Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dinosaurs and Fate

Last week, I wrote a bit about late 19th Century attitudes toward dinosaurs, citing a few examples from the popular press that demonstrated that at the notion of dynamic, active dinosaurs was generally considered reasonable. But it was a quick scan of magazines and journals archived at Google books, and questions remained that could only be resolved with further reading. Just how popular were dinosaurs? How many experts were there? There were some major players in paleontology, such as Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, T.H. Huxley, Joseph Leidy, and Sir Richard Owen, as well as lesser known disciples. But it was a small field. Today, we have many more scientists who specialize in dinosaurs. They appear in documentaries, write pop-sci books, and write blogs. We're used to paleontology making headlines. For better or worse.

As it happens, I've been reading The Bonehunters' Revenge by David Rains Wallace. It's a thorough accounting of Cope and Marsh's Bone Wars, a fierce rivalry over access to the fossils of the American West during the last quarter century or so of the 1800's. I intend to write a review of the book in general when I'm done, but Chapter 10, Dinosaurs and Fate, has much to say on the rivals' influence on popular notions of dinosaurs.




Top to Bottom: OC Marsh and ED Cope. Both portraits from wikimedia commons.

Cope and Marsh, gifted paleontologists both, discovered and named such Mesozoic celebrities as Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Brontosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Triceratops. But they weren't necessarily thorough when it came to dinosaurs. Their respective collectors were shipping so many dinosaur bones to the professors back east that they simply didn't have time to study them in depth. In a startling example, Wallace explains that Cope didn't even open the boxes containing a nearly complete Allosaurus from the generous bone beds at Wyoming's Como Bluff, and it fell to his protege Henry Fairfield Osborn to study it after Cope's death.

In all, Wallace paints a picture of a society that didn't pay dinosaurs much heed. Marsh's true claim to fame was his important work on horse and bird evolution. Wallace describes combing the two biggest New York papers for coverage of dinosaur discoveries, "as mind-numbing... as combing dirt for bones," and in the end he found scant mention of dinosaurs. He also calls out Robert Bakker as being a bit too enthusiastic in his accounting of the popular impact of Como Bluff discoveries of 1877. The Como Bluff digs were bitter and hard-fought, a low point in the Bone Wars, and Wallace found that public reaction mirrored this aspect of the science rather than the spectacular nature of the dinosaurs coming out of the ground. Dinosaurs weren't selling newspapers.

The myth of a dinosaurian Golden Age during the Gilded Age is pretty well punctured by Wallace. As captivating as it can be, resurrecting bizarre lost worlds is not paleontology's highest mission; that lies in reconstructing the evolutionary history of life on Earth. The dinosaurs Cope and Marsh squabbled over contributed little to the study of evolution in its early years; they were overshadowed greatly by finds like Marsh's Hesperornis and Eohippus. The dinosaurs were regarded as oddities that had little bearing on the living world. Wallace makes the case that those ideas that credited dinosaurs with the active lifestyles we're used to today weren't terribly prominent, and it's not surprising that they were subsumed by ideas more amenable to western culture in the 20th century: groaning, dim-witted monsters well-deserving of their extinction.

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