Sunday, April 25, 2010

Megalomania

Back in the fall of last, I agreed to give a talk to the Peabody Museum's O.C. Marsh Fellows. When I was asked about the likely date, I airily said "Oh, some time in April would by fine." Well, April is here and the talk is not quite written yet and frankly I'm in a bit of a panic.

Fortunately, I have a rich vein of material to draw from relating to the sometimes fraught relationship between the Peabody and my old stomping ground of AMNH. Histories of vertebrate paleontology at Yale tends to dwell heavily on the feuding between Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, but I actually find the later stages of this conflict, involving AMNH's megalomaniacal president Henry Fairfield Osborn, even more fascinating.

AMNH curator Ned Colbert used to describe HFO as "one of the most unpleasant people I ever met," and in truth it's hard to find much to like. At a personal level, he was insufferably pompous - he used to require underlings to vacate the museum's elevator cars so that he could ride in solitude and he once stopped George Gaylord Simpson from blotting his signature on a letter with the injunction "never blot a great man's signature." It seems almost gratuitous to note that he was also a die-hard racist and a great admirer of Adolf Hitler.

One of the last great works of Marsh's life was to be a monographic account of the evolution of the brontotheres - giant, extinct perissodactyls from the Eocene of North America and Asia. It's likely that Marsh, as one of America's earliest adopters and proponents of the theory of evolution through natural selection, would have approached this task from an explicitly Darwinian perspective. But Marsh died with the USGS-funded monograph incomplete.

Enter Osborn, who used his influence at USGS to wrest control of the monograph project from Yale. He then spent the next 30 years trying to use brontotheres (or, as he preferred, titanotheres) to demonstrate his own bizarre ideas about evolution, shaped by the influence of his neo-Lamarckian mentor, Cope. In Osborn's view, natural selection was only a small part of the evolutionary process, which also encompassed elements of predestination and the capacity of species to draw on vaguely defined "inner resources" to better themselves.

Osborn spent much of his career promoting this twaddle, and in the process turning paleontology into the eccentric old uncle of the biological sciences. It seemed like all the answers to evolutionary questions would be found in the emerging fields of genetics and population biology and it wasn't until Osborn's succesor, George Gaylord Simpson, published Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) that paleontology regained its stature as one of the pillars of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis. One could argue that Cope's influence on Osborn and the latter's prolonged dalliance with semi-mystical pseudoscience was one of the most damaging aspects of the Cope/Marsh quarrel.

This is not to say that the sheer weight of effort that Osborn threw into promoting his theories was wasted. In his desire to counter the influence of the experimental biologists, he oversaw the creation of the massive vertebrate paleontology collections at AMNH, which remain an unparalleled resource for scientists today. His brontothere monograph, The Titanotheres of Ancient Wyoming, Dakota and Nebraska (1929), and its even weightier successor, Proboscidea : a monograph of the discovery, evolution, migration and extinction of the mastodonts and elephants of the world (1936, 1942), are magnificent fusions of art and science on a scale unlikely to be undertaken again.

Neither of these works was published in any great numbers and copies are rare and expensive - a quick search of Abebooks turned up three copies of the 2-volume Proboscidea monograph, ranging from around $3,500 to nearly $6,000 - but you don't need to mortgage your house to look at them. Both monographs have been scanned and uploaded to the Internet Archive and can be downloaded as PDFs as follows: Titanotheres Volume 1 and Volume 2; Proboscidea Volume 1 and Volume 2. It's megalomania, but it's glorious megalomania.

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