Another article inspired by “Recapturing the Scenic Wilds,” an exhibit on natural history at Wave Hill. This one’s about how dinosaurs might have helped 19th century American tycoons promote capitalism. I originally wrote this piece for Cafe, but here’s an expanded version with more pictures. Special thanks to Lukas Rieppel, David Borgonjon and Wave Hill.
What do we want when we think of dinosaurs? We want to know which were the biggest and baddest. We want spiked tails and razor claws. We want epic battles to the death, the ground shaking underfoot.
We seek certain attributes from different animals. From dogs, we look for playful loyalty; from cats, agile curiosity. In sea turtles, we read grace and wisdom; in owls, stealth and majesty. Dinosaurs are no exception—they prompt a particular, danger-seeking response in our imaginations.
But how, exactly, did we come to think of dinosaurs as ruthless competitors?
Dino natural history: fact meets fiction?
The answer might reach back a couple centuries, according to Lukas Rieppel, a science historian from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. For the better part of a decade, Rieppel has been pondering how we came to imagine dinosaurs the way we do. “I was interested in the history of science aspect—how these creatures were discovered, and then especially how paleontologists did the work of using these fossils to imagine prehistory,” he said.
In the halls of natural history museums, Rieppel noted, many dinosaur skeletons are arranged as if facing each other in eternal battle, leading museumgoers to conclude that most dinosaurs probably died in bloody competition. In fact, this practice of imagining a prehistoric world more gripping, savage and cruel than ours might be exactly why many of us find dinosaurs so alluring.
As a science historian however, Rieppel wanted to know more about the events leading up to these displays. He dug into the past, looking into early discoveries and exchanges of dinosaur fossils. In doing so he started to unravel a story: one that goes back to the late 19th century.
Last month, Rieppel led a panel discussion entitled The Power of Natural History at Wave Hill, a 28-acre public estate in the New York. The discussion accompanied an art exhibit, Recapturing the Scenic Wilds, which explores the intersection between natural history and culture.
Fossil discoveries and the rise of American capitalism
The first dinosaur bones were discovered in England in the early 1800s. But about fifty years later, American paleontologists began to discover more complete sets of bones belonging to larger dinosaurs such as Brontosaurus, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.
This was the Gilded Age in America, a time of rapid economic growth and corporate trusts, widened social inequality—generating great wealth for business magnates at the expense of a growing population of poor laborers. Over time, many of these magnates turned to philanthropy, funding public institutions such as schools, libraries and art spaces. Some of them also took an interest in natural history and dinosaur fossils.
Why dinosaurs? Rieppel points to two patrons in particular—J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie—to highlight two possible motivations.
America… now better than Europe!
Americans still had something of an inferiority complex toward Europeans in the 19th century, says Rieppel. Europe could tout rich cultural traditions in literature, art and philosophy extending back centuries, but America had not yet established such cultural claims.
What America did have over Europe, he says, was its natural bounty: its wide, open spaces and majestic landscapes. This was particularly true in the newly colonized American West, where people were discovering the first American dinosaur fossils along with rich stores of minerals and other natural resources.
“Dinosaurs fit into this narrative perfectly,” said Rieppel. “American dinosaurs were just bigger, more spectacular and more impressive than European dinosaurs.”
At the time, American museums still imported many of their displays from Europe, but as paleontology took off in the United States, American patrons reversed this process. Carnegie, for instance, distributed about a dozen replicas of a colossal dinosaur named after him, Diplodocus carnegii, across major natural history museums throughout Europe.
“There’s a really strong branding here,” said Rieppel. “At the same time that America is overtaking Europe as the world’s industrial and financial center, these colossal prehistoric creatures are being discovered in the American West—and Carnegie is literally bringing them back to Europe, putting them in European museums, and showing Europeans how much bigger and more impressive American dinosaurs are.”
Capitalism, endorsed by nature
But Morgan and Carnegie were not only interested in celebrating American dinosaurs in Europe—they also wanted to bring dinosaurs to the forefront of Americans’ consciousness. In 1869, Morgan helped found the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A couple decades later, in 1896, Carnegie founded the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
“Carnegie was interested in American dinosaurs for several reasons. One of them has to do with the fact that they’re bigger and better than European dinosaurs, so they become a representation of the American juggernaut,” said Rieppel. “But in addition, Carnegie is interested in dinosaurs because they help him make an argument to justify the competitive nature of American capitalism.”
The turn of the 20th Century heralded the Progressive Era, during which people began demanding stricter regulation of businesses and expansion of welfare. Carnegie, aware that many Americans saw captains of industry as unscrupulous bullies, worried about a socialist insurrection.
He developed an interest in evolutionary biology, drawing a link between competition in the natural world and that in the corporate world. In a popular essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that Darwin’s “law of competition” may exact a great price in the form of increased inequality, but that it is nevertheless “essential for the future progress of the race.”
Using Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, Carnegie maintained that competition, though it could generate harsh inequality, was necessary for progress.
How do dinosaurs come in?
In 1891, Morgan recruited his paleontologist nephew, Henry Fairfield Osborn, to start the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. Along with many other notable naturalists at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt, Osborn was a proponent of eugenics: the idea that some humans were genetically superior to others. Osborn and Roosevelt valorized fierce competition in the natural world, a fact that is perhaps revealed in their celebration of hunting. Indeed, Osborn belonged to Roosevelt’s Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization consisting of hunters, many of whom donated their hunted game to natural history museums.
Given his preoccupation with evolution and his family of wealthy capitalists, Osborn might have been predisposed to also celebrate competition in dinosaurs, Rieppel argues. Moreover, he oversaw many ways in which dinosaurs were depicted to the public. In addition to supervising a team of famous fossil hunters, he hired an artist named Charles R. Knight to produce murals and sculptures imagining live dinosaurs in their habitats.
Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Rieppel, depictions of dinosaurs shifted. “Once these capitalists become involved in the funding and promotion of dinosaur paleontology, the way that we imagine dinosaurs changes,” he said. “It’s at this time that dinosaurs become what we mostly think of them as today … [emphasizing] their ferocity, their fierceness, their competitiveness—the fact that they rule over a world that’s red in tooth and claw.”
Many cutthroat images of dinosaurs during the early 20th century came from imaginative paintings, particularly those by Charles Knight. Museum curators like Osborn then used fossils to underscore these images, says Rieppel.
“The way that these museums displayed dinosaurs constantly reinforced the link between the material facts that we have—the fossil evidence that exists in the present day,” he said, “and the flesh and blood—the living, breathing, fighting, competing creatures that existed in the prehistoric.”
Rieppel gave the example of a painting by Knight, which depicted a large, carnivorous Allosaurus predating upon the tail of a Brontosaurus. Paired with the painting was a three-dimensional reconstruction of the scene: an Allosaurus skeleton positioned above a section of Brontosaurus tail. “There’s a one-to-one relationship between the way that the bones are laid out in the three-dimensional exhibit and the way that these flesh-and-blood creatures are represented in the painting,” said Rieppel.
In fact, Rieppel points out, the museum guidebook published with the creation of this exhibit at the turn of the 20th century further reinforced this chain of evidence. Specifically, it called museumgoers’ attention to markings on the vertebrae of the Brontosaurus tailbone that seemed to correspond in size and appearance to teeth of Allosaurus.
Curators prized painstaking attention to detail as a way of asserting their authority and erasing suspicions that museum exhibits might be flights of fancy, suggests Rieppel. He argues that even as many facts about dinosaurs remained unknown at the time, curators took great pains to present a unified front of knowledge.
He refers to a passage Osborn had written in the 1922 annual report for the American Museum of Natural History: “In the Exhibition Halls of the American Museum of Natural History we are scrupulously careful not to present theories or hypotheses, but to present fact.”
“Of course, this is disingenuous,” said Rieppel. Since dinosaurs are long gone, they are necessarily recast through theories and hypotheses. Museums reimagine dinosaurs again and again, he says.
In fact, our images of dinosaurs continue to shift. During the second half of the 20th century, Rieppel explains, paleontologists began to imagine dinosaurs as more social and shrewd than previously thought, doing things like hunting in packs and cooperating to nurture their young. “Now [dinosaurs] are usually depicted as colorful, agile and social creatures,” he said.
This shift also mirrors a shift in American corporate culture, he asserts. “Our own economy today looks very different. It is no longer dominated by large, vertically-integrated corporate firms.”
Of course, large multinational corporations still exist, he says, “But the emphasis of our popular imagination is much more centered on smaller, more agile, and highly adaptable firms. Not General Electric or Standard Oil, but Facebook, Google, Genzyme, 23andMe, Apple, Snapchat, Instagram and so on. Silicon valley startups, biotech spinoffs, that sort of thing.”
Rieppel ultimately hopes to make the point that all science is inextricably linked to human institutions and theoretical trends, capitalism included. “Science is part of our culture in the same way that art, literature and architecture are,” he said. “Therefore, we should analyze it as we do any other human endeavor.”
Cover Image: Flickr / Zachary Tirrell