This week, Northern Ireland’s First Minister is Young Earth Creationist

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Northern Ireland is home to the Giant’s Causeway, one of the world’s most spectacular geological phenomena. This is part of an enormous lava field that was first produced when the modern North Atlantic began to open, and is still growing at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and, most spectacularly, in Iceland. Fragments of the initial outpouring were separated from each other as the Eurasian and North American plates moved apart to form the Atlantic Ocean, and now can be found in locations from Greenland and Denmark. The Causeway itself consists of the basalt formed by the solidification of massive successive outpourings of lava. The slow cooling of this rock forced it contract, fracturing as it did so into hexagonal columns up to 10 m high. Tens of thousands of years must have passed between successive outpourings, because we can see, in between the basalt layers, the baked remains of soil formed by weathering of the lower one.

The Antrim Lava field shown within the British Tertiary Volcanic Province, itself part of the North Atlantic Lava Field. By Hazel Muzzy (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
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“The Chimneys,” columnar structures on skyline. Note additional columnar sructures to right and beneath. Click to enlarge

Careful examination shows a complex succession of processes:

  • The formation of the lowest basalts in 11 separate episodes
  • A pause of at least 100,000 years, during which the first interbasaltic soil layer was formed by weathering. This weathering was accompanied by the erosion of stream valleys,
  • Changes in chemical composition beneath the crust in the lavas feeding the eruptions
  • The formation of the middle basalts, slightly different in chemical composition from the lowest
  • Their slow cooling to give more than 40,000 regular columns
  • More weathering, to give the second interbasaltic layer
  • Formation of the upper basalts, which ever since have been more slowly modified by weathering and erosion.
  • As shown by radiometric dating, all this happened between 50 and 60 million years ago.
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Interbasaltic layer beneath The Chimneys. Click and click again to magnify: note uneven upper contact surface between weathered layer and basalt, due to erosion of palaeosol, and holes (“giants’ eyes”) in the layer where incompletely weathered basalt chunks have been dislodged.

Or was it more like 4,369 years ago? That is the view held by Answers in Genesis, the world’s leading creationist organisation, which assigns the opening of the Atlantic Ocean to the convulsions formed, around that date, by Noah’s Flood. The date itself is arrived at by adding up the time intervals listed in the biblical book of Genesis. There is, of course, nothing in the biblical flood account that even hints at such convulsions. We can trace the idea to the Seventh-day Adventists prophetess Ellen B. White, whose views indirectly influenced the 1961 book, The Genesis Flood, foundational text for the 20th-century revival of Young Earth creationism. “Creation science” has since been further modified to take account of plate tectonics. The trouble, of course, is that the entire geological record must, according to Young Earth dogma, be shoehorned into a 6000 year interval. This leads to numerous absurdities, such as continents moving as fast as rowing boats, and an ice age that reached its peak during the lifetimes of Abraham and Isaac, but none of this seems to bother Young Earth creationism’s true believers.

Readers may be surprised to learn that these true believers include among them some of Northern Ireland’s most influential politicians.

Mervyn Storey, MLA  (Member of the [ Northern Ireland]  Legislative Assembly), who from 2008 until 2014 was Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly Education Committee, is a former vice-chairman of the Caleb Foundation. This body rejects the whole of modern geology as well as evolutionary biology, and claimed credit (if that is the correct word) for temporarily persuading the National Trust visitor centre at the Causeway to give Young Earth creationism parity of treatment with scientific geology. The resulting outrage led to a letter writing campaign with its own Facebook page (which survives as a discussion forum), and eventual removal of the offending language. Amongother prominent MLAs, Edwin Poots and Paul Givan are also closely associated with Caleb. Poots was briefly (from 28 May this year until 22 June) leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and in that capacity nominated Givan to be Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

Paul Givan MLA.jpg

Givan was first mentioned in this blog almost exactly 4 years ago, .in connection with his work, along with Poots, in persuading Lisburn City Council to advocate the teaching of creationism. I am happy to say that the schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, wrote back to point out that Lisburn City Council had no authority over school curricula, that these curricula were generated in consultation with the Northern Ireland Department  of Education, and that the schools themselves had highly professional trained staff, who would not take kindly to this suggestion.

Givan assumed office on 14 June. Within days it became clear that his position was untenable, and at the time of writing we expect to see Donaldson announce his successor very shortly. I have criticized Donaldson before for many reasons (see here), but at least advocacy of creationism is not among them.

Site photographs by the author. Givan image, official photograph (2016)

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on June 23, 2021, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. The sheer amount of effort that has to be put in to be this outwardly stupid is truly astonishing.

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  2. bewilderbeast

    It is the year 2021, right? I’m simply astonished at this craziness.

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  3. Schadenfreud: at least this silliness appears in lands other than just the U.S.
    Anyway, keep up the good fight on your side of the pond, guys.

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  4. In visiting Giant’s Causeway [is there only one giant in this mythology? Or should it be Giants’ Causeway?], I was struck by the utter absence of geological books in the very new high-end visitor center. The only geology book was a general text written by somebody in Ireland with a picture of the Grand Canyon on the cover. Hard to believe that no general interest geology books on Ireland merit inclusion with the swarm of “legends of the Emerald Isle” style books that clutter that book area. So maybe this is the reason for such a lack of transportable insight…

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    • Some evade the question of how many giants by omitting the apostrophe. But I think there is a great lack of general interest non-textbook geology books altogether, apart from those keyed to a particular area, as compared with, say, general interest biology books. There’s Bjornerund’s Timefulness, ofc, which I reviewed here, her earlier book Reading the Rocks, and Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie (written with a specific anti-YEC agenda); what others should I add to this meagre list? Is there a gap in the market?

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