Saturday, April 05, 2014

South Carolina has a state fossil

South Carolina finally has an official state fossil: the Columbian mammoth (that's also the state fossil of Washington). The decision was not without some melodrama.

As I mentioned below, eight year old Olivia McConnell was perusing lists of state symbols and noticed that her state was one of the last states without a state fossil. She did some research and discovered that South Carolina has a special tie to American paleontology through a discovery of some mammoth teeth that were the first in the New World to be authoritatively identified as elephantine in nature. The identification was made by an African slave whose name was unfortunately not recorded. Armed with this background research, Olivia wrote to her state representatives who promptly wrote a bill and submitted it to each house. The bill was short and clear. After the usual whereas's it read:
Article 9, Chapter 1, Title 1 of the 1976 Code is amended by adding: "Section 1-1-712A. The Columbian Mammoth is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina."
It sailed through the House with a 94-3 vote, went on the Senate, and came screeching to a halt. Sen. Kevin Bryant, a creationist, decided the bill needed some religion and amended it with three verses from Genesis describing the creation of the animals. This was judged to be an insertion of a new topic into the bill which, for procedural reasons stopped its progress. At this point, the national press took notice, and not in a way that made South Carolina look good. 

If the story had simply been about religion, Bryant and his supporters would have gotten their Southern stubborn on and said "screw you" to Yankees, the liberal media, and all of the others that they imagine to be persecuting them. The South Carolina legislature has had no problem unconstitutionally inserting religion into their education standards. What made this time different was that the story was almost universally framed as "humorless old men frustrate well-meaning little girl's dream." Defying public opinion in the name of God and the South wasn't going to work this time. Bryant whined to The Daily Beast that he didn't mean to block Olivia's bill, he "just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils."

The simple thing to do would have been for Bryant to remove his amendment and pass the bill before the PR disaster could go on any longer. It didn't work out that way. Bryant removed his amendment, but Sen. Mike Fair, another creationist, put a hold on the bill so Bryant could reword his injection of religion in a way that wouldn't be deemed a new topic. Bryant did this and the Senate leadership accepted his new language. The bill was set to come up for a vote on Wednesday, when Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler blocked it. Peeler thinks the state has more than enough state symbols and considers naming any more to be a waste of time. To demonstrate how strongly he felt about this, he chose the most embarrassing time possible to waste three hours of the Senate's time arguing over it. Finally, the leadership allowed his to insert a second clause into the bill declaring a moratorium on any new symbols. The leadership chose not to view this as a new topic even though it is. The final vote was unanimous.

The final Senate bill is hardly perfect. Peeler got his moratorium. Bryant got his religion. The final wording is awkward and redundant:

The Columbian Mammoth, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field, is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina and must be officially referred to as the 'Columbian Mammoth', which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field.
The one improvement, from my perspective, is that they finally got the species right. The original bill said "Wooly (sic) Mammoth" in  the title and "Columbian Mammoth" in the actual bill. The final version has this corrected to Columbian in both places. The press is still having trouble with that. The New York Times coverage refers to it as the "Columbia woolly mammoth." USA Today correctly refers to it as the Columbian mammoth, but then messes up by calling it a sub-species of the woolly mammoth.

South Carolina has a state fossil and Olivia McConnell has had an education in civics. I hope this encourages her to stay out of politics and to go into science. Or, if she is inspired to go into politics, that it be so the people of South Carolina have someone representing them who knows how to do their homework and who will cut through the crap.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update.

Gav said...

Talk about half-measures. Surely it should be referred to as "the 'Columbian Mammoth', which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field and duly drowned as a consequence of Noah's flood, the ark's quota for pachyderms having been filled already".

Anonymous said...

The bill has not been passed...it was voted down when it was sent back to the house for the final reading. The bill will now go to a special subcommittee. The state legislators are on furlough for another week. Hopefully, it will be passed in a couple of weeks.