In Victorian England, Philip Henry Gosse made an unusual attempt to reconcile the glaring discrepancy between the empirical facts of the earth sciences that supported the theory of evolution and the revealed beliefs of traditional religion. As a fundamentalist creationist of the Plymouth Brethren sect, he held to a strict and literal interpretation of the story of Genesis; this Mosaic cosmogony required rigidly accepting both the sudden creation of Adam and the Noachian Deluge. Yet, as an avid naturalist, Gosse was unable to ignore that growing and compelling but contrary evidence in historical geology and comparative paleontology that supported the rational claims of the early evolutionists in the 19th century. His own scientific interests included ornithology and marine zoology. This well-traveled author and illustrator wrote nearly 50 volumes and even invented the aquarium. Yet he rejected outright the evolutionary framework.
Gosse hoped to resolve the contradiction between evolutionist science and fundamentalist religion by offering his own unique account of the planet, which would seemingly, at least for him, do justice to both conflicting conceptual worldviews. He presented a ridiculous explanation of terrestrial creation in two books, Life (1857) and Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1857), both appearing in print just 2 years before the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).
Gosse’s argument clearly gave preference to biblical authority and direct experience rather than to empirical facts and rational inquiry. It is grounded in a crucial distinction between two modes of existence: preternatural, prochronic, or ideal time in the infinite and perfect mind of the personal deity before the act of divine creation and natural, diachronic, or real time of actual objects and events and relationships in our material world of change and development. Furthermore, the course of everything in both inorganic and organic nature is claimed to be a circle.
In his attempt to reconcile the biblical cosmogony with scientific evolutionism, Gosse firmly argued that the geological column with its sequence of rock strata and record of fossil patterns was divinely created all at once, along with the earth’s existing flora and fauna types (including the human animal.) Therefore, at a single point, our planet suddenly came into being as an ongoing world containing a developmental series of fossils in rock layers that only suggest both an extensive physical past and a creative biological evolution before the earth’s actual origin in the real space and diachronic time of nature itself. In this metaphysical scheme, the distinction between appearance and reality is crucial.
In short, our planet is at the same time as old as demonstrated by science and as young as claimed in the sacred scriptures. How is this possible? It is, if one assumes with Gosse that God created the earth with a built-in past: The stratigraphic sequences of rocks were suddenly formed at the instant of creation along with all plant and animal fossils in their respective places. This appearance of evolution accepts the results of the process while rejecting the real process itself.
As such, according to Gosse, the appearance of all geopaleontological evidence merely implies the preexistence of rocks and fossils prior to the abrupt moment of a special creation through the omnipotent fiat of a divine creator only about 6,000 years ago. The formation of the earth occurred at a distinct point in prehistoric time, and the origin of life on the planet, along with our own species, was a violent eruption of organisms into the continuing circles of cosmic reality. The first forms of life suddenly appeared as if they had a historical past in the natural world.
Consequently, following this argument, all the geopaleontological evidence for a succession of countless epochs over millions of years, as well as for the progressive development of life on earth, is utterly deceptive, since preexistence is simply an illusion. The pristine world of divine creation had instantly intruded into diachronic time as if it had been partaking in an ordered continuity of early history spanning untold aeons. Briefly, this unorthodox interpretation allowed Gosse simultaneously to admit and dismiss all the accumulating geological, paleontological, and biological data for the enormous age of this planet and the vast inventory of inorganic structures and organic beings both upon it and within it.
Gosse rejected the eternity of inorganic and organic matter, as well as the mutability of species in the biosphere, since the flora and fauna of our earth are fixed and only a few thousand years old. In arguing his position, he even performed a thought experiment: although stressing that there was no human observation of antediluvian history, Gosse boldly imagined himself observing the first plants and animals of earth just after the moment of creation. In keeping within his view of things, these growing organisms would appear to have had a history, but in fact such an inference is fallacious, according to this interpretation.
As if this interpretation were not a sufficiently strange form of natural theology, Gosse even went so far as to propose that all the fossils of so-called early life found in the alleged ancient rocks of our earth were placed in these geological strata by a personal God in a plausible paleontological sequence so as to deliberately test the faith of their discoverers, or perhaps even cunningly deceive the faithful. For example, he argued that Adam and Eve had been created with a navel by this same clever deity in order to simulate natural births from biological parents.
For Gosse, evolutionists are simply studying the divinely imprinted appearance of a seemingly ancient globe, because he claimed that there had been no gradual change of the earth’s surface over the supposed vast aeons of planetary time and no slow evolution of plant and animal species throughout the equally assumed ages of organic history. Needless to say, this argument of Life and Omphalos was not taken seriously and had no major effect on the scientists, philosophers, theologians, or even the general public of the time.
Gosse was heartbroken and could not understand why his effort at reconciling evolutionary science with fundamentalist religion was rejected with equal force by both naturalists and religionists. Actually, since he believed that divine creation had taken place instantly, his own theistic cosmogony is not in step with the traditional 6-day story of Genesis.
Gosse’s worldview is neither empirically convincing nor logically defensible. It is scientifically unrepeatable in principle, and it ignores the law of parsimony. There is simply no reason to appeal to an improbable possibility that today flies in the face of empirical evidence and common sense. A modified form of this position does surface now and then in the biblical fundamentalist and religious creationist literature of today. This whole scheme remains as the residue of a desperate attempt to synthesize the old beliefs of an outmoded theistic cosmogony with the advancing evolutionary sciences.
Gosse’s belief in a sudden creation is grounded in an arbitrary point for the beginning of natural time. In fact, we could claim that everything still exists in the mind of God, waiting to burst into natural time. We may even ask, Why was this universe created? Or Is this the only created universe? There are numerous scientific, philosophical, and theological interpretations of this evolving universe. Gosse’s metaphysical imagination rejected evolution in order to avoid a slippery slope from traditional spiritualism to pervasive naturalism.
- Birx, H. J. (1991). Interpreting evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Gosse, E. (1890). The life of Philip Henry Gosse. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner.
- Gosse, P. H. (1998). Omphalos: An attempt to untie the geological knot. Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press.