THE BONEHUNTERS’ REVENGE: DINOSAURS, GREED, AND THE GREATEST SCIENTIFIC FEUD OF THE GILDED AGE, by David Rains Wallace, Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages, $24.00.
Wallace’s book describes the notorious feud between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, who together, while working furiously apart, classified 136 new species of North American dinosaurs in the late 1800s. The author is particularly good at the beginning and end of his story, first telling how the Pennsylvania Quaker Cope and Massachusetts Puritan Marsh probably were destined to disagree. The bizarre finale describes what happened to the unburied bones of Cope, whose skull was carried round America by photographer Louis Psihoyos in 1993.
It’s a story that has been told before in many books and magazine articles. Readers of this version might find too much detail about Cope’s unfortunate mining ventures and the overblown “feud” itself, which was perhaps publicized by the New York Herald to counteract the rival World’s account of Nellie Bly’s trip around the world in 72 days. Yet Wallace makes two good points often overlooked in other versions. He reminds us that “the twentieth century’s dinosaur mystique has overemphasized and distorted those contributions” made by Marsh (initially a mineralogist) and Cope (a herpetologist, ichthyologist, and geologist). He also contradicts others who have written that, despite the “vanity, greed, and hatred” of the rivalry, at least it “stimulated the search for fossils.”
The great fossil feud did produce activity, Wallace writes, “but much was of the smash-and-grab variety.” Worried that “evolutionary science remains a sideshow of ‘news value,'” the author adds that “considering what will be at stake in the next century, one may ask whether science can afford to keep such traits . . . .”
Richard Sassaman visited many U.S. fossil sites while writing about dinosaurs for American Heritage, The Christian Science Monitor, Travel/Holiday, and other magazines.