COPE FOSSILS AND LAMARCKISM
LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ FRATERNITÉ"--these sounding cymbals of the French Revolution stood boldly at the head of an unusual letter that arived at the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History late in 1796. It was from Paris--from the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle--and it was signed in the unadorned, prescribed style of that day: Lamarck--Geoffroy.
The two French naturalists, after expressing their pleasure at the possibility of opening relations and exchanging collections with the American museum, continued in more scientifically interesting than grammatical English:
"Give us leave, Sir, to call your attention to the subjects which we desire to receive first. Those enormous bones which are found in great quantity on the borders of the Ohio the exact knowledge of those objects is more important toward the theory of the earth, than is generally thought of. . . ."
Lamarck and Geoffroy were accurate prophets. The "enormous bones"--fossils, of course--were to be highly important not only to the history of the earth, but to the history of the life that evolved upon the earth. They were the preserved record of the past.
But great quantities of the "objects" were not to be found for many years, and then not on the borders of the Ohio. When they were eventually unearthed in such numbers, the principal finder, by one of those strange yet recurrent coincidences of science, was a Philadelphian closely associated with the Museum of Natural History.