Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Bone Wars -- The Cope and Marsh Feud

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope
Also known as the "Great Dinosaur Rush," the "Bone Wars" were actually a ruthless competition between a couple of fossil hunters. Fossil collecting, or fossil hunting, is exactly what it sounds like -- the collection of fossils for scientific study and profit. Hunting for fossils today takes an organization, money, sponsors, equipment, and time. And like today, fossil hunting for their commercial value means making a lot of money. This hasn't changed since fossil collecting started.

From the mid-1870's to the early 1890's, there was a heated rivalry between Othniel Charles Marsh of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University and Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Educated or not, intellectual elite or not, these two paleontologists were no gentlemen. They were both as underhanded as they get while trying to outdo the other in the field.

How bad did it get? How low did these two educated gentlemen go in their rivalry? How rotten were they? If these two did anything, they showed the world that an education means nothing when it comes to behaving like hoodlums and thugs. In fact, some of what they did looked no different than what uneducated thugs would do.  

For example, they both used bribery, they stole from each other, they tried to cut of the other's funding, and even destroyed fossil samples, bones, just to screw the other. But these guys were scientists, men of letters, and while one would think they were above such nastiness, they got real personal as each "scientist" attempted to ruin the other's professional reputation by attacking the other in scientific publications. That's how scientists go low, as they still do today when someone does not agree with one's findings. 

Fossil hunting led the two, as well as others, West to Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming where rich "bone beds" were discovered. These two were the preeminent paleontologists of the Gilded Age, and they used their wealth and influence to finance their own expeditions and to procure services and dinosaur bones from fossil hunters. It is said that by the end of the Bone Wars, both Cope and Marsh were financially and socially ruined by their attempts to out-compete and disgrace the other.

Yes, imagine that. While they did make a few significant contributions, and provided substantial material for further study after their deaths, they were so self-absorbed that each used up their funds in the pursuit of "paleontology supremacy." 

Were they always out to screw each other? Well, it's said that their professional relationship was amicable. Supposedly the two scientists spent time together in Europe during our Civil War, and they even named discoveries after each other. Of course, it's said that "even at the best of times, both men were inclined to look down on each other subtly." 

Coming from different backgrounds didn't help them get along. Edward Drinker Cope was known to be a snob who came from a wealthy and influential Philadelphia family. Who knows if his wealthy Yankee family paid a lot of money to get him out of the country and to the safety of Europe during our Civil War. We do know that in 1864, a year before the Civil War ended, he was already a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, a professor of zoology at Haverford College and joined a fossil hunting expeditions West.

In contrast, Othniel Charles Marsh grew up poor in Lockport, New York. He lucked out by having a rich uncle, philanthropist George Peabody, who Marsh persuaded into building the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Of course, Marsh was the head of the museum. With his position at the museum and his inheritance that he received when Peabody died in 1869, Marsh was in a good position financially.

So how did scientist stab each other in the back in the 19th century? Well, in some cases they used dynamite to destroy and bury potentially critical fossil remains, in other situations they simply used bribes. An example this happening is the time when both scientists went fossil-collecting at Cope's marl pits in New Jersey, this was one of the first dinosaur finds the United States and it was rich with fossils. The two worked together fine, but then parted company. That's when Marsh secretly bribed the pit operators to divert future fossil discoveries to him instead of Cope. Cope found out about what took place and war between the two was on. 

The two began attacking each other in published scientific papers and publications. Marsh actually attempted to humiliate Cope by pointing out in a publication that Cope's reconstruction of a specific type of dinosaur was wrong. Cope placed its head where the tail should have been. Cope looked bad, and in turn Cope went to Kansas and Wyoming to collect fossils in the area that Marsh considered his turf. 

In the 1870s, Cope used his influence in Washington, D.C. to get a position on the U.S. Geological Survey. Though it was an unpaid position, Cope used his position to collect fossils in the West and publish his findings. Marsh on the other hand spent little time in the field, but delegated the task of searching for bones to his employees. 

At the time, paleontologists tried their best to please their sponsors by sending telegrams back East while providing a slight description of their finds. They would later publish a detailed description upon their return. The problem that both Cope and March had was their discoveries was not new to anyone in a race against another, they made mistakes. While they were trying to outdo the other, they also started "making discoveries" of species that were already found. Their finds were nothing new, but it's believe that March and Cope knew that. In fact, it's said they simply called their new discoveries "new" while knowing that they already been found and labeled by others paleontologists.

To make matters worse, it became a war of credibility. As it turned out, while many of Marsh's finds were labeled correctly and were deemed as valid finds -- many of Cope's were not. Some say none were. At the same time, the two battled on classifications, names, and who could make claim to what find. All to the point where the scientists argued over classifications and nomenclature. The one constant was they return West for more fossils to outdo the other. 

Marsh's last trip was in 1873. For the rest of the Bone Wars, Marsh would use local collectors to send him what he needed to satisfy the scientific world and keep his name in the forefront of American paleontology. While Marsh had used employees to fossil hunt for him, Cope was limited because of his association by then with the Army Corps of Engineers. 

By 1875, Cope and Marsh stopped collecting because their sponsors were repulsed by their rivalry. Because that was the situation, when both returned West about ten years later, they did so using their own personal wealth.

Of course, besides having problems with each other, as the fossil boom flooded areas in places in South Dakota and Nebraska, others started sabotaged their digs as well as others. In fact, because of heavy competition from third parties interested in bones, fossils were flooding the East. As for Marsh and Cope, they filled the newspapers with  accusations of stealing, sabotage, spying, poaching workers, and even the destruction of each other's digs. While I couldn't find out if anyone ever drew a pistol or lifted a rifle to a shoulder, there was a report about how their rival camps fought each other with fists, rocks, and clubs over the same piece of ground. 

As the years went by Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh kept fighting over fossils in the West. As they were busy trying to outdo each other, believe it or not Marsh and Cope hastily gave descriptions of new species -- and were wrong! Their findings were wrong, but that didn't matter to them since it was all about who can find the most fossils. Of course, their errors led to all sorts of confusion and misconceptions that lasted for decades after their deaths.

Besides the attacks on their digs, and the errors that they kept making, their tactics to smear one another didn't stop as well. Yes, so much so that Cope made every effort to publish every mistake and shady deal that Marsh was believe to have made. This tactic was used in turn by Marsh. As for the toll it took, such hatred ruined both men financially. But more importantly, their public display of hatred for each other had a negative effect on the public's perception of such men of science.

Before Cope's death in 1897, he actually made one last challenge to Marsh. It had to do with Cope's brain and skull. Cope donated his skull to science with the provision that his brain be measured. Since it was believed at the time that the size of a person's skull was a clear indication of intelligence, Cope challenged Marsh to do the same so that everyone would know who was smarter.

Marsh is said to have had a smaller head than Cope. At least that's according to their hat size. But none of that mattered since Marsh never accepted the "measure of intelligence" based on skull size challenge. As for Cope's skull, believe it or not, it's supposedly still housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

What did their rivalry produce, most agree that they discovered some of the most well-known dinosaurs species to have walked the North American continent. But since their findings were seen as suspect and the behavior seen as repulsive, the whole of the scientific community was seen as being the same. In fact, the very public feud harmed the reputation of paleontology for years to come.

In American History, rivalries are nothing new. One of the most famous rivalries was between Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Edison over who was the better inventor. Theirs was the competition between two geniuses, resulted in their "War of Currents" in the 1880s. Their competition was over whose electrical system would power America and subsequently the world. They did not garner any animosity from the public as did the rivalry between Marsh and Cope.

Why? Well, because while the Bone Wars resulted in an increase of knowledge in regards to prehistoric life and actually increased the public's interest in dinosaurs, the pure ruthlessness of those two supposedly educated men was seen as something more fitting the dregs of society. They were wonderful examples of the pretentiousness of the "upper classes" as they attempted to slander and ruin each other at every turn. At the time, the public believed those things weren't the things that intelligent and learned men did.

Men such as these proved the point that a good education doesn't give one class or good character.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. A war over dinosaur bones? Awesome! And that one name. Drinker Cope. That sounds like an action hero name. "Drinker Cope, Commander". I bet he really lived up to his middle name too.


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