PHILIP HENRY GOSSE


(Philip Gosse) was not only a many-sided and experienced naturalist, but one who did more than all his scientific contemporaries to popularize the study of natural objects.  B. Brady.

Upon, within, and deep underneath the broad blue waters, thrive countless creatures of many forms and sizes: from the tiny plankton that are tossed by the heaves of the seas and the more than twenty thousand varieties of salt-water fish to giant whales and the benthos of the nether world which are strange beings that have lived and died for eons in the pitch darkness of ocean depths. Snails and sponges, starfish and seaweed, and a thousand other variety of life-forms have evolved in the aquatic haven of our planet earth. Indeed, our very origins may be traced to the primordial oceanic soup where complex molecules, instigated by warmth and lightning and heaven knows what other stimulants, combined to create the first palpitations of terrestrial life, leading eventually to what we regard as the glorious climax of all that live: ourselves. Or, at least, so it seems to current science.

Since very ancient times people have been struck by the beauty and richness of aquatic  creatures. They built pools and ponds to cultivate, observe, and appreciate them. We see fish in Egyptian frescoes and also in the flags of ancient kings. In Hindu mythic vision the Divine is said to have incarnated once in the form of a fish.

In the the nineteenth century the idea of modern aquariums: glass-walled enclosures through which we can see swimming creatures emerged. Today there are hundreds of aquariums all over the world  that house and nourish thousands of fish, crustaceans, amphibians, even some mammals. Many people have fish tanks in their homes.

One of the pioneers in this endeavor – indeed the who propagated the aquarium hobby – was Philip Henry Gosse (born: 6 April 1810). His dedication led to the opening of the first public aquarium at the London Zoo on 17 December 1853. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History came about a couple of years later. Gosse coined the word by shortening aquatic vivarium.

Gosse was an English naturalist who worked for a while at a whaler’s office in Newfoundland, taught in Alabama, and collected natural history specimens from Jamaica. He had a fascination for marine life, and the keen eye of an observational scientist. Stephen Jay Gould described Gosse as “the finest descriptive naturalist of his day.” Aside from scientific articles on natural history,  Gosse wrote a detailed account of marine life in a book called  Manual of Marine Zoology. His other books included Evenings at the Microscope, and A Year at the Shore.  

Philip Gosse described Natural History thus: “That alone is worthy to be called Natural history which investigates and records the condition of living things, of things in a state of nature; … (Natural history) tells of their sayings and doings, their varied notes and utterances and songs and cries, their actions in ease and under pressure of circumstances…” Obviously he had great love for all creatures great and small.

With all that, when it came to theorizing in science, he was embarrassingly pre-modern. This was because he was handicapped by unswerving allegiance to a fundamentalist group which was committed to actions and attitudes governed by a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. The members of this well-meaning religious group were unwilling or unable to accept anything in the Bible as symbolism or allegory, except for the parables. They have their like-minded cousins in all religious traditions where people subscribe to legendary/puranic accounts of how creatures came to be. One may empathize with some of them and respect them for some of their beliefs, but some of the ardent subscribers of literal scriptural interpretations have to feared for when and where they come to power, the lives of dissidents are usually in peril. Theocracy (which is one-party government by self-appointed spokespersons for God) brooks no dissent. Philip Gosse admitted frankly: “If any choose to maintain, as many do, that species were gradually brought to their maturity from humbler forms… he is welcome to his hypothesis, but I have nothing to do with it.”

So, the otherwise intelligent Gosse authored a book called Omphalos in which he argued with a straight face that fossils and other evidences for a much older earth were illusions, pure and simple, generated by God who is playing a big joke on fossil-mongers and evolutionists. Thus Adam had not only an apple in his throat, but a navel (omphalos, as it is called in Greek) too, as Eve also did, even if they really didn’t have a biological birth in which case alone a navel becomes relevant. Just as Adam’s navel was a make-believe to delude us into the suspicion that  he had a mother, when in fact this was not the case, the fossils were there just to give us the impression that very ancient creatures once lived and died. Some theologians were offended by such a proposition because it implies that God is a Prankster at best and a Deceiver at worst.  Scientists scoff at this idea which, incidentally, is taken seriously by some anti-evolutionists even today. But one must grant that it is logically irrefutable. Herein lies the strength of unfalsifiable theories: they can’t be shown to be wrong, nor right. On the principle that anything is possible, especially if it is God’s work, scientists have to say, “Yes, of course,” and resume their more serious pursuits.

That such a good naturalist as Gosse could come up with the proposition that Adam and Eve were not only there as first Man and Woman, but also sported belly-buttons which were utterly uncalled for, only to mislead us shows to what extent reasonable people can rise or descend to defend what they regard as unshakable Truths in their holy books.

With all that we may still recall the name of Philip Gosse for his contribution to human culture. He is not the first one to have done something positive in science even while entertaining beliefs that are unscientific, if not laughable. After all, Newton believed in Biblical chronology and took alchemy seriously. Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, subscribed to the four-element theory of the ancient Greeks. Charles Darwin had a low opinion of the people of Africa.

It is important to recognize that we are all conditioned by the dominant thought currents of our times, as also by the fundamental convictions that give meaning to our lives. This is not to justify untenable beliefs and silly superstitions, but to remind ourselves that none of us has a firm hold on all the truths.

April 6, 2016

 

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