Wednesday 26 March 2014


Richard Owen: Cryptozoology's Accidental Grandfather

The standard history of cryptozoology argues that the modern field began with the work of Ivan Sanderson and Bernard Heuvelmans. These two authors rightly deserve credit for beginning the field of cryptozoology: giving it a philosophy and a name. What is often overlooked in histories is that Sanderson and Heuvelmans were able to create the field because a vacuum appeared in the realm of monster studies that they could, consciously or not, step into. Had that vacuum not occurred, cryptozoology would likely never have been created. If mainstream science had continued with its historically hearty embrace of monster studies there would have been no need to create a new field. Cryptozoology took its amateur centered form because professional mainstream science abandoned monster studies and left it without an operative community.
The history of scholarly engagement with both human and animal monsters goes back to antiquity. Monster studies occupied a respected and rational place in intellectual circles. Aristotle, Pliny, Lucretius and others discussed them. Medieval authors copied, recopied and extended the works of the early authors and kept interest in monsters alive.  The Early Modern period saw authors such as Konrad Gesner, Ullisse Aldrovandi, Amboise Pare, Linnaeus and others write extensive and popular texts on the anatomy and biology of monstrous creatures as they attempted to place them in some rational spot in the overall story of biological diversity.

With the creation of the modern world of professional science—those individuals with some type of formal training in a scientific field which they do for an employer such as a university, government office, corporation or other for pay—the world of science began to change. This occurred over a period of decades beginning in the mid-nineteenth century so that, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, an increasing number on individuals who fit this description had grown so much that the power and influence of the remaining amateurs went into decline.

In the 21st century, with a few notable exceptions, mainstream science practitioners have been loath to go public with the interest they have in monsters fearing damage to their hard won careers and reputations. When and why did this turnaround occur? The trend wherein mainstream science left the field of monster studies began in the mid-nineteenth century. A major proponent of the anti-monster mindset was the Victorian naturalist Richard Owen. His work explaining sea-monsters (what today would be called debunking) represented the high water mark of mainstream science’s engagement with monstrous creatures.
I argue for Owen being the accidental grandfather of cryptozoology for two reasons. First, he had great influence in his day upon how science, particularly biology and what had been called Natural History, was perceived by the public. Secondly, because his enthusiastic engagement with sea-monsters and sea-serpents led to a general disillusionment with monster studies on the part of mainstream science. This led to the appearance of a vacuum that held for some decades until the 1950s when Sanderson and Heuvelmans began their work.

Richard Owen (1804-1892), originally studied medicine, but soon transferred his enthusiasm to natural history.  He did extensive work cataloging existing collections of biological and fossil organisms which gave him great insight into comparative anatomy.  He rose in position and influence to superintendent of the natural history collection of the British Museum and then spearheaded the effort to make that collection its own museum.  As his political connections grew, he became the tutor to the children of Queen Victoria.  He coined the term Dinosauria to describe the large terrestrial fossil vertebrates then just being unearthed in the English countryside.[1]
Due to his public profile and political connections, Owen was sent materials on sea-monster encounters from civilians and the government.  He kept track of these and collected original letters and newspaper items for study.[2]  His notes help explain how not only Owen but British science in general began the drift away from belief in monsters as a reality. Personally fascinated by the notion of sea-monsters, Owen determined to either prove them real or imaginary once and for all. He was perfectly ready to accept that they existed (there were plenty of monstrous creatures known from the fossil past), but he was stymied by the lack of any physical evidence. He had, for example, studied the Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs brought to light by the fossil huntress Mary Anning (1799-1847). Some of these species grew to enormous proportions, but their remains were impressive, plentiful, and beyond despute whereas modern monsters had only vague reports. As a scientist Owen balked at accepting eyewitness accounts alone or at face value.
The seminal sea-serpent incident of the period came with the much publicized encounter by the British warship HMS Daedalus. On her way to St. Helena in 1848 the Daedalus encountered a large snake-like creature near the Cape of Good Hope.  Word of the sighting became public with the ship’s captain interviewed by The Times. The sighting created a stir as the trustworthiness of a British sea captain was beyond reproach. Owen investigated and immediately had his doubts. He wrote to The Times, who printed his letter, saying despite the quality of the observers, their story did not make sense: they must have seen something else and mistaken it for a monster. Excitement over the Daedalus sighting reached the highest levels of the Royal Family, the Price Consort, his interest piqued, asked Owen what he thought the crew had seen.  The naturalist replied that he thought it likely a misidentification of a large sea lion or seal.  A bit disappointed, the Prince humorously dubbed Owen the “sea-serpent killer.”[3]

The story gained Charles Darwin’s interest as well as he had read the various articles in the press.  Like Owen, Darwin did not believe sea-serpents genuine creatures.  His sea voyaging on the Beagle gave him a certain familiarity with ocean life.  Though he had seen many unusual and fascinating sea creatures, he never saw anything remotely like sea monsters described in the media.  After reading Captain M’Quhae’s report, Darwin wrote to Owen that “I never heard anything so astounding as the log-book of your H.M.S. Diddleus” [sic].[4]

[1] Richard Owen. The Life of Richard Owen (London: John Murray, 1894):334.
[2] Charles Darwin to Richard Owen. February 24, 1849, Darwin Correspondence (letter #1228).

[3] The standard biography of Owen is Nicolaas A. Rupke, Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist (Yale University Press, 1994).
[4] Richard Owen. “Notebook: Collection of Newspaper Cuttings Relating to the Alleged Appearance of the ‘Sea-Serpent,” OC36, Owen Papers, library, Natural History Museum.  From here known as Owen notebook.

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Others questioned Owen’s analysis of the Daedalus creature.  The physician naturalist Charles Cogswell wrote in the journal Zoologist that “It grows more and more necessary every day to acknowledge the existence [his emphasis] of a vast form of marine animal bearing some resemblance to a serpent.”[1]  Cogswell supported the Captain’s veracity as a man of honor who would not lie or confabulate.  He questioned Owen’s seemingly off the cuff dismissal of the creature as a sea lion.  “Owen,” he said, “would determine its true affinities in a moment,” rather than after careful consideration and investigation.[2]
Sightings continued of odd sea beasts.  In February, 1849, on the heels of the Daedalus affair, Owen was shown the remains of another ‘monster,’ this one acquired by the Duke of Northumberland.  After examining it Owen declared it an example of the rare Ribbon Fish and not an unknown species.  In 1857 the British merchant ship Castilan reported observing a sea-serpent off St. Helens Island in the South Atlantic.  Owen rejected the sighting as a misidentification.  An irate correspondent to the Cape Argus insisted that “the marine monster does exist, in the face of the deliberately recorded opinion of the greatest living zoologist Professor Owen.”[3]  The captain of the Castilan, George Henry Harrington, wanted to meet Owen to convince him of the veracity of the event.  An encounter with a sea monster near Bermuda in 1860 resulted in the supposed capture of the creature, or at least parts of it.  “Three separate spines of this fish were sent over to the Board of Trade, and thence to Professor Owen.”[4]  In an 1877 newspaper article “The Sea-serpent Again” the anonymous author said “there is not the slightest doubt that there are monsters in the sea of various kinds yet unknown to man.”[5]  Owen scribbled in the margins “what proof of their monstrosity?”[6]
Owen biographer Nicolaas Rupke argues that Owen rejected the existence of sea-serpents as part of his wider plan to situate the physical evidence found in museums as centers of scientific authority.  It had become common practice with sea-serpent sightings to hurriedly collect written eyewitness reports of the events preferably before a local magistrate, lawyer or other official government representative.  Owen argued extraordinary events could not be accepted as genuine based upon eyewitness accounts alone. Such claims, however, were thought an acceptable way of proving the veracity of a creature’s existence by many.  Reputable witnesses backed up by the imprimatur of law could not possibly be challenged.  Owen felt this profoundly objectionable.  He generally dismissed such ‘evidence’ in favor of physical remains, little of which was forthcoming.  In 1818 the Gloucester Monster seen off the coast of Massachusetts had been established in the eyes of some naturalists by legal documents rather than physical evidence.  Naturalists in America and England accepted the creature based upon this alone.[7] 

[1] Charles Cogswell, “The Great Sea-Serpent,” Zoologist 6 (1848):2316-2323.
[2] IBID., 2320.
[3] Cape Argus 1:21 (March 14, 1857).
[4] “The Great Sea Snake,” Land and Water (September 21, 1872):191.
[5] ‘The Sea-serpent Again,” Standard (September 18, 1877).
[6] Owen Notebook.
[7] For the New England sea monster see; J. P. O’neill. The Great New England Sea-serpent (Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 1999), and Chandos Michael Brown. “A Natural History of the Gloucester Sea-serpent: Knowledge, Power, and the Culture of Science in antebellum America,” American Quarterly 42:3 (September 1990):402-436.

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Supporters of the existence of sea-serpents took this approach, but Owen wanted physical evidence confirmed by a museum based authority not the rival expertise of jurisprudence.
Another monster sighting, this time by HMS Osbourne  came to Richard Owen who was sent material not long after the sighting occurred in June of 1877.  Increasingly dubious of the notion of sea-serpents as traditional unknown monsters, Owen looked at the material with a skeptical eye.  Admiral Sir George Augustus Elliot (1813-1901), the commander-in-chief of Portsmouth (where the Osbourne was stationed) sent Owen copies of the statements made by the Osbourne’s commander, H. L. Pearson, and several officers about the “unknown monster” they saw.  Studying the letters, Owen wrote in the margins that “the object or phenomena may have been unknown to the observers,” but they “were not necessarily caused by a ‘monster.’”  Owen’s interpretation of the creature was that the crew saw a cetacean.  The descriptions, despite being given by reputable officers were “of no value to this naturalist.”  On another sighting in which witnesses said they saw a sea-monster attacking a whale Owen admitted that “my skepticism on negative grounds received a severe blow after the positive statements ex visu. . .before the Liverpool magistrate by the respectable captain and certain of the crew.”  He was impressed by the veracity of the description, the trustworthiness of the witnesses, and that a court official placed an imprimatur on it, but that was simply not enough.  The details sounded familiar, however.  Owen argued that what had been seen was a rare sighting of a pair of whales engaged in an amorous encounter.  To this end he drew in his notebook several small cartoons—he labeled whale coitus—of a pair of mating whales; their flippers entwined one below the other.[1]  This unusual sight was what the observers saw.  Not a titanic battle between whale and monster, but cetacean procreation.[2]  Taking to his notebook again, Owen asked about skeletal remains from the thousands of dead sea-serpents which must have accumulated over the years.
“And what to me is strangest of all, knowing that 300 or more joints may have formed the long backbone of each of the thousands of deceased individual [sea monsters] not a single vertebra has been sent for my inspection from any shore: nor can I hear of any such specimen having been forwarded to any museum. . .”[3]
By the 1870s Owen had fallen out of favor with the younger generations of naturalists—especially those who had come over to the Darwinist side—but his views on sea-monsters struck a chord and belief in the creatures by the mainstream dried up. Along with Owen’s public rejection of sea-monsters the lack of any credible physical evidence for their existence also put scientists off the subject. With nothing to study biologists, zoologists, and other naturalists reluctantly gave monsters over to historians, folklorists, and tabloid journalists. With the exception of the work done by A.C. Oudemans in 1899 no scientific studies of monsters were done until the latter 20th century (and Oudemans was largely ignored by the mainstream).

[1] In 2005 marine biologist C. G. M. Paxton and his associates reassessed the Hans Egede sighting and concluded that oft referred to event was also a case of misidentifying a whale, possibly involved in some sexual congress.  See C. G. M. Paxton, E. Knatterud and S. L. Hedley. “Cetaceans, Sex and Sea Serpents: an analysis of the Egede accounts of a “most dreadful monster” seen off the coast of Greenland in 1734,” Archives of Natural History 32:1 (2005):1-9.
[2] Owen Notebook.
[3] Ibid.

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The vacuum left by the departure of mainstream science from monster studies remained until the 1940s and 50s when Sanderson and Heuvelmas stepped in and created a new field. This they did in part from frustration over the abandonment of monster studies by the mainstream.  Had biology not left the field cryptozoology would not have come into being. At the least monster studies would have taken on a different form. So, when we think of the origins of cryptozoology, don’t forget its accidental grandfather, Richard Owen.

Brian Regal teaches the history of science, technology and medicine at Kean University in New Jersey. His latest book is Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology now out in paperback.

'Daedalus' Sea-Serpent

1 comment:

  1. Clean, precise, invigorating read. I'd say your best work yet. (You know how picky I am about these things). Bravo.