Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dinosaur hunters

The 19th century was perhaps the last century of the true adventurer-scientist. It was a time when the earth had largely been charted, but there were still large swathes of unexplored land. It was also a time when we were beginning to understand a lot of things about the earth, moving beyond simplistic religious versions of the creation of the earth, to a complex geological and biological understanding of it. The work of Charles Lyell and many others had revealed that the earth was in fact millions of years old, and slowly but constantly changing. The 19th century was also the last era of the amateur “gentleman” scientist. The scientist would almost always be male, invariably would be a person of moderate to affluent wealth, and would dazzle society with his wit and wisdom, or amuse society with his eccentricities, or both.

The 19th century was an exhilarating time for paleontology and (in my mind) a great time for fossil hunters.

While reading about these stories, I recently came across the story of a remarkable person whom I’d hardly heard about, Mary Anning. Mary was one of the great pioneers of fossil hunting, and her work laid some of the foundations for understanding early life, and actually helps explain the fact that animals DID actually go extinct (and the world has not remained unchanged for ever, with all the species intact). Mary was just twelve (or thirteen, depending on the story) when she discovered her first fossil on cliffs along the English Channel. She discovered the fossils of a giant sea-monster called the Ichthyosaur. She spent the next thirty odd years unearthing fossil after fossil, including those of the first plesiosaurus and a nearly complete skeleton of a pterodactyls, (more popularly known as those flying bird-like reptiles in Jurassic Park).

Not surprisingly, she lived a life of relative poverty, without any support from the famous Royal societies (and only managed an honorary membership of the Geological society of London a little before she died). So much for being a woman in science.


But the most engaging story of the time (purely from a public entertainment perspective) in the world of paleontology came from this side of the Atlantic, in the highly cinematic bone wars. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh ruthlessly drove a most improbably rivalry; of finding fossils. They seem to have been petty, ruthless, jealous, extremely mistrustful, and perhaps changed the world of paleontology for ever. Think of just about every famous dinosaur you’ve heard of (except the T. Rex). Diplodocus, triceratops, Stegosaurus, Dimetrodon……all of these fossils were discovered by Cope or Marsh. But their stories are far more engaging.

They started off (in true storybook style) as bosom friends and admirers, but somehow something went wrong between them. They then spent the next thirty years as proverbial archenemies, trying to outdo each other in finding fossils, while simultaneously destroying or sabotaging the work of the other. Their personalities were suitably different. Marsh was a supremely rich individual, but was incompetent. Some historians said that he couldn’t spot a pile of bones lying right in front of him. But he could buy just about anything he wanted. Cope was also born wealthy, but pursued extremely risky projects, like raiding Native American lands during a time of intense rivalry and war between the natives and the white settlers.

The rivalry between them reached ridiculous proportions. Diggers from one team would sometimes throw rocks at the other team, and each accused the other of serious sabotage. Apparently, Cope and his men were once caught using crowbars to open crates that belonged to Marsh. They publicly insulted each other, accusing each other of incompetence, treachery, and fraud. In between they managed to discover well over a hundred species of now extinct dinosaurs.

There is one story that might be the reason why Cope and Marsh became archenemies. Cope discovered the fossil of a species called Elasmosaurus. He proudly displayed it to his (then) friend Marsh, who told Cope that the vertebrae (backbone) were backwards. This was an almost direct insult to Cope, and another pioneering paleontologist, Joseph Leidy was called to determine who was right. After all, one of them had to be wrong. Leidy, it is rumored, took one look at the specimen, and then took the head off the assembled fossil, and placed it where Cody thought the tail was. Cody embarrassedly tried to cover up his errors in some published manuscripts, but Leidy exposed the cover up in the subsequent meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences. The friendship of Marsh and Cody was toast.

Meanwhile, Cody lost his entire fortune by investing it in the “next big thing” of the time, silver (any one want to buy an oil well, please write to me). But in his last years, Cody came up with a rather novel obsession. He decided that he wanted to be the “type specimen” for Homo sapiens, that is, his bones would be the official specimen for the human race. Even though it was a rather crazy wish, there really wasn’t any ground to oppose it, since there wasn’t any official type specimen for humans. So, Cope willed his bones to the Wistar Institute. Unfortunately, when he died, they found that he had the early stages of syphilis, so with that his dream of his bones being immortalized died for ever.

Interesting times, to say the least. Here’s almost perfect material for the script of a Hollywood blockbuster (and an opportunity for Hollywood to move beyond sequels and comic books). There’s real Indiana Jones style adventure here, and drama and quixotic characters and action with fights and raids. Throw in a (fictional) love interest as the reason for their rivalry, and here you go, a potboiler is ready. Now, whom would you have playing the main cast?


Ashish Gupta said...

So the position of type specimen still open?

Sunil said...

heh....I believe the position is still open, Ashish. I guess you want to leave a legacy behind :-)

Fëanor said...

I say, are you reading the book The Dinosaur Hunters? If not: it discusses the young woman you allude to, and talks about the villainous anatomist Richard Owen, who for sheer ruthlessness would have gladdened Machiavelli's heart.

Sunil said...

feanor.....I'm not reading The Dinosaur Hunters presently, though it has been on my "to read" list for quite a while now. It is supposed to be an excellent book. Owen was rather ruthless, but his one major contribution was to make the Natural History Museum open to the public. That was the first museum to open to the public. Till then it was a place for academics alone. He was instrumental in transforming museums from stuff old buildings to places where the greater public could learn, and that is a legacy hard to surpass.

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