Monday, January 17, 2011

The American Experience presents "The Dinosaur Wars"

Part of the appeal of writing about dinosaurs is the fact that they are so intertwined with my native culture. The study of dinosaurs belongs to everyone, of course, but they are a quintessential part of American culture. As time has gone on, how dinosaurs are presented in the media has complimented American cultural trends. One significant chapter in dinosaur paleontology, the Bone Wars of the late 19th Century, illustrates how the robber baron mentality of the era's industrial magnates played out in the badlands of the west.

The PBS series The American Experience visits this drama tonight, in an episode called "The Dinosaur Wars." I've written about the Bone Wars a few times here, and it's well-trodden ground among dinosaur enthusiasts. But it's one of those compelling stories that isn't particularly famous among the general public, and it's certainly due for coverage in this kind of venue.

The film's producers, MDTV Productions, know this territory well, having produced a number of dinosaur films in the past. "The Dinosaur Hunters," plays as a tragedy, really. The audience meets Othniel Charles Marsh, Yale's imposing master paleontologist, and the broad-minded if not as well-heeled Edward Drinker Cope. There's the hint that they could be comrades in arms. That hint burns away in a flash as petty jealousies swell into a monstrous rivalry over the western bone fields that alienated colleagues and titillated hype-mongering newspaper publishers. It also resulted in tons upon tons of fossil bones making their way back east, and the discovery of superstar dinosaurs like Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus. Still, Cope dies bitter and destitute. Marsh, alone for most of his life, dies that way, leaving a band of frustrated lab workers in his wake.

My favorite movie is There Will Be Blood, and to different extents, there's a bit of Daniel Plainview's blind, destructive ambition in the hearts of Cope and Marsh. What's scary here is that the virtues of curiosity and reason they possessed as scientists were not enough to keep the darkness in check. Had they gone about their careers in isolation, they probably still would have done good work and left respectable legacies. The obsession that bound them together and set them against each other elevated each man's stature and left behind a towering pile of fossil treasures that is literally still being worked through today.

"The Dinosaur Hunters" gives a nice primer on this story, sharing the inspiring vistas of the west, the seductions of discovery, and showing how scientific ambitions can be turned inside out. Like all human history, the history of how we've come to know the dinosaurs has its own incidents of confounding actions and their knotted consequences, and I'm happy to see The American Experience bringing one of these stories to its audience. As spectacles like Reign of the Dinosaurs and Walking with Dinosaurs 3D loom, it's important that those of us who take pleasure in history have their own piece of the dinosaurs' story. American viewers can tune into their local PBS affiliate at 9PM ET/PT. PBS is usually pretty good about having these shows available online, so international viewers can keep an eye on the website, which also features a wealth of supplementary material.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.

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