A Day in the Life of Edward Drinker Cope

Edward Drinker Cope was an American paleontologist who helped to establish the Neo-Lamarckian school of evolutionary thought. He was also a local Quaker and professor, first at Haverford College from 1864–1867 and then at the University of Pennsylvania in 1891.

Cope thought that evolution occurred through changes in embryonic development, not natural selection. Additional stages of development at the end of the embryonic sequence caused speciation. Each new stage was added to the end of the developmental cycle, pushing all previous stages forward in the developmental process. Animals that shared developmental patters were grouped into genera, families, etc. Cope wedded this belief to his Lamarckian ideas, arguing that the parts of an organism that were used the most would develop the furthest, while unused or lesser used parts would degenerate. Diversity in species was caused through changes in the sequence of development of organs based on use or disuse. Similar species would share developmental patterns throughout much of the embryonic stage; distantly related species would differ early in the process. Cope seemed also to believe that you could induce changes through use and disuse of specific organs.[1]

Cope along with one-time friend and later rival Othniel Marsh, a paleontologist from Yale University, largely created the first major fossil rush in North America. In the late 1870s the two vied to unearth dinosaur fossils at Garden Park, Colorado, and Como Bluff, Wyoming. Cope published hundreds of papers on dinosaur fossils.

But Cope wasn’t just a dedicated scientists, though the most recent bio/hagiography tries to convince us that he was first and foremost an excellent scientist. He was also an irascible man who seemed to bicker with most people. Late in his life, he was upset by the noise and smell produced by livestock being herded down the streets of Philadelphia. On 25 April 1894 he complained to the mayor of Philadelphia. The next day Mayor Stuart responded:

Letter from Philadelphia Mayor Stuart to E.D. Cope.
Letter from Philadelphia Mayor Stuart to E.D. Cope.

Replying to your letter of 25th. I regret that the City Ordinances do not absolutely prohibit the driving of cattle, sheep, swine etc. through the streets in the built up sections of the City, but as it is such driving is permitted at certain hours. I will however bring the matter to the attention of the Director of the Department of Public Safety that the practice of which you complain, may be restricted as far as possible. Yours truly, Edwin S. Stuart, Mayor

At the time Cope was living in this house at 2102 Pine St.:

Edward Drinker Cope’s house (Historic American Buildings Survey; Library of Congress HABS PA,51-PHILA,539–2)
Edward Drinker Cope’s house (Historic American Buildings Survey; Library of Congress HABS PA,51-PHILA,539–2)[2]

His house still stands at the corner of Pine and 21st. In front of it is a plaque celebrating Cope’s achievements and the years he lived there.[3]

Despite being a difficult man, Cope seems to have been well respected in the fields of paleontology, herpetology, ichthyology, and evolution through Neo-Lamarckian mechanisms. And despite the celebratory and problematic biographies of Cope, of which there are only two, he probably merits some renewed scholarly attention.

[Reposted from PACHSmörgåsbord: A Day in the Life of E.D. Cope]

  1. The possibility selective breeding to create a distinct species of deaf humans was discussed in a fascinating letter from Alexander Bell to Cope. This letter will be the subject of subsequent post.  ↩

  2. Other images of Cope’s house can be found in the Historic American Buildings Survey collection at the Library of Congress.  ↩

  3. The “Street View” in Google Maps shows the front of the house today along with the commemorative plaque. See this link.  ↩

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