Friday, February 22, 2008

Wars you have never heard of, Pt III - The Bone Wars

The two gentlemen above are the main participants in The Bone War. On the left you have Othniel Charles Marsh, and on the right, Edward Drinker Cope. Both of these guys were early paleontologists and they hated each other. I have to point out before I get into specifics that in looking at these two mooks, I can see them saying "Brilliant!" and drinking Guinness.

So, here is the scoop. These two guys were both paleontologists back in the 19th century. At the time, there were only nine dinosaur species that had been discovered in America. Cope worked for a guy who had just named a new dinosaur, and ended up trading on that guy's name until he started finding his own new fossils. At the same time, Marsh, who worked for Yale, was also digging around and pulling fossils out of the ground. Essentially, what ended up happening was a mad rush to find and catalog as many new dinosaurs as possible.

In their frenzy, these two ended up getting into all sorts of shenanigans. Cope accused Marsh of stealing his precious fossils, so he stole a trainload of Marsh's fossils. Cope also was so desperate to keep Marsh from finding stuff that he blew up a dig site. One time, Cope stuck the skull of a dinosaur (it was the Brontosaurus) on the wrong end of a skeleton, a picture of which was published in a journal of the time. Upon discovering his mistake, Cope bought up every copy of the journal possible to try and avoid humiliation. Marsh, who was the one to discover the error to begin with, was not having that, so he made it his mission to tell everyone about Cope's mistake. I can't state clearly enough that these two guys really hated each other. This was not a friendly rivalry!

In the end, Marsh "won" the Bone War by merit of cataloging more species than Cope, although Cope developed a reputation of being the better scientist. Between the two, they made a real, tangible contribution to paleontology. Remember I said that before they started in on each other there were only nine known species? After they were done there were one hundred and fifty. Cope in particular helped spread the knowledge by publishing a tremendous amount of work.

Despite the value of their scientific work, at the end of the day, these two still had a rivalry. Marsh ended up getting Copes funding yanked, forcing him to sell parts of his collection off to live, and Marsh (who had been supported by his wealthy uncle, George Peabody) ended up having to ask for a salary from Yale. Also, despite all the good they did for paleontology, they also did a lot of harm to it. Remember, Cope was blowing stuff up, which most scientists frown upon. There were also numerous allegations of shifty practices, up to and including grave robbery.

The most awesome part of this story, by far, is what happened to Cope upon his death. In his hatred of Marsh, he donated his skull to science. His plan was to have his brain measured and weighed, then compared to Marsh's brain, with the idea being that the bigger, more awesome brain would be the winner. Marsh declined to meet this challenge, which to my way of thinking is a forfeit, meaning that Cope won. Cope's skull is evidently still preserved somewhere.

So there you have it. Two guys, a bunch of fossils, and a rivalry that lasted through death. I got the bulk of this information for this post off Wikipedia, but there are a few books written on the subject as well. Anyway, I think for my next post, I will do a little something on The War of the Roses, but I am not sure yet.

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