Product has been added to the basket

Giant's Causeway - myth and reality

Giant's Causeway. Not 6000 years old.


Jan Zalasiewicz*, Tony Bazley** and the Stratigraphy Commission are exercised about a possible eruption of Young Earth Creationism at a World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland

Geoscientist 18.4 April 2008

The Giant’s Causeway is one of the geological wonders of this planet, formed from lava erupted some 60 million years ago, and now marvellously sculpted by ice, by the weather and by the sea. It is an iconic landscape, and fully deserves its status as a World Heritage Site.

Building the new Visitors’ Centre nearby is vital to help explain its history and significance to the Irish landscape. But there have been demands from a local pressure group, the "Causeway Creation Committee", that any new Centre include an account alleging the Causeway to be no more than 5000 years old, in accordance with a literal interpretation of Old Testament chronology. Giving in to these demands would be utterly wrong.

Of course, the Earth and its strata stretch back to ages far greater than the 5000 years claimed by young-Earth creationists. The Earth and the other planets that orbit the Sun have been in existence for a little more than 4 and a half billion years, as deduced by measuring the age of meteorites, that represent debris left over from the formation of the Solar System. The oldest minerals yet discovered on Earth reach almost back to this distant date, at some 4.2 billion years.

Giant’s Causeway represents a much younger outpouring of magma, though one that is still almost unimaginably ancient to a human perspective. At 60 million years old, it amounts to a little over 1% of the age of the Earth. When these lavas erupted over the landmass that was to become Northern Ireland, dinosaurs had already been extinct some five million years. The animals that then roamed the landscape were not like those of today but included, for instance, ancestors of the modern horse, about the size of a dog and possessing not hooves but five toes on each leg. Through the use of radiometric dating – the analysis of natural ‘atomic clocks’ preserved within crystals in certain types of rock, the ages of these, and other, events in Earth history in millions of years, can now be clearly established.

Even, though, before this technology was developed, the early geologists of Victorian times (and before) had realised that the Earth must be vastly older than the few thousands of years obtained from a literal interpretation of Old Testament chronology. They did this simply by using their observations and their powers of reason, by looking at the evidence in the landscape, just as we can do today.

Examples of such evidence can be seen in the very landscape of north Antrim. The lavas of Giant’s Causeway represent not one but several individual eruptions, each being typically separated by fossilised soils that each represent many millennia of slow weathering on those ancient landscapes. The lavas rest on still older rocks, which contain the remains of marine organisms that lived at the same time as did the dinosaurs.

Trace the Giant’s Causeway lavas some 10km south and they are covered by an extensive layer of lignite east of Ballymoney. This lignite is up to 140m thick, and is the remains an ancient peat bog, now compressed and hardened. In itself it represents about a million years of the slow growth and accumulation of decaying plants, as that peat bog slowly built up. Millions of years later, ice invaded Ireland - not once, but several times. This ice left thick masses of boulder clay and sand and gravel. As the ice receded for the last time, vegetation carpeted the debris, and Stone Age people constructed their monuments on top of that post-glacial landscape, as human occupation started.

The outlines of this enormous geological history were worked out by these early geologists who were, for the most part, Christian believers. They realised that it was far too long to fit into five thousand years, and had little trouble reconciling their faith with the evidence they saw before them. This history of the Earth has been corroborated and explored in further detail by many scientists in subsequent years. They are not (by any means) all atheists: they include Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and followers of other faiths, who can accommodate both their religious beliefs and their science. This reconciliation between science and religion goes back longer than is often realised. In 1615, Galileo wrote to the Grand Duchess Christina that the Bible teaches one "how to go to Heaven, not how the Heavens go". There need be no inherent conflict between science and religion. Conflict, though, may be created by religious fundamentalists; and also, of course, by fundamentalist atheists (not all of whom are scientists).

Manifest untruth

The young-Earth creationists’ view of Earth history, based upon their literal interpretation of the Bible, is quite simply wrong. It is a manifest untruth. It is as wrong as saying that the Sun orbits around the Earth, or that the Moon is made of green cheese, or that the Giant’s Causeway was constructed by Finn MacCool, the giant of Irish legend. Nor are we dealing with "alternative views" of the universe. We are dealing with the difference between reason and unreason. For it is unreasonable, indeed fantastical, in any impartial examination of the evidence (evidence that was sufficient even in Victorian times, and now that has been corroborated a thousandfold), to state that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

This is not a case of censorship. We do not question the right of creationists to hold or expound their views, to write pamphlets and books, hold meetings, or set up websites; nor would we for our part demand to distribute articles on the scientific evidence of the age of the Earth in church halls. But we profoundly disagree with any suggestion that creationist views should be given space in publicly-funded museums or visitor centres that explain natural history, or in school science lessons or science textbooks.

The significance of this point goes far beyond questions of a philosophical interpretation of humanity’s place in the universe. Humanity is now struggling to maintain itself on an overcrowded planet, on an Earth in which the life-support systems of air and water and food and land are being imperilled by human action. To deal with the many crises facing us, we need to deal with the Earth as it is - not with the utterly unreal Earth that the young-Earth creationists have convinced themselves of, by over-literal interpretation of scriptural texts.

This is not at all to say that the world’s religions have no part to play in, say, the growing threat of global warming. On the contrary: the moral standpoints they provide may perhaps prove crucial in influencing individual or collective action that might counter this threat. But human reason as applied to the reality of the world around us – which is in essence what science is – must lie at the heart of any civilised society. The Giant’s Causeway, and its 60-million year history, must be used to help promote that reason, and to better understand the real Earth on which we live.

* University of Leicester.  Chair, Stratigraphy Commission.
** Editor, ES2K

• A general Society statement rebutting Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design is currently under consideration by the External Relations Committee and will go before Council for approval later this year. Editor.