Friday, March 7, 2014

Bone Wars

The following is an analysis of Bone Wars: The Excavation of Andrew Carnegie's Dinosaur.

Value as described by Webster is the relative worth, utility or importance of an object or ideal. The dinosaur bones of the nineteenth century had educational, social, political, religious and obviously economic value. The $22,000 that Carnegie offered the University of Wyoming for the rights to its Diplodocus bones would be around $500,000 today. So in the grand scheme of business it doesn’t really seem as though Carnegie’s offer was really all that substantial when we are able to look back and see the great effect that these bones have had on the lives of so many people most especially those in the scientific community.
Educationally these bones offered the layman the chance to venture back to pre-human times and imagine what these creatures must have looked like. What was the world like with such gargantuan creatures roaming the earth? At the university entire new fields of study were being created to study the anatomy, biology, and history of these creatures and find the best ways in which to unearth them in the safest way. Having a dinosaur on campus meant that those men and children off the street who could not read the papers and journals of the people studying these creatures could see for themselves the magnificence and come to their own conclusions. Dinosaurs meant funding for programs that would otherwise likely have seemed useless to the future of man. If a field is not seen as working towards the betterment of man then often times it is not seen as a useful way of spending money. One merely has to look at the arts in today’s colleges and universities for that. Science and engineering departments receive many more times the funding that history and philosophy departments do, whereas 150 years ago the case would be quite the opposite.

The unveiling of these great monsters in the 19th century could have been cause for great religious upheaval throughout the western world. No longer could the New Testament, Quran, or the Torah answer for the earth’s creation. As these creatures had obviously been here millennia or more before the great books say that the earth came to be in existence there should have been quite a ruckus amongst the theologians of the time. However, it does not seem that was actually the case. It does seem that they did have a quite an effect on the debate over evolution at the time. These creatures that existed before man: what descendents of theirs exist on the earth of today, the earth of man? What caused the great extinction of these magnificent and tremendous beings? How could two of the exact same species be found thousands of miles apart on different continents with a vast ocean in between? All of these questions would be at the forefront of the religious, philosophical, and scientific debate created by the exposing of these creatures to the world.

Like the great gold rush fifty years earlier, but on a much smaller scale, the discovery of one set of bones had created a whirlwind among the community. Men who had been raised as miners often found themselves short of work as the mines of the west were drying up. What were these men to do when all they knew was digging? Well, some of them found new trade, but it appears that many of them took up the job of the collector. And there is not much more interesting an item to collect than the prospect of unearthing the remains of a creature ten or more times one’s size. The excavation of old bones paid fairly well too. In 1896 Reed received $65 as payment for only four parts to the skeleton of a Baptanadon, which is over $1500 in today’s terms. Not too bad for just a few days work. It was a difficult trade no question about it, most of its participants didn’t last, but those who did fare well in it would have their names become synonymous with the great creatures of millions of years before.

Then of course there is the political value. As I once heard someone say, “Politics, there’s always politics.” While the government surely did not, at least initially, like the idea of their surveyors spending their money on wily expeditions looking for these long, lost reptiles, they would reap great benefits from their discovery. A citizen distracted by a dinosaur at a local museum or university doesn’t see the great war looming overhead in not too distant future. With the promise of a dinosaur the people don’t mind paying a tiny bit more in taxes for that new fancy building in which to house it. The excavation of skeletons gave an excuse for there to even be a train station anywhere in Wyoming, an otherwise useless wasteland. Most importantly, dinosaurs mean power. If politician X is responsible for bringing a dino to the city, the people will not forget it in the future. He will forever be labeled as the great man who himself has helped to bestow such greatness on is people.

The value of these old bones is greatest of course in the scientific community. These discoveries help the learned people in the understanding of evolution, cosmology, creation, geology, geography, and the history of man. But on nearly equal ground of value the work of these men is what has made dinosaur an everyday word. Where would we be without Godzilla, Jurassic Park, the Land Before Time, and Barney? These beings of the earth’s past have had a significant value to the human race and will likely continue to in some fashion in to the future.

This article originally written February 3rd, 2008 for OU HSCI 1133 - Science and Popular Culture.

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