Guest blogger Marco Tamborini writes . . .
In 1906, a mining engineer casually came across some large bones close to Tendaguru hill in the former German colony of German East Africa, today’s Tanzania. He immediately informed German paleontologists about these finds and after the Stuttgart paleontologist Eberhard Fraas (1862–1915) had made a first inspection, the Berlin Geological-Paleontological Museum of Natural History, headed by Wilhelm von Branca (1844–1928), took control over the expedition. After launching a massive public fundraising campaign, German paleontologists were able to finance several excavations and to unearth a large number of extremely well preserved dinosaur bones between 1909 and 1913. Among them, German paleontologists with the help of over 600 African workers excavated the bones of what eventually became the biggest mounted dinosaur in the world: Brachiosaurus brancai, still standing in the main hall of the museum today.
In this post, I would like to quickly reflect on the relationship between knowledge marketing and production in paleontology: Which communicative strategies characterized the production and circulation of natural history knowledge at the beginning of the twentieth century? And how were specific communicative strategies able to set and eventually constrain broader theoretical agendas?
Discussing the nature of paleontological collections in 1912, German paleontologist Edwin Hennig (1822-1977) pointed out the ever more manifest dichotomy between “pure sciences,” such as physics and chemistry, and “practical sciences” such as archeology, ethnology, and paleontology: the former, unlike the latter, were thought to be somehow “profitable” and therefore received financial support from the state. Branca had publicly noted the same point in his review of the Tendaguru expedition and pointed out the isolation of paleontology concerning access to financial resources: “Obtaining even a small part of the necessary money from the Prussian government was ruled out from the outset.”[i] Paleontologists were therefore eager to harness the evocative power of the Tendaguru findings in order to make a public case for the value of paleontology.
Indeed, Branca presented the importance of these findings to a significant number of different audiences in order to mobilize a great deal of financial resources, consensus, and sponsorship. His communicative strategy reached its apogee during two public conferences held in February 1911 and February 1912 at which the script was the same: impress and fascinate the audience in order both to garner support for Branca’s paleontological agenda and to persuade the public of the importance of the Tendaguru expedition.
Everything was meticulously planned down to the smallest detail. For instance, Branca with his colleague, the pathologist David Paul von Hansemann (1858–1920), even drew up a list of the most important personalities, not forgetting to invite the most prominent women of Berlin society.
They also discussed in detail the most efficient way to gather funds. Hansemann was convinced that asking people “to send money directly to the bank” would be unsuccessful, adding that “it would be different. . . if we directly provided blank forms to be personally returned to you [to Branca].”[ii]
The highlight of the evening was the rhetorical devices used to convince the audience. In his speech, Branca first called to mind the fascinating and remote temporal dimension associated with the earth’s natural history: “Millions of years are silently looking down at us from these fossilized bones that rise up like monoliths.” He then sought to better evoke this inaccessible period via a cosmogony: “Millions of years slowly passed and just as the epochs gradually changed, so also did the earth and its inhabitants: where water was once close to Tendaguru there is now dry land and a mountain.” Second, he stressed the exceptional and frightening nature of these paleontological remains: “Some of these bones are so gigantic that nothing similar has ever been seen from a terrestrial animal.” “The neck of these animals is about twice as long as that of the Diplodocus.” To intensify the effect, Branca decided to adorn the entire hall with the first Tendaguru giant bones, which had just arrived in Berlin, proudly boasting that “The remains of these giants are now here directly in front of us.”[iii] The dinosaurs and their environment were thus evoked via a combination of the verbal and the visual.
While Branca played with the Prussian imagination to raise money for his expedition and establish his idea of natural history, Hansemann appealed to Prussian pride,
I will not merely mention that these objects have a national value—since it is the first time that these findings have been discovered on German ground. I have something rather different in mind. Similar objects are presented only in a fragmentary form in a few museums, for instance in London, Paris, and Brussels. The only state that has similar pieces, albeit not in such a quantity, is America […] New York, Washington, New Haven and Pittsburgh have become places of pilgrimage. Paleontologists make a pilgrimage to these cities in order to complete their studies […] If we now incorporated these findings in the Berlin museum […] it would become an attraction for the paleontologists of the entire world […] Through these objects the museum would attain an international reputation on a par with American museums.[iv]
Branca’s communicative strategy was extremely successful. He gathered enough resources to excavate a huge volume of paleontological remains, send them to Berlin, and prepare them. Branca’s rhetoric was so effective that even the Prussian central state eventually decided to financially support the 1912 excavation season. This was an important victory. In fact, vertebrate paleontology, as was the case for other “practical sciences” like archeology and ethnography, was for the most part financed by private philanthropists both in Europe and elsewhere. Both the so-called second American dinosaur rush and the first two years of the Tendaguru expedition were privately sponsored.
Yet, what kind of power is wielded by the public and by money? And does a strong focus on communication and fundraising limit or expand innovative research?
Beggar’s game and Game of Chance
Following paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), I would like to refer to Branca’s fund-raising activity as the paleontological beggar’s game. Gould noted with reference to the movie Jurassic Park,
Natural history is and has always been a beggar’s game. Our work has never been funded by or for itself. We have always depended upon patrons, and upon other people’s perceptions of the utility of our data … many, but not all, of these partnerships have been honorable from our point of view, but we have never had the upper hand. Quite the contrary, our hand has always been out.[v]
The paleontological beggar’s game characterized not only German nineteenth- and early twentieth- century paleontology, but also its American counterpart. Furthermore, as Gould noted, it played a pivotal role both in the establishment of paleobiology and in helping to change the perception of paleontology based on twenty-first century collections. For instance, the current general director of Berlin’s Museum of Natural History has used the skeleton of a donated Tyrannosaurus rex to emphasize the essential role of research in his museum to the public—i.e., to convince the German middle class and politics that the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde is first and foremost an integrated research museum, in which the collections are still valid sources of data and directly linked to research. Hence, a focus on the paleontological bagger’s game helps us dynamize the static and monolithic distinction between science popularization and the production of knowledge. Still, to what extent does this beggar’s game constitute and constrain natural history knowledge?
Branca was able to impose his model of paleontology over his peers only by taking advantage of the fortuitous discovery of giant bones in German East Africa. These remains were found by chance by a German mining engineer. It was only by accident that the bones survived a series of taphonomic processes designed to destroy them and were fragmentarily preserved in the Earth’s archive. Moreover, it was only Branca’s personal relationship with paleontologist Fraas (they had both studied in Munich and published a series of papers together), that enabled him to be the first to exploit these resources. Thus, Branca’s success was determined by a series of chance and contingent events and it was these that enabled Branca to capture the public’s imagination and thus establish his authority.
Branca’s success, though derived from a series of contingent events was ultimately the result of a game of chance. This reveals how communication and knowledge production are related. Indeed, the contingency tied to the discovery of the Tendaguru remains and their subsequent use for public relations purposes shows the local dimension of knowledge. The success of Branca’s enterprise depended on physical, epistemic, social, economic, and cultural-historical circumstances that enabled his communication: beggar’s games are always part of and result from diverse, in a Wittgenstein sense, forms of life.
While the historical and highly contingent circumstances that enabled Branca to stage an effective public relations campaign and to mobilize money, people, and expertise shaped the production of natural history knowledge, it did not constitute it per se. Thus as the prominent paleontologist Othenio Abel (1875–1946) noted,
If the Berliners want to kill paleontology, then they should go ahead, because there are other places to pursue paleontology. Vienna, for instance, is progressing nicely in this field. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that paleontology is systematically neglected in Germany, so it would be good to reflect on what can be done to halt its decline.[vi]
Abel reacted strongly to the power and characteristics of paleontology in Berlin explicitly arguing that there were other centers, such as Vienna, Greifswald, Freiburg, Göttingen, and Tubingen, where paleobiological investigation could be conducted. Even if Branca had successfully imposed his authority and leadership over his peers, he did not actually further investigate the data collected, nor did he rethink either the biological or the geological basis of paleontology. Conversely, this is what happened in the United States. Besides competing with each other for excavating and exhibiting big dinosaurs, American paleontologists also worked both on the broader theoretical framework of paleontology as well as on the exportation of their model of science. Hence, Abel, availing himself of the new polycentric landscape of German science, blamed Branca for merely describing facts but not looking for broader biological causes. Hence, communication can intensify and catalyze research programs and it can shape scientific practices, but it does not constitute them.
Suggestions for further reading
Casper Andersen, Jakob Bek-Thomsen and Peter C. Kjærgaard, “The Money Trail: A New Historiography for Networks, Patronage, and Scientific Careers,” Isis 103 (2012): 310–15.
Andreas W. Daum, “Varieties of Popular Science and the Transformations of Public Knowledge. Some Historical Reflection,” Isis 100 (2009): 319–32.
Tamborini, Marco. “If the Americans Can Do It, So Can We”: How Dinosaur Bones Shaped German Paleontology.” History of Science 54, no. 3 (2016): 225-56.
Tamborini, Marco. “The Reception of Darwin in Late Nineteenth-Century German Paleontology as a Case of Pyrrhic Victory.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (forthcoming).
Tamborini, Marco, and Mareike Vennen. "Disruptions and Changing Habits: The Case of the Tendaguru Expedition." Museum History Journal 10, no. 2 (2017): 183-99.
Marco Tamborini holds a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, Heidelberg. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at PAN - Perspektiven auf Natur, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. His research focuses on the history and philosophy of biology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the 1st of October he will be working at Technische Universität in Darmstadt on the history and philosophy of twentieth-century evolutionary morphology.
Marco Tamborini's work at Museum für Naturkunde Berlin was supported by Federal Ministry of Education and Research, Germany, (BMBF) collaborative research project: DiB- Dinosaurier in Berlin. Der Brachiosaurus brancai - eine politische, wissenschaftliche und populäre Ikone”
[i] Carl Wilhelm Franz von Branca, “Allgemeines über die Tendaguru-Expedition,” Archiv für Biontologie 3 (1914): 3–13, 4.
[ii] David von Hansemann, in Historische Bild- und Schriftgutsammlungen des Museums für Naturkunde Berlin, 1911; Pal. Mus, SII, Tendaguru-Expedition 7.3.1911, 87.
[iii] Carl Wilhelm Franz von Branca, Rede des Geheimen Bergrat Professor Dr. Branca, in Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, 1911; Rep. 76 Va Sekt. 2, Tit. X, No. 21, 96.
[iv] David von Hansemann, in Historische Bild- und Schriftgutsammlungen des Museums für Naturkunde Berlin, 1911, p. 105 (note 3).
[v] Stephen Jay Gould, Dinomania, in Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, ed. Stephen Jay Gould (New York: Crown, 1997), 234.
[vi] Othenio Abel, in Geologen-Archiv der Geologischen Vereinigung, 1931; GA, 56/3, 15.