Friday, September 5, 2014

My Fun Evolution Trip Part Seven: What is Devil’s Tower?

Announcement: I am starting to post YouTube videos from my summer evolution trip. I just posted the first one, “Darwin falls off a cliff,” about the adventure of science! I will be posting other videos, including ones about Devil’s Tower and about my six earlier blog entries, in upcoming weeks. My thanks to videographer Sonya Ross.

Now, about Devil’s Tower.

Devil’s Tower, in southeastern Wyoming, formed from a massive volcanic intrusion through sedimentary layers. In subsequent millions of years, the sediments eroded away, leaving the hard igneous rock. The crystalline structure of the material produced lava tubes that were roughly square in cross section.

It would seem that no other explanation is possible. Creationists such as the folks at Answers in Genesis give a very vague explanation that does not account for the details. They basically say that all kinds of squishy, explosive, and creepy things were happening as the Flood waters receded, so you shouldn’t be surprised at anything that you might see of a geological nature. And of course God could have always done a miracle, even without mentioning it in the Bible.

But creationists are not the only ones who have alternative explanations for how Devil’s Tower formed. There are also Native American legends about how it formed. Here is one. Seven sisters and a brother were out in the woods, and the brother turned into a bear and chased the sisters. The sisters found a massive tree that spoke to them and invited them to take refuge in its branches. The bear climbed after them, creating the vertical scratch marks in the massive trunk. I guess the bear wandered off somewhere, but what happened to the seven sisters? They became the Big Dipper.

This reminds me of a story from a California native tribe. There were seven husbands and seven wives. The wives were out digging wild onions, and ate them. The husbands hated the smell on their wives’ breath and drove them from the village. The wives found a rope hanging from the sky and climbed up. They became the Little Dipper. The husbands got lonely and went out looking for the wives. They found another rope hanging from the sky, climbed it, and became the Big Dipper. Ever since then, the Big Dipper has been chasing the Little Dipper around the North Star.

Did the native tribes actually believe any of these stories? Maybe they were just stories for children. There remains today a vibrant and humorous Native American storytelling tradition. Or maybe they actually believed them. Or maybe they started out as stories but became religious beliefs. I don’t know. But I do know that native tribes did not burn each other at the stake for the heresy of not believing one of these stories. They would burn each other at the stake for other reasons, but not for religion. (My sixth great grandmother Nanyehi, or Nancy Ward, rescued a white woman from being burned at the stake by her fellow Cherokees.)

Fictional and religious stories serve a purpose: they enhance tribal and community identity. Whether they actually “literally” happened is largely irrelevant. Scientific stories also serve this function. Scientific meetings, such as the Botanical Society of America meeting toward which I was heading, are a great time of friendship. But in addition, scientific stories are designed to be “literally” true. Creationists are religious people who are not satisfied with the community-identity function of stories, and will stop at no stretch of the imagination to try to make their stories sound like science—and will then send you to hell for not believing them “literally.”

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