P.H. Gosse’s Failure to Untie the Geological Knot

A mammoth as restored in Gosse’s Omphalos. In Gosse’s view of history, however, such a scene never actually existed. The bones of the mammoth existed in the earth from the time of Creation and had never given form to a living animal.

Without a doubt, Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos is one of the strangest books I have ever read. Published in 1857, two years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would cause the public and academics alike to take evolution more seriously, Gosse’s book was an attempt to rescue Creation itself from the perceived threat of science denuded of Christian authority. Gosse fervently believed that God’s word and works were in accord, but if there was any conflict between the two it was because naturalists had been looking at the world in the wrong way.

Gosse attempted to mend the increasing tear between a literal reading of Genesis and the facts of geology in a very peculiar way. If you found the skeleton of an extinct animal, Gosse proposed, you would naturally assume that the bones must have given form to an animal that lived at some distant period. But what if you were mistaken? What if, instead, the bones had been created already in place in the ground and had never been clothed in flesh and blood?

For Gosse fossils were just components of the earth that implied history without actually possessing it. God, in other words, had created the world ” already in progress.” The first plants and animals were all adults, ready to reproduce “after their kind” and bearing the marks of age that they would be expected to bear. This rule applied to the first humans, too; Adam and Eve had been created with navels even though they had never actually been connected via an umbilical cord to a mother during gestation. Creation carried with it the illusion of time, and Gosse believed this could reconcile the “lost worlds” of geologists the the scripture he loved so dearly. Naturally he rejected any suggestion that life evolved.

That Gosse published Omphalos two years before On the Origin of Species was no accident. As suggested by his son (and biographer) Edmund, by the mid-1850’s Gosse had become very concerned about ideas that life had evolved. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844, had popularized the idea of evolution even if it failed to convince naturalists of a mechanism by which it could be affected, and to Gosse such theorizing was the equivalent of barring God from having anything to do with the world the Almighty had created.

In fact, Gosse started to more formally organize his anti-evolutionary ideas shortly before Omphalos. His popular writing about marine organisms always had a touch of the theological about it, but in the summer of 1857 he published a series of collected essays from the magazine Excelsior under the name Life in its Lower, Intermediate, and Higher Forms. The title makes Gosse’s belief in a created hierarchy clear, and of its contents his son would later write;

These essays were slight, and the religious element was quite unduly prominent, as if vague forebodings of the coming theory of evolution had determined the writer to insist with peculiar intensity on the need of rejecting all views inconsistent with the notion of a creative design. This book entirely failed to please the public, who had now for so many years been such faithful clients to him ; with the scientific class it passed almost unnoticed.

The complement of these essays, Omphalos would fare even worse upon its release later that year. Even the later writings of his son, Edmund, are tinged with regret that Gosse could not restrain himself from speculating on the natural “philosophy” that Darwin and other naturalists were more adept at handling. (Interestingly, though, Gosse would later exchange numerous letters with Darwin about orchids in 1863. Neither evolution nor Omphalos entered the conversation.) Gosse, however, felt that he was more than qualified for the job. The people had to be told that God still lived in Creation, and Gosse fully believed that he could provide the ultimate answer that would put an end to what he saw as idle speculation over trilobites and rock formations. The overly florid and pompous nature of his prose underlined his confidence.

Father and son; P.H. Gosse and his son Edmund as photographed in 1857.

Unfortunately for Gosse, his defense of Genesis was met with scorn from both theologians and naturalists. Those who would otherwise be receptive to Gosse’s attempt saw his thesis as making a liar out of God and naturalists could not take Gosse’s explanations seriously. The public, on the other hand, took barely any notice at all. Gosse felt that he had developed a brilliant reconciliation between science and scripture, but in the end all he did was publicly embarrass himself.

Gosse was deeply disappointed by this. He had expected like-minded Christians to take up his cause but instead they only criticized him as severely, if not moreso, than the naturalists. Even those willing to listen to Gosse, like his clergyman friend Charles Kingsley, were unsettled because Gosse made God into a trickster who planted gags to fool geologists. The “book of nature” should have been as easily and immediately understood as the Bible, and it was feared that Gosse’s thesis would make otherwise loyal flocks doubt God’s goodness.

Gosse was crushed by the response, especially since his wife was not there to reassure him that the masses had simply failed to appreciate his great work. She had died earlier that year, and the failure of his grand theory only added to his depression. His mood darkened, and looking back on those days his son Edmund suspected that Gosse felt as if the harsh response was a punishment from God. Whether this was the case or not I cannot say, especially since Edmund’s later portrait of his father was more of a caricature, but the man was clearly shaken by the failure of what he had hoped to be a glorious victory over the creeping threat of godless science.

It is almost needless to say that Gosse was wrong about the earth’s history, and his work was generally forgotten as more series discussions of evolution erupted in 1859 on onwards. Omphalos was produced during a time when attempting to reconcile science with scripture was practically an industry until itself. It would seem that this industry survives to this day. The shelves of booksellers are choked with the seemingly countless volumes that have been produced promoting one system of reconciliation or another. I wonder if, some time from now, we might look back on such works as carrying on the legacy of Omphalos.

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