Is Edward Drinker Cope beyond the pale?

July 6, 2020 • 8:45 am

Note from Professor Ceiling Cat:  Be aware that this post is not by me, but by Greg. Not that I disagree with it, because I don’t, but people are always giving me credit for Greg’s posts, and he deserves any encomiums or opprobrium. So note the title line below. The story is a familiar one with a twist: the erasure of someone for views that we no longer find acceptable, but in this case it’s a scientist.

There will be a second installment of l’affaire Cope this week, hinted at in Greg’s last line.

by Greg Mayer

The answer to the question in the title of this post is, “Yes.” But first, some background on Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897).

Edward Drinker Cope, 1840-1897.

Cope was a Philadelphia Quaker who was one of the most prolific vertebrate zoologists of the 19th century. He began publishing as a teenager, and published about 1400 papers in his relatively short life. The herpetologist Kraig Adler (1989:46-47) called him “America’s greatest herpetologist,” and added that his “most epochal contributions were to vertebrate paleontology.” Paleontologist Kevin Padian (1998) wrote, “The most versatile American vertebrate zoologist of the 19th Century, and perhaps the 20th, E.D. Cope has touched the lives of every one of his professional successors through his astonishing record of collection and publication.” I have read and used his work in my own research, and I own copies of his two great monographs on the North American herpetofauna, “The Batrachia of North America” (1889) and the posthumous “The crocodilians, lizards and snakes of North America” (1900). (We’ve encountered Cope before here at WEIT, with regard to the false claim that he is the type specimen of Homo sapiens.)

Although still well known among vertebrate zoologists and paleontologists for his anatomical, systematic, and faunistic contributions, Cope’s general evolutionary views, usually called “Neo-Lamarckian”, are today little known or discussed; his Origin of the Fittest (1886) and Primary Factors of Organic Evolution (1896) are not high on modern reading lists. The founders of modern evolutionary biology (Th. Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, and even the paleontologist G.G. Simpson) had little to say about him, and if he’s mentioned in a modern textbook at all, it’s for Cope’s Rule (the general tendency for  evolutionary lineages to increase in average size). Broad histories of evolutionary biology have a bit more to say (Bowler, 2003), and specific histories even more (Bowler, 1996).

To the general public, Cope is best remembered (if at all) for the “Bone Wars“, his intense rivalry with O.C. Marsh of Yale to discover, collect, and describe the great vertebrates of the American West, a feud that was the subject of several popular books (e.g., Wallace, 1999).

When John Treadwell Nichols at the American Museum of Natural History founded a journal of cold-blooded vertebrates in 1913, he named it Copeia, after Cope.  (Naming journals after a prominent figure in this manner is not uncommon; two others that pop to mind are Treubia and Brenesia.)

A few years later, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) was formed, and after a few more years, in 1924, the Society took over publishing of the journal. An editorial note in January, 1924 (an issue published during the transition to the ASIH as publisher), stated the journal’s scope:

Due to exigencies of space, articles for publication in Copeia must be brief and restricted to observations on taxonomy, distribution, structure and habits. Controversy and opinion will rarely be printed.

On Friday, the Board of Governors of ASIH renamed the journal Ichthyology & Herpetology; Cope is now officially beyond the pale.

The process by which Cope’s name was to be removed became known to the membership on June 18, when members—I’ve been one since I was in high school—received an email from the President and Editor. The letter to members succinctly stated the problem, the proposed remedy, and the process:

Our journal’s namesake, E.D. Cope, held and published racist and misogynist views that our current membership finds abhorrent. The ASIH will begin addressing this matter. The Executive Committee of the ASIH is in favor of changing our journal’s name and is taking step to begin this process. We will bring this matter to our Board of Governors, to the appropriate ASIH committees, and to the ASIH membership for consideration.

The letter mentions repeatedly that the membership is likely unaware of Cope’s views:

Our goal is not in seeking the demonization of Cope. Rather we wish to honestly address one of our own blemishes. We have long ignored this particular blemish; much of our membership is not even aware of Cope’s racist perspectives.

History can be taken out of context. Indeed, Cope’s views were held by many (perhaps most) of his contemporary 19th Century scientists. However, his views on race, society, and eugenics were very prominent. Because he has been a titan of both ichthyology and herpetology (and perhaps because few modern members know his views), for a century we have looked past the bad to focus on his accomplishments. But his views on race and society were very public and, unfortunately, published as purportedly scientific articles. In a few instances, these views were part of policies agreed to by the ASIH.

Many ASIH members may not know that we have been having these conversations for years, even decades. From our perspective, it is time to think hard about the messages behind whom we honor and hurt with our statues and monuments, and with our building and journal namesakes. We have an opportunity.

From such a letter, I think it fair to assume that the membership would be informed about Cope, and then asked to consider the action proposed by the Executive Committee. The members were neither informed nor consulted. On Saturday, June 27, it was announced that the Board of Governors was voting to change the name, and it would be over within a week. I wrote to the Executive Committee and Board of Governors on June 30 as follows (in part):

I had expected that there would be a broader consultation. Although the constitution may allow the Board of Governors to take action on its own, I don’t see how doing so in the time frame contemplated can be construed as bringing the matter “to the ASIH membership” in any sense whatsoever.
In your message of the 18th, you acknowledge that few members of the ASIH are aware of the views which Cope held which are to be censured. That is certainly the case for myself. While I have read and used Cope’s herpetological works, I must admit that my knowledge of his life is limited to about the contents of Kraig Adler’s biographical sketch of him in Contributions to the History of Herpetology, and to the fact that he engaged in a sometimes unsavory paleontological ‘war’ with Marsh. I have never had any reason to seek out or consult his social views.
I urge you to begin the process of bringing the matter to the members’ attention by informing us of what it is that Cope did that merits censure. Once the ASIH’s members are well informed, then it will be possible for the Society to take actions that will have the “buy-in” of the membership.

Having seen arguments that it is justified (and not merely misdirected) to take down statues of Ulysses Grant, I wanted to learn myself more about Cope. There are two biographies of him: Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Cope: Master Naturalist (1931), and Jane Pierce Davidson’s The Bone Sharp: The Life of Edward Drinker Cope (1997), but with no access to libraries possible (and of course no time to read the books, given the one week time frame), the best thing I could find to inform myself was Kevin Padian’s (1998) long, thoughtful, review of Davidson. Padian finds the book useful, but laments that Davidson has written a purely “personal biography”, which does not engage with Cope’s science or the culture in which he was brought up. Here’s the part of his review that addresses Cope’s views on human races:

Davidson’s principal interests in Cope’s theoretical ideas run more to how his views of human differences were used by others, scientists and social commentators alike, in some particularly repugnant campaigns against blacks. Cope was a thoroughgoing racist, though like many such, he liked and respected individuals among those groups whose ethnicity he generally disdained. Cope’s views went beyond the benign sectarian xenophobia of most Quakers (including his father), who had a long tradition of working for emancipation and amelioration of the American Negro. Cope congenially disparaged blacks, Asians, Irish, Jews, Mexicans, New Mexicans, and various European groups, though he generally respected the Indians whom he met out West. He regarded whites as most advanced among human races and looked for “apelike” characters in other races as evidence of arrested development from more primitive Quadrumana (Primates). Negroes were to him the most ape- like, with poorly developed social and intellectual abilities that would only atrophy apart from association with whites. He opposed slavery and racist violence such as lynchings, though his Quaker heritage gave him the opportunity to avoid serving in any capacity in the Civil War. He advocated shipping freed slaves to Africa, not so much to deny them whatever benefits of freedom might await them in America as to return them to a milieu in which it might not be so difficult for them to succeed, intellectually and socially. In his view, this position (shared by other strange bedfellows at the time, including many Northern and Southern politicians) was scientifically justified: his researches indicated that the skull sutures of Negroes closed earlier in ontogeny than in whites, indicating limited development of the brain. Davidson presents a spectrum of social commentators who used Cope’s findings and went farther beyond them than Cope, she thinks, ever would have done, and what she presents is truly disturbing. Weaving the relatively dispassionate scientific inquiries of Haeckel and Herbert Spencer about Cope’s views on racial differences with the frightening use of them made by the anatomist Robert W. Shufeldt, Davidson masterfully shows how thin was the line dividing science and social engineering. Shufeldt, whose Myology of the Raven and other works are still well known, was particularly over the edge in both his social views and his sanity. Davidson is probably correct in concluding that Cope would never have condoned the social engineering of the Negro that Shufeldt and others suggested, but it is difficult to deny that Cope’s “scientific” studies lent a veneer of authority to the polemics.

Trying to inform myself was only for my own edification, because the Board of Governors did indeed act in less than a week, without consideration by the membership. After the vote was concluded, the information sent to the Board of Governors was shared with the membership, including a link to an article from 1890, documenting some of the views alluded to by Padian. (I still don’t know anything about the objectionable “policies agreed to by the ASIH.” What are they? Are they still in effect? Have they been changed? Cope, of course, being long dead at the time, had no hand in establishing ASIH policies.)

So, it’s clear that Cope held and published views that are reprehensible. We all need to consider, what is to be done in such cases?

[JAC: Stay tuned for Greg’s next installment.]

Adler, K., ed. 1989. Contributions to the History of Herpetology. Contributions to Herpetology, No. 5. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Oxford, Ohio.

Bowler, P.J. 1996. Life’s Splendid Drama: Evolutionary Biology and the Reconstruction of Life’s Ancestry, 1860-1940. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Bowler, P.J. 2003. Evolution: The History of an Idea. 3rd ed. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Cope, E.D. 1886. Origin of the Fittest. Appleton, New York. BHL

Cope, E.D. 1889. The Batrachia of North America. United States National Museum Bulletin 34:1-525. Reprint, 1963, Eric Lundberg, Ashton, Maryland. BHL

Cope, E. D. 1890. Two perils of the Indo-European. The Open Court 3:2052–2054.

Cope, E.D. 1896. Primary Factors of Organic Evolution. Open Court, Chicago. BHL

Cope, E.D. 1900. The crocodilians, lizards and snakes of North America. Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1898:153-1270. BHL

Davidson J.P. 1997. The Bone Sharp: The Life of Edward Drinker Cope. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia. (Not seen.)

Osborn, H.F. 1931. Cope: Master Naturalist. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. (Not seen.)

Padian, K. 1998. (Review of) The Bone Sharp: The Life of Edward Drinker Cope, by Jane Pierce Davidson. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 18:243-246.

Wallace, D.R. 1999. The Bonehunter’s Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Who is the type specimen of Homo sapiens?

March 20, 2009 • 12:43 pm

by Greg Mayer

The answer is: Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish naturalist. But there’s a story behind this bare fact.

One of the great problems facing natural history in the 18th century was the problem of diversity: the great variety of plants and animals from all over the world that began flooding into European museums as the result of voyages of exploration. Although it was not until Darwin’s idea of descent with modification that a fully satisfactory solution to the problem began to come within reach, Linnaeus made a signal contribution by establishing a nomenclature– a system of names– by which this diversity could be ordered, and with which it was possible to discuss the problem.  The principles of the system have undergone considerable development since then, but the 10th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae remains the starting point of zoological nomenclature.

One of the post-Linnaean developments is that all species should have a type specimen. A type specimen is not, as the name might seem to imply, a typical (in the sense of normal or average) member of a species.  Rather it is a specimen that fixes the application of a name to a particular zoological species.  Thus, I know that the name Anolis roosevelti applies to the large, arboreal (and now, unfortunately, apparently extinct) anole lizard of the islands east of Puerto Rico, because I can go the Museum of Comparative Zoology and examine the type specimen that is kept and carefully preserved there, and see that this specimen is indeed a member of that species.  Having the application of a name fixed is most important when it turns out that more than one species is masquerading under one name.  My friend and colleague Richard Thomas of the University of Puerto Rico, for example, discovered that Eleutherodactylus portoricensis, one of the most beloved frogs of Puerto Rico, actually consisted of two species, one of which had previously gone unrecognized.  The type specimen of E. portoricensis belonged to one of these two species, so it, of course, retained the name portoricensis; the newly recognized one was actually the more common and widespread of the two, and he gave it the name  Eleutherodactylus coqui, after its vernacular name, coqui, which was given in imitation of its nocturnally ubiquitous call.

All of this is by way of introduction to the issue at hand: who is the type specimen of Homo sapiens? In last week’s issue of Nature, Andrew Hendry of the Redpath Museum says

curiously, humans have never had a designated type specimen, despite attempts by American palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope to have himself so designated

Is this so? No. In 1959, W.T. Stearn, in an article (Systematic Zoology 8:4-22) commemorating the 200th anniversary of the 10th edition of the Systema Naturae, wrote

Since for nomenclatorial purposes the specimen most carefully studied and recorded by the author is to be accepted as the type [specimen], clearly Linnaeus himself, who was much addicted to autobiography, must stand as the type of his Homo sapiens!

While there is a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to this, it satisfies the criteria of the Code of Zoological nomenclature, and thus Stearn has designated Linnaeus as the type specimen of Homo sapiens (Linnaeus, in naming Homo sapiens, had not designated a type specimen, which in his day was not customarily done).

So, as noted at the start, we do have a type specimen, Carl himself.  Did the great paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope ever try to have himself made the type specimen of Homo sapiens? Again, no.  Although Cope did leave his body for study, and there may be an oral tradition at the Academy of Natural Sciences that he wanted to be the type, there’s no written evidence he did. Earle Spamer, now of the American Philosophical Society, wrote a detailed article (Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 149:109-114) exploring this claim. The written claim arises in a popular book by Louie Psihoyos and John Knoebber called Hunting Dinosaurs, with a foreword by famed paleontologist Bob Bakker. In the book, the authors relate how in about 1993 they borrowed Cope’s skull, and traveled around with it, showing it to paleontologists.  Bakker, according to the story, told them that man had no type specimen, and since Cope wanted to be it, they set about making it so.  But even if Bakker was unaware of Stearn’s designation decades earlier, the details of the story are all wrong.  Bakker would have known that a type designation does not require the description and measurements pictured and described in the book, that the type specimen must be chosen from among specimens examined by the original author (in this case Linnaeus in 1758, 82 years before Cope’s birth), and that there is no official “review board” to which such designations are submitted (the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature can be appealed to in order to set aside the rules, but they don’t review actions that follow the rules).  In the foreword, Bakker himself makes no mention of ever having tried to actually make Cope the type specimen. No publication by Bakker claiming to make Cope the type has ever appeared, and Psihoyos and Knoebber’s journalistic account of Bakker’s supposed but unfulfilled intention to do so does not itself constitute a published nomenclatural act under the Code of Zoological Nomenclature.

It’s hard to tell how much Bakker might have been pulling Psihoyos’ and Knoebber’s legs, or just playing along, or if the authors just misinterpreted a lot of what Bakker said and did. Spamer seems to take this all a bit too seriously, and may err in ascribing much of it to Bakker, who did not actually author any part of the book but the foreword. But Carl Linnaeus is the type specimen of Homo sapiens; and Edward Drinker Cope has never been put forward for the job, and, without special action by the International Commission, he wouldn’t even qualify for it.

(Note by JAC:    Thanks to Dr. David Hillis of the University of Texas at Austin, who helped clarify this situation.)

Update: I’ve just come across a newspaper article that says that Bakker did publish a designation of Cope as the type specimen in 1994 in the Journal of the Wyoming Geological Society. The author of the newspaper article, Scott LaFee, did speak to some knowledgable people, including Ted Daeschler and Gary Rosenberg of the Academy of Natural Sciences. The article doesn’t note, though, that Cope is barred from being the type specimen because he wasn’t among the specimens seen by Linnaeus, and that Stearn’s designation (although mentioned by LaFee) preempts any later designation by Bakker. LaFee also seems to think a type specimen must be “typical” in the sense of average, which, as noted in the original post, it needn’t be.  I’m going to try to track down Bakker’s paper, and will post my findings here.

Update 2: I’d posted the update right after finding the mention of the article in the  Journal of the Wyoming Geological Society, because I thought it would take me a while to get a copy of the right issue of an obscure journal, and I wanted to immediately correct my claim that Bakker never published. Well, it turns out I was right in the first place. There is apparently no such journal.  There isn’t even a Wyoming Geological Society (there is a Wyoming Geological Association). I’m not sure where the claim originates: I’ve not found a mention of the fictional journal in Psihoyos’s book. It seems to me that some deliberate joking has gone on here. I’ll also mention here that I’ve seen some web commentary to the effect that Stearn’s designation doesn’t count, because “nobody can agree“.  This is incorrect: nomenclatural actions that follow the rules are valid, regardless of whether or not others think it was a good action to take.