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.
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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