Gosse’s Dilemma and Adam’s Navel

‘Tis a dangerous thing to ingage the authority of Scripture in disputes about the Natural World, in opposition to Reason, lest Time, which brings all things to light, should discover that to be false which we had made Scripture to assert.

Thomas Burnet, Archaelogiae Philosophicae, 1692

In the late nineteenth century intellectuals assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth. They embraced, instead, a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between “facts” and “values.” They associated cognitive truth with empirically verified knowledge and maintained that by this standard, moral values could not be validated as “true.” In the nomenclature of the twentieth century, only “science” constituted true knowledge. Moral and spiritual values could be “true” in an emotional or nonliteral sense, but not in terms of cognitively verifiable knowledge. The term truth no longer comfortably encompassed factual knowledge and moral values.

Julie A. A. Reuben (1996) The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality

Truth

Certain people have different standards for recognizing “truth.” Given access to the same facts, two individuals can look at an issued and reach utterly different conclusions, to the point where they believe those with a different opinion belong somewhere on a spectrum from stupid to perverse…. (Asher 2012: xiv)

(….) The creationist has something at stake, some worldview or allegiance, that makes a fair, honest view of the data behind Darwinian evolutionary biology impossible. Why?

(….) [T]here is an obvious explanation for antipathy toward Charles Darwin among various anti-evolutionist groups of the last 150 years, groups that are often connected to one kind of intense religious creed or another: they think Darwin threatens their worldview. Contributing to this conviction are those biologists who portray evolution as tied to atheism, who help convince the devout that a natural connection of humanity with other organisms is incompatible with their religion. Compounding things further is the fact that adherence to many religious worldviews is not flexible, and any scientific theory or philosophy that seems to threaten certain beliefs must be wrong, whatever some scientist may say about evidence. (Asher 2012: xvi)

Coyne says there is one way to be rational, and any of this stuff about alternative “truth” is relativist nonsense not worth the flatscreen monitor on which it is written:

What, then, is the nature of “religious truth” that supposedly complements “scientific truth”?… Anything touted as a “truth” must come with a method for being disproved—a method that does not depend on personal revelation. … It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified.

I disagree, and would argue that there are many things in life that deserve the descriptor “truth” but are not amenable to rational disproof. Coyne is absolutely correct to say that coddling the irrational—those for whom “religious truth” means stoning adulterers or drinking poisoned Kool-Aid—is incompatible with science and, more generally, civil society. However, while science is a-religious, it is not anti-religious, at least in the important sense that it does not (indeed, cannot) concern itself with phenomena beyond what we rationally perceive. It is not only possible to portray science as lacking fatal consequences for those religious tenets that concern things we cannot empirically observe (such as purpose or agency in life), but it is precisely what scientists have got to do to make a compelling case to the public. Coyne tosses “religion” into the same dumpster as any passing superstition, and actively encourages the perception that science is corrosive to any religious sentiment. Yes, there are religious claims that are demonstrably wrong in an empirical sense. … However, such specific claims do not do justice to the religion integrally tied into the identity of many lay-people and scientists alike, an identity that by any meaningful definition is worthy of the name “truth.” (Asher 2012: xvii-xviii)

Asher, Robert J. Evolution and Belief [Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2012; p. xiv.

When we reflect on scienceits aims, its values, its limitswe are doing philosophy, not science. This may be bad news for the high priests of scientism, who reject philosophy, but there is no escaping it.

(….) There is a general agreement that science concentrates on aspects of the world that can be studied through theories that can be tested by doing experiments. Those aspects relate to spatiotemporal patterns in nature, for this is what makes experiments possible. If other dimensions of reality exist, they simply cannot be studied using the methods of the empirical sciences.

(….) Modern science is an enormously wonderful and powerful achievement of our species, a culturally transcendent, universal method for studying the natural world. It should never be used as an ideological weapon. Scientific progress demands a respect for truth, rigor, and objectivity, three ethical values implied in the ethos of science. We can nevertheless draw different conclusions from our analyses of science, but we should always present them carefully, distinguishing what can be said in the name of science from personal interpretations that must be supported by independent reasons, or acknowledged simply as personal opinions. Our analysis shows that the Oracles differ in important points and are not consistently fighting for a common cause. When they go beyond their science, they use different arguments and arrive at different conclusions.

We conclude with one final insight. Science is compatible with a broad cross section of very different views on the deepest human problems. Weinberg, an agnostic Jew from New York, shared his Nobel Prize with Abdus Salam, a devout Muslim from Pakistan. They spoke different languages and had very different views on many important topics. But these differences were of no consequence when they came together to do science. Modern science can be embraced by any religion, any culture, any tribe, and brought to bear on whatever problems are considered most urgent, whether it be tracing their origins, curing their diseases, or cleaning up their water. Science should never be fashioned into a weapon for the promotion of an ideological agenda. Nevertheless, as history has shown, science is all too frequently enlisted in the service of propaganda; and, as we have argued in this book, we must be on guard against intellectual nonsense masquerading as science.

Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas (2007) in Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion.

Darwinism as an ideology

One of the most interesting developments of the twentieth century has been the growing trend to regard Darwinian theory as transcending the category of provisional scientific theories, and constituting a “world- view.” Darwinism is here regarded as establishing a coherent worldview through its evolutionary narrative, which embraces such issues as the fundamental nature of reality, the physical universe, human origins, human nature, society, psychology, values, and destinies. While being welcomed by some, others have expressed alarm at this apparent failure to distinguish between good, sober, and restrained science on the one hand, and non-empirical metaphysics, fantasy, myth and ideology on the other. In the view of some, this transition has led to Darwinism becoming a religion or atheist faith tradition in its own right.

Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers (2010) in Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Darwinian thinking to American economic reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Evolutionary thought was American economic reform’s scientific touchstone and a vital source of ideas and conceptual support. The Wharton School’s Simon Nelson Patten, writing in 1894, observed that the century was closing with a bias for biological reasoning and analogy, just as the prior century had closed with a bias for the methods of physics and astronomy. The great scientific victories of the nineteenth century, Patten believed, were “in the field of biology.”

SOMETHING IN DARWIN FOR EVERYONE

To understand the influence of evolutionary thought on American economic reform, we must first appreciate that evolutionary thought in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in no way dictated a conservative, pessimistic, Social Darwinist politics. On the contrary, evolutionary thought was protean, plural, and contested.

It could license, of course, arguments that explained and justified the economic status quo as survival of the fittest, so-called Social Darwinism. But evolutionary thought was no less useful to economic reformers, who found in it justification for optimism rather than pessimism, for intervention rather than fatalism, for vigorous rather than weak government, and for progress rather than drift. Evolution, as Irving Fisher insisted in National Vitality, did not teach a “fatalistic creed.” Evolution, rather, awakened the world to “the fact of its own improvability.”

In the thirty years bracketing 1900, there seems to have been something in Darwin for everyone. Karl Pearson, English eugenicist and founding father of modern statistical theory, found a case for socialism in Darwin, as did the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Herbert Spencer, in contrast, famously used natural selection, which he called “survival of the fittest,” to defend limited government.

Warmongers borrowed the notion of survival of the fittest to justify imperial conquest, as when Josiah Strong asserted that the Anglo-Saxon race was “divinely commissioned” to conquer the backward races abroad. Opponents of war also found sustenance in evolutionary thought. Pyotr Kropotkin argued that the struggle for existence need not involve conflict, much less violence. Cooperation could well be the fittest strategy. David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford from 1891 to 1913 and a leader of the American Peace Movement during World War I, opposed war because it selected for the unfit. The fittest men died in battle, while the weaklings stayed home to reproduce.

Darwin seems to have been pro-natalist, on the grounds that more births increased the variation available for natural selection. Margaret Sanger argued that restricting births was the best way to select the fittest. Darwin’s self-appointed “bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, thought natural selection justified agnosticism, whereas devout American interpreters, such as botanist Asa Gray, found room in Darwinism for a deity.

It is a tribute to the influence of Darwinism that Darwin inspired exegetes of nearly every ideology: capitalist and socialist, individualist and collectivist, pacifist and militarist, pro-natalist and birth-controlling, as well as agnostic and devout.

Darwinism was itself plural, and Progressive Era evolutionary thought was more plural still. The ideas of other prominent evolutionists (notably, Herbert Spencer and Alfred Russel Wallace) were also influential in the Progressive Era, both when they accorded with Darwin and when they didn’t.

— Thomas C. Leonard (2016) in Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era.

[L]iberal theology reconceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and ethical values. It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary. Specifically it is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its advocacy of moral concepts of atonement or reconciliation; and its commitments to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to contemporary people. In the nineteenth century, liberal theologians denied that God created the world in six days, commanded the genocidal extermination of Israel’s ancient enemies, demanded the literal sacrifice of his Son as a substitutionary legal payment for sin [see Laughing Buddha], and verbally inspired the Bible. Most importantly, they denied that religious arguments should be settled by appeals to an infallible text or ecclesial authority. Putting it positively, nineteenth-century liberals accepted Darwinian evolution, biblical criticism, a moral influence view of the cross, an idea of God as the personal and eternal Spirit of love, and a view of Scripture as authoritative only within Christian experience. Nineteenth- teenth- and early-twentieth-century liberals expected these views to prevail in Christianity as a whole, but in the twenty-first century they remain contested beliefs.

Gary Dorrien. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity: 1950-2005 (Kindle Locations 155-157). Kindle Edition.

Unless the moral insight and the spiritual attainment of mankind are proportionately augmented, the unlimited advancement of a purely materialistic culture may eventually become a menace to civilization. A purely materialistic science harbors within itself the potential seed of the destruction of all scientific striving, for this very attitude presages the ultimate collapse of a civilization which has abandoned its sense of moral values and has repudiated its spiritual goal of attainment.

The materialistic scientist and the extreme idealist are destined always to be at loggerheads. This is not true of those scientists and idealists who are in possession of a common standard of high moral values and spiritual test levels. In every age scientists and religionists must recognize that they are on trial before the bar of human need. They must eschew all warfare between themselves while they strive valiantly to justify their continued survival by enhanced devotion to the service of human progress. If the so-called science or religion of any age is false, then must it either purify its activities or pass away before the emergence of a material science or spiritual religion of a truer and more worthy order.

What both developing science and religion need is more searching and fearless self-criticism, a greater awareness of incompleteness in evolutionary status. The teachers of both science and religion are often altogether too self-confident and dogmatic. Science and religion can only be self-critical of their facts. The moment departure is made from the stage of facts, reason abdicates or else rapidly degenerates into a consort of false logic.

~ ~ ~

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. The later natural theologians largely ignored it. The sacred theorists tried unsuccessfully to reconcile geology with the Bible. And one man above all others tried to explain it away. He was Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), a writer on natural history whose books caught the imagination of generations of Victorians and whose life became a tortured tale of religion contesting with science…. (Thomson 2007: 223)

Gosse’s dilemma was that of all natural theologians, especially after the publication in 1844 of an anonymously authored, thrillingly dangerous, and wildly successful book on evolution…. The book’s title, with an allusion to James Hutton that nobody could miss, was Vestiges of Creation. Chambers’ theory was largely derived from Lamarck’s which, like Erasmus Darwin’s, depended upon organisms being subject to change as a direct result of environmental pressures and exigencies [which today is know to be possible via epigentics]. Chambers probably set Charles Darwin back fifteen years — much to the benefit of all. In many ways he blazed the trail that Darwin could more cautiously follow with an even more convincing theory in hand. Darwin must have realized, with the example of Chambers in front of him (and approval of the political left and censure from both the religious and scientific right) that he would have to ensure his theory would have a better reception. (Thomson 2007: 224)

Gosse knew that various versions of what we now call evolution had been around for more than a hundred years. By the mid-1850s, most scientists in Britain knew which way the wind was blowing. Darwin had been hard at work in private since 1842, preparing the ground for his idea of natural selection, and knowing how popular a scientist Gosse was, he tried to enlist him to support his theory. Darwin’s self-designated ‘bull dogs’, including Thomas Huxley, were steadily persuading the sceptics Huxley had been lecturing formally on an evolutionary relationship between men and apes as early as 1858. This growing movement evolutionary movement offered a new way of explaining the evidence of organic changes, but only at the expense of much accepted religious belief. It threatened to change radically the whole frame of intellectual reference and to produce a new explanation of cause. For a huge number of theologians, clerics, philosophers and ordinary people, evolution was changing the metaphysical balance of power. Among those who felt this most keenly was Gosse. (Thomson 2007: 224)

One’s heart has to ache for Gosse, one of the most sympathetic characters of the evolutionary saga, a man weighed down by the burdens of fundamentalist Christianity and at the same time a brilliant naturalist…. 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. (Thomson 2007: 225)

(….) 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 Paley’s and before Paley John Ray’s or Thomas Burnet’s. Gosse’s dilemma was to try to find a way to reconcile his science and his faith. He chose to challenge the rapidly growing support for evolutionists from the geological record. (Thomson 2007: 226)

(….) Huxley had a favourite lecture a “Lay Sermon’ entitled Essay on a Piece of Chalk. He would stand before an eager crowd and take a piece of common chalk from his pocket, asking the audience what it could possibly tell them about the history of the cosmos and of life on earth. The answer is that chalk (in those days, before blackboard chalk was an artificial, hypo-allergenic substance) represents the accumulation on an ancient sea bottom of the skeletons of countless billions of microscopic planktonic organisms that once inhabited vast tropical oceans that extended across the earth, from Europe and the Middle East to Australia and North America. (Thomson 2007: 227)

(….) Philip Gosse knew only too well what a piece of chalk looked like under a microscope and that the earth’s crust consisted of thousands of feet of different rocks, some bearing fossils, others the remains of ancient lava flows, dust storms, water-borne sediments, and even ancient coral reefs just like those he had seen in Jamaica…. How could Gosse explain away this all-too-solid evidence of the ancient history of the earth and its denizens? What did it have to say about the biblical account of creation in six days? (Thomson 2007: 228)

(….) Gosse’s answer cost him dearly. The dilemma figuratively tore him scientist and fundamentalist Christian in half. 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 no need for a navel, since he had never been connected by an umbilical cord to a mother. Nor indeed had Eve, of whose origin Genesis gives two accounts. Nor indeed (remembering that the Bible tells us that God made man in his own image) would God physiologically have needed navel. (Thomson 2007: 229)

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. (Thomson 2007: 229)

Such an argument, of course, can never be beaten. It says that God has created all the evidence that supports his existence and (shades of Hume) all the evidence that appears to cast doubt on it. 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. (Thomson 2007: 229-230)

Over the years, Gosse’s argument has been bowdlerised to the slightly unworthy proposition that God set out the geological record, with all its evidence of change, in order to test man’s faith. It was, therefore, the ultimate celestial jest and cruel hoax. This was about as far from Gosse’s pious intention as Darwin’s impious theory. As for what Paley would have made of Omphalos I like to think he would have rejected it, but kindly, for he was a kind man. Victorian England not only rejected it, they laughed at it cruelly. Gosse became overnight a broken man, his reputation as a scientist in shatters. (Thomson 2007: 230)

But nothing is as simple as it ought to be. A community that mocked Omphalos and had no problem in coming to terms with the even more difficult issue of cosmology, still could not come to terms with geology. In fact, whether in Paley’s time or in Darwin’s, or indeed our own, one of the oddities in the history of interplay between science and religion is that cosmology never seems to have become as serious a threat to revealed religion as natural science. When pressed, people often revert to believing two things at once. The evidence that the universe is huge and ancient can be assimilated seemingly without shaking the conviction that the earth itself is 6,000 years old and that all living creatures were created over a two-day period. For example: ‘The school books of the present day, while they teach the child that the earth moves, yet assure him that that it is a little less than six thousand years old, and that it was made in six days. On the other hand, geologists of all religious creeds are agreed that the earth has existed for an immense series of years.’ These last words were written in 1860 and appear in a work that arguably presented a greater threat to the Established Church than the evolutionism of Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Robert Chambers or even Charles Darwin. Essays and Reviews was an example of the enemy within, a compilation of extremely liberal theological views by noted churchman and academics. Among their targets was the unnecessary and outmoded belief in miracles and the biblical account of the days of creation. The battle is still being fought. (Thomson 2007: 230-231)

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