And deliver us from carnivorous elephants, amen.

Missourium

An illustration of Albert Koch’s reconstructed “Missourium”, or an American mastodon with a few extra bones.

Even though I find modern creationism to be intensely aggravating I occasionally like to browse older creationist texts. It is amusing to see how old creationist arguments have been recycled ad naseum, refitted for new uses (i.e. acceptance of evolution is responsible for [insert social ill here]), or given up entirely over time. In this latter category falls the assertion of the 19th century biblical literalist Mary Roberts that God had purposefully created, and subsequently destroyed, enormous carnivorous elephants.

[As noted in the comments, the word term “creationist” might not be the best fit to describe Roberts’ outlook. Scientific and popular attempts to square geology with the Bible (or at least make geology less offensive to religion) were common during this time. The term “creationist” more directly invokes the image of modern religious anti-evolutionists, and while I think Roberts can be rightly called a creationist such a label might unfairly cut across more subtle historical distinctions.]

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries the remains of the American mastodon (Mammut americanum) stirred considerable interest among naturalists. Its bones most closely resembled those of living elephants, but its molars were bumpy, pointy things that some naturalists took as evidence that this “American incognitum” was a carnivore. (This may have had something to do with the similarity of mastodon molars to those of hippos as hippos were sometimes described as aggressive meat-eaters.) By the time that Georges Cuvier recognized the mastodon as a species distinct from living elephants and fossil mammoths in 1796, however, it was generally agreed that the American mastodon was an herbivore and not a rapacious predator.

[For more detailed accounts of this debate see Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Big Bone Lick, and American Monster.]

Mary Roberts, however, disagreed. In her book The progress of creation, considered with reference to the present condition of the earth (second edition printed in 1837) Roberts voiced her preference for the idea that the American mastodon was carnivorous on the basis of its molar shape. If the Mammut ate plants then it should have had flat, wrinkled molars like living elephants. The fact that it did not meant that it must have had a different diet, no matter the conclusions of Cuvier and other naturalists.

Mastodon

The American mastodon (Mammut americanum), illustrated in Cuvier’s memoir on extinct elephants.

Roberts’ insistence on a carnivorous mastodon gave her a way (however tenuous) to explain its extinction. Clearly the fearsome Mammut, along with the creatures that would later be called “dinosaurs” and the massive Siberian mammoths, had not survived to the present day despite God’s command that Noah take two of every creature to be preserved aboard the Ark. This inconsistency had to be explained, and Roberts suggested that the “Most High” saw fit to exclude some species from preservation. Roberts says that God only told Noah to “take OF” each type of animal, not to take all of them, and thus species only known in the fossil record were obviously those deemed unfit and left behind. As far as elephants went, “two of the gramnivorous species [modern African and Asian elephants] were taken, and the carnivorous left.”

Yet this raised another problem. If God had created the mammoth and the mastodon why had He left them to be destroyed? It could only be assumed that whatever purpose the carnivorous mastodon had been designed for had been fulfilled according to some circuitous divine plan;

It is certainly not contrary to the Divine Wisdom that certain species should have become extinct, when they had fulfilled the purpose for which they were created. We are sure that those species once existed, but there is no evidence that they exist now; and what more probable cause can be assigned for their extinction, than the universal flood. Strange must it have seemed to the Patriarch and his family, that so many among the animal creation should have been wanting: in some instances, it must have been a great relief; for what can be imagined more tremendous than an elephant, that preyed on flocks and herds…

Again, however, Roberts’ suggestion raises more questions. If God did not want carnivorous animals on the Ark then how did lions, tigers, hyenas, and other meat-eaters survive the Deluge? Perhaps they were vegetarians before the Flood, Roberts ventured, as this would make them more peaceful residents during their sea voyage. It would only be after the Flood had ended when local climatic conditions would turn these creatures into killers. Thus Roberts saw modern predators as the relatively “innoxious” replacements for the predatory elephants and dinosaurs that stalked the earth before the Flood. Just another reason to be thankful, I suppose.

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