The antiquity of these rock-pools, and the infinite succession of the soft and radiant forms, sea-anemones, seaweeds, shells and fishes, which had inhabited them, undisturbed since the creation of the world, used to occupy my Father’s fancy. We burst in, he used to say, where no one had ever thought of intruding before; and if the Garden of Eden had been situate in Devonshire, Adam and Eve, stepping lightly down to bathe in the rainbow-coloured spray, would have seen the identical sights that we now saw,–the great prawns gliding like transparent launches, anthea waving in the twilight its thick white waxen tentacles, and the fronds of the duke faintly streaming on the water like huge red banners in some reverted atmosphere.
Ch V1 Father and Son – Edmund Gosse 1907
Philip Gosse was a self educated scientist, whose writing, illustration and public speaking made him the David Attenborough of his day. He was born in 1810 and raised by the sea in Poole. Two years after leaving school at the age of 15, Gosse sailed for Newfoundland to work in a counting house. Over the next seven years and throughout his subsequent travels, in Quebec, Alabama and Jamaica, he embarked on a systematic study of natural history.
He compiled journals wherever he went, which he filled with detailed illustrations.
With the help of his cousin, Thomas Bell, who worked alongside Charles Darwin, Gosse obtained an introduction to the publisher John Van Voorst and the first of his many books, “The Canadian Naturalist” was published in 1840.
In 1843 he joined the Hackney Brethren, a small sect who subscribed to a “Utopian dream of a Christian Socialism.” They thought that Christ’s return, the apocalypse and last judgement would happen in 1867, a belief not uncommon at that time. After the resurrection of the elect, this world would become as it was in the days of Adam, a natural paradise (whose echo and promise, Gosse witnessed in the beauty of butterflies, lizards and flowers).
He married a member of the Brethren, Emily Bowes in 1848 and his son, Edmund was born within a year.
One of the happiest periods in his life coincided with his first visit to Ilfracombe in 1852.
It was here that he gathered the materials for “A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast” a book that sparked a craze for marine biology across Great Britain. The sensual prose, full of heat, light, scents and tastes, was a passport to an undiscovered Eden within reach of a society exhausted by industrial revolution.
The ocean’s combination of otherness, proximity and overwhelming importance provided the perfect setting for his idiosyncratic fusion of science and religion.
One reader of Gosse’s books, Charles Darwin, while praising his research, said that he would have preferred more theory to structure and interpret the observations.
Darwin never publicly questioned the Church, referred to the creator in his writing and insisted after publication of “On the Origin of Species” that his theory of evolution did not preclude the existence of God, However his own faith had been extinguished when his ten year old daughter, Annie, died in 1851.
Darwin may well have skipped the religious passages of “A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast,” but his attention would have been gripped by the most influential section of the book, which gave details on how to construct a tank “made wholly of plate-glass to allow distinct vision in every part”. Gosse later found out that he was not the first person to invent this apparatus, but it was he who popularized the new invention and coined a new word “Aquarium” to describe what was soon to become a common feature in drawing rooms across the country.
Gosse responded to Darwin’s request for further information, provided a recipe for manufacturing artificial sea water and helped him to set up his own aquarium. He assisted Darwin in experiments which investigated the possibility of species crossing oceans, seeing whether seeds still germinated after submersion in salt water. In one letter Darwin asks Gosse to see whether seeds or molluscs will stick to a bird’s foot, hitching a ride around the world to colonize new environments.
In subsequent books “The Aquarium” (1854) and the shorter updated volume “A Handbook to the Marine Aquarium” (1855) Gosse whipped up enthusiasm for his pet project and unwittingly began a process of destruction that he would later regret.
People began to visit the coast in increasing numbers in order to take and identify specimens, which they either put into collecting jars where they died – or took them back to their new aquariums where they took longer to die. An army of merchants catered for the increasing demand for stock and made good money. One businessman, Marcus Samuel, later diversified but continued to deal in natural resources. The name of the global oil company “Shell” is a reminder of the increase in sales that kick started his company’s expansion.
Emily Gosse was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1856 and died on Feb 9 1857. Shortly afterwards Philip wrote a memoir, which described in detail, the hideous operations that occurred on a daily basis from Oct 11 to Dec 17, 1856.
Emily and Philip had asked God for guidance in selecting an effective and painless course of treatment.
“The treatment we selected was the one, which in this particular case, He saw really best for us……
After much tribulation, through great agony of body, was her spirit made ripe for glory”
God had chosen a treatment that did not help Emily recover, but whose torments prepared her for paradise. Gosse contrasted his wife’s suffering with her future happiness.
“It was an unspeakable mitigation of her sorrow in the thought of parting (nor hers alone) that she could look forward to a speedy approach of the revelation of Jesus in the air, and our gathering unto him.”
Emily, like Philip believed that in a few years at most, Christ would return to judge the living and the dead. After the resurrection, she would walk again alongside her husband and their son Edmund. The world would be as it was when the first wave broke over Adam’s feet and Eve saw for the first time, fish gliding with their shadows across pools of sunlit water.
In the months following his wife’s death, Gosse made a determined effort to eliminate the threat that his scientific work posed to the accuracy of the information contained within the Bible, information that made it possible to predict the exact date of Emily’s resurrection.
While Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” had yet to be published, “The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” had already introduced the idea that the variety of plants and animals we see around us have evolved from simple life forms. This book was popular and widely discussed. In addition, Gosse would have read Wallace’s paper, delivered to the Linnean Society in 1855, which showed that when a new species comes into existence, it does so co-incident in space and time with a pre-existing, closely allied species.
Gosse spent his days tracing similarities and small differences between organisms, seeing for himself on a daily basis, how one organism might have evolved into another. He made additions to the Linnaean classification system of life, which little by little, by showing the pathways between one species and another, was drawing mankind into the generality of animated nature.
Gosse’s “attempt to untie the geological knot” was published in 1857 as “Omphalos”
His theory rested upon the consequence of Adam having been created fully grown, with adult bones, hair, teeth and an “omphalos” – the classical term for a belly button.
“If you had been present in Eden twenty minutes after Adam’s creation, you would have observed his navel, a scar left from a birth that never happened. In his digestive tract would have been the remains of a meal he had not eaten two hours before. His feet would have had calluses from walks he had never taken. A nearby tree, cut down, would have shown real rings of unreal years of growth”
Every plant and animal in the Garden of Eden would contain evidence of a history that must have occurred before time began.
Therefore, even the geological record that contained fossils of simple organisms in earlier rock formations and complex species in more recent strata could, according to his “Omphalos” theory, have been created simultaneously.
The reaction by his scientific friends is described in “Father and Son”, the biography written by his son, Edmund. After the book’s publication, Phillip Gosse lived “in a fever of suspense” and waited for the gratitude that was his due for reconciling scripture with science. He waited in vain. He would have known that certain members of the scientific community could never accept his ideas but had believed that religion would welcome his findings and hoped that open-minded scientists would recognize the logic of his thesis. Even his friend the Rev. Charles Kingsley, who Gosse had assumed would support him, wrote to tell him that he could not bring himself to believe “that god had written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie.”
Gosse found it difficult to recover from his “amazement at having offended everybody by an enterprise which had been undertaken in the cause of universal reconciliation.”
The book produced an effect that was the exact opposite of its intended purpose. The thoroughness with which it demonstrated that the Omphalos theory was only possible way in which the new scientific discoveries could be consistent with the account of creation given in Genesis, assisted the cause of those who argued that the Old Testament was not an account of historical events.
Kingsley’s reaction after the publication of “On the Origin of Species” – that it was “just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development” and ”It was more remarkable that He can make all things make themselves” was ultimately more in keeping with the spirit of the age.
Gosse continued to correspond with Darwin and to quote his work on marine biology with approval. It is possible that they met in 1861 when Darwin visited Torquay although there is no record of their meeting. The two men shared a passion for orchids. Gosse had settled near Torquay in St Marychurch in 1857 and remained there for the rest of his life. Darwin was in Torquay to work on his book on the fertilization of orchids and praised Gosse’s powers of observation in this sphere.
Although Gosse continued his scientific work, published papers and produced some of his finest paintings, his last book for the general public “A Year at the Shore” came out in 1865. The book ends with a palinode. He quotes lines from the end of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner :
“He prayeth best who loveth best
All things, both great and small”
which he castigates as a sentiment as silly as it is unscriptural and remarks that if the intense study of nature were enough to bring a sinful man into the presence of God, then there would have been no need of Christ’s crucifixion.
He died in 1888 and is now remembered, if at all, through his son’s biography which includes a vivid account of a child’s reaction to the claustrophobic and terrifying aspect of his father’s fundamentalist Christianity.
Peter Stiles is a Devon based artist & writer. His ‘Vivarium’ project can be seen at various locations in Devon in 2009.