IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES for discovering new dinosaur species—hundreds of them! Allosaurus! Brontosaurus! Stegosaurus! Triceratops! Bloody reptiles with wings! Grate Grommett’s Balls of Fire, there were birds with teeth! What was next? What a heady, marvelous time it must have been 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 …
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 we 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.”
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 us do 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 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
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!
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. sediba is a species of Australopithecus of the early Pleistocene, 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 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 its 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 mush 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)
7 By the by, ol’ Chilè approved the final version of this essay for general reading audiences everywhere …