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The most notorious scientific feud in history - Lukas Rieppel


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After the California Gold Rush of 1848, settlers streamed west to strike it rich. In addition to precious metals, they unearthed another treasure: dinosaur bones. Two wealthy scientists in particular— Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope— competed to uncover these prehistoric monsters. Lukas Rieppel digs into one of the most notorious scientific feuds in history, known as the Bone Wars.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

The Bone Wars are an especially famous episode in the history of science, so there are many places to learn more about this topic. If you would like to read a blow-by-blow account of the bitter feud between Marsh and Cope, Mark Jaffee’s book The Gilded Dinosaur is an excellent place to start. There is also an American Experience documentary that aired on PBS called The Dinosaur Wars. Michael Crichton even wrote a posthumously published novel set during the Bone Wars called Dragon Teeth!

In this TED-Ed lesson, we have tried to take a broader view of the subject and ask what the Bone Wars can teach us about the relationship between science and capitalism during the American Gilded Age. If you are interested in learning more about that complex and controversial topic, you might like Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur. Many of the big ideas that informed this lesson are explored in much greater depth and detail there. If you want a shorter article on the same theme, you might like his essay “On America’s Wild West of Dinosaur Hunting,” or one about “How Dinosaurs Became Tyrants of the Prehistoric.”

One part of the story that is especially worthy of further study, thought, and reflection is the important role that Native Americans guides played in the discovery of dinosaurs and other prehistoric monsters during the nineteenth century. Regrettably, much less has been written on that topic, with the notable exception of Adrienne Mayor’s book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans. However, there is no shortage of books that will teach you more about the history of American imperialism, westward expansion, and Native American dispossession. An excellent overview of the topic is Patricia Limerick’s classic survey, The Legacy of Conquest. Those who would like to learn more about how the long history of American imperialism continues to impact indigenous communities will enjoy Our History is the Future by Nick Estes.

Finally, the Bone Wars should force us to confront some thorny questions about the relationship between science and capitalism. Traditionally, members of the scientific community jealously guarded their autonomy for fear that base economic motives might threaten their claim to be engaged in a purely disinterested pursuit of objective truth. A fascinating but dense and sophisticated book about the way scientists in seventeenth century Europe first sought distance themselves from the world of commerce is Steven Shapin’s A Social History of Truth. Harold Cook tells a very different story in Matters of Exchange, which argues that science and capitalism have always been deeply entangled with one another. Still, many of us remain committed to the idea that scientific research ought to be free from the corrupting influence of the profit motive. And, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway point out in Merchants of Doubt, we have good reason to be suspicious of skeptical claims about climate change made by scientists whose research has been paid for by petroleum companies. 

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Lukas Rieppel
  • Director Michael Kalopaidis, Zedem Media
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Storyboard Artist Nefeli Chrysanthou
  • Animator Rafael Kallistratou
  • Art Director Nefeli Chrysanthou
  • Music Soundstripe
  • Sound Designer Andreas Trachonitis
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Editorial Producer Cella Wright
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma

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