Monday, November 26, 2007


Cooking One's Own Gosse

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) was an interesting figure in the history of science and its intersection with Natural Theology. Anyone more than a little familiar with the disputes between creationists and supporters of evolutionary science will have probably heard of Omphalos -- if nothing else, as an epithet used against creationist arguments about the Earth being created with an "appearance of age" or starlight being created "already in transit." Gosse, if not the actual source of such arguments, systematized and presented them with a gloss of science.

But Gosse was not some ignorant pseudo-scientist. As Keith Thomson tells the tale in his Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature, Gosse was a brilliant naturalist:

He occupies a treasured and honoured place in British intellectual history, writing about science and about his travels in Canada and Jamaica. He was the first to introduce to a popular audience the life of the seashore, the fragile world of exquisite beauty and strength that lies just a few inches beneath the surface of the sea and in the rocky pools of the coast. Before Gosse, all this was largely unseen. Gosse single-handedly created marine biology and home aquaria, and became one of the great chroniclers of the intricate worlds revealed by the microscope.

So popular a scientist was Gosse that Darwin, securing his disciples even before the Origin was published, approached Gosse to see if he could be persuaded to support Darwin's theory. But Gosse was, as Thomson says, "a man weighed down by the burdens of fundamentalist Christianity." Specifically, he was a member of a fractious group named the Plymouth Brethren, founded around 1830 and quickly splitting into at least six different sub-sects. Gosse's son Edmund wrote what Thomson calls "a pitiless yet endearing" biography, entitled Father and Son, revealing their lives during the elder Gosse's years as a devout member of the Brethren, notable for his "naive intolerance and carefully measured love."

Once Lamarck and Chambers had made it possible (even necessary) to take evolution seriously, and after his meeting with Charles Darwin had shown how powerful was the extent of the challenge to his fundamentalist beliefs, Gosse felt called to respond; as a Plymouth Brother and as a scientist, it was his responsibility, just as it had been [William] Paley's and before Paley John Ray's or Thomas Burnet's.

But science had advanced substantially from even Paley's time back at the opening of the 19th century.

By the mid-nineteenth century, there were really only three ways in which natural theologians could deal with the growing evidence that the earth was very old, that it was recycling inexorably beneath their feet, and that life on earth had constantly changed over millions of years. They could ignore it, they could accommodate it to the biblical accounts of history by more or less denying the literal truth of Genesis, or they could explain it all away.

Gosse opted for the last option ... in spades.

In a classic example of ad hoc reasoning, he explained away all this appearance of change in a book entitled Omphalos, the Greek for 'navel', and in that one word is contained the core of Gosse's argument. It is the old conundrum: did Adam have a navel? If God created Adam as the first man out of nothing, Adam would have had no need for a navel, since he had never been connected by an umbilical cord to a mother. ...

Gosse simply asserted that at the moment of creation, just as God made Adam with a navel, he also made the earth with all its complex layers, its faults, every one of its fossils, volcanoes in mid-eruption and rivers in full spate carrying a load of sediment that had never been eroded from mountains that had never been uplifted. Similarly, at that instant, every tree that had never grown nevertheless had internal growth rings; every mammal already had partially worn teeth. He created rotting logs on the forest floor, the rain in mid-fall, the light from distant stars in mid-stream, the planets part-way around their orbits . . . the whole universe up and running at the moment of creation: no further assembly required.

Such an argument, of course, can never be beaten. ... Equally, of course, a theory that explains everything explains nothing. Omphalos is untestable and therefore one cannot concur rationally with its argument; you must simply close your eyes and believe. Or smile.

Perhaps worse to his contemporaries than its uselessness as science was its theological aspect. Natural Theology in particular and conventional British theism in general was invested in a rational God, an engineering God, a God that would bless the Industrial Revolution that had made Britain mighty and rich. Gosse's God was a trickster, an imp that gave minds to human beings but then took away the very rationale for having them.

Victorian England not only rejected it, they laughed at it cruelly. Gosse became overnight a broken man, his reputation as a scientist in shatters.

As the recent New York Times article, "Rock of Ages, Ages of Rock," reminds us, some modern young-Earth creationists have real science degrees. You have to wonder what gives them thicker skins than Philip Gosse.


I always thought that if God went to all that effort to make the universe look old, we darn well better believe Him on the matter.
Our culture is not as committed to science as Victorian England was, so the ID'ers with degrees don't have thicker skins, they just find many more people who agree with them.
Our culture is not as committed to science as Victorian England was ...

It sounds strange at first, what with our addiction to technology and its pervasiveness, but I think you're right.
In my t.o/s.r.c years, I actually tangled with one consistent Omphalist, whom you and Ferrous may also remember: Mark Nutter.

Last time I ran across him he had become an atheist, so you can see how far the Gosse Dodge got him....
Sure, I remember Nutter, though I never interacted with him much. Provisional hypothesis: Omphalos is something advocated by either those who have drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid (like Gosse) or by those who are making a last ditch defense against reality battering down the door. Nutter may have been of the latter persuasion.
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