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On the significance of stones

In The SticksShirley Clerkin 

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When out for a walk I sometimes come home heavier than when I left, weighed down by a pocketful of stones and a fistful of sticks. Little stones might stay as comforting pebbles in the bottom of my jacket pocket, to be rubbed smooth for many months, until a pocket clearout when they are randomly re-deposited like tiny erratics. The sticks are for kindling.  Larger stones with unusual colours or fossils get the honour of inclusion in the rock collection at my front door. Occasionally, I notice that these carefully-curated stones have been moved, perhaps by an opportunist looking for a handy secret key. There isn’t one.

Geology’s timeframe is so vast that myths and legends evolved to span the gap in our understanding; intruding into belief systems and often becoming as fixed as the rock itself. Unlocking the chronology and sequence of climatic, sedimentary or metamorphic processes is a fascinating investigative journey, and many an amateur geologist wanders around at weekends seeking exposed quarry faces and rock outcrops. Because of geological folding and faulting, older layers often end up above newer ones. Time comes back up to the surface, exposing what was hidden away, and as fossils time is sometimes dug up.

Fossilisation is the replacement of what was living tissue with minerals in bedded layers of rock. The earliest, fractal fossils display life-forms from 540m years ago. Rangeomorphs were neither plants nor animals, were fixed to the ocean floor, and seemed to reproduce by dropping fronds to the floor which then formed new organisms. The branching and repeating archetypes of these rangeomorphs are like the patterns found in fractal geometry. Fractals are based on very simple forms, and by repeating the same sequence over and over again complexity can be created. The rock star of fractals, the Mandlebrot Set, where the image can be magnified forever with infinite precision is created by inputting complex numbers into an iterative equation. By repetition, fractals eventually become irregular and fragmented shapes, but retain the same shape or pattern at all levels of scale. The Mandlebrot Set which can help explain how nature works and is infinitely complex has been called the thumbprint of God.

In 2008, I received a very heavy book. The massive ‘Atlas of Creation’ was posted to me in the expectation that it would end up in the public library. Beautifully produced with stunning photographs and images of fossils, the book set out to discredit the theory of evolution with some very dubious but, on the face of it, authoritative statements. According to the book, evolution is an “imaginary process”, and organisms have never undergone evolution, they were simply created as they exist now.  At the time, I could find out little about the book’s own genesis and its journey to my desk, but now a Google search for ‘The Atlas of Creation’ will identify Turkish Islamist creationist and author Adnan Oktar. Under the name Harun Yahyar, he sent thousands of these books unsolicited to libraries and institutions all over the world, including somehow to me. It must have cost him a small fortune. Needless to say, the tome never found its way into the carefully-curated public library in Monaghan.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth is 6,000 years old and that the fossil record is evidence of the “great flood” witnessed by Noah 4,400 years ago, rather than a remnant of evolution. Their timeline was worked out with reference to the Bible’s Old Testament.

Last summer, Northern Ireland’s National Trust sought to reconcile paleontology, Finn MacCool the Giant, and creationism at the new visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway World Heritage Site, for the thousands of visitors who go each year to marvel at the ungodly basalt columns. The new interpretation referenced the Young Earth Creationists’ belief that the earth is 6,000 years old and invited visitors to “join in the debate”.

Surveys have found that 20% of people in Northern Ireland believe in some form of creationism, and 10% chose the Young Earth creationism views. These views are also prevalent in political circles. DUP health – formerly environment – minister, Edwin Poots, is a self-declared Young Earth creationist. DUP minister Nelson McCausland caused controversy in 2010 when he asked the Ulster Museum to include creationist displays.

20% of people in Northern Ireland believe in some form of creationism

The TV-star-gazing Professor Brian Cox who is firmly in the Old Earth camp that expands this planet’s past to the conventional if intriguing, 4.5bn years tweeted: “I don’t mind creation stories presented as mythology, but to suggest that there is any debate that the Earth is 4.54m years old is pure shit”. The National Trust had to re-word the controversial section following complaints and a petition.

Language itself evolves over time, words become fossilised through usage, and dialects become fragmented and lost. But, it seems bizarre that an almost flat-earth belief is so much to the fore, despite advances in scientific methods, understanding and dissemination. We rely on our culture to protect nature: the age of the earth and how biodiversity has evolved is a scientific question, not a religious one. But religion and its faiths guide and frame so much for humans, including apparently modern humans, at important times. Perhaps for even you and me, dear reader.

When it comes to dismissing the nonsense of creationism, I’ll let religion have the last say, this once: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. John 8:7.