The Bone Wars

Quarrelsome and Distrustful

The class “Dinosauria” was originally defined by “Sir” Richard Owen of the Royal Society, and Superintendent of the British Museum Natural History Department in 1842. This was based on a hypothesis. No dinosaur bones had ever been found. Twelve years later in 1854, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden during his exploration of the upper Missouri River, found “proof” of Owen’s theory!

It was just some teeth of what turned out to be a “Trachodon,” dinosaur, but it was the start. From 1877 to 1892 would turn out to be the “Great Dinosaur Rush” or the “Bone Wars”. This was a battle between two main players, Edward Drinker Cope (of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) and Othniel Charles Marsh (of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale). They would start out as friends in 1864, even naming dinosaur species after each other, but it wouldn’t last.

Using their wealth and influence they went west to the fertile dinosaur-rich soil of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Cope was known to be pugnacious and possessed a quick temper; Marsh was slower, more methodical, and introverted. Cope was a firm supporter of Neo-Lamarckism[1] while Marsh supported Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution[2] by natural selection causing them to look down on each other continuously.

Cope was born into a wealthy Quaker family in Philadelphia. His father wanted his son to work as a farmer, but distinguished himself as a naturalist. In 1864, already a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Cope became a professor of zoology at Haverford College and joined Ferdinand Hayden on his expeditions west.

Marsh would have grown up in a poor family in Lockport, New York but he talked his wealthy uncle, philanthropist George Peabody, into building the Peabody Museum of Natural History, placing Marsh as head of the museum. Marsh would bride Cope’s pit workers to divert future fossil finds to him. That started the attacks in scientific publications. Marsh humiliated Cope by pointing out that his reconstruction of the plesiosaur Elasmosaurus was flawed, with the head placed where the tail should have been.

Cope tried to cover up his mistake by purchasing every copy he could find of the journal in which it was published. Some of these western finds were made accidentally, during excavation work for the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1877, Marsh received a letter from Colorado schoolteacher Arthur Lakes describing the “saurian” bones he had found during a hiking expedition.

Lakes sent sample fossils to both Marsh and Cope. Union Pacific employees exaggerated the amount Marsh was paying for information to try and get more money out of the wealthier Cope. When working in close proximity to each other the Cope and Marsh workers would pelt each other with stones. Cope hired outlaws to sneak into Marsh’s camps and steal bones and even went as far as dynamiting his own digs, when Marsh was infiltrating them, to keep everyone out.

In the 1880s Cope would fall behind on the digs. In 1884, Congress began an investigation into the U.S. Geological Survey, which Marsh had been appointed the head of a few years before. Cope recruited a number of Marsh’s employees to testify against their boss but Marsh connived to keep their grievances out of the newspapers.

Cope then upped the ante. Drawing on a journal he had kept for two decades, in which he meticulously listed Marsh’s numerous felonies, misdemeanors, and scientific errors, he supplied the information to a journalist for the New York Herald, which ran a sensational series about the Bone Wars. Marsh was asked to resign his lucrative position at the Geological Survey.

But now, in poor health, Cope had to sell off his dinosaur collections leaving him and Marsh broke in the end. The fossils discovered by Marsh and Cope also helped to feed the American public’s increasing hunger for new dinosaurs.

Each major discovery was accompanied by a wave of publicity, as magazines and newspapers illustrated the latest amazing finds.

The reconstructed skeletons slowly but surely made their way to major museums, where they still reside to the present day. In 2007-2008 excavation of several of Cope’s and Marsh’s sites showed that the damage from dynamiting was not as bad as first thought, really only blowing fill dirt over the areas.

Edward Cope discovered 56 new dinosaur genera and species, and O.C. Marsh discovered at least 80. Among the dinosaurs discovered include some of the first species of Diplodocus, Allosaurus, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus.

  1. The neo-Lamarckians were of the opinion that ‘adaptions’ are universal in nature. An adaptation happens through the causal relationship between structure, function, and environment. Due to changes in the environment, the habits and lifestyles of organisms get altered. Thus gradually the organism acquires new structures. The newly obtained character gradually becomes an inheritable trait. This opinion and argument is a modified form of Lamarckism. Those ideas stressed the direct action of the environment on organisms. [Back]
  2. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is the widely held notion that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor: the birds and the bananas, the fishes and the flowers — all related. Darwin’s general theory presumes the development of life from non-life and stresses a purely naturalistic (undirected) “descent with modification”. That is, complex creatures, evolve from more simplistic ancestors naturally over time. In a nutshell, as random genetic mutations occur within an organism’s genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival — a process known as “natural selection.” [Back]


The Atlantean Conspiracy

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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