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Toothed Birds and Harsh Words

Updated on October 5, 2017
Caricature of Darwin by Thomas Nast.
Caricature of Darwin by Thomas Nast. | Source

When Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, it was predictably greeted with an uproar from religious authorities. But how did paleontologists of the era react to his revolutionary theory?

Though one might think Darwinism would have gotten a uniform response from people in the best position to judge it, paleontology was a burgeoning yet young branch of science at the time. The term "dinosaur" had only been coined seventeen years earlier, natural history museums like those now in London and New York had yet to be built, and scientists knew nothing about plate tectonics, the La Brea Tar Pits, or even T. rex. Thus, Darwinism got a mixed reception from paleontologists of the era. Some embraced it and quickly saw evidence for it in fossils of ancient birds and horses. Others rejected it for religious or professional reasons, while still others attempted to reconcile their spiritual convictions with the notion of the evolution of species, interpreting the latter as part of the Divine Plan.

Here, then, are six titans of paleontology in the Victorian era (with one later exception) who made their views on Darwinism known in their lifetime.

Huxley in 1857.
Huxley in 1857. | Source


Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

Nationality: English

Contributions: Coined the term "agnostic" ("without knowledge") to describe his views on God and was instrumental in fostering the education of science in Great Britain. He was also among the first scientists to examine the modern gorilla and Archaeopteryx (more below) and named the dinosaur Hypsilophodon.

Attitude toward Darwinism: Nicknamed "Darwin's bulldog", this feisty anatomist was one of the very first scientists to defend the new theory. A year after the Origin of Species was published, he participated in a debate on the subject at Oxford, dominated by the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Huxley himself. Though the details of what was said by either man are murky and the victor of the debate depends on which witness' account you turn to, many contemporary sources tell a similar anecdote: When Wilberforce asked Huxley if he was related to apes through his grandmother or his grandfather, the latter pointedly replied that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a learned man who used his intellect to twist to the truth. Though his own views on natural selection and other aspects of evolution didn't always line up with Darwin's, he was his staunchest defender and one of the first scientists to interpret Archaeopteryx as a missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

Trivia: Thomas Henry Huxley was the grandfather (and an intellectual influence) of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World among other works.

Marsh with the Oglala chief Red Cloud.
Marsh with the Oglala chief Red Cloud. | Source

Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899)

Nationality: American

Contributions: Father of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale (named for his wealthy uncle George Peabody) and the first paleontology professor in the United States. He named and discovered some of the most famous American dinosaurs, including Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.

Attitude toward Darwinism: If Huxley was the loudest defender of Darwin and his young theory, Marsh's expeditions and studies produced some of the strongest evidence for evolution at the time. His collection of ancient horse fossils from the American West provided a clearer evolutionary narrative than Huxley's. Like Huxley, he was one of the first scientists to propose an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, based on Ichthyornis and Hesperornis--two extinct marine birds with both beaks and sharp teeth. This idea was largely overlooked or ignored by the public and the scientific community until the 1960s.

Trivia: Along with his nemesis Edward Drinker Cope (see below), Marsh launched what is known as the Great Dinosaur Rush (or, more aptly, the "Bone Wars") of the late 1800s, in which each man sought to outdo and to tarnish the other's career. Marsh ultimately described more dinosaur species than Cope, though both men were overly hasty in identifying new animals.

Owen with moa skeleton.
Owen with moa skeleton. | Source


Richard Owen (1804-1892)

Nationality: English

Contributions: Coined the term "dinosaur" and oversaw the construction of the dinosaurs of the Great Exhibition of 1851; was the first person to describe both the extinct moa and the modern gorilla in scientific literature; helped establish the Natural History Museum in London.

Attitude toward Darwinism: While Owen has traditionally been cast as an anti-evolutionist and he did criticize aspects of the Origin of Species, Darwin described his early mentor's writings on evolution as "difficult to understand and reconcile with each other" and his true beliefs on the subject remain unknown. He was, however, an enemy of another of his former protégés, Thomas Henry Huxley. Before Huxley's examination of it, Owen obtained the original specimen of Archaeopteryx and dismissed it as "unequivocally a bird" despite the presence of clawed hands and sharp teeth in lieu of a beak. In addition, Owen undermined his scientific standing by arguing that gorillas lacked a hippocampus (an essential part of the human brain), and refused to abandon this position even after Huxley had proved him wrong.

Trivia: By all accounts, Richard Owen was a brilliant scientist but an extremely arrogant man and an ardent self-promoter: He anonymously wrote an article for the Edinburgh Review in which he faulted Darwin's theories whilst lauding his own work in third person, and claimed credit for discoveries that were not his own, including the dinosaur Iguanodon (which was actually named and described by Gideon Mantell).

Agassiz at Harvard, 1870.
Agassiz at Harvard, 1870. | Source

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Nationality: Swiss

Contributions: Produced five illustrated volumes on fossil fishes between 1833 and 1844. He was also the first person known to have proposed a past ice age in scientific literature and helped found the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.

Attitude toward Darwinism: While none of the other scientists featured here were openly opposed to the idea of evolution, Agassiz was a creationist who rejected the idea unequivocally and perceived the study of nature as a way of better understanding the Divine Plan. Though a beloved professor at Harvard, many of his students--including his son Alexander--rejected his beliefs in favor of Darwin's.

Trivia: Agassiz is known to have had extremely racist attitudes, even for his time. He may have rejected evolution in part because many of its proponents (including Darwin) held that all human beings belonged to the same species, an idea that was revolting to him.

Cope alongside a Uintatherium skull.
Cope alongside a Uintatherium skull. | Source


Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897)

Nationality: American

Contributions: Discovered and named numerous species, such as Elasmosaurus, Dimetrodon, Camarasaurus, and Coelophysis. He is also the father of Cope's rule, which posits that species become larger over generations, and authored over 1,200 scientific publications in his lifetime--a record that remains unbeaten.

Attitude toward Darwinism: Raised a devout Quaker, Cope's main criticism of evolution by natural selection was that it failed to explain the origins of the "favored traits" described by Darwin. In his 1887 work The Genesis of Evolution, he expressed the belief that God was the driving force behind evolution (as the idea of intelligent design argues), ensuring the emergence of higher forms of life with each successive stage.

Trivia: Joseph Leidy, Cope's mentor at the Academy of Natural Sciences, corresponded with Darwin and was one of his first supporters among American paleontologists.

Osborn in Time Magazine, December 1928.
Osborn in Time Magazine, December 1928. | Source

Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935)

Nationality: American

Contributions: Was president of the American Museum of Natural History for twenty-five years and launched the first paleontological expeditions into the Gobi Desert. Like Marsh, he described many iconic dinosaurs, including Oviraptor, Velociraptor, and most famously, Tyrannosaurus rex.

Attitude toward Darwinism: Like Huxley, Osborn participated in the most famous evolution debate of his lifetime. Beginning in 1922, he waged a war of words with William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate who was then launching a crusade against the teaching of evolution in American schools. This campaign climaxed with the Scopes trial of 1925, in which the Tennessee science teacher John T. Scopes and his attorney Clarence Darrow turned to Osborn frequently for support, since he was well-respected in social as well as scientific circles. Yet another reason they leaned so heavily on him, though, was that unlike Huxley, Osborn was a practicing Christian. Like Cope, he argued that evolution wasn't a rejection of the Divine Plan but part of it, and he regarded Bryan's attack on its teaching as unholy as well as anti-scientific.

Trivia: There was a darker side to Osborn's conviction in evolution. He was an outspoken eugenicist who not only disregarded the notion that our ancestors emerged in Africa, but in scientific literature compared the brains of Aboriginal Australians to those of earlier human species and seriously argued that the climate of Africa retarded the intellectual and cultural development of its peoples.



Bowler, Peter J. The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolution Theories in the Decades Around 1900; Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1992

Gould, Stephen Jay. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections on Natural History; W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 1991

Gould, Stephen Jay et al. The Book of Life; W.W. Norton, New York, NY, 2001

Holmes, Thom. Fossil Feud: The Rivalry of the First American Dinosaur Hunters; Julian Messner, Parsippany, NJ, 1998


Chakraborty, Deblina and Sarah Dowdey. Stuff You Missed in History Class: "The Bone Wars, Part 1" (31 Dec 2012) and "The Bone Wars, Part 2" (9 Jan 2013) (history podcast from

"Sir Richard Owen: the archetypal villain." (Online article defending Owen by The Friends of Darwin)

Switek, Brian. "Richard Owen, the forgotten evolutionist." (article from


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