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Introduction and Overview

This guide is intended to spark discussion of and reflection on Dinosaur Wars, an AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary that tells the story of two pioneering scientists, O.C. Marsh and Edward Cope, who together were responsible for discovering more than 130 species of dinosaurs. The groundbreaking work that Cope and Marsh did in the late 19th century provided vital evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution -- along with key insights into the history of life on earth -- while introducing dinosaurs into the imagination of Americans young and old. But the fierce infighting between the two paleontologists tainted their legacy and stands as one of the most bitter scientific rivalries in American history.

This guide can be used by educators, students, and other viewers as a starting point from which to discuss and analyze the achievements of Marsh and Cope, as well as the positive and negative consequences of the fierce competition between the two paleontologists. The film and the guide can serve as resources in biology, life science, earth science, geology, history, social studies, government, English, and writing courses.

Learning Objectives and Curriculum Standards

By focusing on the life and work of two path-breaking paleontologists, Dinosaur Wars offers an engaging and captivating point of departure for discussion, writing, and activities that meet an array of state and national curriculum standards and benchmarks.

These include fostering an understanding of:

  • The nature of the scientific enterprise and the process by which scientific discoveries are made
  • The importance of the fossil record, which, through geologic evidence, documents the appearance, diversification, and extinction of many life forms
  • The concept of extinction and its significance in biological evolution (e.g., when the environment changes, the adaptive characteristics of some species are insufficient to allow their survival; most of the species that have lived on the Earth no longer exist)
  • The process of evolution, through which Earth's present-day life forms have evolved from earlier, distinctly different species
  • The process of natural selection (e.g., when an environment changes, some inherited characteristics become more or less advantageous or neutral, and chance alone can result in characteristics having no survival or reproductive value; this process results in organisms that are well suited for survival in particular environments)
  • The scientific explanation that natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide for the diversity and unity of past and present life forms on Earth (e.g., recurring patterns of relationship exist throughout the fossil record; molecular similarities exist among the diverse species of living organisms; the millions of different species living today appear to be related by descent from common ancestors)
  • The elements of early westward migration, including the lure of the American West and various motivations for opening up and exploring western lands and territories

Standards adapted from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning's Content Knowledge Standards and Benchmark Database (www.mcrel.org/standards).

Using This Guide

This guide is divided into two parts. Part One (Discussing the Film) presents a series of discussion questions organized into three thematic blocks that focus on landmarks in paleontology, the history of science, and science and society; these can be used for small-group or whole-class discussion, or as writing prompts. In Part Two, (Activities & Extensions) you'll find suggested projects and activities to extend students' engagement with the film and its key stories and themes. Please note that in addition to its national broadcast on PBS, Dinosaur Wars will be available for online viewing in streaming format here as of January 18, 2011.

Part One: Discussing the Film

Before Viewing

Discuss the following questions before viewing Dinosaur Wars and keep them in mind as you watch.

  • When you think about dinosaurs, what images come to mind?
  • What are the sources for these images?
  • How do we know what dinosaurs actually looked like?
  • Why do you think dinosaurs remain so fascinating to us today, millions of years after their extinction?

During Viewing

Dinosaur Wars chronicles one of the most bitter and intense rivalries in the history of science. As you watch the film, use the chart below to document the roots of this rivalry and to record key information about the two scientists who were at the forefront of American paleontology.

Points of Comparison

Edward Drinker Cope

Othniel Charles Marsh

Where did this scientist receive his education?

 

 

 

With what institution was this paleontologist affiliated?

 

 

List three of this paleontologist's most important achievements or discoveries.

 

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What three adjectives would you use to describe this scientist?

 

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3.

 

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2.

 

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In what ways did this scientist compete with or attempt to outsmart his rival? List three.

 

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What do you see as this scientist's most admirable and least admirable action?

Most admirable action:

 

 

Least admirable action:

 

 

 

Most admirable action:

 

 

Least admirable action:

 

 

 

Cite a revealing quotation from each scientist.

 

 

 




                     




                     

 

After Viewing

The following post-viewing discussion questions are organized into three strands: landmarks in paleontology; the history of science; and science and society.

Landmarks in Paleontology

A love affair. The film opens by stating that "For more than a century, Americans have had a love affair with dinosaurs." What is your reaction to this statement? What do you think explains our love affair with dinosaurs, and to what extent is this fascination with dinosaurs evident in 21st-century American culture? In what ways are Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh responsible for launching this love affair?

Two pioneering paleontologists and their rivalry. Dinosaur Wars describes the feud between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh as "one of the most bitter scientific rivalries in American history." What was the basis for this rivalry? What impact did it have on Cope? On Marsh? On the field of paleontology? What positive consequences, if any, did the competition between Marsh and Cope produce? Use the chart you created while viewing the film to help answer these questions.

A revealing incident. Review Chapter 2 of the film, focusing on the story of Cope's flawed drawing of the Elasmosaurus. In your own words, describe the key elements of this incident. How did Cope and Marsh each respond to the flawed drawing? How could they have responded differently? What lasting impact did this incident have on their relationship?

The History of Science

The role of Westward expansion. How does the landscape of the American West contrast with that of Europe? Were the openness and dryness of the West an advantage or a disadvantage for fossil hunters? Why? What other attributes of the American West make it a particularly productive place to hunt for fossils?

Darwin and evolution. In what specific ways did the work of Marsh and Cope provide support for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution? Who was Thomas Huxley, and what did Marsh show Huxley when the two met in 1876? What did Huxley mean when he called Marsh "a conjurer"? What did Charles Darwin say about Marsh's work and its value in providing evidence for the theory of evolution? (See a copy of the letter that Darwin sent to Marsh in 1880 online here.) You may want to review Chapter 3 of the film as you think about these questions.

Science and Society

Debating the role of the government. What objections did some members of Congress have to government funding for the work of paleontologists like Marsh and Cope? In your view, was government funding for research in paleontology a waste of resources, as some Congressmen charged at the time, or a wise use of taxpayers' money? How would you have answered Congressman Hilary Herbert, who denounced the government's involvement in the publication of Birds with Teeth? What are the benefits to us today of the discoveries that Cope and Marsh made nearly 150 years ago?

Popularizing scientific discoveries. Who was Charles Knight, and why did he pay a visit to Edward Cope in 1897? Given that Cope was extremely ill, why do you think he agreed to work with Knight? How did Knight help bring awareness of Cope's work to a larger audience? Look at some of Knight's illustrations of dinosaurs, which appear in Chapter 6 of the film and online here, and compare them to drawings of dinosaur skeletons. What differences do you see? How much credit do you think Knight deserves for sparking America's love affair with dinosaurs?

 

Part Two: Activities and Extensions

Inside Marsh's first fossil hunt. As described in Chapter 2 of the film, Professor Marsh led the first fossil-hunting expedition in the American West in the summer of 1870. One of the participants on this expedition, a college student named C.W. Betts, wrote a richly detailed account of the trip for Harper's Monthly. Read Betts's article, which is online here. Then imagine that you are a newspaper reporter who has met up with Marsh, Betts, and the other members of the expedition at the beginning, middle, or end of their historic journey. Working in pairs or small groups, and using details from the article as the basis for your work, come up with a series of questions that you would pose to the group at this juncture in their journey, along with answers they might give to the reporter.

Exploring the Smithsonian. As the film makes clear, the Smithsonian Institution -- the world's largest museum -- is now home to many of the dinosaurs that Marsh and Cope discovered during their decades of exploration. Visit one or more of the online interactive Smithsonian exhibits listed below and learn more about the world of dinosaurs and the process by which they were discovered. Summarize your virtual visit to the Smithsonian in a report that includes answers to the following questions: What three facts did you find most surprising? In what ways did information presented at this site complement or deepen your understanding of material presented in Dinosaur Wars? What new questions did this site raise for you? How could you find answers to these questions? Areas to explore include:

Species analysis: Understanding taxonomy. Together, Cope and Marsh discovered more than 130 different species of dinosaur. Among them were apatosaurus, triceratops, stegosaurus, allosaurus, and laelaps. But they also created serious confusion by giving different names to the same species. Select two of the species listed above and, using books or websites in the further reading list or other sources that you locate online or at your library -- and learn more about the similarities and differences between these two species. As you make your comparison, consider this question: How do we know when a fossil represents the discovery of a new species and when it is simply another example of a previously discovered species? Present your analysis in an oral report or research paper, using illustrations to support your work.

Using the interactive map. Select three places on the interactive map of significant dig sites in America and learn more about each discovery. Then, using the sites you examined on the interactive map as models, conduct research of your own to learn more about a dig site (past or present) in your own city or state. What is noteworthy about this site? What are the goals of the excavation, and what results have been unearthed to date? If possible, plan a visit to learn more about the site in-person. Share your findings -- including illustrations or photos -- with classmates.

Culminating activity: Assessing the rivalry between Cope and Marsh. More than 100 years after the deaths of Cope and Marsh, what lessons can we take away from their bitter rivalry? Reflect on the reasons for and the impact of the feud between these two pioneering paleontologists. In your opinion, was the competition between these two scientists ultimately good or bad for science? Take a stand on this question in a persuasive essay, citing evidence from Dinosaur Wars to support your argument.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Do you remember first learning about dinosaurs? Have you been to Dinosaur State Park? What do you know about dinos in America? What do you think makes prehistoric creatures so fascinating?