It's sad but true--Jerry Springer's roots go deep in American culture. Even scientists of the Victorian era could jump on stage and start slugging, as we learn in The Bonehunters' Revenge
. This smart, adventurous book by nature writer David Rains Wallace examines the long-standing feud between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, and especially their month-long 1890 death match in the pages of the New York Herald
. The bizarre--by modern newspaper standards--series of interviews, letters, and editorials, promoted and escalated by publisher James Gordon Bennett (a kind of proto-Hearst), threw accusations of theft, forgery, vandalism, plagiarism, and worse back and forth until both men fell back, exhausted and nearly broken.
Wallace gives his readers far more than a simple freak show, though; he shows us that behind the controversy lay a crucial political struggle for control not just of fossils but the fate of the western territories. The methods Cope and Marsh used to control and divert fossils inevitably guided the expansion and settling of these lands, and Wallace argues forcefully that this competition started the boom of unsustainable growth that we are only now beginning to recognize. So by all means enjoy watching the fists fly in The Bonehunters' Revenge, but remember what happens to those who don't learn from the past. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were two of America's greatest 19th-century paleontologists. Together, they were responsible for unearthing and naming the vast majority of this country's fossil dinosaurs and mammals. Over the course of their careers, they competed mercilessly, and often unethically, each pushing the other to further discoveries. Their feud erupted into public consciousness during two weeks in January 1890, when the New York Herald, a tabloid published by James Gordon Bennett Jr., ran a series of articles leveling charges and countercharges between the two of scientific malfeasance, including plagiarism, ignorance, favoritism, sloth, dishonesty, fossil-stealing and incompetence. Wallace (The Monkey's Bridge, etc.) makes these articles the centerpiece of his disappointing history of 19th-century paleontology. Unfortunately, he all too convincingly demonstrates that the articles were filled with errors, as well as being both boring and impenetrable to the average reader. Wallace loses credibility when, in an apparent attempt to generate interest, he adopts some of the hyperbole so common in the tabloid press of the time. Not atypical is his description of the some-time journalist who penned the first Herald article on the feud: "a photo of Ballou, showing a sloping forehead, receding chin, shifty eyes, and strangely convoluted ears, might have come from the period's abnormal psychology textbooks." Though the feud between the scientists is one of the more tantalizing and contentious events in the history of science, Marsh and Cope, as well as their work, have been covered in numerous other works (apparently diligently consulted by Wallace, who offers a seven-page bibliography). This book, engaging enough but not nearly equal to the author's best work (e.g., The Klamath Knot), doesn't add much of significance to the record. Agent, Sandy Taylor. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.