Book Review: The Gilded Dinosaur, by Mark Jaffe.
Back when I was a little kid, my knowledge of dinosaurs was well in the ‘precocious’ category. I could tell you the difference between a sauropod and a ceratopsian, I had firm opinions on why the Cretaceous was cooler than the Jurassic, and I really didn’t like The Land Before Time movies because they weren’t accurate (Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus in the same period? FOR SHAME).
However, while I could (and still can) tell you all about the ‘who’s who’ of dinosaurs, I really didn’t know that much about the scientists who discovered them. Of course, with the way education is, most people are lucky to learn about science period, at which point they might cover Newton, Darwin, and maybe Einstein or the Curies or something. Which is a shame.
Mark Jaffe’s The Gilded Dinosaur does a little to remedy this. It focuses on the scientific rivalry between the two greatest American paleontologists of the 19th century: Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.
While they started off as colleagues, Cope and Marsh soon grew to loathe each other, and each one attacked the other’s findings through the scientific journals of the time. In a particularly amusing anecdote, Cope listed his findings on the Elasmosaurus, a giant aquatic reptile with (as he saw it) a really long tail. Marsh allegedly took a look at the findings, and told Cope he’d put the skull on the wrong end, humiliating Cope. Marsh was right, too- plesiosaurs are now known for their long necks.
And so, the Bone Wars had begun. Over the course of 30 years, they continually tried to one up each other, digging up hundreds of fossils- not just of dinosaurs, but of pretty much any other prehistoric critters they could find.
Many of the dinosaurs you can name off the top of your head were discovered during the Bone Wars: Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, Triceratops, and dozens more that you probably haven’t heard of (or maybe you have, if you were as big a dinosaur nerd as I was way back when).
While paleontology isn’t the focus of the book, there’s still a good amount of interesting info within. In was floored by the fact that a lot of dinosaur theory that’s only now becoming widely accepted was initially proposed at the dawn of the science. For example, Thomas Huxley (a naturalist nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog”) proposed that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and also that dinosaurs were likely warm blooded.
The fascinating thing about the Bone Wars is that it wasn’t a purely academic endeavor. Jaffe does a great job of using the Bone Wars as a lens to view 19th century American History as a whole. Some men went West in search of gold, or land, or more mundane resources like timber or coal- fossils were just another of the United States’ invaluable resources, just waiting to be found. During their travels across the American West, Cope and Marsh crossed paths with many famous figures of the 19th century: General Custer, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum, Brigham Young, and more. Cope even briefly collected specimens with Gabriel Marnoch.
Young’s involvement is a particularly interesting sidenote: he hosted Marsh as one of his early expeditions was passing through Salt Lake City. Marsh had written a comprehensive study on the evolution of ancient horses, which Young in turn used to support The Book of Mormon’s mention of horses living in pre-colonial North America. Little tidbits like this are a great way to see how, even so long ago, science, religion, and politics could be intertwined.
While their feud started in scientific journals (the comments section of the day), it soon spread to Washington D.C., where Marsh was able to use his influence with the U.S. Geological Survey to block several of Cope’s attempts to gain funding for his projects. In turn, Cope attacked Marsh in the newspapers (the cable news networks of the day), leading some Congressmen to use Cope’s accusations as an excuse to deny the U.S. Geological Survey funding in order to pursue their own agendas. I’m simplifying things in this synopsis, but still, everything’s connected. There are obvious parallels to be found in uninformed politicians opposing this so-called “science” business for their own reasons. Know history lest ye be doomed to repeat it, etc.
In The Gilded Dinosaur, Jaffe lays out these connections quite thoroughly. It’s a dense book, and sometimes it can be a little hard to keep track of a lot of the lesser known scientists that pop up. Then again, I might’ve benefited from reading a little more closely. Then again, I’m not writing a paper on the Bone Wars or anything, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
It would be easy to pick sides- Marsh was a stodgy Yale professor who possibly stole and plagarized the work of his assistants, and Cope was the underdog family man. At least, as much as an Underdog a wealthy self-taught gilded-age academic could be. It’s worth noting that both Cope and Marsh had burned through their fortunes in their devotion to paleontology (and one-upping each other).
On the other hand, Cope was also racist and sexist, going on about the inferiority of “the negro,” and firmly opposing women’s suffrage. In contrast, Marsh was instrumental in shining light on the fraud and graft seemingly inherent to the Reservation system that the American Indians were subject to at the time. So, y’know, both of them were flawed, complicated people. Funny how that works.
In any case, The Guilded Dinosaur provides a view into a little known corner of American history. I suppose it’s niche reading, but I’d recommend it to anyone with a passing interest in paleontology or the exploration of The West in general. Just be prepared for the dense academics. It’s got a lengthy index and bibliography and everything.
You might want to take notes.