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a giant cause at the giant’s causeway

by Donald Prothero, Jul 25 2012

Susanna Drury’s famous 1739 image, “A View of the Giant’s Causeway: East Prospect”

As we continually battle the efforts of creationists to tamper with science education in the U.S., and watch the dismaying polls that show about 40% of Americans agree with creationist positions, we try to take comfort in the fact that creationism has virtually no standing in most of Europe, which is also among the most secular regions in the world. Most attempts to push fundamentalist creationism in the more secular countries (especially those of northern Europe, including the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Holland, and the UK) have met with little or no success, and the number of creationists in those countries are minuscule. Even the predominantly Catholic parts of Europe don’t deal with much creationism, either, since the Catholic Church has long ago come to some sort of truce with evolution (although still reserving the right to make pronouncements about the soul and humanity’s animal nature). Nonetheless, even a small band of determined creationists can make a lot of trouble and influence policy way out of proportion to their numbers.

The latest controversy of this sort involves a famous geologic feature on the coast of County Antrim in northeastern Ireland known as Giant’s Causeway. Its discovery and description are important pieces in the early history of geology, as many different people in the 1700s puzzled over it and tried to explain it in the context of Noah’s flood, or gave even more fantastic explanations. There were numerous Irish legends about it. One account claims that Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) built it as a bridge to Scotland to fight the legendary Scottish warrior Benandonner. According to different versions of the legend:

Fionn fell asleep before he got to Scotland. When he did not arrive, the much larger Benandonner crossed the bridge looking for him. To protect Fionn, his wife Oonagh laid a blanket over him so he could pretend that he was actually their baby son. In a variation, Fionn fled after seeing Benandonner’s great bulk, and asked his wife to disguise him as the baby. In both versions, when Benandonner saw the size of the ‘infant’, he assumed the alleged father, Fionn, must be gigantic indeed. Therefore, Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway in case he was followed by Fionn.

Another variation is that Oonagh painted a rock shaped like a steak and gave it to Benandonner, whilst giving the baby (Fionn) a normal steak. When Benandonner saw that the baby was able to eat it so easily, he ran away, tearing up the causeway.

Another version of the legend was that Fionn had spent many days and nights trying to create a bridge to Scotland because he was challenged by another giant. A fellow boatsman told him that the opponent was much larger than he. Fionn told his wife and she came up with an ingenious plan to dress Fionn like a baby. They spent many nights creating a costume and bed. When the opponent came to Fionn’s house, Fionn’s wife told him that Fionn was out woodcutting and the opponent would have to wait for him to return. Then Fionn’s wife showed him her baby and when the opponent saw him he was terrified at the thought of how huge Fionn would be. He ran back to Scotland and threw random stones from the causeway into the waters below.

Although it was widely known in Irish legend, the first modern scientific description came in a presentation to the Royal Society by Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, although he had learned of the site from the Bishop of Derry who discovered it a year earlier. Throughout the 1700s, natural historians argued about the strange hexagonal columns, and tried to fit them into the prevailing notion that all the world’s rocks could be explained by Noah’s Flood. At that time, geology was straightjacketed by attempting to fit all rocks on earth into the Flood account, and thus when they saw rocks we now know are lava flows or intrusions of magma, they claimed that such rocks had been produced in water. This school of thought was known as “Neptunism,” after the Roman name for the god of the sea. We look back three centuries later, and cannot imagine how anyone could see lava flows and imagine they formed out of water, but we must remember that most northern European scholars had never traveled very far from their home region, and never seen lava flows in action, since they are rare in Europe, and don’t commonly erupt from even the most active volcanoes in Italy. Today, we routinely see footage of lava erupting from Kilauea several times a week on TV and have a very different view of the world than people did 300 years ago.

The first modern ideas about Giant’s Causeway came from the French geologist Nicolas Desmarest in 1768, who noted in a caption of an illustration of the Giant’s Causeway in volume 12 of the French Encyclopedie that the characteristic columns resembled lava flows he had been studying in the Auvergne region of France. Desmarest was among the first to promote the idea that lava flows were formed by molten rock, not water, and intruded from the hot deep interior of the east to erupt at the earth’s surface.  This notion that igneous rocks came from magma became known as “Plutonism” (after the Roman name for the god of the underworld). It was an important part of the thinking of the founder of modern geology, Scottish gentleman James Hutton, in his 1788 Theory of the Earth. By the 1820s and 1830s, European geologists had begun to travel far around the world and watch lava flows in action, confirming Desmarest’s and Hutton’s Plutonism. As lava flows cool, they contract and break into polygonal shapes, just as drying mud on a mudflat contracts into polygonal mud cracks. However, the polygonal cracking occurs not just at the top of the cooling lava flow, but all the way through its entire thickness, forming tall polygonal columns that are now found the world over as clear indicators of lava flow cooling. You may have seen other famous examples, such as Devil’s Postpile near Mammoth ski resort, California, or Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, or the columnar jointing found in every lava flow of the Columbia River basalts in eastern Oregon and Washington.

A modern view of the Giant’s Causeway, showing the distinctive polygonal columns formed when this large lava flow cooled and contracted 60 million years ago.

Naturally, Giant’s Causeway is a significant location, not only for its role in the history of science, but also as a scenic and educational importance as well. It is the fourth most popular tourist attraction in Northern Ireland, and earlier this year they were building a new visitor’s center to replace the one that burned down in 2000. Most of the controversy over the new visitor’s center focused on who should fund it, since the site is owned by the National Trust. But another important controversy concerns the exhibits. Thanks to interference and pressure from an evangelical organization, the Caleb Foundation, there is an exhibit which gives the Young-Earth Creationist viewpoint that the feature is less than 6000 years old, rather than its true date of 60 million years—wrong by three orders of magnitude! (At least they aren’t trying to claim it was formed in water by Noah’s flood, an idea rejected over 200 years ago). Although the National Trust and most of the exhibits claim that they “fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago”, they also were bowing to pressure to present an “alternative viewpoint”, as the Caleb Foundation was demanding.

This was no casual mention of a creationist explanation as a historical curiosity rejected by scientists over 200 years ago, or a casual mention of creationist legends on par with the Finn McCool tales, but a presentation of creationist viewpoints as if they are legitimate science today. Such may not seem like much to most people but it is more significant than one might realize. Just as the creationist books on sale in the Grand Canyon bookstore “Science” section gives NPS imprimatur to a anti-scientific viewpoint, so too does the public endorsement of the National Trust effectively give scientific approval to this creationist garbage. As Paul Sims wrote:

The reference to creationism at the Causeway may only represent a small concession to the creationist view, but what the National Trust needs to be aware of is that winning such small concessions forms a key part of creationist strategy. By encouraging organisations such as the National Trust to acknowledge creationist perspectives, it is possible that the Caleb Foundation are following the “Wedge Strategy”, a tactic devised by creationists in the United States, most notoriously the Discovery Institute, in order to “permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life” with creationism and Intelligent Design.

Aware that they can not simply convert the American public to creationism overnight, the architects of the Wedge Strategy aim to persuade politicians, journalists and educators that the correct approach to “debates” around evolution and the age of the Earth is to “Teach the Controversy”, giving perspective such as creationism and Intelligent Design a hearing alongside scientific theories. Through “Teach the Controversy”, creationists hope that their perspective will acquire a greater presence in educational establishments and the media. In short, once one school, or one museum, or one newspaper, starts to deal with evolution alongside creationism, others will follow.

Although public officials might be clueless about when it is appropriate to include all the community’s viewpoints and when it is not, the Caleb Foundation crowed about it as a great victory. On their website they celebrated:

For the first time a younger earth interpretation has now been included as part of an official site such as this. The National Trust did so without abandoning its own commitment to the majority interpretation. If the Trust can do so—why couldn’t others? Clearly they could. This new feature at the Causeway Centre also has another wider significance. Every church group, Sunday school, youth fellowship etc can now go to the Causeway Centre, take on board what is said about the continuing debate and, from that starting point, tell children, young people, men’s groups, ladies’ fellowships or senior citizens about the wealth of evidence in all branches of science—evidence that some would seek to suppress—in all creation, that points to the hand of a sovereign God in this world. From there, they can show how this is in harmony with the Bible’s revelation of the grace of God in reaching down to mankind to redeem from sin. Where once the only view on display was of an old earth, there is now reference to another perspective. The availability of more information will promote healthy, informed debate—surely that is a good thing.

Although I don’t think that the UK is going to convert to fundamentalism overnight, it is disturbing to see this inroad into the presentation of science by a anti-scientific minority. The “Wedge” strategy is the same as the “Teach the Controversy” strategy that provides avenues for attack on science in American public schools, and at least two states (Louisiana and Kentucky) have now enacted laws which allow creationism to skirt the separation of church and state by this backdoor method. Such efforts ultimately undermine science wherever they occur, and we scientists and skeptics must be vigilant in exposing and preventing the promulgation of pseudo-science in any place that pretends to be an institution adhering to modern science. Otherwise, we will see the results of creationist attacks on education that have put American science education near the bottom of the pack worldwide.

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27 Responses to “a giant cause at the giant’s causeway”

  1. Crabe says:

    This is an open door for all crackpots theory.

    I should go to Ireland, pretend it is the work of the flying spaghetti monster impose this theory to be featured in the exhibition as well.

    • Roger Stanyard says:

      Crabe – be careful. The Giant’s causeway isn’t in Ireland. It is in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom. Creationism is almost unknown in the Republic of Ireland which is overwhelmingly Catholic in terms of religion. Northern Ireland was set up as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people” and, as such, failed miserably.

      • Anne B says:

        As a person born and raised in Northern Ireland, I’m pleased to tell you that the giant’s causeway is actually in Ireland.Ireland is an island. That island is divided into the nation known as The Republic of Ireland and the part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, known as Northern Ireland. You only leave the Republic of Ireland when you cross the border into the North, you don’t leave Ireland. As such people born in Northern Ireland are both Irish and British. The notion that the province of Ulster is synonymous with Northern Ireland is also incorrect, as only 6 of Ulster’s 9 counties are part of Northern Ireland

  2. Other Paul says:

    Thanks to interference and pressure from an evangelical organization, the Caleb Foundation, … they also were bowing to pressure to present an “alternative viewpoint”, as the Caleb Foundation was demanding.

    I must have missed something. Why is this Caleb Foundation in a position to demand anything? Are they donating money or materials? Or is simply being an ‘evangelical organization’ qualification enough to immediately induce floppiness in the brains of the folk running the place? In short, wtf?

    • Kieran says:

      The Caleb foundation is made up of a number of members of the DUP, the majority unionist party in the northern assembly. In other words while no direct pressure may have been brought a few subtle hints from various DUP ministers may have had an effect.

    • Roger Stanyard says:

      Other Paul – The Caleb Foundation was set up by the very same sectarians who set up the province’s biggest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which in turn was set up by a sect called the Free Presbyterians (who just happen to be the biggest group within the Caleb Foundation). Caleb Foundation people are in the province’s government.

      The set up is pure sectarianism and is best seen as a form of political clientelism and pork. Worse still, getting creationism into the Causeway visitors’ centre is a way of “getting at the taigs” – nationalists in the province who are overwhelming Catholic and do not accept young earth creationism.

      If you find it all petty, mean-minded, corrupt and bigoted, you’d be right.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    So Europe is more secular than the USA. Okay. Is that a good thing? Europe’s populations are aging and shrinking. Europe lags behind the US economically. Instead of creationists in positions of power they have unrepentant Marxists.

    Mr. Prothero takes it as axiomatic that religion = bad, but I don’t see the evidence for it in the real world.

    Which means that his constant bloviating about the Creationist Menace in our midst comes across as, well, bigotry and paranoia.

    • tmac57 says:

      Did we read the same article? I got from this piece that Donald is worried about science being undermined by pseudo-scientific religious dogma.
      As usual, you present a strawman argument Trimegistus.
      Paranoia indeed!

    • Phea says:

      Don didn’t even go there, but since you insist… No evidence religion = bad? Do we reside on the same planet? Jews, Christians, and Muslims killing each other by the millions, for centuries now, over disagreements about the SAME “god” = good?

      To quote Carlin, “The only good thing that’s come from religion is some of the music.”

    • Paul says:

      The European Union has about 504 million people and in 2010 a GDP of 12,268,387 million, bigger than the US GDP. Our populations are not shrinking, our economy does not lag behind the US economy,instead it has overtaken the US economy and for a few years – until China takes over both of us – we are the biggest economy in the world. And all of our member countries are capitalistic countries, no “unrepentant Marxist” in any position of power or other importance. And please keep all the religious nuts of any faith in the US, we had them here and are super happy that they are a thing of the past

      • Brian says:

        You might want to double-check your data there, Pablo. The US came in at $14,582,400 million, which is greater than the value you gave for the EU. Evidently your economy does lag behind the US, and no, it is not the biggest economy in the world. We are happy to keep our religious people here, you certainly seem to have plenty of your own nuts over there!

    • Beelzebud says:

      Hey look, another person that uses the term “Marxist”, and has no idea what it means. You don’t get to say that Europe is “Marxist” and then whine about someone else being paranoid. You really are a one-trick pony. You complain in every single thread at this site, always playing the victim.

    • Roger Stanyard says:

      Neither the population of Northern Ireland nor the UK are “shrinking”. Indeed, they ae growing at a much faster rate than thought. There are no “Marxists” in power in either Northern Ireland or the UK. Marxism is utterly dead in Europe. If you think religion is “benign” in Northern Ireland, they kill each other over the matter there. The place is riddled with hard line sectarianism. The biggest political party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, is an offshoot of a creationist believing sect and the province’s political head until recent, Ian Paisley, is a YECer who has long been blamed by many for both causing and prolonging the murderous “troubles” in the province.

      How about some facts rather than arguments by assertion?

      • Brian says:

        As Trimegistus said, the population of Europe is indeed aging and shrinking. The population within the standard physical geographical boundaries was 731 million in 2005 according to the United Nations.

        How’s that for facts, rather than arguments?

    • Alan says:

      “Instead of creationists in positions of power they have unrepentant Marxists”.

      There are few Marxists in the U.K.

  4. Jason Loxton says:

    The offending portion of the audio guide can be found here:

    I actually like the historical treatment, but as Don notes, in the past this battle of ideas was a legitimate conflict between reasonable (at the time) scientific interpretations. When the exhibit suggests that a “debate” continues today, however, it is just pandering. There is no debate. *Disagreement* exists, certainly, between YECs and science, but to suggest that the nay-saying of a small group of anti-scientists is analogous to historical disagreements is disingenuous. The National Trust was very careful to word things so that everything they say is true, and no explicit endorsement of YEC is made, but its presence is peculiar, and does not add to a historical story that ended with a Volcanist (and old Earth) victory two hundred years ago.

    The text: “This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

    “Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

    Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

    Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.

    For further information on this exhibit, please speak to a Ranger.”

  5. Roger Wilco says:

    60 Million vs 6,000 = Four Orders of Magnitude (not three!)

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Oops! Sorry! The post was done in a hurry in the field with limited wifi, so I couldn’t spend much time rechecking it–downloads here are horrendously slow…

  6. Trimegistus says:

    Meanwhile the benevolent Obama administration works to destroy a marine biologist’s career:

    • gdave says:


      Did you even read the first sentence in that piece? The case started seven years ago, under the benevolent Bush administration.

      And what on earth does this have to do with the Giant’s Causeway?

  7. double-helical says:

    I appreciate the blog–especially the opening salvo. In addition, I am tired of the uninformed complaining that pushing back against creationist propaganda is unimportant or even counterproductive. There was a reason that Hitchens said “Religion poisons everything.” On top of the incessant waging of a campaign against teaching science in American schools, there is a constant sniping at science, a belittling of working scientists, presentations of articles and blog posts rife with misdirection, logical fallacies, and outright lies. Who is perpetrating this? Organizations like the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis. They care not a whit that American science education is widely recognized as abysmal, so long as they can foist their religious views. But there is a larger issue here. This religion-inspired attack, resulting in a widespread destruction or weakening of an appreciation for science and critical thinking among Americans, may be yielding a bitter fruit. I speak of the huge market for paranormal TV shows, psychics, alt med, and just about every form of woo that exists.

    On the schoolyard playground 50 years ago, I remember one kid that was running around asking everyone if they believed in ghosts. The universal reply was, “Ahh, there ain’t no such things as ghosts, dummy!” As far as I remember, he was the only kid in our third grade class with such a belief. Now, thanks to the Discovery Institute and the shameless TV industry, that number is around one third of Americans (^ Lyons, Linda (July 12, 2005). Gallup Polls. Retrieved 2010-11-28.)

    As skeptics, our battle against woo involves not just directly confronting woo in all its forms. It also includes getting at the organizations and institutions that, for whatever reason, attack science, the scientific method, and critical thinking. So, I applaud Dr. Prothero’s post. It’s just the type of thing that should not be left unchallenged by the skeptical community.

  8. double-helical says:

    Excuse me: my last sentence should have read, “The National Trust decision is just the type of thing that should not be left unchallenged by the skeptical community.”

  9. Citizen Wolf says:

    Tsk, that’s the northern Irish variety of presbyterians for you. I’m almost surprised they haven’t painted a picture of king Billy of Orange on the rocks to complement their crazy anti-reality creationism with some good old fashioned triumphalist bigotry.

    It’s a toss up between them and the catholic hierarchy, with their shielding of child rapists, as to who is worse for Irish society in general.

  10. Pepijn says:

    Correction: the Giant’s Causeway is not in Ireland, it’s in Northern Ireland (part of the UK and therefore an entirely different country).

    • Anne B says:

      Please please please stop saying that the giant’s caiuseway isn’t in Ireland. Ireland isn’t the name of either country – it’s the name of the island. The country is the Republic of Ireland and the part of the UK is called Northern Ireland, the common denominator is … Ireland. Both in Ireland, neither has the monopoly on Ireland (or being Irish for that matter)

  11. MaTT says:

    This place is famous for being on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album with some naked children climbing the stone. “Let the music be your master. Will you heed the master’s call? Oh… Satan and man. “