How Self-Focused Inward Mindsets Destroyed Dinosaur Bones

The hallmark of an inward mindset is the elevation of one’s own needs above any goal, no matter how lofty or noble. Here’s how two men with inward mindsets caused confusion and destruction in the very field of science they were pioneering.

By the Arbinger Institute | November 20, 2017

When giant dinosaur fossils were discovered in the United States in the mid-19th century, scientists Edward Cope and Charles Marsh saw their chance to make a mark on the emerging field of paleontology. The two men had known one another for some time. They had once been friendly, even naming new species after one another.

But by the time the two embarked to the unsettled American west to unearth the new finds, they were far less friendly. They mistrusted one another and vied for the top of the totem pole as the world’s greatest paleontologist. This competition escalated into what is now called the Bone Wars.

In Arbinger language, these two scientists were operating with an inward mindset. They were self-focused; they saw only their own needs, objectives, and challenges.

Most importantly, they firmly believed their success could only be attained through the other’s failure.

Mistrust and Sloppy Work

Working separately, Marsh, who was backed by Yale funds as America’s first professor of paleontology, sent spies to monitor Cope’s cobbled-together expeditions into the fossil fields of America’s badlands. Desperate to be the first to claim and name a new species, each hurried to get their discoveries into print, regardless of the often-sloppy work such speed required.

Fueled by greed and the desire for name recognition, they would often separately publish findings of the same species, proliferating and confusing the burgeoning new scientific field. It would be decades before the mess was finally sorted out.

Undermining the Competition at any Cost

“What followed,” wrote historian Mark Jaffe, “was a relentless effort by Marsh to discredit all of Cope’s names and findings.” Personal attacks in scientific journals flowed from both men, including allegations of fraud, fabricated dates on papers, and even fossil theft.

Given the scope of the opportunity at hand—an entire untouched continent that seemed littered with clues to the ancient past—it is remarkable that these men were not asking themselves how to make the most of the opportunity. Rather, they were asking, “How do I shut out my competition?’”

In perhaps the most egregious episode of this feud, Marsh sent encoded telegrams to spies who were charged with keeping an eye on Cope. When it appeared that Cope, code named Jones, “might” be closing in on Marsh’s stash, Marsh ordered his employees to destroy the fossils simply to keep them from falling into Cope’s hands.

Back at Yale, Marsh had amassed the greatest collection of dinosaur fossils in the world. He kept these hidden from nearly everyone, especially his fellow scientists.

The Consequences of an Inward Mindset

This story illuminates how an inward mindset can influence the ambition of high achievers. Believing their success can only be had at the expense of the success of others, they can become increasingly focused on their own, narrowly defined goals and objectives.

At what cost?

“There were more than enough bones for both of them,” observed paleontologist Bob Bakker, “more than enough bones for a dozen more, but they kept on seeing that ‘your win is my loss.’”

Their own success—undiminished by the success of all others—became more important than their stated lifelong objectives. They spent huge amounts of time, money, and energy trying to destroy their competition. Both died alone, broken men.

What more could they have done if this energy had been dedicated to developing their chosen field? What was the measurable cost and the opportunity cost of operating with an inward mindset, both personally and professionally? And what was the cost to the rest of the world? In this case, the cost was astonishing. Hundreds of species may never be known to science, destroyed by the two men seemingly most devoted to their discovery.

For more information about Marsh and Cope, see: Mark Jaffe, The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. Available at