Friday, June 12, 2015

I Could Never Get the Hang of Last Thursdays: Thoughts on Omphalos

                I’ve mentioned my fondness for white supremacist literature before on this blog, but this love affair with fringe belief systems is by no means limited to racialism. It’s the Otherness of white supremacy that interests me, not any inherent value in the system itself. If it’s from a perspective radically different from my own, I want to read it, whether it’s from Esoteric Hitlerism, Zurvanism, or Ahmadiyya.

                So when I came across Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos:An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, I knew I absolutely had to read it. Written in 1857 (a mere two years before Darwin’s Origin of the Species), Omphalos attempts to resolve discrepancies between the Genesis account of creation and the apparent age of the Earth.
                I was drawn to Omphalos by a sense of historical curiosity – what sort of arguments would a 19th century Creationist pull out against the still-developing theory of evolution? After all, this debate is by no means dead. Creationism and Intelligent Design supporters still push for the inclusion of their beliefs in science textbooks, write books attacking holes in evolutionary theory, build museums propounding the co-existence of humans and dinosaurs.

                Although biological evolution was still a gleam in Darwin’s eye, Gosse’s contemporaries were already well aware that the geological makeup of the Earth indicated it was much, much older than 6,000 or so years. So how does our 19th century Creation Scientist stack up against those of the 21st Century?
                As it turns out, surprisingly well. Mr. Gosse’s work was widely lambasted at the time of its release and is still occasionally held up as an example of anti-scientific writing, but I think it deserves a bit of reevaluation.

                The first thing that Mr. Gosse does better than the current crop of Creation Scientists is recognizing the self-evident facts of geology. I still remember my old Bob Jones University science textbook which claimed the entire fossil record could be explained by Noah’s flood. Mr. Gosse will have none of this – the successive layers of top soil, sandstone, limestone, coal, etc. could clearly only have developed over massive epochs of time.
                Moreover, looking at the successive layers of fossils in these beds of rock clearly shows individual species rising up, dying off, and being replaced by new species. While Mr. Gosse refrains from speculating on the mechanism by which these species develop (although he seems familiar with a proto-Darwinian argument), he also recognizes that the fossil record indicates massive change over time. Microbes are followed by invertebrates, are followed by fish and so on.

                The fossil record also indicates that these were real, living creatures, not fossils buried by the Devil or God to test humanity’s faith. These are not Dinosaur Model Kits, but the remains of once-living creatures. The bones have marks where the muscles and tendons would attach, predators are found buried next to their victims, with tooth marks and fractures indicating a struggle. Also, fossilized poop.
                This is where Mr. Gosse truly shines in comparison to run-of-the-mill Creationists: he acknowledges the evidence as it stands, and acknowledges that the evidence points toward an Old Earth. He does not attack proto-Darwinianism as a scientific cult, or as just a theory, but as a reasonable interpretation of the available evidence. In fact, it would be the best interpretation of the available evidence – if not for one thing.

                And this one thing is where things get weird.
                Mr. Gosse believed that the small element which throws the theories of Creationists and proto-Darwinists off course is the distinction between what he terms prochronic and diachronic age.

                Let’s say we have two chickens; one hatched from an egg two years ago and the other created by God ex nihilo one hour ago. We then bring in a chicken expert (perhaps a seasoned chicken farmer or an eminent Chickenologist) and ask her to estimate the age of these two chickens.
                So our Chickenologist examines the chickens for signs of age – the thickness of their beaks, their number of feathers, the length of their claws, and so on with the other commonly accepted marks of chicken age. Having concluded her examination, the Chickenologist declares that both chickens are at least two years old – maybe slightly older, but certainly no younger.

                In this example, our Chickenologist would be incorrect. One of the chickens was created, in all of its full-grown chickeny glory, only one hour ago. It may have all of the physical distinctions of a two-year-old chicken, but this is in appearance only.

                The distinction would be that the first chicken existed for two years in diachronic time, which is to say, within our shared space-time. The second was created with prochronic age - the marks normally indicating age that would still necessarily exist on an ex nihilo adult chicken.

                Now, Creationism aficionados may be familiar with a version of this argument under the term “appearance of age.” Essentially, the argument is that when God created the universe, He created it to “appear” old. So when we see light from a star that appears to have travelled millions of years, it has only actually existed for six thousand. Adam was created as an adult, despite never having been an infant.

                What I think sets Mr. Gosse apart is his presentation of the theory. The bulk of the book is given over to extremely detailed and erudite descriptions of the life-stages of various plants and animals and how necessary it would be to create them with the marks of age. Take, for example, his description of Alsophila tree-fern:

                "You can have no doubt that every one of these scars indicates where a leaf has grown, where it has waved its time, and whence, after death and decay, it at length sloughed away…These scars, then, are ocular demonstrations of former fronds; we may no more doubt that fronds were once growing from these spots, than we may that the green and leafy arches were once coiled up in a circinate vernation. They are the record of the past history of this organism, and they evidently reach far back into time… Now there are about a dozen unfolded or unfolding, as many withering midribs, and about a hundred and fifty leaf-scars that we can count with ease… I have no hesitation, then, in pronouncing this plant to be thirty years old; it is probably much older, but it is, at least, as old as this.
                I’ve had to cut down his descriptions to the bare minimum because of the insane amount of detail Mr. Gosse put into his age estimation criteria. There are pages and pages and pages upon pages of these technical evaluations. Check out this section on horse teeth:

                The third pair of permanent incisors have appeared, and have attained the same level as their fellows; all are marked with a central hollow on the crown, the middle pair faintly: the canines have acquired considerable size; they present a regularly-convex surface outwardly, without any marks of grooving on the sides; their inner side is concave; their edges sharp; the third permanent molar has displaced its predecessor of the milk set, and the sixth is developed.
                This condition of the teeth infallibly marks the fifth year of the Horse's age. A year ago the third incisor was only just rising; the canines were small, and strongly grooved, and the third milk grinder was yet existing. A year hence, the central incisors will be worn quite flat, and their marks obliterated; the canines will be fully grown tusks, the second molar will have reached its full height, and all the teeth will be of the same level. We can then with perfect confidence assert this to be a five-year old Horse. And yet, if we do so, we shall assert a palpable untruth, for the young and vigorous stallion has been created to-day.”

                The argument is less “a wizard did it” and more that if there is a God, and if He created the Earth and all life on it, it would be necessary to create it with fully mature organisms that had all of the marks of maturity.
                Furthermore, if we conceive of the Earth itself as a single organism, it too would necessarily have marks of maturity, just as surely as an Alsophila or a horse. After all, without fully functioning atmospheric, oceanic, tectonic, and other systems, life would have ended as suddenly as it was created.

                So the proto-Darwinians are right – prochronically speaking, the Earth is millions of years old. It is an adult planet, created in the fully mature state necessary to support life. Mr. Gosse even encourages thinking of the Earth as ancient, in the same sense that we would describe Adam as a fully grown man. “It is clear, then, that at the selected stage it appears, exactly as it would have appeared at that moment of its history... Just as the new-created Man was, at the first moment of his existence, a man of twenty, or five-and-twenty, or thirty years old; physically…though not really, not diachronically.
                We can say with certainty that movements of glaciers, the birth of mountains and so on do in fact take millions of years – were they to happen within time. “The character and order of the strata; their disruptions and displacements and injections; the successive floras and faunas; and all the other phenomena, would be facts still. They would still be, as now, legitimate subjects of examination and inquiry. I do not know that a single conclusion, now accepted, would need to be given up, except that of actual chronology. And even in respect of this, it would be rather a modification than a relinquishment of what is at present held.”

                Perhaps most interestingly, Mr. Gosse anticipates the argument of “Last Thursdayism,” which claims the Universe was created in its present state last Thursday as a sarcastic counterpoint to Creationism. After all, if the universe can be created with the appearance of age, how can we know it was not created as recently as last Thursday? To this, Mr. Gosse posits:

                Let us suppose that this present year 1857 had been the particular epoch in the projected life-history of the world, which the Creator selected as the era of its actual beginning. At his fiat it appears; but in what condition? Its actual condition at this moment:—whatever is now existent would appear, precisely as it does appear. There would be cities filled with swarms of men; there would be houses half-built; castles fallen into ruins… These and millions of other traces of the past would be found, because they are found in the world now; they belong to the present age of the world… they are inseparable from the condition of the world at the selected moment of irruption into its history; because they constitute its condition; they make it what it is.”
                Or in other words, Mr. Gosse flips the question on its head: if the world were to have been created last Thursday (that being June 11th, 2015 at the time of my writing), it would have to be created in a complete state appropriate for June 11th, 2015. How else would you create the world of Last Thursday if not in the state of Last Thursday?

                Now this line of argument tells us nothing about whether or not the universe was created on June 11th, 2015 (or indeed, October 22nd, 4004 BC). Mr. Gosse admits as much. A planet which has existed for millions of years would be, in all physical senses, the same as a planet which has existed 6,000 years but was created in a mature state.
                Of course, this argument presupposes belief in supernatural agencies (i.e., a God to create the world), but it also allows for a sort of logical relief valve. It does not prove that the Earth was created as a fully mature unit, but it does provide a reason for the Earth to be created as a mature unit. Just as a fully mature tree requires rings and fully developed root systems, a fully mature world requires a fully developed tectonic system – with marks of age.

                To the physiologist this is obvious; but some unscientific reader may say, Could not God have created plants and animals without these retrospective marks? I distinctly reply, No! not so as to preserve their specific identity with those with which we are familiar. A Tree-fern without scars on the trunk! A Palm without leaf-bases! A Bean without a hilum! A Tortoise without laminæ on its plates! A Carp without concentric lines on its scales! A Bird without feathers! A Mammal without hairs, or claws, or teeth, or bones, or blood! A Fœtus without a placenta! I have indeed written the preceding pages in vain, if I have not demonstrated, in a multitude of examples, the absolute necessity of retrospective phenomena in newly-created organisms.
                Extending this argument to the fossil record, Mr. Gosse’s argument is that a fully mature Earth would have to have a fully mature fossil record:

                Who will say that the suggestion, that the strata of the surface of the earth, with their fossil floras and faunas, may possibly belong to a prochronic development of the mighty plan of the life-history of this world,—who will dare to say that such a suggestion is a self-evident absurdity? If we had no example of such a procedure, we might be justified in dealing cavalierly with the hypothesis; but it has been shown that, without a solitary exception, the whole of the vast vegetable and animal kingdoms were created,—mark! I do not say may have been, but MUST have been created—on this principle of a prochronic development, with distinctly traceable records. It was the law of organic creation.”
                As it turns out, pretty much everyone dared to say Mr. Gosse’s suggestion was a self-evident absurdity. It was shouted from the laboratories to the sanctuaries, from the lecterns to the pulpits. And yet, this criticism may be too harsh. While Mr. Gosse perhaps proves nothing, he at the very least makes a plausible argument for why the Earth would be created with the appearance of age and why this should not be considered deceptive.

                Compared to the bulk of the Creationists of the present day, whose focus lies more on attacking the evidence uncovered, Mr. Gosse did his best to support and accept the science of his day while holding fast to his belief in “the Adorable Workmaster.” It is a one of the most amicable compromises between faith and reason that I have personally read, and one worthy of emulation in spirit if not in particulars.
                If you are interested in checking out Mr. Gosse's maligned classic for yourself, the full text is available on Project Gutenberg, complete with its excellent woodblock images of flora and fauna.

"We have no experience in the creation of worlds."

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