- Historic Sites
Professor Cope Vs. Professor Marsh
A bitter feud among the bones
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Agassiz held out against evolution, but his students, notably Alphaeus Hyatt, who gained renown as an invertebrate paleontologist, joined with Edward Cope to subdue evolution to ideological rules. Cope’s “Origin of Genera,” which appeared in 1867, established him at the tender age of twenty-seven as a theorist who accepted evolution but rejected natural selection. Hyatt’s own contribution appeared independently about the same time. Geologic catastrophes had periodically presented organisms with a choice between survival and extinction, they argued. Out of the death struggle that ensued, eventually new forms adapted to new conditions had emerged. The scene was one of utter chaos. Many forms disappeared into the obscurity of time, while others were transformed beyond recognition. But the chaos was more apparent than real. Beneath the surface an orderly plan governed. Organisms were presented with choices (something Darwin denied them). Life continued because some organisms made the requisite effort . Free will existed; mind and consciousness were still at work in the universe. Agassiz’s “special creations” were recognizable in the pioneering organisms that emerged from the time of troubles to make a fresh start. To explain how variations acquired in the lifetime of an individual (to deal with sudden change) were transmitted to later generations, Cope and Hyatt added a theory of the heredity of acquired characteristics. It was not until 1871 that either realized that Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and the Chevalier de Lamarck had travelled the same ground decades before Charles Darwin. To avoid confusion they singled out Lamarck rather than the elder Darwin as their patron saint. People talked of the American School of Evolution, or Neo-Lamarckism. Cope’s alliance with the Agassiz students entered a new stage in 1877 when he purchased the American Naturalist magazine, which had already become an outlet for Neo-Lamarckian views.
Almost alone among the great American naturalists of his generation Marsh accepted evolution and natural selection without moping around about how unfair it was to the Deity. But Cope saw in one reading of the Origin that it endangered his faith, and he wrote dozens of essays in the years that followed to exorcise the threat. Many of them were pulled together in a volume called the Origin of the Fittest , in 1886. It was full of references to vital forces and of words like kinetogenesis, catagenesis, metaesthetism, archesthetism , and retrograde metamorphosis , most of which read today like incantations.
Meanwhile Marsh methodically collected more than thirty individual specimens that outlined the evolutionary history of the horse from the tiny Eocene three-toed quadruped to the modern animal. A monograph on extinct toothed birds in 1880 confirmed an earlier European discovery of this strange transitional form that suggested the reptilian origin of birds and other modern forms. This was filling in the geologic record with a vengeance, and the rewards were great. “I received … yesterday the magnificent volume,” wrote Charles Darwin. “I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, and will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds and on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution which has appeared within the last 20 years …”
Thomas Henry Huxley, an authority on the genealogy of the horse, visited New Haven in 1876 and followed Marsh’s reconstruction of the horse’s evolution with mounting astonishment and excitement; when “Darwin’s bulldog” returned home, Marsh’s reputation in Europe was assured. This was a great source of strength to him, just as it was a disadvantage for Cope. More than any other factor, Marsh’s recognition in Europe (a famous Heidelberg professor once called him “ der Grösster Palaeontolog aller Zeiten ”) was the solid foundation for his emergence as one of the most powerful scientific statesmen of his day.
Old bones rattle in more ways than one. When they fought over bones in the Bridger Basin in 1872, Marsh was forty-one, Cope thirty-two. At Cope’s age Marsh had still been a student dependent on the charity of a wealthy uncle. Perhaps comparison was unfair, for certainly Cope was precocious. He had no formal college education, except for a year studying anatomy under Joseph Leidy at the University of Pennsylvania. His graduate training consisted of three years among the herpetology collections of the Smithsonian Institution and a year abroad visiting museums.