The Road to Comps Part 3: Emergent Specializations: Paleontology

It is amazing what you can do with an extra half-day off.  This is half of the emergent specializations set, the other being Anthropology and Paleoanthropology.  In this case it covers the development of paleontology from natural philosophy, through the interested gentleman scholar/statesman/parson through to its full professionalization in the beginning of the 20th century. There is no delineation of what comes from which book this week as they mostly say the same things, they only structure the order somewhat differently or go into farther in one life or another.

No wonder that I have spent the last two years with the art history folks
No wonder that I have spent the last two years with the art history folks

Let’s start as our early geologists have: In the Beginning…The books I have reabsorbed here do not concern themselves with the birth og geology per se, but it is useful to frame what happens first before jumping into what happens next. Gentleman naturalists. Men of means with an insatiable curiosity (usually) rivaled only by their families purse are the progenitors of our “geologists.” The irony of this is the amount of time these drawing room men would spend in the field, on the coast, in early stages of canal building, mud pits, mines, caves and taverns caverns.

History of Geology
If you want to get a full range of the History of Geology I recommend you get these books and read them together.

Some of the earliest cross class relationships develop between the collector with a cabinet of curiosity and a working class man in the field or, more often, a mine or quarry. Nothing less than answering the broadest questions about the earth’s history is their duty and charge. Their approaches reveal much about their backgrounds. Catastrophists and Neptunist are the camps that Early Modern practitioners tended to raise their flags. At the most broad level they were earth’s historians looking at the vast petrified pages of the archive preserved in the countryside.

Steno lays down the sediment in order, all flat and uniformly, then converts to catholicism and moves to northern Europe letting the rest of Europe fight it out.  William Smith (a working canal-man) notices that the layers can be matched with an order of fossil shells, and producing a “map that changes the world.”


Paleontology, and in this case vertebrate paleontology goes one farther to answer questions about enormous bones that are obviously not just natural stone shapes mimicking living organisms. On the American side of things, which is where I am situated–geographically, socially, and intellectually–the bones were reported by European colonists very early.  Some, such as mammoth teeth, were identified by African slaves as elephant. Others were less easily identified, but neither were exactly easy to explain.

Legacy of the Mastodon

Thomas Jefferson was fashioning a bulwark against Buffon’s accusations of New World degeneration with American (vertebrate) paleontology. A giant (neé mega) claw from a cave is first described as a large American lion. TJ here is an interesting case with more involvement in the Enlightenment arguments of Europe than others of his day. John Adams was notoriously uninterested in giant bones as there were more important matters of state and nation at hand. Jefferson, like many deists of the time, could not fathom the idea of extinction. Nature was perfect and balanced and there most definitely were the American mammoths (actually mastodons) living in the vast expanses of the North American continent including the Louisiana Purchase.

The Fate of the Mammoth

The biggest question about any of these bones were “what are they?” Taken as a whole it was up to the anatomists of the day to make the distinction, and even they didn’t agree on what the similarities and differences meant. Richard Owen was of the Archetype mind which works on sort of a single blueprint with modifications for different animals idea. The reason that bats have the same bones in their wings as humans have in their hands and whales have in their fins is because they are all forms from the same archetype.  Others were trying to work out a more encompassing theory and throughout the mid 19th century variations on this theme peg all along the spectrum as Darwin’s Origin ushers in a more compartmentalized theory. Is there a difference in an Archetype and a common ancestor? That depends on who you asked in the 1850s, which depended greatly on the answerers socio-economic class, political and religious affiliations, and to a great extent what the person they hated believed (see previous post).

Rudwick’s book looks at the visual aspect of not only Theories of the Earth but of the emergent descriptors of paleontology (just assume at this point when I write that I mean “vertebrate paleontology”). The illustrations themselves stem from the biblical tradition–namely putting everything possible into  single image a la all those edenic scenes you are familiar with. That is almost still the case as you see a version of the Eocene with hundreds of creatures flittering about a waterhole that would never be there together if things were so green and lush. This may be practical in the case that you get as much mileage from your one or two illustrations or mural as you can, or it may be implicit nods to the biblical roots. I think it is more the former.

Scenes from Deep TimePublications came with illustrations too. Many, like those of Caspar Wistar, were done with an anatomist’s eye and an artists’ sensibilities. This standard was invaluable when new bones were discovered and needed to be identified.  That Americans had to rely on European (mainly French and British) sources caused more than a little indignation.  There was a good reason to market the American Mammoth (again mastodon) as a carnivorous giant and let the mega-claw (Megalonyx) lie after Wistar described it as a giant sloth and not a lion. This was part of nation building. I have been compiling notes on this idea of “Our Founding Fossils”™ and fossils as national identity for years now, but never enough to actually put anything together besides lists of names, dates, locations. This back and forth continued for most of the first half of the 19th century with oddities here and there trotted out by Owen or Cuvier in order to explain in support of one theory and, more often, an attack on another.

The second half of the century opens up the American West and the paleontology game entirely. Dinosaurs had already been discovered and described by the time the west was open. Mantell’s mighty megalosaurus and Leidy’s New Jersey hadrosaur aren’t as famous as the Dinosaurs of Crystal Palace but they are as old, and in some ways more important outside of the public display arena.

"I am The Mighty Megalosaurus"
“I am The Mighty Megalosaurus”

The bones that came to Philadelphia for Leidy to describe were far from a trickle, but the amount of prehistoric fossils that were shipped back east in the last two decades of the 19th century can hardly be fathomed. It is amongst this generational shift we see the terms of paleontology shift from collecting, naming, and describing that was so admirably done by Leidy, to a more theory driven undertaking.

Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh not only turn the tap on the firehose of fossil work up, the manage to knock the entire hydrant off the street corner and the geyser of their discoveries, animosities, and students fall out all over the discipline. That much has been said about the Bone Wars would be understatement. Much of that has been from the journalistic style or from paleontologists themselves. Historians of science have yet to really peel away the generational veneer to see what it means for American Science. That the fued spilled over into a younger generation and the Cope-Marsh battle regenerated, or at least continued, in the Hayden-Powell hostilities. When viewed together these become microcosms for the struggles between independent and government funded work.  Marsh and Powell working for the USGS and Cope and Hayden working for themselves, the university, or smaller society. Whichever side you choose one of the most striking things is that when Cope was approached to prove what was his and what belonged to his backers his meticulous notes allowed him to maintain ownership of fossils collected with his own money. Marsh on the other hand faced government funding backlash over birds with teeth (which incidentally was paleontologically and evolutionarily more important than Archaeopteryx ) that the appropriations committee called for an audit. When Marsh, who saw the entire undertaking as his couldn’t adequately prove what was his and what belonged to the Peabody or the USGS, he lost most of his collection. (If your German is up to par you can enjoy this German musical of their feud)

As the 20th century dawned many of the Eastern Universities and any museum worth its salt had a collection of extinct animals. Funding was still an issue and expeditions had to be underwritten by weatlhy patrons, committees, or museum boards. The American Museum led the charge with Osborn (firmly #TeamCope) oversaw huge developments in paleontology while taking over the museum directorship and moving Columbia from College to University. His political connections and personal family wealth (railroad money) aided him in ways other directors and paleontologists could only dream. The Field Museum benefactor was tighter with the purse strings not only due to a less than rabid interest in bones, but a more logical concern of building places to house the reconstructions that had become so popular.


Carnegie financed his own expeditions and it paid off. With the discovery of a giant sauropod (diplodocus carnegii) Carnegie attempted to cash in on the popularity of the reconstructions and museums. Multiple casts of the diplodocus were sent to the main institutions in Europe to display in their main atria. With a dinosaur Carnegie tried to privatize world peace. It almost worked.

One of the reasons that the Cope and Marsh debacle is so well known outside the discipline is because the professionalization of their field occurred at the same time that the popularization of science was taking off. The Penny Press was well established by the time the Bone Wars heated up. Both men would have grown up with newspapers as staples of life. Cope had kept just as meticulous notes on Marsh’s calumnies and other errors (he had a folder labeled “Marshinalia”) Marsh notoriously would not allow his assistants to publish and was slow paying them. Many quit after Cope aired their grievances in the public press. What does this who episode reveal, is Marsh ye olde guard only threatened by Cope because he was evenly matched with family money or do the two reflect something else? Do they have to serve as avatars of larger social conditions in US science for their story to have meaning?  Wither way, when the time was right Cope took his notes to the paper. The debate raged for weeks in the paper, each accusing the other of misdealing, misidentification, misdeeds, and missing the point.

Not part of this set per se, but worth a read if you are interested in print side of the Bone Wars. Also one of the best book covers out there.
Not part of this set per se, but worth a read if you are interested in print side of the Bone Wars. Also one of the best book covers out there.

For paleontology, anthropology, etc. popularization was part and parcel of professionalization. The only difference between H. F. Osborn and P.T. Barnum was Osborn was their approach to science as education versus entertainment. That, and Barnum’s penchant for humbugs which, I suppose, isn’t any worse than Osborn’s positive eugenics and anti-immigration stance in the 1920s. (more on this is a later post, but I want to foreshadow it now because I am feeling particularly clever making this connection in print). In fact, Barnum fits as neatly between Charles Wilson Peale and Osborn as Cope, and in many ways moreso. This also leads to the popular press adoring people like Osborn and his protege (and employee) Roy Chapman Andrews. Andrews’ popular books continue to influence children today because they are given as gifts from parents or grandparents as a continuation of that wonder and excitement they felt when reading it for the first time.

The Bone Hunters

It should come as no surprise that this whole section is steeped in Romanticism. Many of the authors here talk about the dual nature of the paleontologist in the field vs the lab. They are the frontiersman in the badlands and the pinnacle of modern science back east. It is a timeshare in the greatest areas of American culture. What they don’t do, mainly because they don’t delve that far into it (except Rainger) is split the distinction once again between the paleontologist trained in geology and those trained biology. Most assume that geologically trained paleontologists are those that work with the invertebrates. This distinction is true but lacks totality. Modern distinctions, if they have a place here, are geologists in the field and biologist in the lab (comparative anatomy). This is a continuation of the professionalization that because somewhere between Leidy and Cope/Marsh.

The biggest boon to American paleontology (and geology more generally) is the size of the continent and Manifest Destiny that pushed the country across it entirely. Once railroads were established field work within ones own country offered many more acres than was available to the British, French, or Germans, even taken internationally. The geography also offered more in the way of diversity of species as well as geological phenomena. Even Lyell had to visit and suggested that to truly understand the history of the earth one had to visit the United States. American geology proffered a locality for nearly each one available in Europe and in some cases even more amazing finds, from giant six-horned mammals to Tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops,  stegosaurs, and sauropod. The bones from the American West were incredible in size and importance. They could not, or weren’t found in Europe. To study them European paleontologists has to visit the United States museums and universities. American paleontologists were leading the whole of the discipline and were the experts par excellance  in the prehistoric world. This was a complete turnaround from the arrangement that existing when Jefferson read his Mega-Claw paper at the American Philosophical Society.


In many ways this happened within Osborn’s lifetime (1857-1935). In fact, Osborn’s death in 1935 just missed the first rejuvenation of government funding of paleontological field expedition in the form of WPA projects overseen by universities with the federal government supplying pay for manpower.

Readings for this section:

Paul Brinkman, The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush: Museums and Paleontology in America at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Claudine Cohen (trans William Rodarmor). The Fate of the Mammoth: Fossils, Myths, and History (University of Chicago Press, 2002) Specifically Chapter 5.

Desmond, Adrian. Archetypes and Ancestors: Paleontology in Victorian London, 1850- 1875 (U of Chicago Pr, 1995)

Url Lanham, The Bone Hunters: The Heroic Age of Paleontology in the American West

Ronald Rainger, An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935

Rudwick, Martin. Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World

Thomson, Keith. The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America (Yale U Pr, 2008)


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