Darwin, Owen and the ‘London specimen’.

Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond (1840)

Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond (1840)

The Archaeopteryx story began in  the summer of 1861, two years after the publication of the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, when workers in a limestone quarry in Germany discovered the impression of a single 145-million-year-old feather. On August 15, 1861, German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer wrote a letter to the editor of the journal Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Palaeontologie, where he made the first description of the fossil. Later, on September 30, 1861, he wrote a new letter:  “I have inspected the feather from Solenhofen closely from all directions, and that I have come to the conclusion that this is a veritable fossilisation in the lithographic stone that fully corresponds with a birds’ feather. I heard from Mr. Obergerichtsrath Witte, that the almost complete skeleton of a feather-clad animals had been found in the lithographic stone. It is reported to show many differences with living birds. I will publish a report of the feather I inspected, along with a detailed illustration. As a denomination for the animal I consider Archaeopteryx lithographica to be a fitting name”. 

The near complete fossil skeleton found in a Langenaltheim quarry near Solnhofen – with clear impressions of wing and tail feathers –  was examined by Andreas Wagner, director of the Paleontology Collection of the State of Bavaria in Germany. He reached the conclusion that the fossil was a reptile, and gave it the name Griphosaurus. He wrote: “Darwin and his adherents will probably employ the new discovery as an exceedingly welcome occurrence for the justification of their strange views upon the transformations of animals.”

Archaeopteryx lithographica, Archaeopterygidae, Replica of the London specimen; Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany. From Wikimedia Commons

Archaeopteryx lithographica, Archaeopterygidae, Replica of the London specimen; Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany. From Wikimedia Commons

The fossil was later bought by the British Museum of Natural History in London. Richard Owen, head of the Museum, was the first to describe the fossil and named it Archaeopteryx macrura, arguing that its identity with Meyer’s specimen could not be satisfactorily established (Owen 1862a, p. 33 n.). This fossil is also know as the London specimen. Owen, a fervent opponent of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, was convinced that all animals within each larger systematic group were only variations of a single theme, the ‘ideal archetype’.

Hugh Falconer, a Scottish geologist and paleontologist, saw the Archaeopteryx as a valid “transitional” fossil. At that time, he was in  a dispute with Owen, and pointed out that Owen’s description of the Archaeopteryx had missed some essential elements. On January 3, 1863, he wrote a letter to Darwin about the significance of this fossil:  “It is a much more astounding creature—than has entered into the the conception of the describer—who compares it with the Raptores & Passeres & Gallinaceæ, as a round winged (like the last) `Bird of flight.’ It actually had at least two long free digits to the fore limb—and those digits bearing claws as long and strong as those on the hind leg. Couple this with the long tail—and other odd things,—which I reserve for a jaw—and you will have the sort of misbegotten-bird-creature—the dawn of an oncoming conception `a la Darwin.”

Darwin answered that letter on January 20, 1863, and commented about Owen’s mistake: “Has God demented Owen, as a punishment for his crimes, that he should overlook such a point?. “

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

In later editions of The Origin of Species, Darwin mention the Archaeopteryx: “That strange bird, Archaeopteryx, with a long lizardlike tail, bearing a pair of feathers on each joint, and with its wings furnished with two free claws . . . Hardly any recent discovery shows more forcibly than this, how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world.”

 

References:

MEYER v., H. (1861): Archaeopterix lithographica (Vogel-Feder) und Pterodactylus von Solenhofen. Neues Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde. 6: 678-679

Falconer, H. letter of January 3, 1863 to Charles Darwin; The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 11, edited by F. Furkhardt, DM Porter, S. A Dean, J. R Tophan, and S. Wilmot.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

OWEN, R. (1863): On the Archaeopteryx of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 153: 33-47

Prothero, D. R.  Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.

Peter Wellnhofer, A short history of research on Archaeopteryx and its relationship with dinosaurs, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343:237-250, doi:10.1144/SP343.14, 2010

 

Links:

Darwin Correspondence Project http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-3899

 

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2 thoughts on “Darwin, Owen and the ‘London specimen’.

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #35 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #26 | Whewell's Ghost

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