Wednesday, April 2, 2014

South Carolina addresses the mammoth in the room

The skeleton of a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) mounted at
the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles, CA.
Image source.
Yesterday, South Carolina newspaper The State reported on an issue about the proposed South Carolina state fossil, which the state currently does not have.  An 8-year-old girl, Olivia McConnell, suggested that the state legislature adopt the mammoth as the official state fossil due to its significance for the state.  Reportedly, a group of African slaves digging in a swamp in South Carolina in 1725 found a set of mammoth teeth and noted their similarity to elephant teeth.  This is considered to be the first scientifically accurate identification of a vertebrate fossil in North America.

The South Carolina legislature took Olivia's advice, and on January 14 the House drafted a bill that would officially declare the woolly mammoth as the state fossil.  On February 19, it was amended to make the Columbian mammoth the state fossil rather than the woolly mammoth, as these are two distinct species, and it was likely the Columbian mammoth that roamed South Carolina.  The House approved the bill and sent it to the Senate, where it ran into problems that have brought it into the national spotlight.

Senator Kevin Bryant, a Republican and apparently a creationist, added an amendment to the bill that described the Columbian mammoth as having been "created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field."  He reasoned, "Since we're dealing with the fossil of the woolly mammoth then this amendment would deal with the beginning of the woolly mammoth."  Not surprisingly, this created some controversy that has temporarily stopped progression of the bill.

Personally, I find Senator Bryant's amendment unnecessary and out of place.  The significance of the fossil to South Carolina is irrelevant to the origin of the fossil's ancestors.  None of the other honorees of the state, such as the spotted salamander (state amphibian), the Carolina wolf spider (state spider; and who does that?!), goldenrod (state wildflower), the wood duck (state duck), the bottlenose dolphin (state marine mammal), northern right whale (state migratory marine mammal), the Marsh Tacky (state heritage horse), and the mule (state work animal), have any sort of acknowledgement of origin in their respective sections of the South Carolina Code of Laws.  I see no reason to make an exception for the Columbian mammoth.

Furthermore, I don't even agree with the amendment itself.  The Columbian mammoth was probably not created on the sixth day of Creation Week, even from a creationist standpoint.  Columbian mammoths and woolly mammoths descended from a common mammoth ancestor, which shared with Asian elephants a common ancestor, which shared with African elephants a common ancestor.  It was the common ancestral kind of all elephants and mammoths, and possibly even of mastodons and gomphotheres, that was created on Day Six of Creation Week, not the Columbian mammoth itself.

Nevertheless, I find Senator Bryant's actions to be unnecessary, juvenile, and divisive.  There is no reason to bring up a debate on origins while attempting to honor a fossil.  Creationists and evolutionists are free to enjoy and investigate the fossil record as it currently is, despite differing views on its formation.


  1. Unnecessary declaration of state symbols (state legislative hobby).

  2. "Nevertheless, I find Senator Bryant's actions to be unnecessary, juvenile, and divisive."

    I find them courageous. With all the political secularism going on, it's a ray of sunshine piercing the storm clouds. I'd vote for this guy just for that.