Asking some tusk questions 

Perhaps you've been enjoying the bitch fight that has escalated on car bumpers. It started with the little fish that some people display on their vehicles as a symbol of their Christian faith. Then some wiseacre put feet on the fish and put the word "Darwin" inside of it. Rather than turn the other cheek, Christians fired back with a bigger creature, labeled it "Truth," and showed it swallowing "Darwin."

What's great about this creationist cartoon is that it perfectly illustrates evolution: Big eats little. Natural selection. Serendipity-do.

Well, it illustrates evolution. It doesn't prove it. But any error that sloppy in a philosophical cat fight is proof that we could never be related to anything as intelligent as an orangutan.

Actually, let's say for a minute that evolution was a scam. The tectonic plates are just postmodern tableware from Pier 1. The Ice Age was more of an ice trend or an ice fad. People just appeared. Like the Spice Girls, they burst on the scene, ready to rumba.

But if the creationist theory is right, who left a woolly mammoth lying around? Miraculously, one recently turned up. It sat for 23,000 years in the Siberian permafrost until a reindeer herder spotted a tusk sticking out of the ground two years ago. Archaeologists funded by the Discovery Channel named it Zharkov (after its discoverer) and airlifted the whole thing to a lab in Russia.

Even Martha Stewart couldn't whip up an entire woolly mammoth just as a practical joke. So if the devil plants dinosaur fossils to trick us into shunning Genesis, you gotta admit, the horned one knows how to make a party favor.

The wonder years

The mammoth is so fascinating, it's hard to believe anyone is still writing stories about the Atkins Diet. Scientists say the corpse is so well-preserved you can smell the hair. They didn't describe the smell, I bet because they were busy barfing. "Eau de Stinky Nappy Heffalump" likely could be used as a weapon, if the Discovery Channel were prone to such things.

And if they were, they should drop Zharkov on the Kansas or Illinois boards of education. Both eliminated evolution as a required subject in public schools. The thud of a 22-ton prehistoric Dumbo might wake them up enough to wonder how our society can be so advanced we're talking about cloning a mammoth, yet so backward we're still wary to teach that we evolved from something else.

Not that we're descended from mammoths (well, it depends on who you're looking at). But speculation about the beginning of life is something students should be aware of. We teach Shakespeare without demanding they love it. We teach algebra knowing they will never use it. We cram their noggins with soccer, astronomy and Jane Austen to give them the cultural currency. Even if you believe people came out of cereal boxes, would you want your kid to be the only dumb bunny in the room who doesn't know who Darwin is? Especially if that room is in a college?

The more the merrier

Of course, you wouldn't want your kid to be the only one who thinks Adam and Eve are a couple of soap-opera characters, either. It actually would be cool to teach a bunch of cosmology theories that are as much fun as whipping the world together in seven days. (Now, that's something Martha Stewart could do.)

LaRousse's "New Encyclopedia of Mythology" offers lots of theories, like the northern German legend that Odin and pals made people out of tree trunks, and the Egyptian story that the separation of the sky goddess and the earth god brought life. In a Mozambique fable, the gods made people and told them how to cultivate the earth. But the people screwed it up. Then the gods tried it with monkeys, who did a good job. The gods cut the tails off the monkeys and told them, "Be men," and attached the tails to the humans and said, "Be monkeys." That's how apes descended from man in this legend.

If we chose to shut ourselves off from ideas, we never would have known how to study Zharkov or dream of the possibility of cloning. (And why is it they're always cloning animals and never attractive folks with beer money and a belief in free love?) Zharkov doesn't even have to be studied to offer this very important insight: You just never know, do you? Who would have thought a mammoth would be sitting around? Who would have thought cloning would work? Who would have thought you'd be where you are now?

That's why we should teach speculation and not limit anyone's ability to wonder. "Impossible" is the only theory that is ever a mistake. And on a mammoth scale.

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