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Philip Henry Gosse

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888). English naturalist and science popularizer, now best known for his attempt to reconcile biblical literalism with uniformitarianism. Although later eclipsed by his talented son, Edmund Gosse, Philip made an important contribution to the knowledge of his time, although his Christian fundamentalism made it difficult for him to accept the theory of evolution.

P. H. Gosse was, for the first part of his career, a popular science writer whose works examined topics ranging from Jamaican wildlife, to the American south, to marine zoology. He made his living writing on these topics, and then leveraging his fame into textbook sales (two of which covered zoology and "natural history"). In 1857, however, he published a notorious book: Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot.

The problem of the age of the earth was a vexed one for much of the 19th century. The work of James Hutton had suggested that the earth had to be much, much older than those who trusted biblical chronology could accept. Regardless of whether one believed James Ussher's date of 4004 BC, or some other, no literal date reconstructed from the Bible for the creation of the earth could supply anything but the smallest fraction of the time that was implied by geology or, soon, zoology.

Into this breach stepped Gosse. Various theories had been proposed prior to the publication of Omphalos, including the notion that the biblical "days" were metaphorical: corresponded to much longer periods of time (so-called "interval theory"), or the thought that time may have worked differently before the Fall, or even a forthright appeal to God's omnipotence (and therefore his ability to cause apparent geological ages to occur in short periods of time). Gosse, however, cut through it all by pointing out that life ran in cycles: birth and death and birth again; rain to river to ocean to cloud to rain. Chicken and egg. If one assumed a creation from nothing, there must always be traces of previous existence that never actually existed, otherwise certain things would not work. The name Omphalos hearkened back to the earlier Christian debate over Adam's navel, the existence of which would have implied his non-existent birth from a non-existent mother -- Omphalos is Greek for "navel". Gosse compiled several hundred pages of examples of similar thoughts, then tied it all together by stating that when creation occurred, apparent records of events occurring that did not -- he called them "prochronic", meaning "outside time" -- must have been rife throughout the world. Was it not reasonable to argue that fossils and geologic strata and so on were merely prochronic artifacts of a non-existent time pre-dating the actual Creation several thousand years before? This is known as the Omphalos hypothesis.

Logical as this is, if one wishes to reconcile the geologic record with ex nihilo creation, Gosse ended up satisfying no-one, and his book was savaged by both ends of the spectrum on the issue. Those of a scientific bent and those of religious mind generally rejected the theory on the grounds that they could not accept that God would play such an enormous apparent hoax. There simply seemed to be no point to it, and some other explanation was deemed necessary. Two years later, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species was published, and another exit from Gosse's endless ring became apparent -- rather than a circle, the history of life was an ever-widening spiral, emanating from a single point in the distant past. Fossils and so on were the record of that spiral.

Gosse was crushed by the reception his book received, and spent the remainder of his days rather obsessed with religious extremism, and crime and murder stories. His life from a few years before the publication of Omphalos to his death is recorded to some extent in Father and Son (1907), written by his son -- Sir Edmund William Gosse, a famous biographer of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period -- as a tale of young Edmund's struggles against the shadow cast by his father's religious beliefs.

Writer Jorge Luis Borges is responsible for some of Gosse's fame in the present day, as his short essay "The Creation and P. H. Gosse" explores the rejection of Omphalos. Borges argues that its unpopularity stemmed from Gosse's explicitly (if inadvertently) outlining the absurdities of the Genesis story. Stephen Jay Gould also wrote an essay on Gosse, which can be found in the book The Flamingo's Smile.

The definitive biography of Philip Henry Gosse is Glimpses of the Wonderful by Ann Thwaite (2002).

Philip Gosse, grandson of P. H. Gosse, was a keen naturalist and qualified doctor who published a book entitled Memoirs of a Camp Follower in March 1934, later issued as A Naturalist goes to War, (1942) which contains memories of his time in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) in France/Belgium in 1915-1917 and India in 1917-1918. It is an account of much field work, on an average day he caught and skinned mice shrews and small mammals, which went to the Natural History Museum, some of the horrors of war, and army anecdotes. He was also appointed as rat officer to the 2nd Army.