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Battle of the bones

A feud between two palaeontologists sheds light on late-Victorian journalism.

The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age

Houghton Mifflin Company: 1999. 347 pp. $25

From about 1868 until their deaths in the 1890s, two American vertebrate palaeontologists, O. C. Marsh and E. D. Cope, carried on a personal and professional feud that has dogged the field ever since. Even today it seems that whenever a controversy about the interpretation of ancient bones arises, journalists gravitate towards the personal side, and eventually raise the spectres of Cope and Marsh. The exploration of those animosities and the journalistic ethics that fuel them set David Rains Wallace's new book apart from much of the rest of the literature on this well-trodden subject.

The story takes place during the “Gilded Age” — as the wealth-obsessed, politically corrupt period between the American Civil War and the First World War is ironically known — which creates a vivid backdrop to the antics of these prominent scientists. The basic facts of the feud are generally understood, although previous biographers have emphasized or interpreted them differently. Cope was the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family; Marsh was the poor relative of an expatriate American millionaire, George Peabody. Cope was a “master naturalist”, as his acolyte and biographer, the palaeontologist H. F. Osborn, pronounced him. But Cope was also vain, delusional, belligerent and incredibly naive about the workings of society. Marsh is frequently characterized as methodical, slow and simultaneously plodding and plotting in his efforts to build his influence in science and politics.

Both men used inherited wealth to build their careers, but their diametrically opposite temperaments, vast ambition and intense competition led the once-fast friends into a bitter rivalry that eventually exploded on the pages of newspapers and the halls of Washington — to the eventual detriment of the entire field of geology and palaeontology. Cope made wild accusations that Marsh had misappropriated funds and influence in the US Geological Survey. Although no evidence was ever found for misdeeds by either Marsh or the survey director J. W. Powell, the scandal caused the sharpest decline in the survey's congressional funding until Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution of the 1990s.

In Wallace's book, the now-familiar squabbles on the outcrops of Wyoming and New Mexico, the accusations of plagiarism, fraud and theft, and the ultimate exposure of the feud to the pages of the New York Herald are ably reviewed. But Wallace goes further to provide a new and useful perspective as a journalist and writer.

Most studies of the affair have focused on the conspiracy between Cope and William Hosea Ballou, a freelance journalist, to ‘expose’ Marsh's offences in the pages of the New York Herald, making Ballou an all-too-willing conduit for Cope's venom. Wallace digs deeper into the journalistic politics and ethics of the time and provides convincing circumstantial evidence that the Herald's monomaniacal publisher, the sociopathic socialite James Gordon Bennett Jr, was behind every word and attitude ever printed in his paper.

Bennett's tyrannical behaviour in the newsroom was surpassed by his social outrages. As Wallace puts it, “On New Year's Day of 1877, he drunkenly urinated in the fireplace (or grand piano) of his fiancée's parlor during a gala party. For this, he was horsewhipped by the fiancée's brother and permanently banished from New York society.” Yet Bennett had a sharp sense for what entertained the public. He was responsible for sending Henry M. Stanley to Africa to locate Dr David Livingstone, and was keenly aware of how reports of exploration could captivate an audience in the age of Manifest Destiny — the belief in the inevitable westward expansion of US boundaries to the Pacific. He knew how to fan a smouldering scandal, and he loved to inflate and deflate authorities — often in a single article. Wallace regards him as perhaps the most underestimated man of the late-nineteenth-century United States, a driven, tightly wound alcoholic in whom control manifested itself most strongly in his drive to dominate his profession. This monster, Wallace claims, was directly responsible for the reputation for infighting that hounds science to this day.

Wallace's research brings new historical insight to old tales, but the moral doesn't end there. A journalist who understands the mixing of business and personality as well as he does can't resist bringing the story to the present, and in two closing vignettes Wallace writes postscripts to the late Victorian saga. He first recounts the confusing and generally misunderstood fate of Cope's own bones after his death, attempting to sift through the urban legends of palaeontology to trace their true whereabouts. Cope apparently willed his brain and skeleton to science; the skeleton, after passing from the Anthropometric Society to the Wistar Institute in his native Philadelphia, eventually wound up in Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. The anthropologist–poet Loren Eiseley kept it in his office when he realized what it was, and at some point Cope's lower jaw was lost and doubts were raised about the association of the skull with the body. Mixed in with this tragicomic tale of curation are stories about Cope's alleged desire to become the type specimen of Homo sapiens, the vain attempt to designate him as such, and the misadventures of his remains as they travelled the world in the 1990s in the company of a photographer who was writing a book about contemporary dinosaur-hunters.

Less successful is Wallace's attempt in the closing chapter to draw parallels between the Cope–Marsh feud and the disagreements about sociobiology and other topics that have arisen between today's scientists such as E. O. Wilson and S. J. Gould. Cope and Marsh, human examples of the competitive-exclusion principle in ecology, were after fossils and power. Wilson and Gould, like many scientists, have philosophical differences but are in non-competing fields, and their disagreement is far less personal. Their common causes and values range from the promotion of conservation biology to the opposition to ‘creation science’.

Bennett's Gilded Age audience would have yawned. But today's readers are likely to be absorbed by Wallace's well-written historical account which, perhaps for the first time, shows that, although scientists of the Cope–Marsh period have been portrayed as warped and deceitful, the journalists of the time were at least as bad. There seems to have been no distortion of fact, no manufactured conversation, no false attribution of quotations to which Bennett and his crowd would not have stooped. The book must be successful if it can give a contemporary scientist such as myself a measure of comparative gratitude for the journalistic ethics of our own time.

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Padian, K. Battle of the bones. Nature 405, 121–122 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35012114

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