Osborn, Henry Fairfield

views updated May 17 2018


(b. Fairfield, Connecticut, 8 August 1857; d. Garrison, New York, 6 November 1935)

vertebrate paleontology, origins of the mammals, human evolution, museum administrator.

Although Osborn is best remembered as the outspoken president of the American Museum of Natural History, one of his consuming scientific pursuits was his attempt to show that central Asia was the cradle of the human race. The search was predicated on his belief that spiritual salvation was something that could be proven scientifically or at least had a rational basis. As a result he was tangentially involved in the Piltdown man incident (in which a human fossil skull was hoaxed), was a leading figure in the eugenics movement, and played a small role in the Scopes “monkey trial.” Osborn felt, in part, that if he could prove the Asian origin of humans he could show that each human ethnic group had a separate biological origin. If they did then it was justified in treating each ethnic group as either superior or inferior.

Osborn was raised from childhood to believe that salvation was achievable only through the exertion of personal willpower. His mother, Virginia Osborn, was a devout Christian who instilled these values in her son. He took her teachings about the need for personal struggle for salvation and built them into a theory of mammalian evolution in general and human evolution in particular. His system was a quirky and nuanced conglomeration of Lamarkian adaptation, Darwinian selection, spiritual elevation, and the mental gymnastics of metaphysical free will. The question of free will has a long history in Christian theology. It asks if individuals can determine their own destiny or has it been preordained for them. Osborn worked this idea into his evolution theory arguing that humans could determine their own evolution up to a point, but that certain restrictions had been genetically predetermined for them. While his studies of mammalian evolution began in the 1880s, by 1900 he had come to focus on human evolution and central Asia as the source of all mammalian life.

In the intellectual jousting between neo-Lamarckians and neo-Darwinians, Osborn came down, at least initially, on the side of the Lamarckians. Though he was a great admirer of Charles Darwin, Osborn’s personal experiences and his belief in straight-line progress in evolution (orthogenesis), as well as his relationship with Edward Drinker Cope (who became something of a mentor to him), drew him away from strict Darwinism and led him to formulate his own explanatory process for evolutionary change. Like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Osborn believed an organism could affect its own evolution through the exercise of personal free will. Where Osborn’s thinking remained Darwinian was in his belief in the importance of struggle in the equation. In order to blend all this together he tried to reevaluate the fossil record so it would answer both scientific and metaphysical questions. In this way he blended German Romanticism with British empiricism in a pragmatic American fashion.

Following Cope’s lead, Osborn centered his studies on fossil teeth. The evolution of teeth, especially horse teeth, was important because in the changes in tooth structure Osborn saw what he believed was the slow, steady, progressive march of evolution. The heart of his evolutionary system was the idea that, as time passed, a species, genera, or phylum went from simple unspecialized forms to more specialized varieties in a series of slow incremental changes. These changes were brought about by the relative exertions of various anatomical parts. These exertions were the result of the organism’s attempt to adapt to its environment. Once established, these characters were passed on to the next generation in a linear fashion. Osborn argued that the

discovery of primitive mammal fossils confirmed the theory that molars had gone through stages beginning with the simple single reptilian, or homodont cone, and proceeding on to the more complex tritubercular (multi-cone) stage.

Though he was initially unsure just how these characters appeared he rejected the notion that anything happened randomly or was the product of blind chance. Studying variations in fossil teeth convinced him that at least some hereditary characters followed certain predispositions in their development. He saw the tritubercular molars as superior to the nontritubercular forms because they persisted into later ages. As he saw it, the drawback of this process was that as the specialization and complexity of groups increased, so did their inability to adapt to change. Therefore a less specialized, more general type would last longer and so was superior.

Osborn employed the group of mammals known as titanotheres as a model for all mammalian evolutionary schemes. While he accepted natural selection as an important factor in evolution, he was convinced that it was not the central mechanism. He rebuked geneticists that for all their work they had failed to give an explanation for species’ origins, feeling only fossils could do so. That organisms adapt to their environment creatively was a process he called aristogenesis. This process operated on a series of rectigradations (a series of inherent genetic advantages and predispositions) that, according to Osborn, were the predestined factors in a genetic pool that give a phyla its special abilities to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Aristogenesis could be called on to overcome obstacles.

Osborn’s idea of creative evolution was similar to that of the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941), who was not completely satisfied with either Lamarckian or Darwinian evolutionary mechanics. Osborn felt that an élan vital compelled an organism to overcome adversity. Organisms could combine their predestined rectigradations with a fluid willpower to make a unique response to the environment. Osborn said the aristogenes were the characters that evolved into important functional structures. By the 1920s Osborn called on more metaphysical realms—that of the divine—to explain the origins of the aristogenes. He insisted that his study of aristogenesis suggested to him that the modern human line as well as the human soul, were immensely old, had ultimately divine origins, and were not related directly to the primates. Despite being a devout Christian, Osborn opposed the Christian fundamentalists and agreed to appear at Clarence Darrow’s request as a defense witness at the Scopes trial in 1925. Confusion over the identity of a fossil tooth, commonly called Nebraska man, contributed to Osborn’s last-minute decision not to appear in Tennessee.

He feared his mistake with this misidentified fossil would be used against Scopes in particular and evolution in general as an example of the flawed nature of evolution studies.

As he believed central Asia was the cradle of humans, he sent an expedition to the Gobi Desert in 1921 to search for the earliest human fossils. Led by the museum explorer Roy Chapman Andrews (1884–1960), the Central Asiatic Expeditions lasted until 1930, when local political conditions rendered the situation untenable. Although the expeditions brought back tons of fossil dinosaurs, including the first dinosaur eggs, no human fossil remains were found. Osborn’s unique approach to evolution never caught on with the wider scientific community, and his ideas died with him in 1935.


The Osborn papers at the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Historical Society contain a wealth of information on Osborn, his family, and his work.


Rainger, Ronald. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum ofNatural History, 1890–1935. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.

Regal, Brian. Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the Search for the Origins of Man. London: Ashgate, 2002.

_____. Human Evolution: A Guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2005.

Brian Regal

Osborn, Henry Fairfield

views updated May 17 2018


(b. Fairfield, Connecticut, 8 August 1857; d. Garrison, New York, 6 November 1935)

vertebrate paleontology.

Osborn was the eldest son of William Henry Osborn, president of the Illinois Central Railroad, and of Virginia Reed Sturges. He spent his early life in the vicinity of New York City. He attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he was much influenced by President James McCosh and Arnold Guyot, director of the museum. At Princeton he began a lifelong friendship with William Berryman Scott. In their junior year, Scott and Osborn became intensely interested in the fossil remains of extinct reptiles and mammals. The young men accordingly organized their first paleontological expedition. They spent the summer of 1877 in Colorado and Wyoming, still a wild land inhabited by less than friendly Indians and by some of the “old mountain men.” In 1878 there was a second expedition, and it was at this time that they met and became disciples of Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia, the rival of O. C. Marsh of Yale.

After completing their undergraduate work at Princeton, Scott and Osborn went abroad for postgraduate studies. Osborn studied under T. H. Huxley and Francis Maitland Balfour in London. He also met Charles Darwin, an encounter that he never forgot.

He returned to join the faculty at Princeton, and in 1881 married Lucretia Perry; they had five children. In 1891 he was called to Columbia University to found a department of biology and to the American Museum of Natural History to found a department of mammalian paleontology (soon to become the department of vertebrate paleontology). He spent the remainder of his life in New York City, where he was actively associated with Columbia until 1910 and with the American Museum of Natural History until his death.

In addition to his career as first head of the biology department at Columbia, Osborn was first dean of the graduate faculty, and for many years was Da Costa professor of zoology, in which capacity he trained numerous students, many of whom became distinguished zoologists and paleontologists. At the same time he served as head of the department of vertebrate paleontology, where he was instrumental in building a collection of worldwide importance. For twenty-five years he was also president of the American Museum of Natural History and was largely responsible for making it probably the largest natural history museum in the world.

In spite of his involvement with these several concurrent careers, Osborn was primarily a research scientist. He continually studied fossil vertebrates, and with the aid of assistants and colleagues, who did much of the detailed work for him, he published some 600 papers, books, and monographs.

Although Osborn was concerned with the details of vertebrate evolution—particularly that of reptiles and mammals—he was especially interested in the larger problems of life. He was a theorist and proposed various explanations for many aspects of evolution. His important contributions to the knowledge of evolution within many groups of mammals and reptiles were, nonetheless, based upon the fossil evidence. He had a grand concept of the adaptive radiation of life; yet in spite of his penetrating mind, he never seemed to appreciate fully the significance of genetic studies to the modern concept of evolution. Osborn was also a master of synthesis, a capacity illustrated by his enormous monographs on the titanotheres and the proboscideans.


A full bibliography of Osborn’s works (exclusive of newspaper articles, abstracts, and some popular articles) will be found in William K. Gregory, “Biographical Memoir of Henry Fairfield Osborn 1857–1935,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,19 (1938), 53–119. Sec also George Gaylord Simpson, “Henry Fairfield Osborn,” in Dictionary of American Biography,11 , supp. 1 (New York, 1944), 584–587, which includes a bibliography.

Edwin H. Colbert

Osborn, Henry Fairfield

views updated May 08 2018

Osborn, Henry Fairfield (1857–1935) An American palaeontologist who taught at Princeton and Columbia Universities, Osborn was an evolutionary theorist who developed the concept of adaptive radiation. He also arranged the mammalian palaeontology exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History.

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