|Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope |
(right), once colleagues, they became ferocious rival fossil
palaeontologists, attacking one another, stealing, bribing
and attempting to ruin one another between 1870s-1890s.
Books have been written about the lengths of nastiness O. C. Marsh and E. D. Cope went to in the attempt to destroy one another's careers and discoveries. Their problems ultimately stemmed from their personalities: both were argumentative and paranoid, Marsh was a bit of an introvert, while Cope was more hot-tempered. As a result, instead of working together (imagine the results!) they fought and ridiculed one another.
|For a full low down of this famous |
dispute, I recommend Sterenly.
What I wondered as I discovered all of these stem-bird diversity papers, was whether the authors knew about one another's work and how they felt about it: was this a chain reaction of responses, set off by the earliest publication's conclusions? Sometimes you detect undercurrents of animosity in later papers as they pointedly dispute the findings that preceded them, but there were no obvious barbs in these ones.
When I began my course at Bristol, we were running through the latest discoveries on fossil feather colouration, one of the Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group's leading areas of research. Our lecturer explained that just as the team he was leading at Bristol were about to publish their reconstruction of an avian bird's colours using melanosomes, so did a team in the U.S. Did he launch a campaign of destruction and try to rubbish the competing team's findings? Absolutely not: he contacted the lead author in the U.S., and offered him a job instead.
|An Eocene feather from the Messel shale (a) and the preserved|
feather structures and melanosomes visible (b-e). These are
being used to reconstruct colour in fossil birds and dinosaurs.
|"Nooooooo!" (dramatic reconstruction|
of palaeontologist upon discovery
of competing publications).
It would have made a far more interesting assignment for my course to explore the personal relationships and reactions of the palaeontologists and palaeobiologists who write 'competing' papers, but alas, I would be dancing into a veritable minefield. I'd like to keep these disputes and camaraderies in mind as I progress in my own career: as a warning and, in the latter case, an example of how to deal constructively with competition. Joining forces with other strong researchers must be the best way forward.
What if you just can't agree with the other person's ideas and it becomes a Dawkins/Gould clash of world-view? I think of another anecdote I heard about a head of our department. He found himself sharing prime time at a major conference with another leading palaeontologist with whom he simply couldn't reconcile his views on macroevolution. Knowing they couldn't reach a consensus, they mutually agreed not to mention the subject at all. So they spent the day drinking coffee and eating cake together, talking about everything else there was in the world and thoroughly enjoying one another's company.
How wonderfully civilised. I love it.
Back to the grindstone now, I have to write a little something in the Ediacaran, another topic studded with controversy - and controversial people!