Talk with Edward Drinker Cope

Edward Drinker Cope was a 19th-century American paleontologist and comparative anatomist who became a rival of Othniel Charles Marsh in the "Bone Wars," a race to discover and name new species.


Who is Edward Drinker Cope?

Edward Drinker Cope (July 28, 1840 – April 12, 1897) was an American paleontologist and comparative anatomist, as well as a noted herpetologist and ichthyologist. He was a prodigious scientist of the 19th century and made significant contributions to the field of evolutionary theory and to the study of reptiles, amphibians, and fossil vertebrates.

Cope is perhaps best known for his part in the so-called "Bone Wars," a fierce and often unscrupulous rivalry with fellow paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. Both men used underhanded tactics at times to outdo the other in the discovery and description of new species of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. This competition led to great advances in the field of paleontology, as well as to some scientific errors and financial ruin for both men.

Cope's work was extensive and influential. He described and named over 1,000 vertebrate species, including many dinosaurs that are still recognized today. His theoretical contributions include the idea of Cope's Rule, which proposes that population lineages tend to increase in body size over evolutionary time, a pattern that has been observed in many evolutionary lineages.

Despite his contributions to science, Cope's financial and personal life was fraught with difficulties. He was often in financial distress, largely because he spent large sums on acquiring fossils. His feud with Marsh exacerbated his financial and professional troubles. Despite these challenges, Cope remains a significant figure in the history of science for his contributions to paleontology and evolutionary biology.

What kind of obstacles did Edward Drinker Cope face during field excavations?

Edward Drinker Cope faced several significant obstacles during his field excavations, which were typical of the rugged and often rudimentary conditions of paleontological fieldwork in the late 19th century. Some of the primary challenges included:

  1. Rough Terrain and Remote Locations: Many of Cope's field sites were in remote areas with challenging terrains such as the badlands of the Western United States. These conditions made travel and transportation of equipment and fossil specimens difficult and hazardous.

  2. Harsh Weather Conditions: Fieldwork often exposed Cope and his team to extreme weather conditions including intense heat, sudden storms, and cold snaps, all of which could hinder excavation work and damage unearthed fossils.

  3. Limited Resources and Funding: Cope often faced financial constraints. Although he inherited a considerable amount of money, his intense rivalry with Othniel Charles Marsh in what is now famously known as the Bone Wars led to considerable expenditures. This rivalry not only increased the pace and scope of their excavations but also sometimes led to rushed and less systematic approaches to digging and documentation due to the desire to outcompete each other.

  4. Transportation and Preservation of Fossils: Once excavated, the fossils had to be carefully packed and transported across rough terrains without damage, a task that required significant skill and resources. Preserving the integrity of these fossils until they could be further studied in a controlled environment posed another significant challenge.

  5. Conflict and Competition: Besides Marsh, Cope also faced competition from other paleontologists and collectors. This competition could lead to disputes over digging rights at various fossil sites and even sabotage among rival parties.

  6. Health Risks: The physical toll of fieldwork, combined with potential risks from wildlife, and the spread of diseases in remote areas, added another layer of difficulty to Cope’s endeavors in paleontology.

These obstacles often required not just scientific acumen, but also significant levels of resilience, resourcefulness, and sometimes diplomacy, to overcome them and successfully recover valuable paleontological specimens.

What were Edward Drinker Cope's views on evolution and how did they differ from his peers?

Edward Drinker Cope was a prominent American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, actively working during a time of significant developments in evolutionary theory. His views on evolution placed him distinctly apart from some of his contemporaries, particularly in his opposition to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Cope was a proponent of what is known as neo-Lamarckism, a theory that emphasized the role of acquired characteristics in the evolutionary process. According to neo-Lamarckism, traits acquired or developed by an organism during its lifetime could be inherited by its offspring, a concept that is illustrated by the classic example of the giraffe stretching its neck to reach higher leaves, thereby elongating the necks of its descendants. This concept directly contradicted Darwin’s theory, which argued that evolution operates through natural selection acting on random variations within the population, with no inheritance of acquired traits.

Cope’s approach also encompassed aspects related to the broader impact of environment on development and growth, concepts that were not fully integrative in Darwinian doctrine at that stage. He believed that the environment acted directly on organisms, causing changes that were passed on to descendants. This idea led him into the broader debates and research areas concerning the mechanisms of evolution and speciation.

Additionally, Cope contributed to evolutionary thought through his "Law of Cope" or Cope's Rule, which posits that evolutionary lineages tend to increase in body size over geological time. This concept has been subject to much study and debate but reflects Cope’s broader interests in patterns and trends within the fossil record.

Cope’s divergence from Darwinian principles burdened his relationships with many peers, notably those who saw natural selection as a more formidable and parsimonious explanation for evolutionary change. His views largely fell out of favor as the genetics-based Modern Synthesis took root in the 20th century, which reconciled Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolution, sidelining hypotheses like neo-Lamarckism. However, certain aspects of his work, such as the emphasis on the role of environmental forces in shaping evolutionary pathways, have seen some vindication in the context of contemporary evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo).

In sum, Edward Drinker Cope’s evolutionary ideas distinguished him from many of his contemporaries by emphasizing different mechanisms and patterns in evolution, underpinning a broader and ongoing debate about the dynamics of evolutionary change.

Did Edward Drinker Cope ever retract or modify any of his scientific claims?

Yes, Edward Drinker Cope did modify some of his scientific claims during his career. This is not unusual in the scientific field, where new evidence can lead to revisions of earlier conclusions. Cope, a prolific and competitive naturalist during the era of rapid discovery in American paleontology, often found himself in situations where initial findings were reassessed either by himself or his peers.

One notable aspect where Cope revised his views was in the classification and interpretation of dinosaur fossils. In the rush to name new species, errors were sometimes made regarding the classification and reconstruction of fragmented skeletons. As more complete specimens were found and as scientific understanding of dinosaur anatomy improved, Cope and other scientists of his time revised earlier reconstructions and taxonomic classifications.

Cope also engaged actively in debates about evolutionary theory. Initially, he subscribed to neo-Lamarckian views, emphasizing the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a stance that was popular among some scientists of the time. However, as the foundation of genetics and understanding of natural selection deepened, modifications in these views were necessitated, reflecting a broader shift in the scientific community.

These modifications and retractions are part of the scientific process, reflecting an ongoing refinement of knowledge based on new data and insights. Cope's willingness to revise his views, despite his competitive nature and personal rivalries, underscores his commitment to the scientific process.

What methods did Edward Drinker Cope use for fossil collection?

Edward Drinker Cope was a prominent paleontologist and evolutionary biologist in the latter half of the 19th century, known for his prolific collection and study of fossils, particularly vertebrates. Cope's methods for fossil collection were largely shaped by the practices and norms of his time, combined with his own keen insights and ambitions.

  1. Fieldwork: Cope spent considerable time in the field, exploring regions known for their rich fossil deposits. He conducted numerous expeditions across North America, from the marine sediments of the Eastern seaboard to the rich bone beds of the Western United States.

  2. Collaborations and networks: Cope built a wide network of contacts including other scientists, local collectors, and even amateurs who would send him specimens. He was known for his ability to cultivate relationships that would enhance his access to important fossil finds.

  3. Purchasing specimens: Cope was also known to purchase fossils from other collectors. During the so-called Bone Wars, a period of intense rivalry with fellow paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, Cope aggressively acquired specimens to outcompete his rival, including buying from common fossil hunters and dealers.

  4. Use of contemporary tools and techniques: Cope utilized the tools available at the time for excavation and extraction, which often involved manual digging tools, plaster for protecting larger bones during transport, and sometimes even dynamite for breaking through rock layers—a practice that, although effective in some aspects, could also risk damaging the fossils.

  5. Descriptive work and publishing: Upon acquiring fossils, Cope was meticulous in cleaning, studying, and describing them. He was a prolific writer, and he quickly published his findings in scientific journals, which was crucial for establishing his claims on the specimens amidst the competitive scientific environment of his time.

  6. Institutional support: Cope’s affiliations with institutions like the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia provided him with further resources for his fieldwork and research. Despite some financial struggles, particularly later in his career, these affiliations helped sustain his scientific endeavors.

Cope's methods, while effective in building his massive collection and advancing paleontology, also reflected some of the less cautious and more exploitative attitudes toward fossil collection during his era, which occasionally led to the loss or destruction of valuable information. His contributions, nevertheless, laid foundational stones for the methodologies in vertebrate paleontology.

How many books did Edward Drinker Cope have?

Edward Drinker Cope, primarily known for his contributions to paleontology and evolutionary biology, authored numerous scientific papers rather than books. He mainly published his research in articles and journals, detailing his findings in the study of vertebrate fossils and the theory of evolution. Cope's writings largely contributed to academic journals and were not typically compiled into book form during his lifetime like traditional monographs or textbooks. Therefore, it's more accurate to say that he had myriad publications rather than a countable number of books.

What is the rearranged bibliography of Edward Drinker Cope?

Edward Drinker Cope was a prolific paleontologist, and his bibliography includes numerous significant works. To efficiently present a rearranged bibliography of his writings, they can be organized by categories such as books, primary research articles, and contributions to periodicals. Here’s a structured overview of his key publications:


  1. "The Origin of the Fittest: Essays on Evolution" (1887)

    • A collection of essays discussing theories of natural selection and adaptive changes in species.
  2. "The Primary Factors of Organic Evolution" (1896)

    • A detailed explanation of his views on evolutionary mechanisms, critiquing some of Darwin's theories.

Primary Research Articles

  1. "On the Origin of Genera" (1868)

    • A pioneering paper proposing ideas about the evolutionary divergence of species into new genera.
  2. "Synopsis of the Extinct Batrachia, Reptilia and Aves of North America" (1870)

    • Cataloging extinct amphibian, reptilian, and avian species known in North America at the time.
  3. "The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West" (1884) (part of the U.S. Geological Survey monograph)

    • Documenting fossil vertebrates from Tertiary period formations in the Western United States.

Contributions to Periodicals

  1. "On the Method of Creation of Organic Types" (1871, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society)

    • Discussing mechanisms behind the development of organic forms through evolutionary processes.
  2. "On the Zittel Wings of Pterodactyls" (1870, American Naturalist)

    • Analyzing the wing structure of extinct pterosaurs, critiquing earlier interpretations by European paleontologists.

Editorials and Review Articles

  1. "On the Wyandotte Cave and Its Fauna" (1872, American Naturalist)

    • Reviewing discoveries and research related to the notable Wyandotte Cave system.
  2. "Mammalian Paleontology of the Grand Cañon of Colorado" (1883, American Naturalist)

    • A summary of mammalian fossils discovered in the region, discussing their significance for understanding North American geologic history.

This reconstruction provides a structured approach to exploring Edward Drinker Cope's voluminous and varied output, giving a clearer view of his contributions across different areas of paleontology and evolutionary biology.

Who were Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh?

Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were two prominent American paleontologists in the 19th century, known for their prolific contributions to the field and their intense rivalry, often referred to as the "Bone Wars." This rivalry significantly advanced the knowledge of prehistoric life but was also marked by aggressive tactics, such as bribery, theft, and the hastened destruction of fossils.

Edward Drinker Cope was born on July 28, 1840, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He became one of the most respected vertebrate paleontologists and a prolific writer, producing over 1,400 papers during his career, covering various aspects of biology, paleontology, and evolutionary theory. He was particularly interested in herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and ichthyology (the study of fish). Cope is also known for his contribution to the theory of Neo-Lamarckism, which emphasized the importance of acquired traits in evolution.

Othniel Charles Marsh, born on October 29, 1831, in Lockport, New York, was Cope's rival. He was a professor of paleontology at Yale University and was instrumental in the establishment of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale. Marsh's contributions largely focused on dinosaurs, birds, and mammals, and he discovered numerous iconic species and introduced several new taxa to science.

Their rivalry began in the late 1860s when both men were in the field looking for fossils in the rich deposits of the American West. This competition led them to rush their findings into publication, often with scant regard for meticulous detail. Although their methods were questionable, their discoveries significantly enriched the fossil record and contributed to the development of paleontology as a scientific discipline.

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