How Kansas set off a bitter battle between rival paleontologists

1871 Photo

It’s kind of an odd fact that Kansas was a more dangerous part of the West and the early 1870s than places usually associated with Indian conflict, like Wyoming or Arizona. The bison extermination was starting and the Arapaho and Cheyenne were just infuriated about that. So it was sort of a fraught place to be when [Edward Drinker] Cope and [Othniel Charles] Marsh were going out. Kansas was very important as a flashpoint. Cope was unhappy because Marsh had lots of resources. He was able to fund this expedition lavishly and man it with students from Yale and he got the Army’s help to guard it from the Indians. Cope went out the next year in reaction to that, and he was bragging about how much more he was able to do than Marsh, even though he didn’t have the resources. The [ground in western] Kansas is what they call Kansas chalk. It’s a Cretaceous limestone left over from the late dinosaur age when the North American interior was an inland sea. At the time, there were areas where the erosion had exposed deposits of bones. In western Kansas, there were places where you could see a mosasaur coming out of a bluff. Cope and Marsh were exploring evolution with their own particular ideas about it. Marsh was a Darwinian and Cope was a Lamarckian. Marsh made one of the most important discoveries supporting Darwinism in Kansas: He found bones of a marine bird that had lived in a dinosaur-age ocean. The birds had teeth, which of course no living bird has, and which reptiles do. This was a very important link between reptile evolution and avian evolution. In the end, it sort of boomeranged on Marsh. Cope was very jealous, because he was never able to make a discovery that important. He attacked Marsh in the New York Herald, accusing him of charalanism and corruption. Being hauled through the gutter press dimmed Marsh’s luster. At the time, Marsh was the staff paleontologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, a very important position to him. The survey had a lot of enemies in Congress and they used Marsh’s discovery of birds with teeth — he’d had a lavish monograph done of them — against him. Most of Congress weren’t Darwinians, so they used Marsh’s discovery of birds with teeth as an example of the uselessness and esotericism of the U.S. Geological Survey. They got Marsh fired, which basically ended his public career.

— David Rains Wallace, author of The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age, as told to Kansas City

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