Carrying the title “Dinosaur Wars“, tonight’s episode of the PBS series American Experience sounds like yet another dino vs. dino bloodbath. In the fashion of Jurassic Fight Club, Clash of the Dinosaurs, and the forthcoming Prehistoric Assassins, the title might suggest yet another hour of badly-rendered cgi monsters goring each other to death ad nauseam. Mercifully, that is not the case. The war was not between the dinosaurs themselves, but between two ornery naturalists who, through their rivalry, opened up the vast fossil boneyards of the American west.
Paleontology arrived late to North America. Fossils formed the basis of numerous Native American myths, polymaths such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson puzzled over petrified mammal bones, and 19th century naturalists described fossils as part of their ongoing interrogation of nature, but it was not until about 1866 that American paleontology began to come into its own as a scientific discipline. That was the year in which the financier and philanthropist George Peabody gave his nephew, Othniel Charles Marsh, his very own museum at Yale and thereby created the first professorship in paleontology in the country.
Except for Tyrannosaurus rex, which was named six years after his death in 1899, Marsh was responsible for naming and describing the most famous dinosaurs ever found. Apatosaurus (“Brontosaurus“), Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Triceratops – Marsh named them all and scores more fossil creatures. But Marsh was not the only prolific paleontologist of his day. One of his erstwhile friends, Edward Drinker Cope, engaged Marsh in paleontology’s greatest pissing contest to see who was America’s preeminent interpreter of prehistoric life.
As recounted in “Dinosaur Wars”, Cope and Marsh had not always been enemies. They had met in 1864 while studying geological sciences in Berlin, and the two kept in touch when they returned to establish themselves in New Haven (Marsh) and Philadelphia (Cope). The trouble started when Cope invited Marsh to visit the Cretaceous marl pits of New Jersey where the partial skeleton of Hadrosaurus – one of the world’s most completely-known dinosaurs – had been found. Cope had arranged a deal with local marl miners to send him significant discoveries, but, initially unknown to him, Marsh made the workers a better offer for the flow of fossils. When Cope found out, he was furious.
Marsh’s hijacking of fossils in Cope’s own backyard was just the start. In 1868 Cope presented a description of the marine reptile Elasmosaurus, giving it a short neck and a long, tapering tail. To his embarrassment, however, the eminent naturalist Joseph Leidy pointed out that Cope had put the head on the wrong end of the creature – the “tail” was truly an exceedingly long neck! – and Marsh used the blunder to worry at Cope from then on. Their animosity towards each other only intensified from there.
Distrustful of each other, Cope and Marsh used fossil specimens as weapons to attack the reputation of their rival. They regularly criticized each other and tried to one-up each other in scientific journals, and things seemed to only get worse as they vied for the rich fossil treasures littering the western expanse of the country. You would think that such a wide swath of land would give both paleontologists plenty of room to maneuver around each other, but they and their crews often worked in the same regions. Spies from the opposing camp were a near-constant concern, and the paleontologists frequently rushed scientific papers on new specimens into print for fear that they might be scooped by their nemesis.
Many of the hastily-written descriptions by Cope and Marsh left behind a tangle of scientific names that still bogs down scientists today, but the fossils they studied were truly magnificent. Gigantic dinosaurs, birds with teeth, rhino-sized mammals with saber-fangs and extravagantly-ornamented heads, multi-toed horses that confirmed that the evolution of Equus happened in America – the fossils coming out of the west were more fantastic than any paleontologist’s wildest dreams. (Though, as recounted by fossil hunter Charles Sternberg, Cope regularly suffered nightmares in which the prehistoric beasts he was studying came back to life and set about trampling their interpreter.) Some of these fossils, particularly the toothed birds and prehistoric horses, were taken as some of the best petrified proofs of evolution ever found, and Charles Darwin was particularly delighted with the finds made by Marsh. But it would be a mistake to think that Cope and Marsh were in this alone. The acrimonious contest between the two fueled the process of discovery, and they required numerous field hands, lab workers, and other assistants to do their work. These young scientists would form the next cadre of paleontology superstars when Cope and Marsh eventually faded from the scene.
Naturally, the American Experience documentary primarily focuses on the scientific in-fighting between these authorities. The story has been told multiple times before, as in David Rains Wallace’s The Bonehunters’ Revenge, but the PBS documentary is more detailed and comprehensive than most popular summaries I have seen. There are a few errors and omissions – Cope was far more interested in the mechanics of evolution than Marsh, and it was Leidy, not Marsh, who pointed out Cope’s Elasmosaurus mistake – but I applaud the program for putting together a compelling, in-depth look at one of the most influential eras in the study of prehistoric life. The controversy between Cope and Marsh is the main thread of the program, but watch closely and you will see how they turned a peripheral area of inquiry into a major area of research that is even more vibrant today. Think of them what you will, but paleontology just wouldn’t have been the same without these two cantankerous bastards.