Creationism at the tar pits

According to Amy Wilentz in today's West magazine, creationists have a theory that's wackier than anything they can pin on Darwin. In this theory, the thousands of fossils extracted from the La Brea Tar Pits are not the remains of Ice Age animals (and one human) that became caught in the goo over the centuries — but rather were washed into the death pools by Noah's flood not all that long ago.

Paleontologists have always assumed that the La Brea Tar Pits were simply large pools of asphalt dating back about 40,000 years, possibly covered with a layer of dirt and dust, and when stepped on by an animal of any weight would suck it down and asphyxiate it. This murderous aspect explained the presence of a cornucopia of fossil remains. It also explained why the ratio of carnivore to herbivore bones far exceeded what the ratio would have been among the animal population living in the area....

But certain scientists today do not accept this received wisdom. These scientists, or pseudoscientists, have turned the tar pits into an unprepossessing but important battleground in their muscular attempt to drown out the voice of rational, non-faith-based science. Part of the creation-science movement, they claim the earth itself is younger than the generally accepted age of the tar pits (since Scripture describes at most, according to their calculations, only 10,000 years).

Wilentz empathizes with La Brea Woman, whose bones were fished out of the goop: "[She] has a hole in her head and a broken jaw, and I feel connected to her. That's how I feel at dinner parties on the Westside of L.A., among the blond second wives and pontificating producers." The piece comes out of her book, I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger, which I neglected to mention received a not entirely friendly review from Marc Zasada in last week's Times.

Zasada recognizes in Wilentz, a veteran journalist from New York, the recurring breed of newcomer who drops in on L.A., mostly hobnobs with a closed circle of other transplants and proclaims there's Something Very Wrong about Los Angeles and California at large.

Whatever the SVW may be exactly — fate or hubris or just something in the air — it has grown into a recognized discipline, like cosmology or anthropology. And along with distinguished researchers like Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, it attracts many lesser poets, novelists, filmmakers and commentators. Some, like social critic Mike Davis, have built entire careers on the SVW: proving its existence, discovering its habits and demonstrating its power. Just last year, an SVW flick named "Crash" won the Academy Award for best picture.

With "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen," journalist Amy Wilentz makes a lively, if modest, contribution to the field. She doesn't much like L.A., and she claims that California "has a dark heart," but that only places her in the mainstream of the SVW tradition. She sets out to update us on the improbabilities of life in the pueblo since her arrival in early 2002, she takes us inside L.A.'s salon culture and she deftly chronicles one of our most successful commercial products: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Small quibble with Wilentz's piece. She writes about the odor of methane around the tar pits. There's definitely methane in the air there — some of the street poles on Wilshire are actually large vent pipes, installed to prevent a Ross Dress for Less-type explosion — but that pervasive smell around the pits is something else:

Pronunciation: 'me-"thAn, Britain usually 'mE-
Function: noun
Etymology: International Scientific Vocabulary
: a colorless odorless flammable gaseous hydrocarbon CH4 that is a product of decomposition of organic matter and of the carbonization of coal, is used as a fuel and as a starting material in chemical synthesis, and is the simplest of the alkanes.

Also: Bugs Bunny at the La Brea Tar Pits

More by Kevin Roderick:
Standing up to Harvey Weinstein
The Media
LA Times gets a top editor with nothing but questions
LA Observed Notes: Harvey Weinstein stripped bare
LA Observed Notes: Photos of the homeless, photos that found homes
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What will you pack for 2015?


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