October 29, 1831 (a Saturday)

Othniel Charles Marsh

On this date, the American paleontologist Othniel Charles Marshwas born. He made extensive scientific explorations of the western United States and contributed greatly to knowledge of extinct North American vertebrates, although Marsh spent only four seasons in the field, between 1870 and 1873. “The Great Bone Wars” were the result of his rivalry with Edward Drinker Cope, America’s other great vertebrate paleontologist of the period. Both men hired field crews to unearth and ship back fossils as fast as possible. The rival crews were known to spy on each other, to dynamite their own and each other’s secret localities (to keep their opponents from digging there), and occasionally to steal each other’s fossils.

In contrast to Cope, Marsh was one of the first American converts to Darwin’s theory of evolution. As it turned out, he also gathered an immense amount of data to support it. Marsh’s enormous collection of fossils enabled him to fill in a number of the gaps in the fossil record that were troublesome for supporters of Darwinian evolution. One of Marsh’s most well-known finds were fossils illustrating the evolution of the horse. In an obituary written by Marsh to commemorate Thomas Henry Huxley’s life, Marsh made special mention of his horses:

One of Huxley’s lectures in New York was on the genealogy of the horse, a subject which he had already written about, based entirely upon European specimens. My own explorations had led me to conclusions quite different from his, and my specimens seemed to me to prove conclusively that the horse originated in the New World and not in the Old, and that its genealogy must be worked out here. With some hesitation, I laid the whole matter frankly before Huxley, and he spent nearly two days going over my specimens with me, and testing each point I made. He then informed me that all this was new to him, and that my facts demonstrated the evolution of the horse beyond question, and for the first time indicated the direct line of descent of an existing animal [emphasis added].

Darwin’s book Origin of Species was published in 1859, during Marsh’s senior year at Yale. In 1862 and 1865, Marsh had traveled to England, where he met scientists such as Charles Lyell, T. H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin himself. Two years after Marsh visited Darwin at Down House in 1878, Darwin wrote the following letter to Marsh on or about August 31, 1880:

I received some time ago your very kind note of July 28th, & yesterday the magnificent volume. I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, & will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years. The general appearance of the copy which you have sent me is worthy of its contents, and I can say nothing stronger than this. With cordial thanks, believe me yours very sincerely,

Charles Darwin

References:

  • David Rains Wallace, The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Guilded Age (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
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