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Navel-gazing naturalist

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Philip Henry GosseThe naturalist Philip Henry Gosse was born in Worcester on 6 April 1810 but grew up in Poole in Dorset. In 1827 he went to work as a clerk in the fishing and seal trade in Newfoundland where in his spare time he observed and painted insects and marine organisms.

In 1832 Gosse experienced a religious conversion when he “solemnly, deliberately and uprightly, took God for my God”. Leaving his job in Newfoundland he moved to Quebec, then on to Philadelphia and Alabama.

He continued to draw and paint wildlife and wrote articles about his observations of life in America. Some of these were compiled into a book, ‘Letters from America’, illustrated with his sketches and watercolours. He returned to England in 1839.

In all, Gosse wrote more than 40 books and hundreds of articles about natural history and religious subjects. He became a popular science writer and published the first illustrated field guide to marine organisms.

However, unlike other well travelled young scientists of that period, such as Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, Gosse was prevented from supporting Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution by his unconditional belief in the biblical account of creation. Instead, he listed examples of how life ran in cycles — rain to river to ocean to cloud to rain, chicken from egg from chicken, and so on. He joined the Plymouth Brethren, who shared his anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ, another cycle of life to death to life.

In 1857 Gosse published a controversial book, ‘Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot’, in which he tried to reconcile the immense geological ages suggested by Charles Lyell with his own acceptance of biblical chronology. The word omphalos, Greek for navel, was a reference to debate about whether Adam had a navel and thus about God’s hand in creation.

Gosse argued that if one assumed creation from nothing there would have to be traces of a previous existence that never actually happened. He dismissed fossils as artefacts of this non-existent time that had been instantly brought into being by God at the moment of Creation. This was all too much for Gosse’s critics, who suggested that God had hidden fossils just to fool future scientists.

Two years later, Darwin published ‘On the origin of species’ and Gosse, crushed by the harsh dismissal of his own book, retreated into relative obscurity. He died in 1888. His illustrations are still greatly admired but his Omphalos theory is largely forgotten.

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