Philip Henry Gosse

From Academic Kids

Philip Henry Gosse (April 6, 1810August 23, 1888) was an 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.


Early life

P. H. Gosse was, for the first part of his career, a popular science writer whose works examined topics such as Jamaican wildlife, the American South, and 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 his controversial book: Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot.

His best-known book, Omphalos

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 to be the true date of Earth's origin, no biblically reconstructed date for the creation of the earth was long enough to be close to the time that was implied by geology or, later, zoology.

Various theories had been proposed prior to the publication of Omphalos. Among them was the notion that the biblical "days" were metaphorical and corresponded to much longer periods of time (so-called "interval theory"). Another proposed that time may have worked differently before the Fall, and still others made a forthright appeal to God's omnipotence, meaning he could cause apparently long geological ages to occur in short periods of time.

Gosse, however, pointed out that life ran in cycles: birth and death and birth again; rain to river to ocean to cloud to rain. Chicken from egg, egg from chicken. 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 being 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 actually did not occur -- 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? This idea became known as the Omphalos hypothesis.

Gosse's theory was unsatisfactory to both sides of the debate, and his book was savaged by critics on both ends of the spectrum. 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 hoax. There was simply 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.

Later life

Gosse was crushed by the harsh reception of his book, and spent the remainder of his days obsessed with religious extremism, and crime and murder stories. Gosse's other books included Canadian Naturalist (1840), The Ocean (1844), Birds of Jamaica (1847), Naturalists Sojourn in Jamaica (1851), Aquarium (1854), A Manual of Marine Zoology (1855-56) and Actinologia (1858-60).


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, who became a famous biographer in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period. Father and Son was a tale of young Edmund's struggle between his belief in evolution, and the shadow cast over him by his father's religious convictions.

Writer Jorge Luis Borges is responsible for some of Philip Gosse's fame today, as Borges' short essay "The Creation and P. H. Gosse" explores the rejection of Omphalos. Borges argues that its unpopularity stemmed from Gosse's explicit (if inadvertent) outlining of the absurdities in 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, the grandson of P. H. Gosse, became 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). It 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 were then sent to the Natural History Museum, and also covered some of the horrors of war, and army anecdotes. He was also appointed as rat officer to the 2nd Army.

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