The Rejection of Omphalos:
A Note on Shifts in the Intellectual Hierarchy
of Mid-Nineteenth Century Britain


Omphalos (which is Greek for navel) is the title of an ill-fated book published in Great Britain in 1857 — in the period just preceding the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859.  The book presented Philip Henry Gosse's attempt to resolve one of the great contradictions bedeviling naturalists of his day, namely, the apparent disagreement between the enormous age of the earth suggested by the geological record and the comparatively much shorter six-thousand-year age suggested by the book of Genesis.(1); Gosse proposed an ingenious and thought-provoking theory, a theory that seemed (to him at least) to resolve the great contradiction and at the same time to leave geology and Genesis intact.  But Omphalos was very badly received, and Gosse's theory mercilessly rejected.  Some years later, on the occasion of Gosse's death, an obituary writer in Nature would suggest that "perhaps no work since Vestiges of Creation was received with a greater tempest of adverse criticism.... Neither Gosse's friends nor foes seemed to have any appreciation for it."(2); As might be guessed. the book has been almost completely ignored and forgotten in our own century.  In this brief essay I would like to consider some of the reasons for this rejection.  My hunch is that the rejection of Omphalos provides us with an intriguing window on the shifting intellectual priorities and matrix of values in the mid-nineteenth century.

First, it is necessary briefly to examine the essence of the theory Gosse advanced.  Fortunately, this is easily accomplished merely by considering a little thought experiment.  Suppose that Adam, in the Garden of Eden, was sitting next to a big pine tree twenty minutes after his own creation.  Suppose he took a saw and cut the tree down, and then examined the stump:  Would it have tree rings?  Being a big tree, it would be expected to.  On the other hand, tree rings accumulate year by year as trees grow, and this tree had been created less than a week before.  Gosse pondered the problem and he came to the conclusion that, yes, the tree would have to have rings.  In fact, he argued that any and all living things show the marks of past development as a matter of course and in many different ways.  Martin Gardner wrote of Gosse's case:

"This is not as ridiculous as it way seem at first. Consider, for example, the difficulty which faces any believer in a six-day creation. Although it is possible to imagine Adam without a navel, it is difficult to imagine him without bones, hair, teeth, and fingernails.  Yet all these features bear in them the evidence of past accretions of growth. In fact there is not an organ or tissue of the body which does not presuppose a previous growth history.... The same is true of every plant and animal.  As Gosse points out, the tusks of an elephant exhibit past stages, the nautilus keeps adding chambers to its shell, the turtle adds laminae to its plates.... In short — if God created the earth as described in the Bible, he must have created a 'going concern.'" (1957: 126)

Gosse had simply pointed out, then, that the traditional notion of the Creation contained within it the necessity that God would give to living things the appearances of a history that in fact they had not experienced.  And from this premise Gosse drew his important inference:  It followed, therefore, that the geological strata, the fossils, and all of the other observations scientists had collected suggesting a vast antiquity for the globe were, just as the pine tree's rings, evidence of a gradual history that, in fact, the world had never had.

On its face, then, Gosse had resolved the great contradiction. Why, then the theory's history of complete rejection?  Perhaps the simplest answer is that Gosse's was a silly idea and it got the reception it deserved.  After all, it is a silly idea.  But what, exactly, is silly about it? And how does it stack up against competing ideas in Gosse's day?

There were, of course, a great variety of proposed reconciliations for Genesis and geology available in Gosse's time.  One of the best known of these was the "interval theory" first suggested by Archbishop Sumner of Canterbury in his Treatise on the Records of Creation (1816).  Sumner suggested that the language of Scripture allowed for the possibility of a huge interval of time between the first verse of Genesis and the account of the Six Days Work in the following verses.  If one felt uncomfortable about cramming the whole of geological time into this tiny textual space, there was Reverend John Pye Smith's theory that the creation story was local to Eden and did not encompass the whole of the earth.  In fact this sort of adjustment was a byproduct of the theory of the localness of the Flood of Noah, an idea originally suggested to account for the origins of the flood waters.  If neither the interval theory of Sumner nor the local-creation idea of Smith struck one's fancy, then one might consider the idea that by "days" the Holy Author had meant eras, each perhaps of great and unknown duration— as in:"A thousand years are as a day in His sight."  (As it happened this theory might have enjoyed more popularity in Britain in this period had it not been associated with a Frenchman, Buffon.)  Another thinker suggested that millions of years might have gone by while the earth was still in its paradisical period.  Because Adam would not technically age during this time, the biblical reference to Adam's lifespan of 930 years no doubt referred to his lifetime after leaving the Garden.  While still in the Garden though, there would be no limit on the time elapsed.  Finally, if one did not care for any of these suggestions, there was always J. Mellor Brown's observation that if God wanted to do the work of vast ages of time in a single moment, what was to stop him?(3)

In short, in this company of ideas it seems hard to account for Gosse's poor reception on grounds of silliness alone. What is more, Gosse's theory can be said to have had the comparative advantage of not requiring critical redefinitions of the Biblical text, as for example the local-creation idea seemed to require.  Protestantism has long contained within its tradition a basic commitment to the "plain meaning" of sacred texts and the accessibility of those meanings to the lights of ordinary men.  Thus, to the extent that reconciliatory efforts to patch up Genesis and geology involved freewheeling reinterpretations of the holy writings, such efforts also would undercut a fundamental premise of Protestantism.

Perhaps Gosse's theory seemed particularly objectionable because it seemed to involve God in an embarrassing situation.  Gosse's proposal also seemed to deny the God of England — that sane, gradual sensible Deity who patiently watched over and governed British souls.  In his place was put God-the-Wizard, tricky, unreliable the creator of illusions for misleading the faithless.  Perhaps some readers reasoned that if the Book of Nature were that misleading, what then would insure that the Bible itself was free of deception?  The religionist, Charles Kinsley [sic], objected that Gosse's theory made God lie.  (Quoted in Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, 1888:333-334. Philip Gosse might have countered, of course, that the apparent contradiction between Genesis and geology also seemed to make God lie, He being equally the author of Genesis and nature.)

Scientists rejected Omphalos as vigorously as theologians had.  As science, of course, Gosse's theory had a number of notable difficulties. First, it ran up against the prevailing orthodoxy of Charles Lyell's uniformitarianism.  This doctrine — which placed at the base of modern geology the methodological assumption that present-day geological forces provide the preferred materials for the explanation of geological phenomena occurring long ago had been the reigning orthodoxy since the 1830s.  Of course, it was a doctrine that assumed and depended on a high antiquity for the earth.  Gosse's idea also put the world of observable phenomena into a compromised status.  What, given the truth of Omphalos, would be the point of geological research at all?  Merely to study the arrangements of a fantasy history on God's mind? Moreover, Gossian theory seemed neither to provide directions for further research nor to preserve the authority and autonomy of science out-from-under the hegemony of theology.  This position of subordination for science had grown less and less comfortable with the advancing professionalization of the British scientific community.  Finally, a Victorian A. J. Ayer or Karl Popper would certainly have suggested that Gosse's theory was going to be very difficult to test or to falsify.

In the audience receiving Gosse's book there was a large, middle-of-the-road group that clung to the position there was no really serious breach between Genesis and geology in the first place.  "And even if the opinion of the moment seems to suggest a little misunderstanding," their position might go, "were not both science and Genesis vehicles of Truth, and was not Truth ultimately unitary and consistent with itself and thus would not the apparent disagreements ultimately resolve themselves when the right time came?"  It was a position that emphasized the modesty of human knowledge and the danger of too much pride in the emergence of science.  To this slightly unctuous camp Gosse doubtlessly appeared to be a hand-wringer and a bit of a hysteric.

But perhaps there were deeper sources of the book's rejection. Jorge Borges (1964:24-5) suggested that in attempting to save the Genesis story Gosse had in fact ended up demonstrating its final absurdity. After Gosse the biblical account could no longer be read without an awareness of the dilemma he had raised.

We know now that the subsequent histories of science would tend toward increasing secularization and away from the AM strongly theological matrix of scientific and popular thought in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Perhaps the rejection of Omphalos is a measure of how much — even before the publication of Darwin's earthshaking book — the theological system of assumptions had already waned.  Gosse, after all had merely offered a method for saving Genesis at the expense of the literal truth of scientific observation.  Where in orthodox Protestantism did it say that the geological record had to be interpreted literally, or that geologists had to read the record of the rocks in their plainest meaning?  Where did the Holy Book suggest that natural knowledge was as accessible and as important as Revealed Knowledge?  Gosse's theory committed the faux pas of making explicit a junior status for the data of the senses.  The unacceptability of his theory, then, was probably a sign that the underlying intellectual order had already changed.

Perhaps Gosse encountered a fury not unlike that of a seven-year-old who has begun to suspect that Santa doesn't really exist.  Beneath the maintenance of appearances and the routine gestures of faith, many pious citizens in mid-century Britain had begun to doubt.  Gosse had come along offering a clever way to make Santa come back.  He showed an embarrassed audience how to go on believing.  But that only made them feel ashamed, and they reacted in fury.  It would take until almost the middle of the next century before Gardner and Borges might look again at Gosse's paradigm, and appreciate its curious unity.

It is interesting to consider the light Omphalos's rejection may shed on the today's creationist controversy.  My argument has been that the main lesson to be learned from the Omphalos episode is that both camps — perhaps unsuspectingly — placed empiricism high up in their respective hierarchies of explanatory values.  Neither side, it seems, wanted God to fake the data: one side, because it did not want that sort of God; the other, because it did not want that sort of data.  Gosse's central point — that some sort of fakery was inherent in the creatio ex nihilo idea — was rejected as mere armchair rationalism.

In the present creationist controversy it is notable how much, this time around, the creationist cause is being advanced by creationist scientists, that is to say, by advocates who claim to share a hierarchy of explanatory values with their adversaries in a larger scientific community (see Morowitz, 1982).  It seems to be the case than that the creationists struggle to conduct their conflict on commonly accepted epistemological ground, the implication being that the controversy is to occur in a scientific theater of discourse and not a theological one.  Thus, science's capacity to define our "norm of truth," as Susan Faye Cannon (1978) termed it, would seem to be tacitly reaffirmed in the contemporary skirmish between the two adversaries.

But claiming the mantle of science is not without risk for creation scientists.  It provides critics with the opportunity specifically to undercut and belittle this claim, one good way being to draw attention to particularly discreditable predecessors who seem to have made the same claim.  Obviously, if the tradition of creation science contains "silly" science, then its case for scientific standing is weakened.

In fact, precisely this rhetorical motif cropped up in a recent edition of Science 82, a science magazine for a general audience (Morowitz, 1982).  In an article on Omphalos the author places the blame for Gosse's silly theory on a fundamental illogic inherent in Gosse's (and by implication, anyone's) attempt to be both scientist and creationist at the same time.(4); Poor, poor Gosse!  One hundred-twenty-five years after publication, his daring theory is reduced to providing a convenient device for shaming creationists.


1.  The book's full title is Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie Geological Knot. [back]

2. The writer is identified simply as E.P.W.  The other book referred to is Chalmers (1844). [back]

3. See Milton Millhauser's Just Before Darwin (1959) for the source of my short discussion of reconciliatory efforts.  The notion that vast stretches of time may have passed during the earth's paradisiac period is taken from Omphalos itself, in Gosse's literative [sic] review. [back]

4.  It is noteworthy that Gosse is employed in this article as if his thesis reflected a view commonly accepted by the "creation scientists" of his time.  Of course, this was not the case. [back]


Borges, Jorge Luis, 1964, "The creation and P.H. Gosse."  Pp. 23-25 in Other Inquisitions 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Brown. James Mellor (cited in Millhauser), 1388, Reflections on Geology.  Edinburgh.

Cannon, Susan Faye, 1978, "Science as norm of truth."  Pp. 1-28 in Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period. New York: Dawson and Science History Publications.

Chalmers [sic], Robert, 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.  1st ed., London.

E.P.W., 1891, [Obiutaryl Nature 43: 605.

Gardner, Martin, 1957, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.  New York: Dover Publications.

Gosse, Edmund, 1888, Father and Son. London: W. Heinemann.

Gosse, Philip H., 1857, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot.  London: John Van Voorst.

Millhauser, Milton, 1959, Just Before Darwin: Robert Chambers and Vestiges.  Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Morowitz, Harold, 1982, "Navels of Eden." Science 82 3:20, 22.

Smith. John Pys (cited in Millhauser), 1852, The Relation between the Holy Scriptures and Some Parts of Geological Science.  5th ed., London.

Sumner, John Bird (cited in Millhauser), 1816, Treatise on the Records of Creation. 2nd ed., London.

Ron Roizen was a Senior Scientist in the Alcohol Research Group, Institute of Epidemiology and Behavioral Medicine, Institute of Medical Sciences, San Francisco, and Specialist and Lecturer, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley. He now lives in Wallace, Idaho, with his spouse, fine artist Maggie Entrekin Roizen. He can be reached at: ron[AT] (replace [AT] with @).

Back to