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A-Z of thought: Umbilicus

Sam Berry

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A placenta attached to a mother's womb is the way a prenatal child receives its sustenance. At birth, the baby begins to breath and for the rest of his or her life will join the rest of us and feed through its mouth. The placenta has done its job, and can be discarded. The connection between mother and child (the umbilical cord) is cut, leaving a scar - one's tummy button, or more formally, the umbilicus or (in Greek) the omphalos.  We all have an omphalos, a mark of our beginnings as an individual.

But has everyone always had an omphalos? In 1857 (two years before the Origin of Species appeared), Philip Henry Gosse published a 376 page book entitled Omphalos, questioning whether Adam had one.  Gosse was a distinguished marine biologist, the David Attenborough of his day, and a friend of Charles Darwin. He was also a devout Christian, a founding Plymouth Brother, and a regular preacher. Gosse's understanding of the Bible was that evolution was not God's way of creating animal life. If Adam was truly the first man (and Paul is explicit about that in the Epistle to the Romans), he would not have had a human mother and therefore would never had need of an umbilical cord. On the other hand, if Adam was really typical of all humankind, he must have had a body like ours - complete with his umbilicus. In fact the umbilicus issue was really part of a more serious problem for Gosse: how could he reconcile the Bible with the growing knowledge of the fossil record and its implication that creation was much older than a few thousand years? The sub-title of Omphalos is An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot.

Gosse agonized. He eventually concluded that God must have created a world "as if" it was old - trees with annual growth rings as if they had been living for many years, animals with worn teeth as if they had had many years of eating behind them, even fossil faeces (He wrote about the last, "It may seem at first sight ridiculous, and will probably be represented so; but truth is truth... If the principle is true, that the created organism was exactly what it would have been had it reached the condition by the ordinary course of nature, then faecal residue must have been in the intestines, as certainly as blood in the capillaries"). And on this basis, Adam must have had an umbilicus.

Gosse believed he had reconciled science with biblical understanding. He wrote, "The acceptance of the principles presented in this volume... would not in the least degree, affect the study of scientific geology....the duration [of time before creation] was projected in the mind of God, and not really existent." But seemed to have convinced only himself. It was generally agreed that the God of the Bible is not an illusionist, seeking to confuse reality. Gosse was ridiculed. Most copies of his book were pulped. Adam's umbilicus failed to become a subject for theological debate.

Philip Gosse tends to be remembered nowadays largely because of his son Edmund's scabrous and inaccurate memoir, Father and Son. But the Omphalos episode has a useful moral. Gosse was too good a biologist to misapply science; but he was also too wedded to a particular hermeneutic to contribute helpfully to the science-faith dialogue. Sadly, science-deniers and over-dogmatic expositors are still with us and are still muddying the dialogue. We need to take to heart the words of Francis Bacon reproduced on the title page of the Origin of Species, "Let no man … think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both."

R J Berry