THE COPE-MARSH BONE WAR
THE COPE-MARSH BONE WAR: ITS IMPACT ON PALEONTOLOGY AND ITS CONTINUED USE TO THE TEACHING OF SCIENCE
By Maureen Babb University of Manitoba, Canada and Megan Anderson University of Winnipeg, Canada.
One of the bitterest conflicts in the history of paleontology was that between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. The rivalry spilled beyond the bounds of the discipline and into the public eye when details of it were published in the New York Herald, much to the chagrin of the paleontological community at large.
The conflict was undeniably detrimental to the discipline. Rushed work, unethical means of obtaining fossils, naming controversies, and the resignation of Joseph Leidy from the field to which he had contributed to so heavily were only some of the consequences of the feud between Cope and Marsh.
Despite this, the conflict was not without its benefits. The hatred between the pair ensured that both were constantly looking to outshine the other, and the sheer volume of work that was done between them is rather impressive.
Likewise, the number of fossils collected is quite laudable. Regardless of the embarrassment that arose from the publicity that Cope and Marsh garnered, the feud ensured that paleontology remained in the minds of the general populace more than it otherwise might have, for the story of their quarrel was one that demanded the attention of those that knew about it.
The story of their feud captures the imagination just as well now as it did when it was new; perhaps even more so for being set in an oft-romanticized period of history.
Being such a compelling story, the tale of Cope and Marsh can be used by educators to act as both a hook to interest students in science and the history thereof, as well as a cautionary tale that highlights the dangers of allowing an academic conflict to also become am extremely personal or exceptionally large one.
Ethical conflicts and intense disagreements between scholars is not yet something that has been relegated to the past, and an example such as the one provided by Cope and Marsh can be a tool with which to introduce such subjects to academics.
This paper will explore the Cope-Marsh conflict in a way that focuses on the relative detriments and benefits of the feud in regards to the discipline of paleontology as a whole.
Further, the paper will demonstrate how exciting stories from the history of science can be used to address ethical issues that still arise in modern academia, with the Cope-Marsh example acting as a template. Was the Cope-Marsh war more beneficial than detrimental?
Was the feud directly responsible for breached ethics and cut corners? What, if anything, did paleontology as a discipline gain from the feud? What can we, as academics in a modern setting, learn from this bone war? These and other queries are the focus of this paper.