Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dinosaur Wars: The Beauty of the Big Game Hunt in Deep Time

This week the PBS’s series “American Experience” is profiling the infamous paleontologists O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope. These two men are probably the two most famous paleontologists in history. Unfortunately, they are just as well known for their long running fossil feud as they are for their contributions to paleontology.

The documentary is filled with wonderful historical photos, including one of a young Marsh that I had not seen before, along with excerpts from their letters to and from colleagues and family. Interviews with paleontologists Peter Dodson, Bob Bakker, Jacques Gauthier, and Tim Rowe, along with historian Steven Conn and writer Mark Jaffe help to flesh out scenes. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the perspective on the respective approaches to the science taken by the two antangonists – Cope’s traditionally scientific and Marsh’s Machiavellian and old-school business. One valued progress, the other success and domination at all costs. Not that Marsh didn’t strive for scientific contributions and make them, but the goal of owning the field seemed to drive him.

The episode was very well done. I encourage everyone to tune in tomorrow night (Monday, January 17, 2011) and watch. Below is my summary of the episode.

The episode begins in 1868, introducing us to the two men. Marsh, a professor of paleontology at Yale, took a train trip out west. He observed all of the wide open terrain and exposed rocks and while he collected little, he did catch the fossil collecting bug. His position at Yale was funded by his millionaire uncle, George Peabody. As he was not paid a salary by the university itself, he did not have to answer to anyone. This gave him the freedom to define his position within the university and his science.

Also in 1868, Hadrosaurus foulki went on display at Philadelphia Academy of Science. The skeleton had been assembled by a group of scientists including a 28 year old Edward D. Cope. He had already made a name for himself with the discovery of the second known American dinosaur skeleton, Laelaps. Self taught, he gained admission to the Academy at a young age to study the material. In the fall of 1868 Marsh asked Cope to show him the Hadrosaurus quarry. After his tour, Marsh made a deal with the quarry owners to send any new fossils to him at Yale. This obviously upset Cope, who before hand had been receiving the fossils.

The feud between the two men was fully ignited when Cope reconstructed the skeleton of Elasmosaurus with the skull placed on the tail rather than the neck. Cope later noticed his mistake and tried to retract the publication before it was released, but unfortunately it was too late. Marsh pointed out his mistake right away.

In 1870 Marsh embarked on the first fossil prospecting trip to the western frontier. This well publicized trip had a budget of $15,000 and was guided by Buffalo Bill. Cope was keeping up with the press on Marsh’s expedition, but had no budget to set off on his own fossil collecting trip. He wrote to geologist Ferdinand Hayden who had been mapping out west for the government. Hayden wrote back and offered to fund a fossil collecting trip for Cope in 1872, if he could meet them in Ft. Bridger, Wyoming, where Marsh had been collecting fossil mammals the year before. Unfortunately, when Cope arrived in Wyoming Haden had already departed the fort. Cope was able to recruit men to accompany him to the badlands to collect, all the while being followed by Marsh’s “spies.” When Marsh heard what Cope was doing, he headed west. Little did they both known at the time, Joseph Leidy was also headed west to collect fossils in the same area. Soon the field was becoming more crowded than Cope and Marsh liked. All three men were finding the remains of a large mammal with huge tusks. Cope wrote up his findings and dashed them off by telegraph from Wyoming, in hopes to be the first to publish the findings. Marsh did the same. However, Leidy beat them both, naming the species Uintatherium robustum. Cope and Marsh continued over the years to ignore the work of each other and Leidy, naming the same species different names and rushing short papers to press. In a great quote from Bakker in this segment, the enthusiastic assignment of unique names to multiple specimens of what in reality was a single species of uintathere was equated to “…taxonomic carpet-bombing.”

The winter and spring following the 1872 field season started a campaign by Marsh to discredit Cope, a process that started off scientific and becoming personal. Colleagues were appalled, so much so that Leidy got disgusted by it all and walked away from paleontology, leaving Marsh and Cope to fight it out. The rivals see the field of paleontology as wide open, and instead of working together or carving it up they look for ways to cut each other out.

Marsh was very secretive, keeping his collections off limits to most scientists, with the noted exception of Thomas Huxley. Marsh showed Huxley his collection of horse fossils (33 different species in 3 families), along with a prehistoric bird fossil with teeth, astonishing Huxley. Darwin later wrote Marsh a letter proclaiming his horse collection “…the best support to the theory of evolution which has appeared in the last 20 years…” (August 30, 1880).

After the death of his father, Cope was left a large inheritance he could use to fund his own fossil expeditions. In 1876, he set out for Montana, just weeks after Custer’s resounding defeat at Little Big Horn. These trips were very successful, and he was able to produce many publications from his numerous discoveries. His many letters home shed light on his home life and on his field fossil exploits, and many of these letters are highlighted throughout the episode.

By the spring of 1877 Cope and Marsh were barely communicating. In the foothills above Morrison, Colorado, a local artist and high school teacher named Arthur Lakes discovered large bones in the Late Jurassic river sediments of the area. He wrote to Marsh and Cope about his finds, shipping a few bones to each. Marsh immediately put Lakes on the payroll, but was upset to discover that Cope had already hired another high school teacher to work in a similar area to the south (Garden Park, Colorado).

Around this same time Marsh received word on another location, at Como Bluff, Wyoming, from two railroad workers. Cope and Mash had passed this location many times on the railroad. Marsh tried to quickly claim the area, but Cope had also heard about the location and soon opened quarries (hiring, in fact, one of Marsh’s original railworkers out from under him). Determined to keep his men ahead of Cope, Marsh had his men work through the winter in Wyoming at 7000 feet elevation. It was brutal work, and Lakes’s journal documents plenty of frozen toes and fingers and subzero temperatures and blowing snow while they were trying to work their quarries. As Peter Dodson points out “Working in the winter just seems utter madness. Paleontologists, with rare exception, do not subject themselves to this sort of abuse anymore.”

During this time the two men’s teams discovered hundreds of dinosaur specimens. Ever secretive, Marsh would exchange coded telegrams with spies about Cope, and sadly he would even order his men to destroy fossils so that Cope could not collect them. (This latter offense, however, was rare, generally only occurring in the winter slow season when Marsh’s crews were often down to one man working alone and trying to work and guard multiple sites. In fairness to Marsh, in at least one case this action was taken by his field man of his own initiative and was not directly ordered by the Yale professor.) In a revealing insight to the depth of Marsh’s frustration with Cope, he is said to have occasionally been overheard exclaiming “God dammit! I wish the Lord would take him!!” Presumably this would have been heard by his staff, and one can imagine the exchange of glances between lab assistants on hearing such words being bellowed at great volume from the boss’s office!

In November of 1878 O.C. Marsh, who was now president of the National Academy of Science, joined forces with John Wesley Powell. In 1881, the US Geological Survey was formed and headed by Powell, who then appointed Marsh head paleontologist. With unlimited funding, 50 employees, and a salary, Marsh now thought he could finally get rid of Cope.

Without government sponsorship, and his inheritance dwindling, Cope invested in a mining corporation that unfortunately went bust. He applied for jobs with no success. By 1889 he was separated from his wife and living in a small apartment.

Years earlier Marsh had inserted language in the USGS charter stating that any fossils collected with government funds had to be turned over to the Smithsonian Institution. Marsh had made a deal with Powell to keep his own specimens at Yale. Fortunately for Cope, he was a good record keeper. He was able to show how he had spent his own money and the money of the government and was able to keep his own fossils, which formed the bulk of his collection. Upset by this audit, Cope went after Mash. He had been documenting Marsh’s actions over the years and turned his notes over to a journalist who wrote a story in the New York Herald. Cope accused Marsh of incompetence, ignorance, and plagiarism, with headlines reading “Men of Science Agog.” Cope also accused Powell of corruption and misuses of government funds at the USGS. Marsh and Powell fought back calling Cope a liar and a thief. Headlines read “Professor Cope and Director Powell still engaged in the pleasant pastime of damaging each other’s scientific reputation. ‘Give and Take’ seems the rule.”

This went on for 3 weeks, and left Marsh in a bad position. All of the bad press caught the eye of politicians. They viewed science as a waste of taxpayer money, with Alabama senator Hillary Herbert leading the attack. The USGS budget was ultimately cut in half and the department of paleontology was eliminated. Powell sent Marsh a telegram simply stating “Appropriation out off. Please send your resignation at once.” Marsh lost all of his funding and staff. He had to mortgage his house and ask for a salary from Yale. And then the Smithsonian contacted Marsh and asked for all fossils collected with government money to be turned over. Marsh had not kept up with his accounting and did not know which fossils were collected with private funds and which with government money. As Tim Rowe points out, Marsh had set a trap for Cope and instead had ensnared himself. In the end over 80 tons of fossils were sent to Washington D.C.

By 1897 Cope had kidney disease and was very sick. He was contacted by a young artist named Charles Knight who asked for help in reconstructing his discoveries, which Cope did for two weeks. A few days after finishing the work Cope was found dead in his room. He was only 56. During his life he had collected over 1300 specimens. The resulting artwork of Knight’s was the most dynamic reconstruction of past vertebrate life made up to that time.

In February of 1899 Marsh was returning from a trip to the Smithsonian and walked home from the train station in a cold rain, contracting pneumonia. He died a few weeks later with only $186 left in his bank account (1899 dollars). He was 68 years old. He left behind a huge fossil collection, with some of the best evidence of evolution.

The show covers the first round in the exploration of the large dinosaur fossils of the West. Around the time Cope and Marsh had exhausted their respective resources and energies pummeling each other, the large museums of the country began a more friendly but no less competitive race to mount skeletons of these dinosaurs in their exhibits [Read Paul Brinkman’s “The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush” for the rest of this story]. This is also a story involving clashing personalities and egos and big budgets, but it is perhaps a story for another episode.

Thanks to PBS for the opportunity to review this episode from American Experience! © ReBecca K. Hunt-Foster


SFoss said...

Nice summary, but I would really enjoy some analysis of the relationship between Powell and paleontology? And what about King and Wolcott? The USGS is an important part of the story and it's successes and failures tend to be reflected in paleontology today. Perhaps this is beyond the scope of a biography of Cope and Marsh, but the point of studying Cope and Marsh is to understand how their relationship continues to affect the field of paleontology.

Thanks for the post and the opportunity to comment.

Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. said...

Thanks for the review! Just saw the episode: overall very good. I think it might have been better with a little more context (i.e., dinosaurs were known in England since the early 1800s, but only from very incomplete skeletons, etc.), but pretty cool.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

I agree Scott and Tom!!Its too bad the USGS did not do any documentaries for their centennial!