Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with mammoths.
The third president of the United States may be renowned for authoring the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and endlessly tinkering with his dream house at Monticello, but his mind never strayed too far from the possibility that giant prehistoric elephants were still alive and rampaging through North America.
When Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their famous journey of discovery through the Louisiana Territory in 1803, he encouraged them to keep their eyes peeled for mammoths.
What in the world was driving this obsession?
One factor was curiosity. Jefferson had a lifelong devotion to natural history, and even set aside a room in the White House to examine the fossilized remains of ancient creatures. But far and away his deepest motivation was something akin to revenge. The president was bound and determined to pop the pompous ego of a certain stuffed shirt French naturalist who had the gall to disrespect America.
Jefferson’s intellectual sparring partner bore the grandiose name of George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. Europeans admired him as one of the brightest scientific lights of his or any age. Buffon worked tirelessly to produce a 46-volume natural history of the world. This was the kind of masterpiece that would ordinarily have thrilled Jefferson. But the Frenchman’s Volume V, which was published in 1766, sent the Virginian off the deep end.
It proposed what Buffon called the Theory of American Degeneracy.
Why, Buffon asked, are American animals so puny? He declared that our bears are smaller and our wolves have less distinguished tails. Why doesn’t the New World boast any extraordinary creatures? You would never see anything like a hippo or a giraffe in New York, Buffon pointed out. And why do the humans who move to America inevitably become so weak and their blood so “watery”? Buffon theorized that America was simply too cold and too wet for living things to thrive.
Here we should point out that Buffon had never actually been to America. He was relying entirely on the speculations of early explorers. Jefferson, who actually lived in the New World – and who was considerably taller and more vigorous than most Europeans of his generation – blew a gasket.
As Cara Giaimo, a freelance writer who specializes in paleontology, observes, there was good reason for Jefferson to be miffed.
As one of the chief players in the American Experiment, Jefferson was fiercely protective of the thirteen colonies’ global reputation. It was critical for the fledgling republic to earn the respect of the major European powers, not to mention the possibility of joining them in future economic and military partnerships.
Buffon’s Theory of American Degeneracy, besides being insulting, had become pervasive. His book was a bestseller. Anyone who was anyone in European intellectual circles seems to have embraced the notion that Americans should simply be pitied or ignored.
Jefferson knew from experience that Buffon was a buffoon.
He obsessed over statistical tables that contrasted American animals to European animals. Our rabbits are bigger than your rabbits. He shipped the skin of a huge mountain lion to Buffon’s house in France. And how does this compare to your Parisian housecats?
His ace in the hole, however, was the steady stream of mammoth bones – including seven-foot tusks and massive jawbones – that kept turning up in farmers’ fields in the colonies. If only Lewis & Clark could find one grazing beyond the Mississippi River, the debate would be settled.
Scientists at the time had not yet grasped the reality of extinction. Certain species that were once abundant no longer walked the earth. Lewis & Clark, unsurprisingly, never saw a mammoth. But they did see colonies of an animal that fascinated and delighted them – the groundhog. Did they ever discover any large creatures that would throttle Buffon’s theories? Let’s just say that after a few close encounters with grizzly bears, no one seriously doubted that America was home to its share of fearsome animals.
The notion that everything in America is smaller and weaker was a wrong-headed idea. But like a lot of wrong-headed ideas, it was very hard to displace once it had been widely accepted.
Followers of Jesus, if they are sufficiently courageous, will look back with wonderment and horror at some of the wrong-headed ideas that used to be accepted as Gospel truth.
For hundreds of years, key leaders in the Church confidently taught that the Earth was the center of the solar system; that witches were everywhere, and should be hunted down and executed; that slavery was ordained by God for people of color; and that a benevolent Christian king named Prester John was ruling somewhere in the heart of Africa, waiting to be recruited to lead an all-out apocalyptic war against pagans.
It took a long time for each of these ideas to be debunked.
Here’s another exercise that requires courage. Ask yourself: “One hundred years from now, what wrong-headed ideas that I currently cherish will cause my great-grandchildren to look back on my life with wonderment and horror?”
It’s almost impossible to get that one right, for the simple reason that most of us find it difficult to question the ideas we hold most dear – even if they happen to be seriously off the mark.
Trapped inside our own far-from-perfect heads, what in the world can we do?
We can choose to live out Romans 12:2: “Don’t be conformed by the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” As J.B. Phillips rendered the first phrase in his New Testament translation, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” In other words, don’t fall for the next thing you read online or hear from your favorite preacher or talking head.
Take your ideas, biases, assumptions, convictions, conclusions, and presuppositions and lay them before God. Then pray, “Lord, help me come to grips with the serious possibility that I might be wrong. Please renew my mind through the power of your Word and the indwelling presence of your Holy Spirit.”
The word “transformed” in Romans 12:2 comes from the Greek verb metamorphizo. It takes a metamorphosis – over many years – for a human mind to reflect the mind of God. And that process won’t be complete until we’re face to face with Jesus in the next world.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t make surprising progress in the here and now.
And if we do so, we’ll certainly be able to avoid some mammoth misunderstandings.