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K. Kris Hirst

Dinosaur Wars on American Experience

By January 16, 2011

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On Monday, January 17th, 2011, PBS's American Experience presents "Dinosaur Wars", a fascinating tale of irrational greed and murderous jealousy over fossils and academic fame.

In the mid-19th century, the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species brought about a huge upswell of public interest in science. For a brief period of time, if you were white, male and monied, you too could be a paleontologist: there simply were no or very few educational programs for the budding science. Public interest and nothing short of fossil fever led to the immense growth of scientific research. By the late 19th century, American government spending on science outspent any other country in the world. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Prof. E.D. Cope's Study 1897
Prof. E.D. Cope's Study 1897. Photographer F. Gutekunst, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-91052

That spending came down with a crash, when Congress slashed the US Geological Survey's gargantuan budget after a scandal, which grew out of personal invective and bitter rivalry between two of paleontology's pioneers. The self-taught amateur Edward Drinker Cope and Yale University academic Othniel Charles Marsh were brilliant men, who together were responsible for the collections of tens of thousands of fossils, and for the exploration of Jurassic fossil beds at Como Bluff in Wyoming among many other sites. Marsh had the force of personality required to establish the U.S. Geological Survey; Cope had an uncanny ability to imagine what a collection of bones might represent.

Their rivalry took the two men off into the deep end of the pool, and both eventually ruined their careers and their lives. They spied on one another, sabotaged one another's research, wrote competing papers about the same fossil species, and generally wasted a great deal of time and fortune despising one another. "Dinosaur Wars" is a painful reminder that the history of science is littered with egos the size of hadrosaurs.

PBS's "Dinosaur Wars" tells this fascinating story using vintage photographs, video from paleontological sites and commentary from paleontologists Robert Bakker, Jacques Gautier, Tim Rowe and Peter Dodson, historian Steven Conn and the author of the Gilded Dinosaur Mark Jaffe. Produced by Mark Davis, Anna Saraceno and Mark Samels, Dinosaur Wars airs on Monday night, January 17th, and it is an hour well spent.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.


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