the sneers . . . lately directed against the followers of Cuvier, and the principle of building up the whole skeleton from a bone (qtd. in Gruber 343–44).

As Broderip noted, the Cuvierian principle on which Owen’s discovery was based had received sustained criticism since its founder’s death in 1832, with his successor at the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, Henri de Blainville, charging that Cuvier’s methods did not afford an a priori knowledge of animal structure at all.  Across the channel, where the success or otherwise of Cuvier’s method had assumed important religious and political implications, Owen’s triumphant prediction could be used to vindicate both the inductive capacity of comparative anatomy and, more significantly, a natural theological understanding of design.

Not everyone was so convinced of Owen’s putative powers.  His paleontological rival Gideon Mantell, who relied on his income as an obstetrician and from his museum of fossils to fund his discoveries, accused Owen of failing to acknowledge that his original attribution of struthious characteristics to the fragment of bone had been based not on comparisons with other skeletal parts but instead on what he had been told by Rule about native traditions concerning extinct giant birds.  With such awkward criticisms being aired by their opponents, Owen and his Oxbridge patrons needed to carefully manage the presentation of his now famous prediction in the print media.  Broderip in particular was a skilled journalist and his emotive and somewhat hyperbolic account in a private letter to Buckland was soon replicated, virtually to the word, in the Penny Cyclopaedia, a cheap digest of rational information published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and later in the more up-market journal, the Quarterly Review.  Both the Penny Cyclopaedia and the Quarterly Review were strictly anonymous, allowing Broderip to present precisely the account of events that he had divulged in his letter to Buckland, with its stress on the absolute accuracy of Owen’s initial prediction because based on divinely appointed and therefore unequivocally perfect laws of organic structure, as if it were neutral and disinterested reportage of the latest findings of modern science.  It is notable that Broderip’s Quarterly article, published in 1852 and in parts actually written with Owen’s direct assistance, succeeded in becoming the standard account of the events surrounding the discovery of the Dinornis for at least the next quarter of a century.

That is not to say, though, that Broderip, or Owen, were entirely successful in restricting the available interpretations of those events, for the ability to reconstruct a larger whole from the evidence of just a small fragmentary part became a structuring metaphor in numerous areas of Victorian experience.  From phrenologists assessing an individual’s character from the localized functions manifested in small bumps, or indolent periodical reviewers who judge a whole book from just its title and first few pages, to archaeologists reconstructing entire ancient civilizations from the evidence of the inscriptions on a single rock, and military spies inferring the internal condition of the secretive Russian empire from the emaciated bodies and empty kitbags of its soldiers during the siege of Sebastopol, Owen and his inference as to the Dinornis’s existence became a persistent and familiar trope of nineteenth-century journalism (and the examples above are taken from the Pall Mall Gazette in 1867, the Nineteenth Century in 1890 and The Times in 1855).

By the late 1860s, and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 notwithstanding, the story of Owen’s famous conjecture and its subsequent confirmation had become so widely disseminated that the Pall Mall Gazette referred to what he had “inferred” as the “proverbial dinornis” (11).  Early in the twentieth century, the educationalist Frederick Westaway recounted how, as a schoolboy during the late 1870s, “There was a legend amongst us that if Owen were given a tiny fragment of bone . . . he would immediately identify it and name, describe and sketch the animal to which it belonged” (739).  The proverbial or legendary status that Owen’s predictive powers often assumed by the end of the nineteenth century, relying on reminiscence and even hazy childhood memories, might have distanced them from notions of strict scientific accuracy.  However, the very conspicuous presence in print culture that Owen’s iconic use of Cuvier’s comparative methods continued to have even into the early twentieth century affords a telling example of what many historians of science, John Hedley Brooke and Richard England most notably, have identified as the continuing resilience of, if not a demonstrative natural theology, then a theology of nature which recognized divine purpose in the natural world, long after it was presumed to have been vanquished by the forces of Darwinism.

Gowan Dawson is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at the University of Leicester.  He is the author of Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and co-author of Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2004).  He is general editor, with Bernard Lightman, of Victorian Science and Literature (8 vols.; Pickering and Chatto, 2011–12), and is currently writing a new book to be entitled Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America.

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Dawson, Gowan. “On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

WORKS CITED

[Broderip, William John].  “Unau.”  Penny Cyclopædia.  27 vols.  London: Charles Knight, 1833–43: 25:501–08.  Print.

[Broderip, William John and Richard Owen].  “Progress of Comparative Anatomy.”  Quarterly Review 90 (1852): 362–413.  Print.

Brooke, John Hedley, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

England, Richard, ed.  Design After Darwin, 1860–1900.  4 vols.  Bristol: Thoemmes, 2003. Print.

“The Fall of Sebastopol.”  The Times 11 Sept.1855: 6.  The Times Digital Archive 1785–1985  Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

Gruber, Jacob W..  “From Myth to Reality: The Case of the Moa.”  Archives of Natural History 14 (1987): 339–52.  Print.

Harrison, Frederic.  “A Pompeii for the Twenty-Ninth Century”.  Nineteenth Century 28 (1890): 381–91.  Print.

“Names of Novels.”  Pall Mall Gazette 11 Sept. 1867: 10.  19th-Century British Library Newspapers.  Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

“On the Bone of an Unknown Struthious Bird of Large Size from New Zealand.  By Richard Owen.”  Annals of Natural History 5 (1840): 166–68.  Print.

Owen, Richard.  “Exhibition of a Bone of an Unknown Struthious Bird from New Zealand.”  Proceedings of the Zoological Society 7 (1840): 169–71.  Print.

—.  Memoirs on the Extinct Wingless Birds of New Zealand.  2 vols.  London: John Van Voorst, 1879.  Print.

Pantin, C. F. A.  Science and Education.  Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1963. Print.

Rupke, Nicolaas.  Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009. Print.

Westaway, Frederick William.  The Endless Quest: Three Thousand Years of Science.  London: Blackie, 1934. Print.