Deep time, politics, and the controversial designation of the woolly mammoth as the South Carolina state fossil

 

 

How much is doubt? Mystery? Ignorance?
                                        — Wendell Berry
 

In South Carolina, a child, as the Bible says, is leading us. Where we’re headed, I’m not so sure, but we’re getting there one legislative session at a time. Some say the issue has to do with evolution; others see it as merely a ceremonial adjustment of what we honor, an addition of yet another category to our endless list of certified state symbols—folk dance, amphibian, animal, beverage, butterfly, color, gem stone, and onward, alphabetically, through over 50 categories.

What started my thinking about politics is last year, eight-year-old South Carolinian Olivia McConnell submitted a request for the South Carolina Legislature to adopt the mammoth as our state fossil. Nationally, this would not be an unusual request. South Carolina is only one of nine states without a state fossil. So on the surface, young Olivia’s request didn’t seem that radical. She explained in her letter she wanted the mammoth because she read that a fossil tooth of the extinct elephant was discovered in a South Carolina swamp by slaves in 1725, one of the earliest of such discoveries.

Once the request was formalized into a bill, a state senator filibustered the bill for several hours before concluding, “I thought we had passed a bill in the Senate putting a moratorium on official state whatever… There’s got to be a stopping point.”

Another South Carolina senator tried unsuccessfully to insert three verses from the King James version of the book of Genesis:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

When this change was deemed inappropriate, a new amendment was adopted. The mammoth would be deemed “as created on the sixth day with the beasts of the field.”

“I think it’s an appropriate time to acknowledge the creator,” one senator said. “Since we’re dealing with the fossil of the woolly mammoth, then this amendment would deal with the beginning of the woolly mammoth,” another senator added, arguing for the added amendment.

“It’s a throwback,” one geologist friend said when I read him the South Carolina amendment. “You wouldn’t want them passing a bill that said no one can sail out of sight of land because you will fall off the edge of the earth, would you?”

After months of debate, the bill finally passed without the religious language. Finally, in May of 2014, the woolly mammoth became the official state fossil of South Carolina, with thanks to a third-grader.

 

When I encountered this discussion at first, I knew I had stumbled into a dog fight I had an intellectual stake in. I am a believer in deep time, and by denying our state a fossil I thought I had brushed up against willful ignorance that I had been purged of during my college years. In 1976 with my friend David Scott and I walked the deserted Edisto winter beach for a month every low tide and picked up fossils. One of us would take the lead for a tide, the other falling back submissively for secondary beachcombing. I don’t remember much of what motivated me. That was 40 years ago. It wasn’t the grade I would receive—a pass/fail/honors—for an independent January course. I could claim it was the competition with David. He was both friend and rival, an academic star at the college, one of the smartest of my friends. My freshman year I had earned all Cs. I could compete with him on the beach, though. Maybe it was the lure of the hunt. I had taken an intro anthropology course and knew humans had been hunters and gatherers for millions of years. My eye for pattern was just as developed as his, and I seemed to have a knack for identifying the fragments once we had them in hand.

David had a deeper scientific knowledge than mine, for he was also a biology major, but we both had a geology course and learned, among many things, of Scottish geologist James Hutton’s discovery of deep time in the 18th century, of an assurance that our universe had “no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”

Though my declared majors were religion and English, the geology class had created a deep fascination about time in me. You could say I was falling in love, and about to become time’s suitor. Our only geology professor, the proprietor of a one-man department, was named John Harrington. Harrington had left a university job training industry geologists to teach liberal arts majors how “to see a world.” He told us about what he called “The wasness of the is,” and illustrated the idea with the story of an Egyptian obelisk in Central Park. The monument was carved out of redish granite about 1450 b.c. In 22 b.c. it was floated up the Nile and erected at Heliopolis. Then 14 centuries later it was moved to Alexandria. In 1880 it was presented by the Egyptian government to the people of the United States and shipped to New York City, where in 1975 it had stood for almost 100 years.

Harrington pointed out that the hieroglyphs have been sandblasted by desert winds. At some point the obelisk had fallen over. If you know where and how to look, you can see how this one granite obelisk “encompasses half the earth, hundreds of millions of years before man’s entrance on the stage, the full span of civilization, and ends in the back yard of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

But Harrington reminded us undergrads there is more to the story, and it is a story anyone can read. The rock’s origin is Ordovician or Silurian, maybe as much as 410 million years ago. The tourist in Central Park, he reminded us, cannot see this vast stretch of time it took to form granite, but it’s possible for it all to be there before them anyway: “If he knows the language even this small sample [the obelisk] has a great deal more to tell.

One of the quickest ways to gain insight, for John Harrington, was to open this door of time. Once, Harrington was collecting rocks on the coast of England and he found an ancient ax head, and he imagined the paleo-Brit who made the ax so clearly that he was transported in time. “Separation in time was all that kept us from sharing my peanuts and raisins and well as some of our thoughts about the world and its ways,” he told us when talking about that moment. Late in his life he began trying to put everything together and he began asking the vexing question, “How does the world work?” He’d ask it to strangers on buses, to colleagues in the lunchroom. The best answer he got was from a Scottish doctor on a ferry crossing to Ireland: “It’s simple. The world operates on a continuum between curiosity and fear.”

 

Like the fundamentalists 90 years ago at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, some South Carolina politicians still think that evolution shouldn’t be taught as scientific fact in public schools. They worry that natural selection doesn’t explain what they call, “the whole progression from microbes to humans,” as if they believe evolution is a single thing, a fact. They say, “teach evolution as a pro and con.”

Thinking this problem through, I found myself in deep intellectual water, dancing on the heads of several scholarly pins, both biological and theological. Read one way, this tempest in a political teapot might make some think ignorance covers South Carolina like a shallow sea, but one religion professor friend I talked with pointed out we really have nothing to fear from the fundamentalists. “What’s heating up the planet is not fundamentalism. It’s capitalism’s willful ignorance. They’re the dangerous ones. Capitalism as it’s practiced in the world today measures time quarterly. That’s all that matters. We used to say in the 60s, live for today and don’t worry about tomorrow. Nobody wise lives that way.”

There have always been archipelagos of sanity in our state. John James Audubon worked here. The minister John Bachman was a great early biologist and natural historian and argued against the popular idea that African American slaves were of a different species.

A.C. Moore taught biology at the University of South Carolina early 1900s until his early death in 1930. The herbarium at USC is named for him, as is a garden on campus. There has been recent interest in his scientific research “The Spirogenesis of Pallavacinia”, which is his contribution to meiosis cell division research. He taught Darwin. In a letter to his wife, written on July 25, 1925, around the time of the Scopes Trail, he said:

I fear the fundamentalists agitation has gone too far and harm will be done. Mr. Bryan has set going forces that he knew not of and that I fear will do incalculable harm. Unless the leaders of the church awake to the gravity of the situation and stop this effort to legislate men into the straight and narrow path, I fear the pendulum is going to swing in the opposite direction and that Mr. Bryan’s prediction that this is going to be a battle between Evolution and the Bible will come true to the hurt of the Bible at least for a time ’til religious leaders come to their senses. What the churches should be doing is to encourage in every way the study of science to find out what is true and what is false and when truth is discovered to make it fit in with religious conceptions. It is no less criminal for a man to denounce the findings of science when he knows nothing about it and glories in his ignorance…

Later in the same letter he said:

I have had a somewhat depressed feeling this afternoon. The thought has been haunting me, ‘what are you going to do with all this you have been learning? Are you going home and be satisfied to enjoy it yourself — merely have the satisfaction that you know more than you did — that you are fairly well up with certain branches of biology?’ I know myself well enough to know that many of my good impulses end without fruition. Is that going to be the case this time? I hope not. I ought to be able to teach better, but I can’t help feeling a heavy sense of responsibility to the youth who may come under my influence, especially at this critical time of religious unrest…

Since A.C. Moore’s time there are fewer fundamentalists and more people like him in South Carolina—massive numbers of them—who believe in God but also believe we evolved. Olivia’s proposal suggests the natural curiosity of youth and its openness to change. The arguments in the legislation reflect not ignorance but fear—fear of change, fear of loss of power, fear of the outside forcing its hand down on local rule and order.         

And yet we still elect state senators who act (and legislate) as if they are ignorant of 150 years of scientific research in the history of life, or “creation,” if you’d rather call it that. Where does this leave Olivia and her fossil mammoth? Is it destructive to her intellectual life to point to a state house bill she proposed about fossils weighted down with a piggyback rider about the Bible attached as well? Or does that argument reflect how the world works, one step forward into curiosity, and then one step backward into fear?

 

I guess you could call what I went through on Edisto a conversion experience close to religious, a moment when I was struck down on the road to Damascus. I had been to the mountain top, or the tide line, in this instance. There was mystery and drama in that moment, emotions that amplified the day-to-day realities of time-bound school work or family drama or community obligations. “Follow me,” Harrington had said to us 40 years ago, and we loaded buses to go out and see the world.

When we prepared for our fossil,collecting interim, David and I collected bones of dead animals in the fields and woods. Studying these bones taught us we could compare the modern bones of a cow to the bones of bison or horse to horse and we could deduce by reasoning through shapes and sizes what the other unknown bones might be. Size alone could isolate out the elephant bones.

Along with wild animals we would not be surprised to see roaming the low country today—a white tail deer antler, an alligator scute, a shark’s tooth—we also found fragments of many exotic species long gone from the Carolina scene. On my shelves I have horse bones that never saw a pasture, bison vertebra, a peccary tooth, the bony plate from the back of a glyptodont, and, maybe my most prize possessions: a three-cusped molar from a small, extinct mastodon, the enamel worn down from chewing a vanished flora, and symphysis of a massive lower jawbone of a large elephant, possibly a mammoth.

Most of what we picked up we could sort and identify, but for some of our mineralized booty we had to seek out professional help, and for this we spent a week at the end of the project in the back rooms of the Smithsonian in Washington. The researchers there were impressed that Southern college boys knew so much, and helped us fill out our species list of vanished fossil creatures of South Carolina.                          

Some folks in middle-age have knickknack shelves of ceramic angels, but I still have my Pleistocene fossils, collected nearly 40 years ago walking that fossil-rich beach on Edisto Island in low country South Carolina. To this day a bone bed (maybe in the old river delta) is exposed in offshore deposits to surprise foragers as each tide recedes.

These objects—heavy, mineralized bone—have traveled with me since college. Books and these fossils may be the only objects to survive my many moves and all the sorting and discarding of material things that comes with age. Each study that I have set up to write, the symphysis of the jawbone has adorned a shelf, the mastodon molar has been used as a paper weight. It’s a miracle that the mastodon tooth has survived. It is fragile, the dentine and enamel already exposed and fractured when I picked it up on the beach four decades ago, with one gash of missing surface on the right rear. The fragment of jawbone has become a favorite party favor. I often haul it out to quiz guests. “What could this possibly be?” No one has ever guessed right. Some guessed bone and others fossil, but no one has ever approached an explanation of its origin.                                   

I’ve carried these fossils around for 40 years because they are talismans of time. They are scraps of a once-living world always blanketed partially in mystery. These creatures lived thousands of years ago in what is now my home state and we can imagine their lives. They died, were buried, and were raised from the dead by my plucking them from the sand on Edisto Island. I can read their narratives much as John Harrington read the story of the obelisk in Central Park. In the the time since I found them, we’ve come to understand much about life and the universe. The minerals making up the cells of these dead mammals were once star stuff.

I had majored in religion because I had a hunger for mystery, though little stomach for institutions, churches in particular. Wofford College is Methodist and so the lectures and discussions in religion classes were stoked by a healthy liberal arts skepticism for anything that smacked of fundamentalism and literalism. Many a boy (for the college was all male back then) signed up for Religion 201 hoping to have his shallow faith underpinned, only to find after the first semester in a religion course that their shaky foundations could be washed away. The professors taught Biblical narratives as stories, not attempts at history or science, but instead at meaning-making. We were told that stories like you encounter in Genesis reside in the faith realm not a literal realm, and so they do not contradict what science discovers.

But belief is a powerful tide, and it is often not controlled by the moon of reason. Even John Bachman once said of Darwinism, “It’s probably true, but I can’t believe it.” As an English major this was an easy transition for me. I read widely and developed a love of stories, and fell quickly victim to the idea that even the creation’s story could be long and dynamic and that geology and ideas could give me a good set of CliffsNotes to help read it and even write my own chapters.

 

South Carolinians may suffer more from an ignorance of time than we do malnutrition, but there is readily available cure: an education in natural history. I grieve the loneliness of the undereducated, living in their ghetto of shallow time. I mourn their belief in the poverty of time and its short fuse. I wish they could have taken a historical geology course. They would have understood how, as John Harrington liked to illustrate with a line from William Blake, it is possible to “see a world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour.” One course in geology and maybe those senators would have stopped their bickering, but maybe they would not, because their resistance is political, and politics is often erosion-resistant, and throwing your support behind science doesn’t often garner many votes.

Decades after my geology classes cured me of common focus only on shallow time, I am still curious about the evolutionary processes I believe led to me and in turn to this essay, and I see myself as one human being in a long line of my species—10,000 generations standing side-by-side—back even through our original link to the primates with their minions of ancestors, and even all the way back to the first bacterium, and the big bang.

This love for time is the underpinning of my love of the natural world. I love the rocks because their certainty is dense and reliable. I love the forests because the clock of their days runs on sunlight and water. I love the rivers and streams because their flow is filtered through millions of moments. The animals? Each of us is a fuse set to expire in some sudden moment, even you.

 

 

John Lane teaches humanities courses in Wofford College’s environmental studies program in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His latest books are the essay collection, Begin with Rock, End with Water (Mercer University Press) and The Old Rob Poems (New Native Press). His first novel, Fate Moreland’s Widow, is due from the University of South Carolina Press in February.

Header photo of the author’s fossil collection by Mark Olencki.

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