Bones of Contention: What Contention?
“Bones of Contention: The Fight over Fossils from New Jersey to the Far West after the Civil War…or, Cope vs. Marsh”
The discovery, naming, description, and interpretation of fossils have engendered often fierce debate for almost two centuries. The main story line of this exhibit is the 30-year War of Words – and deeds! --between Edward D. Cope and Charles O. Marsh, the two preeminent American paleontologists during the second half of the nineteenth century. However, complicating their conflict during this time was the simultaneous evolution of their discipline – paleontology -- from one composed of independently-wealthy gentleman naturalists, as best illustrated by Cope, to one of increasingly institutional-level practice, and often combat, as usually practiced by Marsh. And beyond their particular rivalry, there were wider arenas of conflict, such as did the bones support Darwin’s new theory of evolution? Cope, and many other scientists at the time, said No. Marsh, on the other hand, was personally thanked by Darwin for providing the best evidence to date in support of his work.
Museums, too, once they discovered that mounted dinosaur skeletons were their most popular attractions, began their competition to acquire the most impressive specimens. The first example of this phenomenon in the U.S., indeed in the entire world, was the New Jersey Hadrosaur that was put on display, in 1868, at the Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia. But even earlier, especially in England, the often ego-driven hunt to name the mysterious creatures from Deep Time, as if they were a kind of trophy, and then to “read the bones,” that is, to interpret what these fossils suggested about prehistoric life, and about life in general, and more specifically -- and controversially -- what all that might imply about the nature of human beings as well, often fueled life-long enmities among those involved.
And the way in which these animals and their environments were re-imagined by artists -- in painting, in sculpture, in drawings in popular and scholarly periodicals, in museum mountings, and now in film, was, and remains today, continually contested territory. Scholarly debate, too, is, as ever, alive and well. For example, some writers insist that not only are dinosaurs a “social construct,” that their reality, as far as we can know it, or them, is a compounded product of multiple social forces; but they extend that argument to insist that the scientific method itself is subject to the same influences, and so, too, is such a contingent product, or process, and that therefore its claims are just one more “opinion” competing for attention in the Marketplace of Ideas. And so it goes.
Virtually all the books (and the DVD) on display in this exhibit are available in the RUL collections, and are meant to serve as but a modest introduction to these living issues, brought to life by the Bones of Contention! Special thanks are to be given to John Giannotti, artist and gentleman. He is the sculptor who created, among many other works, the life-size bronze statue of a Hadrosaur, currently at large in downtown Haddonfield, New Jersey. (Haddonfield was the discovery site of the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton in the world, in 1858.) John has loaned his most recent dinosaur project – “HADROSAURUS FOULKII – Head Detail” – completed just this summer, for the benefit of this exhibit.