Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh


Darwin mucked up existing biology as remorselessly as Ricardo and Malthus had the realm of political economy. Indeed, it was straight from Malthus that Darwin drew the insight that more individuals were born into the biological world than the environment could support, thus setting up a struggle for existence. Because no two individuals were alike, some variations would prove more advantageous and their survival would be encouraged; individuals lacking such characteristics would be placed in an unfortunate competitive position and would perish. Thus laissez faire entered the blood stream of biology, and the life sciences caught up with the “dismal science.” Given enough time—and Darwin’s system required a lot of time because “nature’s” selection of desirable traits, unlike those of the stockbreeder, were not guided by intelligence and purpose—species would form.

“The law of higgledy piggledy” is what the English astronomer Sir John Herschel called it. Even Darwin’s American defender, the botanist Asa Gray, tried to reconcile natural selection with Christian teleology. Yet if Darwinism was to be taken straight, higgledy-piggledy would have to wash down with it. Some found it hard to swallow. As late as 1874 the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge asked, “What is Darwinism?” in a widely read book. His answer was unequivocal. “It is atheism.”

Darwin himself expected that when the gaps were filled in the geologic record, his argument would be strengthened by the discovery of “missing links.” Vertebrate paleontology would later provide supporting evidence, mostly after his death, but at the start the paucity of the evidence had been Darwin’s chief defense. The genetic mechanism was not yet known to Western science, and only a beginning had been made. Marsh was the first American professor of paleontology, the second in the world. Of the seven hundred pages devoted to North American geology in James Dwight Dana’s Manual of Geology (1862), only two dealt with vertebrate fossils; and those were mostly elephants, mastodons, sloths, and horses, dating from the recent Quaternary period, about five hundred thousand years ago. Many of them had been identified by Joseph Leidy, professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania. As early as 1847 he had demonstrated that horses had lived and become extinct on the North American continent long before Columbus. But the record of five hundred million years of geologic history since the first vertebrates appeared on earth was still largely unimagined when Marsh and Cope began their careers in the 1860’s.

Evidence for the existence of animals that no longer walked the earth played havoc with the orthodox belief in the immutability of species—the belief that God had created one pair of every kind of animal and had let nature take its course. Thomas Jefferson had solved this dilemma by predicting that the “great claw” of a curious fossil which he examined (a giant sloth, as it turned out) would be found attached to the descendants of its owner somewhere out in the unexplored interior of North America. Presumably this applied also to the mastodon bones from Big Bone Lick, in Kentucky, with which he filled a room at the White House. The French naturalist Baron Cuvier admitted that some species had been entirely wiped out by catastrophes, but denied that any new species had come into being. His student, Louis Agassiz—Darwin’s chief critic in America finally threw up his hands and concluded that the Creator must periodically have wiped the slate clean and started afresh. This theory of “special serial creations” was heretical to the orthodox, but at ieast it recoernized a deity.