The dynamite exploded in the distance, not clearing the way for miners but destroying large dinosaur fossils at a recently abandoned dig site. This damage wasn’t the scheme of some 1800s fossil cynic but the result of a bitter competition between the two most prolific pioneers of paleontology in North America — Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope. Both of these men were gifted paleontologists, and their work has made a tremendous impact on science.
Cope and Marsh should have been allies, working together to discover new dinosaurs, but instead, they were rivals — even to the point of destroying their own dig sites so that the other would not get the fossils.
The Falling Out
These two men did start out as friends, but things changed after Cope made a big mistake and Marsh underhandedly got fossils from one of Cope’s dig sites. Cope was a prolific science writer, writing 1,400 articles in his relatively short lifetime, but he had the tendency to be a little too quick to write about his discoveries.
When Cope was figuring out the anatomy of a new species of plesiosaur, a sea creature like “Leviathan” mentioned in the Bible, found in Kansas (in the same rock layers I was digging in earlier this year), he made the mistake of switching the position of the head and tail on the creature. Marsh was the first to point out Cope’s mistake, which was later confirmed by another scientist. Although Cope tried to fix his mistake — even trying to buy every published copy of his finding — his pride had been greatly wounded, and these two scientists would never be friends again.
That was just the beginning of a crazy dinosaur discovery race. Marsh sent out spies to check on Cope’s progress. Cope rushed to be the first to publish new dinosaur discoveries. They both slandered each other and had their own competitive connections. Marsh was aggressive and cold; Cope was bitter and prideful.
Their rivalry escalated for years. They are a very good example of what scientists should not do. Their bitter bone war led to the destruction of good scientific information and their personal lives.
Their final efforts to destroy each other left them both without family or funding and with permanently ruined reputations. Because of a government funding scandal, many of Marsh’s fossils were even taken away. Cope died at the young age of 56, and Marsh at the age of 67, just a few years later.
I would like to think that, as Christians, creationists would not get into nasty disputes with each other as Marsh and Cope did, but being Christians doesn’t mean we aren’t sinful humans. It’s important to remember that we are all inclined to pride, selfishness, and bitterness like Marsh and Cope. We are all in desperate need of God’s mercy for our daily lives. Let us learn from these pioneers of paleontology and choose to live more humbly like our Lord and Savior, who took the punishment we rightfully deserve.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Hi the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of me: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Philippians 2:4-8