05 November 2012

Review: Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot by Philip Henry Gosse

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2012 (originally 1857)

Read July 2012
Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot
by Philip Henry Gosse

Omphalos is famous for being the book that said God put fossils on the Earth to test our faith. It turns out to have a hypothesis not quite that bad, and I was intrigued and surprised to find myself enjoying it somewhat, as long as I skipped over the bits where Gosse describes a bunch of plants in exhausting detail.

The argument he devises is actually very compelling, if you buy his two initial premises: 1) all matter must be created ex nihilo at some point and 2) species are all unique, i.e. they cannot transmutate into one another. He also says everyone accepts that all life is circular: an adult has a baby grows up into an adult has a baby...

If you buy those two premises (which are nuts for us, but acceptable for a Victorian, even if already outside the scientific mainstream pre-Darwin), then it logically follows that all species must have popped into existence in such a way that implies past existence. When God magically creates a tree, you would be unable to discern it from a tree that had grown out of a seed. Simply analogize this to a planetary level, and you get the fact that though the Earth seems to be millions of years old, if its existence is circular, then it had to pop into existence at some point in the cycle, which would imply previous existence even if it was untrue. And all other things being equal, if you accept the Earth magically popping into existence, you may as well go with the Biblical account, of course.

All very well reasoned from completely wrong premises. It reminds me of that statement in Doctor Who that logic merely allows one to be wrong with authority. Philip Henry Gosse had authority in spades; the book's second and third chapters are actually a very good explanation of cutting-edge geological and natural historical thought. Shame that his apparently prodigious intellect was wasted so much; the book ruined him, and probably his relationship with his son, too.

Still almost a good read, though; I bet that as long as Evenings at the Microscope, or Researches among the Minuter Organs and Forms of Animal Life avoids the cod-evolutionary theory, it is pretty good.

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