Archetype or Ancestor? Sir Richard Owen and the Case for Design

Archetype or Ancestor? Sir Richard Owen and the Case for Design

Geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975) once wrote that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”1

When biologists consider: (1) the diversity and geographical distribution of life on Earth; (2) the fossil record; and 3) properties such as homology, which refers to shared anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic features possessed by organisms that group together, the only coherent model that accounts for these features—they claim—is biological evolution.

Yet, sixteen years before Darwin published his seminal work, The Origin of Species, biologist Sir Richard Owen delivered a discourse during the evening of February 9, 1849, at the meeting of the Royal Institution of Great Britain entitled On the Nature of Limbs. This presentation stands as a classic analysis of the shared features of
vertebrate limbs. In this study (and elsewhere), Owen proposed an interpretation of homologous features that did not rely on the notion of common ancestry. Instead Owen explained shared anatomical features using the idea of an archetype (original pattern or model).2

The theoretical framework presented in Owen’s work On the Nature of Limbs demonstrates that it is possible to understand features like homology apart from the evolutionary paradigm. Owen’s ideas have far-reaching implications as they provide the historical context for a contemporary design/creation model that strives to account for anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities among organisms often touted as the most compelling evidence for common ancestry.


Sir Richard Owen

In his heyday, Owen’s name was often spoken in the same breath as Isaac Newton’s. Owen was Britain’s foremost naturalist. Yet, today few are aware of him. In large part, his anonymity results from his fierce opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution and to the maligning influence of Darwin’s followers who sought to marginalize his scientific contributions and ideas.3


After completing his medical education in 1825 at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Owen took a post at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Part of his work there involved preparing a series of catalogues for the Hunterian Collections. Through this work he developed extensive knowledge of comparative anatomy and decided to pursue a scientific, rather than a medical, career. After attaining the position of museum curator in the Royal College of Surgeons, a post he held for seven years, Owen moved to the British Museum. It was there that he developed the plans for a museum devoted exclusively to natural history. As a result, the British Museum of Natural History (now known as the Natural History Museum of London) was built in 1881 in South Kensington, London.

Owen’s scientific accomplishments are legion. In addition to his pioneering work establishing museums as institutions for research and public education, he made key contributions in comparative anatomy and paleontology. Owen brought clarity to the concepts of homology and analogy. And he used his knowledge of comparative anatomy to describe and interpret a large number of invertebrate and vertebrate fossils. As part of this work, he coined the term “dinosaur” and played a key role in interpreting the fossil bird, Archaeopteryx.

The Vertebrate Archetype

One of Owen’s most notable accomplishments was his description of the vertebrate archetype. There he provided a theoretical framework to interpret anatomical and physiological similarities shared among organisms. Owen saw these mutual features as manifestations of a common blueprint. He defined the archetype this way: “that ideal original or fundamental pattern on which a natural group of animals or system of organs has been constructed, and to modifications of which the various forms of such animals or organs may be referred.”4

Even though the human hand, the bat’s wing, the horse’s hoof, and a whale’s flipper all perform distinct functions, Owen recognized that these structures all had the same basic design (or form). Interestingly, Owen (and other like-minded biologists) found an explanation for vestigial structures like the pelvis and hind limb bones (found in whales and snakes) in the concept of the archetype. They regarded these structures as necessary to the  architectural design of the organism.

In his day, the great debate among biologists related to whether “function” or “form” provided the theoretical framework to understand biological structures. At that time, while many scientists in Britain favored a teleological view (function), Owen preferred the transcendental view popular on the European continent. Owen’s goal was to come up with a theoretical framework that united both approaches, but he preferred “form” over “function.” In Owen’s mind, the archetype represented teleology of a higher order. In his presentation to Royal Institution of Great Britain Owen stated, “The satisfaction felt by the rightly constituted mind must ever be great in recognizing the fitness of parts for their appropriate function; but when this fitness is gained as in the great-toe of the foot of man and the ostrich, by a structure which at the same time betokens harmonious concord with a common type, the prescient operations of the One Cause of all organization becomes strikingly manifested to our limited intelligence.” 5

Owen’s (and others’) conception of function and form were strongly theistic in orientation. According to Owen the archetype points to a “deep and pregnant principle…some archetypal exemplar on which it has pleased the Creator to frame certain of his living creatures.”6

Darwin, Biological Evolution, and The Vertebrate Archetype

When Darwin proposed his theory of biological evolution, he made use of the vertebrate archetype for support. Instead of the archetype serving as a blueprint in the mind of the “One Cause,” Darwin argued that homologous structures were physically instantiated. In doing so, Darwin replaced the archetype with the common ancestor. As a result, homology became evidence for biological evolution and common descent.

The Biological Archetype and the Case for Design For those sympathetic to intelligent design, Owen has much to teach. So often, the contemporary case for design is framed in terms of function. But as Owen’s archetype concept highlights, form must be considered as well. Thus, shared biological features—whether anatomical, physiological, biochemical, or genetic—can be viewed as evidence for common design, not common descent. In the context of Owen’s archetype, design refers to not only functional attributes of the features but also to their architecture.

A model that interprets shared biological characteristics from a design/creation model framework has historical precedence. In fact, prior to Darwin’s theory, teleological meaning for biological systems was the prevailing scientific view. In spite of Dobzhansky’s declaration of evolution’s seminal role, the work of Owen and his contemporaries demonstrates that there are scientifically robust models, apart from evolution, that make sense of biology.

  1. Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” The American Biology Teacher 35 (March 1973): 125–29.
  2. Richard Owen, On the Nature of Limbs: A Discourse, ed. Ron Amundson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  3. Nicolaas A. Rupke, Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin, revised ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 1–3.
  4. Ibid., 120.
  5. Owen, On the Nature of Limbs, 38.
  6. Rupke, Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin, 112.