Cope, Edward Drinker

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(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 28 July 1840; d. Philadelphia, 12 April 1897)

vertebrate paleontology, zoology.

A pioneer in the development of American vertebrate paleontology. Cope gained notoriety for his disputes with Othniel C. Marsh and fame as the leading theorist of the neo-Lamarckian movement in American biology. Cope’s father, Alfred Cope, was descended from a prominent, wealthy, and well-established Quaker merchant family; his mother, Hannah Edge Cope, died when he was three years of age.

Cope’s formal education began in 1849, when he was enrolled in the Friends Select School in Philadelphia. Four years later he entered the West-town Boarding School, another Quaker institution, just outside of Philadelphia, where he studied intermittently until 1859. Cope’s schooling, which emphasized the classics, did not kindle his interest in natural history. From 1854 to 1860, however, his father tried to persuade him to follow a career in agriculture by sending him to the farms of relatives during the summer months; it was there that Cope’s interest in natural history developed. In 1859 he began his lifelong, all-consuming endeavor— the study of natural history—by recatologing without remuneration the herpetological collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

During the early 1860’s. Cope’s interests in natural history took him to the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the prominent museums of natural history in Europe. Except for a one-year appointment at Haverford College (1866), Cope spent all of his time doing research or preparing his work for publication. His inherited wealth enabled him to support his wife and daughter while pursuing his interests in natural history, almost at will, until 1880. He was originally interested in the reptiles, amphibians, and fish of North America, but by 1866 he had begun to conduct research on the fossil remains of these organisms’ ancestors. By 1870 Cope was studying and publishing works on the mammals of North America, both contemporary and extinct. His first theoretical work on evolution appeared in 1868; three years later he began a long career in the popular presentation of evolutionary ideas and the facts of natural history.

Cope’s work, particularly his studies of the cold-blooded vertebrates, quickly established his reputation. Despite his aggressive and at times abrasive personality, he was admitted to the leading American scientific societies: the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1861), the American Philosophical Society (1866). and the National Academy of Sciences (1872). Later he continued to receive recognition for his work in natural history: the Bixby Medal of the Geological Society of London (1879), the Hayden Medal of the Academy of Natural Sciences (1891), and the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1896).

Cope made his most lasting contributions in the field of vertebrate paleontology. When he began his work, the parameters of vertebrate paleontology had been broadened by the rapid western expansion of the United States. Prior to this time, most of vertebrate fossil materials from western America consisted of bone fragments, hastily collected by explorers. After the Civil War the pressures of westward expansion led to the development of an extensive transcontinental railroad system, which provided less costly transportation for tons of newly discovered fossils intact within their matrix. In order to facilitate the development of western lands, the government authorized and funded surveys to investigate and make geographical and geological maps of the wilderness: there were four such expeditions between 1866 and 1879. These expeditions provided not only access to the rich and previously unknown fossil fields but also money for the expensive monographs and plates in which the fossil fields but also money for the expensive monographs and plates in which the fossils were described and illustrated.

From 1871 to 1879 Cope spent eight months of each year with one of the United States geological surveys. During this time he visited or discovered fossil fields in Colorado, Kansas, Montana. New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. On these travels Cope obtained the materials and knowledge of natural history that served him for the rest of his life. His prodigious discoveries led him to work quickly’at times too rapidly’a trait that led to inaccuracies in his work, as even his friends admitted. The geological surveys published Cope’s two most significant works: “The Vertebrata of the Cretaceous Formations of the West” (1875) and “The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West, Book I” (1884), also known as “Cope’s Bible.” These writings represented the first comprehensive descriptions of vertebrates from the early Eocene formation. Cope thus reoriented naturalists’ understanding of animal life by pushing the origin of the “age of the mammals” further back in time.

Ironically, it was a dispute with Marsh over material collected during one of the geological surveys that resulted in Cope’s losing the privilege of access to government facilities. The dispute began in 1872 when Marsh, also a vertebrate paleontologist, challenged the validity of Cope’s fossil discoveries around Fort Bridger, in southwestern Wyoming. Cope and Marsh clashed repeatedly over the next twenty years, trading accusations of unethical conduct, attempting to undermine each other’s scientific achievements, and trying to limit each other’s access to government resources. This controversy frequently has been described as the result of the collision of two unusually volatile and ambitious personalities in the same field at the same time. (Commentators have felt that only this coincidence could explain the twenty years of bitter rivalry and conflict.) Although the characterization is accurate, it has tended to obscure the nature of the dispute: involved were priority in scientific discoveries and access to publication facilities. The controversy drastically altered Cope’s life after 1879, when Marsh became chief vertebrate paleontologist of the newly consolidated United States Geological Survey. From then on, all of Cope’s affiliations and privileges associated with the geological survey ceased.

This appointment coincided with another misfortune for Cope: he lost his entire inheritance of $250,000 in one of the numerous mining hoaxes of the Gilded Age. These misfortunes forced him to reduce his research on western fossil fields. Even though he still received valuable material from professional fossil hunters, most of his time was spent either in trying to find a publisher for the discoveries he had made during the 1870’s or in seeking a way to support his family. His deteriorating financial situation compelled him to undertake popular scientific lecture tours during the 1880’s and to sell his invaluable fossil collections to the American Museum of Natural History in 1894. Fortunately, the University of Pennsylvania appointed him to a teaching post in geology in 1889. In 1895 the university promoted him to the chair of zoology and comparative anatomy, a post he retained until his death.

Despite the unsavoriness of the Cope-Marsh controversy and the coincidence of unhappy events in Cope’s private life, his reputation in vertebrate paleontology remains secure. Even his methods for preserving fragile fossil bones during transportation from the field to the museum are still in use. In addition, he and Marsh share the distinction of having discovered the first complete remains of the giant dinosaurs, the reptiles that roamed the earth during the Cretaceous period. Of equal importance were Cope’s contributions to the discussions on the question of evolution. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Cope was the leading theorist of an uniquely American neo-Lamarckian system of thought.

Cope’s theory of evolution was articulated in 1866, when Alpheus Hyatt, another American biologist, published his thoughts on evolution. Both scientists relied upon the concepts of acceleration and retardation and the phenomenon of embryological recapitulation. Cope, however, played a larger role in the neo-Lamarckian movement because of the greater number and wider range of his publications on evolution. He argued that if organisms of different genera went through nearly identical stages of early development, they were closely related and descended from the same racial stock. In this relation, which he called parallelism, an evolved series of genera emerged as structural changes took place, through time, by means of acceleration and retardation. Acceleration referred to the appearance of a character (or set of characters) earlier in an organism’s development than its appearance in the organism’s ancestors. Cope argued that this stage left time in the organism’s development for the emergence of newly adaptive characters, which, if they appeared before reproduction, could be transmitted to the organism’s offspring. Retardation was the reverse process, the slowing down of an organism’s development. In this manner, a less highly developed character (or set of characters)was passed on to the offspring. By closely examining the embryological development of an organism. Cope believed he could trace its life history and phylogeny.

Cope developed his theory of evolution most fully in “On the Origins of Genera” (1868) and “The Method of Creation of Organic Forms” (1871). In the former work he revealed his adherence to typological classification when he attacked Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He argued that the theory of natural selection might explain the evolution of the characteristics that define a species, but it could not explain the appearance of well-adapted, apparently nonfortuitous variations of the higher characteristics of classification (such as characters of genera, family, or order). Cope merely proposed that these variations could be understood through his concepts of acceleration and retardation, but he did not explain how these processes took place. In “The Method of Creation of Organic Forms” he admittedly relied upon Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Biology (1864-1867) to explain the phenomena of variations. This explanation entailed the application of neo-Lamarckian concepts of use and disuse and of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

A careful examination of Cope’s evolutionary thought would reveal a certain ambiguity in his explanations of inheritance. Although by 1871 Cope defended the inheritance of acquired characteristics, at some points he argued that there were laws of matter (in his earlier work said to be divinely inspired) that foreordain the direction of evolution; at other points he maintained that some organisms possess an ability to direct their evolution. Cope resolved this paradox by asserting that the more highly developed organisms, those with intelligence, can control their environment, and, hence, their evolutionary development. Man, the most highly developed organism, possessed the power to control his destiny. Although his final work on evolution, The Primary Factors of Organic Evolution (1896), was a defense of acquired characteristics, throughout his work there is a strain of orthogenesis, which perhaps reflects the legacy of his religious background.

Although Cope published after 1872 more than fifty articles and books on evolution, his thought did not change significantly after that year. In response to the repeated attacks of the neo-Darwinians, especially after August F. L. Weismann’s Germ-Plasm (English translation, London, 1893), however, Cope attempted to explain with greater clarity the effects of use and disuse upon an evolving organism. He stressed the importance of the environment in evolution and adhered, with greater determination, to the belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

During the 1870’s and 1880’s, the Cope-Hyatt school of evolutionary thought was the most active and representative of the American biological community. Asa Gray and March notwithstanding. For example. Cope had the support of, and later owned, the first scientific journal devoted exclusively to biology, American Naturalist. By the 1890’s, however, he and his supporters in the United States were on the defensive, because of the arguments advanced against the inheritance of acquired characteristics by the neo-Darwinians and those who supported a mutation theory of evolution. Yet many naturalists, as opposed to experimental biologists and biometricians, continued to hold evolutionary concepts similar to Cope’s until the 1930’s and the advent of the modern synthesis in evolution theory. If nothing else, it can be said that the strength and endurance of Cope’s evolutionary thought highlights the weaknesses associated with the theory of natural selection before the advances of population biology and genetics.


I. Original Works. The most important MS collection of Cope material, including correspondence and diaries, is in the Osborn Library at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. The Quaker Collection at Haverford College, Haverford, Pa., contains pertinent material from Cope’s childhood and his early years as a scientist. The American Philosophical Society’s Cope collection includes his field diaries and material concerning his work at the society. The Academy of Natural Sciences also possesses material pertaining to his life and work in Philadelphia.

A chronological bibliography of Cope’s more than 1,500 publications follows Henry Fairfield Osborn, “Edward Drinker Cope” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,13 (1930), 129-317. Cope’s most important works include “On the Origins of Genera,” in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.20 (1868). 242-300; “The Method of Creation of Organic Forms.” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,12 (1871). 229-263: “The Vertebrata of the Cretaceous Formations of the West” in Report of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories,II (Hayden, Ariz., 1875); “Consciousness in Evolution” in Penn Monthly,6 (1875), 560-575: “The Relation of Animal Motion to Animal Evolution.” in American Naturalist,12 (1878), 40-48: “The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West. Book I,” in Report of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories,III (Hayden, Ariz., 1884); The Origin of the Fittest (New York. 1886): “The Ba-trachia of North America,” in Bulletin. United States National Museum, no. 34 (1889); The Primary Factors of Organic Evolution (Chicago. 1896); and “The Crocodilians, Lizards and Snakes of North America,” in Report of the United States National Museum (1898), 153-1270.

II. Secondary Literature. Henry Fairfield Oshorn. Cope: Master Naturalist (Princeton. N.J.. 1931), is the unsurpassed guide to Cope’s life, and contains a large portion of his correspondence. See also Edward Pfeifer, “The Genesis of American Neo-Lamarckism.” in Isis,56 (1965). 156-167; Elizabeth Noble Shor. The Fossil Feud Between E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh (Hicksville, N.Y., 1974); and George Stocking. “Lamarckianism in American Social Science: 1890-1915,” in Journal of the History of Ideas,23 (1962). 239-256.

Joseph M. Maline

Cope, Edward Drinker

views updated

Cope, Edward Drinker

(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 28 July 1840; d; Philadelphia, 12 April 1897),

Paleontology, zoology, natural history

For a detailed study of his life and work, see Supplement.

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