Between Cope and Osborn: the Role of the American Biological Discourse on the Public Debate on Evolution

David Ceccarelli is a PhD student at the University of Rome, Tor Vergata. In 2015-2016, he was a Research Fellow of the Consortium. Read more about his research below.

My research project aims to analyze the active role that the American biological discussion played in the broader debate on evolution between the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Examining the crucial character assumed by paleontological studies in the rise of American science, I focus specifically on the works of Edward Drinker Cope and Henry Fairfield Osborn, on their correspondence and on their public commitment as advocates of an anti-Darwinian view of evolution. Cope’s views represented, as has been argued by many scholars, the leading formulation of the so-called “American School” of Neo-Lamarckians. He became a sustainer of an anti-Darwinian approach to evolution based both on the acquisition of traits through effort and use and on the causal power of developmental constraints. Osborn, on the other hand, started his paleontological career as a follower of Cope’s account of mechanical adaptation, being afterwards prone to dismiss his first credit in the inheritance of acquired traits and thus becoming one of the leading supporters of an “internalistic” orthogenesis in the first decades of the twentieth century. Further, the empirico-theoretical core of their views exhibited many of the biological and cultural controversies which featured the transition between the two centuries. Along with this, their direct intervention on some extra-scientific issues, such as the compatibility between theism and evolution or racial problems, seemed to deepen the problematic nature of their contributions. The analysis of such a multifarious production will allow me to deal with the complex process of disciplinary intertwining that characterized the evolutionary debate in America. I thus expect that this case-study could clarify the relations that stand between the changing structure of evolutionary theories and the extra-scientific discourses which orbited around such theories. In this regard, the collections at the Consortium member institutions have been extremely useful to me. Though many works are available in digital format, some volumes and documents still represent an exclusive heritage of the Consortium member institutions that cannot be ignored in a study that aims to realize Cope’s and Osborn’s impact on the American reception of evolutionary theory. Thus the examination of such literature has represented a unique opportunity to improve my current PhD project. In this regard, it has been really valuable for me to improve my researches at the Consortium, also because much of the scientific and cultural debate that I study arose in Philadelphia. At the Academy of Natural Sciences Libraries I had the opportunity to work on some rare papers of Cope, regarding his methodological assumptions as well as his extra-scientific reflections. In The Significance of Paleontology (1875), Cope presented a very rare discussion about what he considered to be the five main laws in paleontology. The analysis of such criteria has led me to consider the way he succeeded in theorizing the organism as a set of traits separately evolved, though he preserved some important Cuverian notions borrowed by Joseph Leidy’s teachings. Two other papers situated at the ANSL, What is the object of life? (1901?) and Ethical Evolution (1889), have helped me in deepening my understanding not only of Cope's vitalistic evolutionary philosophy, but also his ideas about social progress, moral evolution and religion. Both these essays show, in strict relation with nineteen-century positivist frameworks, how Cope sustained and promoted a “normative” value of science in relation to social conduct and politics. As regards Cope’s intellectual relationships with other evolutionists, the analysis of the lecture he delivered on Alfred Russel Wallace at the Brooklyn Ethical Association in 1891, available at the American Philosophical Society Library, has been extremely useful to me. Such a document represents an important contribution in so far as it highlights Cope’s views on the Neo-Darwinian school as well as on Wallace's metaphysical speculations. In particular, the strong denial of the transcendental agency that Wallace considered in his works on anthropogenesis has helped me in clarifying Cope’s immanentist perspective. At the John Hopkins Library I found some important reports of Osborn’s researches during the well-known expeditions in Central Asia during the 1920s. In Methods and results of the American Museum expedition in the Gobi Desert (1926) Osborn declared that his previous predictions on the high-plates region of Central Asia as the center of origin and distribution of the mammals had been corroborated by Roy Chapman Andrew’s expeditions between 1922 and 1925. Further, by analyzing the essay Why Central Asia? (1926), I had the opportunity to delve into Osborn’s pivotal work in the so-called “Dawn Man crusade”. In this regard, his arguments in support of the Mongolian origin of man led me to deepen my understanding of the interaction between his scientific and extra-scientific discourses. Considering the Asian territory as a highly challenging region for the struggle for existence, Osborn mantained that the more humans had radiated from that center of origin, the more they had become racially inferior. In second place, the reconstruction of human phylogeny from Asia led Osborn to dismiss the belief in the simian origin of man. According to him, man’s real ancestors were much more complex and, in a way, “higher”, than any ape-like form imagined until then. In this sense, the essay shows the way Osborn began to struggle against the so popular “Ape-man hypothesis”, which was widely exploited by fundamentalists throughout the 1920s. Moreover, the exchange with other Consortium fellows has been very helpful to me. During the Consortium’s brown bag presentation I received very useful suggestions and advice. I had the opportunity to present my work and receive feedback from various perspectives and areas of expertise.