Dinosaur wars in the nineteenth century boxer versus puncher

One ofthe strangest episodes in the history of paleontology was the extraordinarily nasty and personal rivalry between late-nineteenth-century paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh (Figure B14.3.1). In many respects, it was a boxer versus puncher confrontation: the mercurial, brilliant, highly strung Cope versus the steady, plodding, beaurocratic Marsh. Their rivalry resulted in what has been called the "Golden Age ofPaleontology," a time when the richness of the dinosaur faunas from western North America first became apparent - when the likes of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Stegosaurus were first uncovered and brought to the world's attention. But the controversy had its down side too. Who were these men, and why were they at each other's throat?

Cope was a prodigy; one of the very few in the history of paleontology. By the age of 18, he had published a paper on salamander classification. By 24, he became a Professor of Zoology at Haverford College, Philadelphia. Blessed with independent means, within 4 years he had moved into "retirement" (at the grand old age of 28) to be near Cretaceous fossil quarries in New Jersey. He quickly became closely associated with the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, where he amassed a tremendous collection of fossil bones which he named and rushed into print at a phenomenal rate (during his life he published over 1,400 works). He was capable of tremendous insight, made his share of mistakes, and was girded with the kind of pride that did not admit to errors.

Marsh, nine years older than Cope, was rather the opposite, with the exception that he, too, eventually rushed his discoveries into print almost as fast as he made them (some thought faster) and that he, too, did not dwell upon his mistakes. Marsh's own career started off inauspiciously; with no particular direction, he reasoned that if he performed well at school he could obtain financial support from a rich uncle, George Peabody. This turned out to be perhaps the most significant insight in Marsh's life: Marsh persuaded Peabody to underwrite a natural history museum at Yale (which to this day exists as the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History), and, while he (Peabody) was at it, an endowed chair for Marsh at the Museum.

The careers ofthe two paleontologists moved in parallel; Marsh slowly publishing but acquiring prestige and rank, while Cope frenetically published paper after paper. At first, there was no obvious acrimony, but this changed when Marsh apparently hijacked one of Cope's New Jersey collectors right out from under him. Suddenly, the fossils started going to Marsh instead of Cope. Then, in 1870, Cope showed Marsh a reconstruction of a plesiosaur, a long-necked, flippered, marine reptile. The fossil was unusual to say the least, and Cope proclaimed his findings in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Marsh detected at least part ofthe reason why the fossil was so unusual: the head was on the wrong end (the vertebrae were reversed). Moreover, he had the bad manners to point this out. Cope, while admitting no error, attempted to buy up all the copies of the journal. Marsh kept his.

Cope sought revenge in the form of correcting something that Marsh had done. The rivalry ignited, and the battle between the two spilled out into the great western fossil deposits ofthe Morrison Formation. Both hired collectors to obtain fossils, the collectors ran armed camps (for protection against each other's poaching), and, between about 1870 and 1890, east-bound trains continually ran plaster jackets back to New Haven (Connecticut) and Philadelphia. There Marsh and Cope rushed their discoveries into print, usually with new names. The competition between the two was fierce, as each sought to out-science the other. Discoveries (and replies) were published in newspapers as well as scholarly journals, lending

From 1842 onward, membership of Owen's Dinosauria grew by leaps and bounds. Much of the attention was devoted to basic collecting and description, asking questions like, "What is this creature? A new genus? A species of an existing genus? Maybe even a new family?" This otherwise-healthy penchant for discovery, description, and naming reached absurd levels during the latter half of the century, fueled by the extraordinarily rich fossil beds of the North American West and the very strange competition between Yale's O. C. Marsh and the Philadelphia Academy's E. D. Cope (Box 14.3).

Othniel Charles Marsh
Figure B14.3.1. The two paleontologists responsible for the Great North American Dinosaur Rush of the late nineteenth century. (a) Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences; and (b) Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899) of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

a carnival atmosphere to the debate. Because Philadelphia and New Haven were not that far apart by rail, it was possible for one of the men to hear the other lecture on a new discovery, and then rush home that night and describe it and claim it for himself. Because many of the fossils in their collections were similar, it was easy to do and each accused the other of it.

Both Cope and Marsh eventually aged and, in Cope's case, his private finances dwindled. Moreover, a new generation of paleontologists arose that rejected the Cope-Marsh approach, believing, not unreasonably, that it had caused more harm than good. Both men ended their lives with somewhat tarnished reputations. History has viewed the thing a bit more dispassionately, and it is fair to state that the result ultimately was an extraordinary number of spectacular finds and a nomenclature nightmare that has taken much of the past 100 years to disentan (See Desmond (1975).)

Within 30 years of the establishment of Dinosauria, there was a revolution in scientists' conceptions of how dinosaurs looked, driven by remarkable finds such as a complete hadrosaurid from New Jersey (1858) and 33 complete Iguanodon skeletons, recovered from coal layers outside of the town of Bernissart, Belgium (1877-1878; Box 14.4). In the hands of imaginative, skilled paleontologists such as J. Leidy (the hadrosaurid) and L. Dollo (the Iguanodon specimens), dinosaurs were transformed from overfed, bear-like lumbering lizards to something more terrifying, unimaginable, and wonderful than anybody could have invented (Box 14.4).

Waterhouse Dinosaurs
Figure 14.5. Sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins' life-sized dinosaurs on the Crystal Palace grounds, Sydenham, south London, England, still enchanting visitors after 160 years.

Dinosaurs divided. And they were different. Not just from living animals, but also from each other. This was duly noted by Harry Govier Seeley, vertebrate paleontologist at Cambridge University, and Friedrich von Huene, dean of German dinosaur paleontology at the University of Tübingen, both of whom recognized the fundamental division in Dinosauria between Ornithischia and Saurischia (Figure 14.7).

That dinosaurs had two different types of pelvis implied to Seeley that the ancestry of Ornithischia and Saurischia was to be found separately and more deeply among primitive archosaurs, within a now-abandoned group called "Thecodontia" (see below; see also Chapters 4, 10, and 13). Therefore, Seeley's dinosaurs were not, had he known the term, monophyletic (Figure 14.8).

The perception that dinosaurs were at least diphyletic (that is, having two separate origins) continued well into the twentieth century. Most paleontologists, until even the early 1980s, thought that dinosaurs had at least two

Figure 14.6. Contemporary lithograph of the New Year's Eve, 1853, dinner inside of Waterhouse Hawkins' model of Iguanodon.

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  • gordon
    Are there any modern parallel between marsh vs cope?
    9 years ago

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