In many aspects of intelligent human life, competition can be a real catalyst for expedited growth, development and progress as a whole. Not all is well and good in the world of competition though. Depending on how the competitors decide to remain competitive, the outcome can be completely counterproductive… Even dangerous. Nowhere is this more frustrating and damaging than in the scientific community… (Well possibly the medical community).
Take the Bone Wars in the end of the 19th Century for example. These two buffoons make up one of my favourite stories in science history… mainly because they bankrupted themselves in their attempts to out perform the other with sloppy science. This summary is directly from Wikipedia, and paints a pretty clear picture of the situation:
SIDE NOTE: I’m writing on my iPad right now, so all of the usual Wikipedia links didn’t cut over. Sorry! If you’re looking for a good wiki-wiki-gang-bang, head over to the original entry hither.
The Bone Wars, also known as the “Great Dinosaur Rush”, refers to a period of intense fossil speculation and discovery during the Gilded Age of American history, marked by a heated rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope (of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia) and Othniel Charles Marsh (of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale). Each of the two paleontologists used underhanded methods to try to out-compete the other in the field, resorting to bribery, theft, and destruction of bones. Each scientist also attacked the other in scientific publications, seeking to ruin his credibility and have his funding cut off.
Their search for fossils led them west to rich bone beds in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. From 1877 to 1892, both paleontologists used their wealth and influence to finance their own expeditions and to procure services and dinosaur bones from fossil hunters. By the end of the Bone Wars, both men had exhausted their funds in the pursuit of paleontological supremacy.
Cope and Marsh were financially and socially ruined by their attempts to disgrace each other, but their contributions to science and the field of paleontology were massive, and provided substantial material for further work—both scientists left behind many unopened boxes of fossils after their deaths. The efforts of the two men led to over 142 new species of dinosaurs being discovered and described. The products of the Bone Wars resulted in an increase in knowledge of prehistoric life, and sparked the public’s interest in dinosaurs, leading to continued fossil excavation in North America in the decades to follow. Several historical books and fictional adaptations have been published about this period of intense fossil-hunting activity.
Despite their advances, the Bone Wars also had a negative impact not only on the two scientists but their peers and the entire field. The public animosity between Cope and Marsh harmed the reputation of American paleontology in Europe for decades. Furthermore, the reported use of dynamite and sabotage by employees of both men may have destroyed or buried hundreds of potentially critical fossil remains. Joseph Leidy abandoned his more methodical excavations in the West, finding he could not keep up with Cope’s and Marsh’s reckless searching for bones. Leidy also grew tired of the constant squabbling between the two men, with the result that his withdrawal from the field marginalized his own legacy; after his death, Osborn found not a single mention of the man in either of the rivals’ works. In their haste to outdo each other, Cope and Marsh haphazardly assembled the bones of their own discoveries. Their descriptions of new species, based on their reconstructions, led to confusion and misconceptions that lasted for decades after their deaths.