And deliver us from carnivorous elephants, amen.


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.


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.

More like this

The American mastodon (Mammut americanum), illustrated in one of Cuvier's memoirs.When I taking biology in high school science seemed so simple. Lyell was a uniformitarian hero, Cuvier was a brillant anatomist (but sadly a narrow-minded catastrophist), Charles Darwin was the hero of all biology,…
The "Newberg" (or Warren) mastodon. From Elements of Geology. Note the claw-like restoration of the feet.How did the mastodon, Mammut americanum, feed itself? It is a fairly simple question best answered by looking to living elephants, but things were not always so straightforward. Early…
The above photograph is of the forelimb claws of the giant ground sloth Megalonyx wheatleyi, first named by E.D. Cope in 1871. The genus name for this animal was assigned to a similar animal at the close of the previous century, however, Megalonyx first being assigned to fossils that first found…
tags: mastodon fossils, Greece AMNH 9951, skeleton of the American mastodont, Mammut americanum, Newburgh, NY. Image: AMNH (American Museum of Natural History, NYC, NY) [larger] In an astonishing discovery, a three million year old "fossilized zoo" was discovered by Greek geologists yesterday in…

Interesting post. I had not heard of a debate over "carnivorous" mastodons before.

However, its a little odd to call Roberts a creationist and contrast her with Cuvier. This is 1837 you're talking about! (For the *2nd* ed.!) Cuvier is not known for being a big fan of evolution either!

If nothing else, creationism seems like an anachronistic label for Roberts. Biblical literalism might have been moving out of mainstream geology at this time, but her natural theological bent would have been pretty common for 1830s Britain.

Because I was interested if there was anything out there that placed Roberts in historical context, I did a quick search and found this:"YOUNG-EARTH CREATIONISTS IN EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITAIN? TOWARDS A REASSESSMENT OF âSCRIPTURAL GEOLOGYâ" by Ralph OâConnor, Hist. Sci., xlv (2007). I've only just briefly skimmed it, but it seems to do a good job laying out why comparing people like Roberts to modern creationists is problematic. And it gives a little more detail on her, too.

Anyway, despite my criticism, neat post!

MMR; Perhaps I should have called her a "biblical literalist", although I think the term "creationist" still applies. I guess it depends on context. Is being a creationist simply a matter of being a biblical literalist or does it require a rejection of evolution married to that? Recall that by this time evolution was being discussed in at least some form, i.e. Lamarck's ideas. From my brief reading, though, it seems that Roberts was trying to square the fossil record with a literal reading of Genesis rather than trying to actively refute evolutionary ideas.

And although Cuvier was "no fan of evolution", his rejection of it seemed a bit more systematic and based on scientific grounds. Lamarck's rejection of extinction, in particular, would seem a sore point, and neither was Cuvier impressed with Geoffroy's ideas based upon form and development.

Thank you for the reference and criticism, though. Even if the wording I used still fits the point you raised does merit being addressed. I will amend my original post accordingly.

My biggest "issue" with the Flood argument (and this is assuming I can suspend my disbelief and agree with Creationism; which I can't) is that it doesn't explain the mass extinction of aquatic animals. If we take for granted the fact that a flood will wash away the carnivorous mastodons, then what got rid of prehistoric sharks, pliosaurs, plesiosaurs, etc?

Of course they were carnivorous!

Look at the fangs on that thing.

And there aren't any extra bones - those that look extra were there for holding the venom glands.

Really, do a little research!

Laelaps: Many apologies for the long response that follows, but I find this raises some interesting questions, and I thought I'd try to work out my thoughts on this.

I'd agree that, looking back with modern eyes, Cuvier's criticism of evolution looks more scientific than Roberts' literal interpretation of the biblical flood. Though, if they were alive today saying what they said then, we would probably call them both creationists.

Giving it some thought, I think what bothers me is the appropriateness of applying the term "creationist" to Roberts in the 1830s, when no creationist *movement* against evolution yet existed. Having now read O'Connor's article in more detail, I think he's put this in a more nuanced and articulate way than I can here. (The article is long and engages in some somewhat obscure historiographical debate, so if you're interested you could probably just read the intro, the part on Roberts, and the conclusion and get the point. If you do slog through it, I'd love to hear what you think.) But I would say that:
1.) What was "scientific" in geology was not settled yet in the 1830s. People like Lyell were trying to establish a professional geology, and with it uniformitarianism and an "old" earth (but not biological evolution). O'Connor makes the case that Roberts was one voice in a cacophony of geological opinions. This is different from old-earth creationism today, with is clearly FAR outside of the bounds of science.
2.) It is not clear that it is historically appropriate to draw a direct "geneology" from literalists like Roberts to modern-day creationists, though you are right that their arguments are often very similar. Several historians, as O'Connor also points out, have shown how 18th and 19th century literalists actually contributed a lot to the development of science (not so much since then!). I think I would follow the historian Ron Numbers in characterizing creationism, as a self-conscious movement, as a 20th century phenomenon.

Here's where I come down: From a historical point of view, I think it is anachronistic to call Roberts a creationist or to easily draw comparisons between what she was doing and what modern creationists do. From a scientific or philosophical point of view, it is probably fair to characterize her that way. But if you do, be aware that many contemporaneous "good scientists" could also be characterized as creationists in that way. Sorry, we historians are always making things so complicated!

Ugh, sorry that looks even longer now that its up there! Humor me!

Completely apart from the more serious considerations involved here, I really, really hope that Syfy catches wind of this and makes a movie about carnivorous mammoths. Because that would be awesome.

Anyone who can provide me with a steady supply of carnivorous elephants has my money, my love, my vote, and my esteem.

I'm just saying.

Koch's Missourium surfaces again! I don't think I'd seen that image before (I only remember what may have been redrawings of it, without shading). Thanks!
Hmm. Mastodon with extra vertebrae, giving it longer-bodied proportions. Maybe Koch had discovered a semi-amphibious species that was evolving in the direction of a Pezosiren-like shape? (Grin!)

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

Damn, I was hoping that these had actually existed. Carnivorous elephants would be very cool.

My biggest "issue" with the Flood argument (and this is assuming I can suspend my disbelief and agree with Creationism; which I can't) is that it doesn't explain the mass extinction of aquatic animals. If we take for granted the fact that a flood will wash away the carnivorous mastodons, then what got rid of prehistoric sharks, pliosaurs, plesiosaurs, etc?

Well, if the Deluge came chiefly in the form of rain, the resultant fall in ocean salinity ought account for the sharks at least. It rather less accounts for the non-exinction of, well, most oceanic life around today, but to the creationist mind inverts and fish hardly count.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 15 Jul 2009 #permalink

I think the common denominator between pre-Darwin 'creationists' and modern creationists is their attempt to fit the available evidence into their preconceived ideas.