The book was an apologetic exercise in harmonizing the position that creation occurred several thousand years ago with the presence of geologic structures that seemingly suggested a longer timeframe. Although the book is quite long, the central premise is easy to describe. Gosse’s observations led him to believe that the mature forms of all natural objects are dependent upon immature forms for their structures.
In 1857, Philip Gosse, a respected naturalist, released a book entitled “Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot.” The book was an apologetic exercise in harmonizing the position that creation occurred several thousand years ago with the presence of geologic structures that seemingly suggested a longer timeframe. Although the book is quite long, the central premise is easy to describe. Gosse’s observations led him to believe that the mature forms of all natural objects are dependent upon immature forms for their structures. He concluded that an instantaneous creation must come into existence with a type of backstory. That is, an earth only a few minutes old would possess things like multiple geologic layers and fossils and such.
The near-universal response to Gosse’s proposal has been scorn. The late Steven Jay Gould appraised the book as “spectacular nonsense”, “illogical”, and “it smacks of plain old unfairness.” This reaction interests me almost as much as the idea that prompted it. Why is the response so strong?
Gould objects that Gosse’s proposal would mean God has deceived us, or that nature is simply a joke. Neither complaint strikes me as having much weight. In regards to potential deception on God’s part, well, if the Lord tells us how old creation is (which was indeed Gosse’s position) then it’s difficult to see how any deception could be in play. But, even if there was, Gould fails to recognize that Scripture does indeed present several examples of the Lord deceiving those who reject His word (1 Kings 22:11, Ezekiel 14:6-11, 2 Thess. 2:9-12). Gould may dislike the idea that God would make a fool of him, but such is the Lord’s prerogative.
Is nature then a joke? The question points towards Gould’s underlying concern. Near the end of his review of the book, the notion that logic or reason is driving his objection begins to fade:
But what is so desperately wrong with Omphalos? Only this really (and perhaps paradoxically): that we can devise no way to find out whether it is wrong – or, for that matter, right. Omphalos is the classical example of an utterly untestable notion, for the world will look exactly the same in all its intricate detail whether fossils and strata are prochronic or products of an extended history. When we realize that Omphalos must be reject for this methodological absurdity, not for any demonstrated factual inaccuracy, then we will understand science as a way of knowing, and Omphalos will serve its purpose as an intellectual foil or prod. Science is a procedure for testing and rejecting hypotheses, not a compendium for certain knowledge.
So here is the real reason Gould dislikes Gosse. He feels the foundations of his knowledge starting to shake. If Gosse is right then we are revealed to not be in control of our world. Our methods are exposed as hollow. And if we are not firmly at the wheel, then everything must be a joke.
But what a wonderful joke it is. The Lord has used the weak things of the world to shame the wise. All our best attempts pale in the light of His glory and wisdom. Like Job we must say “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
Gould finishes his review with a picture of Gosse as a broken man, rejected by the worldly wise. He spends his evenings in gloom, entertaining discussions of murder-cases with his young son. The great traitor to Science has been brought low. Let me end with a different picture. It is the Judgement, and the Lord has set a table before Gosse in the presence of Gould. Gosse stands to toast the One whose plans are formed in inscrutable beauty. Gould stands as well, and from him comes an admission that reveals which of the men is the true traitor.
Sean McGinty is a member of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Scottsdale AZ.