bone wars, rock-star scientists, and runaway egos

Es­ti­mated reading time is 12 min­utes.

IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES for dis­cov­ering new di­nosaurs! Al­losaurus! Bron­tosaurus! Stegosaurus! Tricer­atops! Bloody rep­tiles with wings and birds with teeth What a heady time it was to be a sci­en­tist! Yet it was ar­guably the worst of times for es­tab­lishing re­spect for sci­en­tists and the rea­son­ably new fields of pa­le­on­tology and com­par­a­tive anatomy. 1

During the latter half of the 19th cen­tury, there was a bit of a tiff be­tween two gi­ants in their fields. Re­ferred to as the “Bone Wars,” it was a ri­valry be­tween two men of in­tel­li­gence, skill, and am­bi­tion that were self-taught pa­le­on­tol­o­gists. (Be­lieve it or not, given money, time, and am­bi­tion, a man could be­come such a thing then, when ‘gifted am­a­teurs’ were often as im­por­tant to some fields as the experts.)

Nothing we do, in­cluding sci­ence, is im­mune to in­ter­per­sonal human being bull­shit. Nothing!

While it may seem pe­cu­liar and even silly to us—and calling their battle for sci­en­tific su­premacy “Bone Wars” con­tributes to this observation—the pro­fes­sional and per­sonal battle be­tween Ed­ward Drinker Cope and Oth­niel Charles Marsh led to the dis­covery and iden­ti­fying of more than a hun­dred new ver­te­brate species in fif­teen years (1887–1892).

The hunting of fos­sils was a rel­a­tively new pas­sion among sci­en­tists, and these two men be­came bitter en­e­mies in their race to un­cover new bones of new species and in­vent new names for their finds.

But the com­pe­ti­tion for pres­tige and po­si­tion led both men to foul tac­tics that in­cluded slander, bribery, out­right theft, and the ac­tual de­struc­tion of the very spec­i­mens that they so cher­ished and pur­sued. Marsh and Cope’s ri­valry ex­hausted both of them fi­nan­cially and even so­cially, but nonethe­less cre­ated a bo­nanza of finds and ad­vance­ments in modern fossil ex­ca­va­tion. 2

It was nei­ther the first time nor the last that men of ge­nius would allow the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of their own egos (whether over-weaned or under-nourished) to in­ter­fere with work that we would as­sume re­quired a cer­tain per­sonal dis­tance and in­tel­lec­tual objectivity.

But few such ego-driven ac­tions pro­duced such pos­i­tive re­sults for sci­en­tific progress; most had dif­ferent effects . . .


Jeff Smith's Complete Bone Comic Book

Un­for­tu­nately for comic book lovers like my­self, ‘Bone Wars’ does not refer to Jeff Smith’s fine Bone se­ries of comic books. Eisner Award winner Smith col­lected the first nine is­sues of his self-published comic into this one mas­sive edi­tion, Bone – The Com­plete Car­toon Epic In One Volume (Car­toon Books, 2010). Don’t let the Pogo Possum-like hero on the cover above throw you—this book is highly rec­om­mended, es­pe­cially if you think you don’t like comic books!

Victories and collateral damage

Prior to the Cope-Marsh Bone Wars, there were only nine named species in North America; after those wars, there were 144! Marsh more or less ‘won’ the war, finding and naming eighty new species, while Cope found a ‘mere’ fifty-six. While most of Cope’s species are some­what ob­scure to most of us layper­sons, Marsh was re­spon­sible for such house­hold names as Al­losaurus, Ap­atosaurus, Bron­tosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.

Aside from the species named and the first full di­nosaur skeleton found, the Bone Wars es­sen­tially de­fined pa­le­on­tology, as we know it. They also made di­nosaurs pop­ular with the public, ap­par­ently for­ever. As modern pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Robert Bakker ob­served, “The di­nosaurs that came from Como Bluff not only filled mu­seums, they filled mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles, text­books. They filled peo­ple’s minds.”

De­spite all that, many modern pa­le­on­tol­o­gists who take pride in being known as ‘fossil hunters’ dis­miss Marsh for his dis­taste for field­work, pre­fer­ring the more cere­bral work of re­search. And that re­search and its re­sults were often done in the haste and heat of battle and led to many mis­takes along the way.

Cope, on the other hand, is ad­mired today for his 1,400 pub­lished papers—an unheard-of amount (also rife with in­ac­cu­ra­cies due to the on­going war ef­fort). There is even a Cope’s Rule that states that pop­u­la­tion lin­eages (a se­quence of species that form a line of de­scent with each new species a di­rect re­sult of a pre­vious species) tend to in­crease in body size over evo­lu­tionary time,

“While com­pe­ti­tion can spur in­di­vid­uals to greater ac­com­plish­ment, the Marsh-Cope com­pe­ti­tion for the glory of finding and naming spec­tac­ular di­nosaurs and mam­mals re­sulted in rushed and in­ad­e­quate pub­li­ca­tions, ef­forts to de­stroy each oth­er’s rep­u­ta­tion, and al­le­ga­tions of spying, bribery, stealing workers, stealing fos­sils, treaty vi­o­la­tions, and even the de­struc­tion of a fossil by dy­na­miting a site by Marsh’s side rather than let it fall into Cope’s hands. While Marsh is well-known for his great finds, his name is also tied to his less-than-noble ac­tions, and those of his workers, which harmed Amer­ican pa­le­on­tology, dam­aged fossil finds, and did in­cal­cu­lable damage to an un­der­standing of the his­tory of life.” (New World En­cy­clo­pedia)

Fi­nally, I can’t pass up the op­por­tu­nity to note that Marsh had the bird-brained idea that modern birds are de­scen­dants of the Thunder Lizards of the past! (Hoowa!)




The Bone Wars took place in the late 19th cen­tury be­tween Mr. Ed­ward Drinker Cope (pa­le­on­tol­o­gist, com­par­a­tive anatomist, her­petol­o­gist, ichthy­ol­o­gist, and in his spare time a founder of Neo-Lamarckism) and Mr. Oth­niel Charles Marsh (pa­le­on­tol­o­gist with an in­terest in anatomy, min­er­alogy, and ge­ology and a de­vout Dar­winian). De­spite their fame and for­tune, there are few pho­to­graphic im­ages of the men to choose from on the In­ternet. These two are among the most fa­miliar and present the sci­en­tists in their ma­ture years—the war years.

Important points and interpersonal bullshit

A friend of mine—and let’s call him Chilè Law­maker (I know, it’s not as cool as Chili Palmer, but it’ll do)—sent me a link to an ar­ticle ti­tled “Study: Elite sci­en­tists can hold back sci­ence” by Brian Resnick for the Vox Sci­ence & Health web­site (De­cember 15, 2015). His ac­com­pa­nying mes­sage read, “I think this ar­ticle makes an im­por­tant point.” 3

Ob­vi­ously, Chilè wanted me to read it.

It dealt with the egos of promi­nent sci­en­tists and the ob­sta­cles that those egos can pose for progress in any given en­deavor, in­cluding the sup­pos­edly ob­jec­tive fields of sci­ence. As Mr. Resnick summed it up, “Sci­ence is not im­mune to in­ter­per­sonal bull­shit.” 4

I read the piece and emailed back to Chile a char­ac­ter­istic, “Duh.”

Done there.

Been that.

But Chilè pestered me to turn this into a piece for my web­site. And so here I am, writing a wee bit on how NOTHING we hu­mans do is im­mune to the needs of our vanity.



This en­graving is from the June 15, 1878, issue of Sci­en­tific Amer­ican. Como Bluff ridge in Wyoming is an an­ti­cline formed as a re­sult of ge­o­log­ical folding. Three for­ma­tions con­taining fossil re­mains from the Late Jurassic Era are ex­posed. Nineteenth-century pa­le­on­tol­o­gists dis­cov­ered many well-preserved spec­i­mens of di­nosaurs, mam­mals, tur­tles, croc­o­dil­ians, and fish.

Until death do us part

Resnick quotes Max Planck, the Nobel Prize-winning physi­cist who pi­o­neered quantum theory: “A new sci­en­tific truth does not tri­umph by con­vincing its op­po­nents and making them see the light, but rather be­cause its op­po­nents even­tu­ally die, and a new gen­er­a­tion grows up that is fa­miliar with it.”

This is known as Planck’s prin­ciple (and I don’t know why it’s not cap­i­tal­ized) and Resnick noted how the Na­tional Bu­reau of Eco­nomic Re­search (NBER) re­searched that prin­ciple. They used the PubMed web­site (look it up—you’ll be im­pressed) and found ev­i­dence that led them to this:

“After the un­ex­pected death of a rock-star sci­en­tist, their fre­quent collaborators—the ju­nior re­searchers who au­thored pa­pers with them—suddenly see a drop in pub­li­ca­tion. At the same time, there is a marked in­crease in pub­lished work by other new­comers to the field.

Un­like the col­lab­o­ra­tors, pre­sum­ably, these new­comers are less be­holden to the dead lu­mi­naries. They were less likely to cite the de­ceased star’s work. And they seemed to be making novel ad­vances in science.

All this sug­gests there’s a go­liath’s shadow ef­fect. People are ei­ther pre­vented from or afraid of chal­lenging a leading thinker in a field. That or sci­en­tific sub­fields are like grown-up ver­sions of high school cafe­teria ta­bles. New people just can’t sit there until the queen bee dies.” 5

Resnick ends his piece by noting, “Sci­ence may be a noble dis­ci­pline based on cold logic and ra­tional ob­ser­va­tion, but hu­mans are an­i­mals fu­eled by emo­tion and bias. As the NBER re­searchers con­clude: ‘[T]he idio­syn­cratic stances of in­di­vidual sci­en­tists can do much to alter, or at least delay, the course of sci­en­tific advance.’ ”

This re­ally shouldn’t sur­prise anyone.



This is a re­con­struc­tion of Homo naledi’s head mod­eled by artist John Gurche. This piece re­quired ap­prox­i­mately 700 hours of work to recreate this head from the bone scans. Homo naledi was the cover story “Al­most Human” for the Oc­tober 2015 issue of 

Considerable controversy

Since agreeing to use the Resnick piece for a piece of my own, an­other ar­ticle brought re­lated is­sues to the fore: “Pa­le­oan­thro­polgy Wars” by Nathan H. Lents is sad­dled with the lengthy sub-title, “The Dis­covery of Homo Naledi Has Gen­er­ated Con­sid­er­able Con­tro­versy in This Sci­en­tific Dis­ciple.” Here is an edited ver­sion of the first two paragraphs:

“News of the ex­plo­sive dis­covery of Homo naledi in South Africa re­ver­ber­ated throughout the world in Sep­tember 2015. The sci­en­tific, pop­ular, and so­cial media were equally abuzz with the truly breath­taking na­ture of the find: thou­sands of fos­sils, more than a dozen in­di­vid­uals, al­most an en­tire skeleton re­con­structed. It was a one-of-a-kind discovery.

The find was dif­ferent in an­other way as well. Lee Berger, the an­thro­pol­o­gist leading the study, showed a staunch com­mit­ment to get the re­sults of the team’s work out to the public as soon as pos­sible. Within two years of their ini­tial dis­covery, the first pa­pers were pub­lished and the fos­sils were made avail­able to the public. Berger and an­other member of the team, John Hawks, com­pleted ex­ten­sive three-dimensional imaging of the fos­sils and pro­vided the re­sulting data free of charge to anyone.

With these data, one can 3D print your very own high-resolution casts of the orig­inal fos­sils. From any­where in the world, one can ob­tain a fac­simile of the highest pos­sible quality, at no cost ex­cept for the ma­te­rials for the printing. Even in our open-access era, this is an unheard-of level of trans­parency and data sharing.”

I am far from a sci­ence buff, but I enjoy reading about new dis­cov­eries in sci­ence. I am blessed with being step­fa­ther to a young man who is bloody bril­liant, es­pe­cially in sci­ence and math­e­matics. I can call him up and say, “Steven, please ex­plain the event horizon of a black hole to me in lan­guage I can understand.”

And he can!

And has.

Be­cause I do have that kind of in­terest in science.

So I imagine trans­parency and early re­lease of new data by pro­fes­sionals to the world of am­a­teurs and in­ter­ested civil­ians is a big deal to those people. So I am all in favor of the ear­liest pos­sible re­lease of new data.



Lee Berger with Aus­tralo­p­ithecus sediba model, a species of Aus­tralo­p­ithecus of the early Pleis­tocene. It was iden­ti­fied from six skele­tons dis­cov­ered in the Ma­lapa Fossil Site at the Cradle of Hu­mankind World Her­itage Site in South Africa. The fos­sils were found to­gether at the bottom of the Ma­lapa Cave, where they ap­par­ently fell to their death, and have been dated to be­tween 1.977 and 1.980 mil­lion years ago.

Vague defining characteristics

Mr. Lents de­scribes the amazing find and the speed with which the team made their find­ings avail­able. But the gist of the ar­ticle con­cerns the op­po­si­tion to both the find­ings and the manner in which those find­ings have been disseminated.

“Pa­le­oan­thro­pol­o­gist and Na­tional Academy of Sci­ence member Tim White, for ex­ample, stepped for­ward as the critic-in-chief. White has earned his place in the field’s hall of fame sev­eral times over and per­haps his biggest con­tri­bu­tion is Ardi (Ardip­ithecus ramidus), one of the oldest known ho­minins. Nearly two mil­lion years older than ‘Lucy’ (Aus­tralo­p­ithecus afarensis), Ardi brought deep in­sight into how and when the lin­eage that would give rise to hu­mans di­verged from our common an­cestor with apes.”

Lents does not paint a pretty pic­ture of White, and the lat­ter’s ego was a part of the conversation:

“While it seems hard to argue with White’s po­si­tion that slow, careful, de­lib­er­a­tive sci­ence yields the most trust­worthy con­clu­sions, there is a dark side to one person holding such pre­cious fos­sils close to his vest for so long: the ac­cu­sa­tion of elitism.

During the many years that everyone in the field knew that White had in his pos­ses­sion the bones of an in­cred­ibly an­cient ho­minin, he had com­plete con­trol over who had ac­cess to them and how much could be re­vealed. In ad­di­tion to bol­stering his own fame in the field, the pro­tracted pro­tec­tionism of the Ardi fos­sils meant that the pace of re­search thereof was to­tally under his control.”

I present this as a teaser be­cause I want you to click on over to the Skeptic web­site and read the en­tire ar­ticle. Lents’s ar­ticle bol­sters both Resnick’s ar­ticle and the some­what silly title of my ar­ticle, “Bone Wars, Rock-Star Sci­en­tists, And Run­away Egos.”

Mr. Lents ends his ar­ticle (and it’s lengthy, so be pre­pared) with an in­ter­esting ob­ser­va­tion: “An­other matter di­viding the pa­le­oan­thro­pology com­mu­nity is the need to re­vise the Homo genus, which suf­fers from poor bound­aries and vague defining char­ac­ter­is­tics.” 6

That is, we may need to re­de­fine who our an­ces­tors were, and thereby re­de­fine who we are. But what if our best pa­le­oan­thro­pol­o­gists clash over the re­vising of the Homo genus and find them­selves in a pro­tracted standoff?

What if such a ri­valry be­came bogged down in the bit­ter­ness and pet­ti­ness that White is al­ready dis­playing to­wards Burger and Hawks?

What if this com­pe­ti­tion for pres­tige and place by rock-star sci­en­tists held back progress in pa­le­oan­thro­pology and paleontology?

Then per­haps in the not too dis­tant fu­ture his­to­rians will look back and refer to it as the “Homo Wars.” 7



FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is Steve Carell and James Gan­dolfini from The In­cred­ible Burt Won­der­stone (2013). “In­stead of playing the shrewd and short-tempered capo of a crim­inal or­ga­ni­za­tion based in New Jersey, [Gan­dolfini] was to be the shrewd and short-tempered capo of a crim­inal or­ga­ni­za­tion based in New Haven, Con­necticut. The movie was to be called Bone Wars, about the feud be­tween two fossil-hunting aca­d­e­mics in the 19th cen­tury. Their many years of vi­cious competition—played out across the Wild West, with se­cret deals and sticks of dynamite—left both men des­ti­tute and dis­ap­pointed.” (Slate) In­stead, the tal­ented Gan­dolfini had to go and die on us in June 2013.





1   While sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the his­tory of species can be traced back ear­lier, I am using the work of Georges Cu­vier, no­tably the of his thought and be­liefs as pre­sented in Le Règne An­imal (The An­imal Kingdom) pub­lished in 1817.

2   Sev­eral non-fiction books have been pub­lished about the Cope-Marsh Bone War, in­cluding at least one chil­dren’s book. More in­ter­esting are Brett Davis’s pair of historical-science fic­tion novels Bone Wars and Two Tiny Claws.

3   I have given Chilè a fake name so that none of his con­ser­v­a­tive friends will know that he prefers the com­pany of a couple of pinko-commie-hippie-bleeding-heart-librulls like Berni’s and mine to theirs. You know how con­ser­v­a­tives can be about frat­er­nizing with the enemy . . .

4   If you think that the use of the term in­ter­per­sonal bull­shit means that this is going to be an anti-science rant, you are in­cor­rect. This is a very pro-science essay with an anti-inflated/insecure ego slant to it.

5   I like! I had never heard the term go­liath’s shadow ef­fect be­fore, and while it is self-explanatory, it may be Mr. Lents’s coinage as the pri­mary list­ings for it on the first page of my Google search all re­ferred to Lents’s ar­ticle in some way.

6   “Al­most 300 years ago, Lin­naeus de­fined our genus Homo (and its species Homo sapiens) with the non­com­mittal words nosce te ipsum (‘know thy­self’). Since then, fossil and mol­e­c­ular bi­ology studies have pro­vided in­sights into its evo­lu­tion, yet the bound­aries of both the species and the genus re­main as fuzzy as ever, new fos­sils having been rather hap­haz­ardly as­signed to species of Homo, with min­imal at­ten­tion to de­tails of mor­phology.” (Sci­ence magazine)

7   By the by, ol’ Chilè ap­proved the final ver­sion of this essay for gen­eral reading au­di­ences everywhere . . .



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being from western wyoming i have seen many fos­sils while out hunting, fishing, and camping. that skeleton next to the in­di­anapolis jones looking guy could very well be me. my arms are so long i need plat­form shoes to keep my knuckles from drag­ging the ground when i walk.

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