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Book Review 238: The Gilded Dinosaur

July 5, 2012 - Harry Eagar
Just about any history book about dinosaurs contains a few pages about the spirited competition between Yale's O.C. Marsh and Philadelphia's Edward Cope to find fossils – especially dinosaur fossils – in the West during the late 19th century. Beyond the funny anecdote about Cope putting the skull on the wrong end of Elasmosaurus and Marsh sending his agents to kidnap boxes of bones gathered for Cope, most authors don't go.

It turns out there was a lot more to it than that.

Sure enough the anecdotes are memorable: Marsh and his pony Pawnee caught in a huge buffalo stampede, Cope being saved by his pony from going over a cliff in the dark, both men risking their skins to prospect for bones in the middle of the Indian wars.

Jaffe makes a good case that the irascible Marsh and the cantankerous Cope had a lot to do with the professionalization and bureaucratization of American science – and with its support by the federal government.

When they were young and poor, the number of professional scientists in America was in the low hundreds, and ambitious researchers had to go to Germany. Before they were through, America had thousands of professional scientists, and government expenditures on them dwarfed the public support of research of all the rest of the world together.

It couldn't have happened that way if Cope and Marsh hadn't inherited fortunes, and spent them on research. But presumably it could have happened without all the rancor and backstabbing.

And presumably it could not have happened if both Marsh and Cope had not had some admirable human qualities, which, however, they often managed to conceal.

Even by the standards of the Victorian years, when conformity was optional for the rich, Marsh and Cope were singular.

Marsh treated his helpers with contempt but worked hard to try to make the government fulfill its obligations to the Sioux. He earned the gratitude of Red Cloud.

Cope treated his helpers better but his friends worse.

Marsh was meticulous and secretive, Cope was careless and publicity-hungry. As enemies, they fitted together as perfectly as a key in a lock, or, perhaps, a femur in a pelvis. It was almost comical that toward the end, Marsh, who had exposed Cope's Elasmosaurus error, made a similar error by inventing Brontosaurus, an error Cope gleefully pounced on.

While the story is absorbing, “The Gilded Dinosaur” is the worst book I have ever read for errors. There are thousands. In fact, it looks like an uncorrected proof, but it was issued by Crown as a completed book.


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