Creation/Evolution Journal

The Return of the Navel

The Return of the Navel, the "Omphalos" Argument in Contemporary Creationism
Reviewed by
Robert Price

Surely one of the most bizarre efforts to defend biblical creationism was that of Philip Gosse in his nineteenth century work Omphalos. The word is Greek for "navel," and the book addressed itself to the old biblical stumper, "did Adam have a bellybutton?" Why should he, if he were created, ex nihilo, as an adult? Gosse contended that Adam indeed had a navel and that he was not alone. For though God created the world in 4000 B. C., a la Genesis, he created it with simulated signs of age and development. This meant that all evidence of evolution, biological or otherwise, could be safely ignored by creationists.

Such an argument is probably unfamiliar to most people, even those who have followed the creation-evolution debate It is now rarely, if ever, used. Instead, fundamentalist debaters tend to concentrate on debunking evolutionary theory with appeals to its allegedly fatal flaws. After all, how seriously could they expect to be taken if they appealed to a logical circle like the "omphalos" argument? Yet, I contend, this old rationalization underlies much of their allegedly "evidential" polemic. I will go on to consider "scientific" creationism in the light of Thomas Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions. Finally, I hope to show how, seen in the light of Kuhn's work, the creationist "navel" argument actually tends to argue for evolution instead of against it!

Does the Earth Merely Appear Old?

As already noted, Gosse's "omphalos" argument allowed him simultaneously to admit and dismiss all the biological and geological data for the great age of the earth and the evolution of life. He reasoned that if God were to create a functioning planet (a "going concern" as Martin Gardner puts it), he must have created it already "rolling." Understood this way, the creation might be compared to a movie, the first frame of which depicts an action scene. No sooner does the film start than a holdup or an air battle is already in progress!

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Now if the earth were born full-grown (like the legendary sage Lao-tzu, fully age 75 from the womb!), there must have been telltale signs of age, but the tale they told was false, at least fictitious. A flowing river (let us say, the Euphrates at the border of Eden—Genesis 2:14) from the first moment of its creation must have already possessed an alluvial deposit along its banks. But, strictly speaking, it was never deposited! So with Adam, who had the mark of an umbilical cord which never existed save in the mind of God. And so with the earth's crust, pregnant with fossils of strange life-forms which never walked the earth. All were created as if. Therefore, all those unbelieving biologists and geologists had actually gotten the story correct—the problem was they didn't realize it was only a story.

Why did this argument fail to attract any supporters, even among creationists? Simply because all (but Gosse) could see what extreme special pleading this was. Certainly it was all beyond disproof, but so was the Hindu claim that the world was maya (indeed a very similar claim!). For that matter, who could prove the world had not been created a mere ten minutes ago, with Gosse recalling his formulation of a theory he had never actually formulated? Alas, solipsism has never been very attractive—not even to modern scientific creationists who know too well that such an argument would get them laughed out of the courts and off the debating platforms.

Modern Creationists and the "Omphalos" Argument

Yet if one carefully examines creationist polemical literature, one is surprised to find this "recessive" argument has newly surfaced, though anonymously. A few brief examples will indicate the unacknowledged debt of "scientific" creationists to Gosse's hypothesis. A most obvious instance occurs in the 1973 work Science and Creation by William W. Boardman, Jr., Robert F. Koontz, and Henry M. Morris. In a discussion of astronomy and its implications for the age of the universe, the authors zero in on a trouble spot.

The Biblical record places the creation of the universe at ten thousand years or less in the past; whereas, the presently accepted distance scale held by astronomers measures the universe in billions of light years. If the light rays now reaching the earth were created in transit at the time of the creation of the stellar objects, they must have been created carrying information descriptive of historical physical events (such as super novae) which never actually occurred, because we would now be observing light rays which were created in transit and never were radiated from the stars which they seem to image. [p. 26].


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Less easy to recognize at first glance is the same book's approach to the question of geographical distribution. For instance, doesn't the dominance of marsupials in lonely Australia, together with their filling in of the same ecological niches as their non-marsupial counterparts on other continents (e.g., the existence of marsupial versions of the rat, woodchuck, bear, and dog) count in favor of evolution? In isolation from competition with more efficient placental mammals, the Australian forms seem to have evolved in parallel fashion to their far-off counterparts. Now what does creationism have to say of this phenomenon? Our authors hastily disclaim:

The general concept of world-wide dispersal of living things including ... limitation in migration by barriers and by diversification of isolated populations into related varieties or sometimes species is not disputed by creationists. [Nevertheless,] the creationist believes that the basic forms of marsupials were created like the basic stocks of mammals and that they survived in Australia because of lack of competition due to isolation. [p. 91]

To begin with, it is not at all clear the authors are actually denying what they think they are denying! They almost seem to be espousing in the name of "creationism" what really amounts to a "theistic evolutionary" view, that God "created" the various species by evolving them in the manner Darwin suggested. But since this would serve only to "refute" an opposing view by renaming it, we should look for an alternative meaning. In fact, the meaning seems to be that the processes which lead scientists to posit evolutionary speciation really do work as the scientists imagine them to, but God specially created the various marsupials despite appearances! Why did God impose such patterns in nature which lead naive scientists to so faulty a conclusion? Well, God just wanted it that way! Omphalos!

We can find the return of the navel implicit in some forms of the creationist attack on comparative anatomy and physiology too:

On the assumption of creation, it is reasonable that there would be resemblances between creatures and that these resemblances would be stronger between those creatures living in similar environments and with similar physiological functions to fulfill. One could hardly imagine any more probable an arrangement than now prevails, if the origin of all things actually were special creation. [Henry M. Morris, Evolution and the Modern Christian, p. 23].

What makes this or any other "arrangement" by a divine creator, "probable"? Couldn't God theoretically have made birds that swim instead of fly, whatever that might mean? Keep in mind that, as a fundamentalist, Morris believes in precisely such zoological marvels, for he envisions the day when "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 65:25).

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He must believe that before the time of Noah, carnivores created in Eden did not eat meat (Genesis 1:30). So anything goes, or should, in Morris' frame of reference. Nothing should be more "probable" than anything else since "with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37).

This is not mere carping. The point is that by talking in terms of what is "probable" given the earth's environmental conditions, Morris is quietly admitting the evolutionist's criterion of environmental "fitness." In other words, he recognizes the validity of the processes of evolution but merely short-circuits the whole business at the last minute by appealing to the prescientific notion of teleology. In other words, he grants it looks like creatures are fitted to survive in certain environments, and indeed they are. But this is because God arbitrarily wanted it that way! As a result, God framed a riddle which would seem to call for the solution of evolutionary biology (i.e., an explanation of how life-forms are fit for their environments). But instead, the answer is unrelated to the question. The answer is arbitrary fiat. God could have created grass-eating lions; he did in Eden, and will again in the Millennium! But, in between, he put us on a false trail by creating the interlocking web of life that suggested the theory of evolution. Omphalos!

One more example of this argument crops up in the creationist repudiation of human evolution, the "descent of man." Despite appearances, there wasn't any! The creationist, when he doesn't adopt the expedient of simply denying the existence of fossil "cave men," finds himself (and hopes no one else will find him) in an odd position. He cannot deny the rather obvious chain of creatures (let's not prejudice the case by calling them "pre-human ancestors") which start out looking like lemurs and monkeys, and end up looking more and more like humans. But there must be no admission that these are "transitional forms." Instead, they must be declared as extinct but independent life forms which just happen to look like they fall somewhere between monkey and man.

I am aware that there are other approaches taken by creationists, e.g., the "cave-men" were descendants of Noah corrupted by sin, or that all were merely deformed or arthritic individuals who coincidentally were the only survivors of their otherwise normal tribes, etc. But the first mentioned line of reasoning is repeated in the case of Eohippus and its kin . . . oops, one should say those others which seem to be, but must not be, its kin! The same with Archaeopteryx. Transitional forms they may seem, but the creationist knows better! Why do these fossils have the appearance of chains of development which never actually occurred? Omphalos!

Notice, please, that in none of these cases have the creationists explained the rationale of the omphalos argument as Gosse did. The creationists may not be aware of it themselves! But the implicit logic is the same-the evidence points in the direction of evolution, but that is because (for whatever reason) God simply wanted it that way.

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This is a throwback not only to Gosse's esoteric argument, but also to the prescientific shrugging off of such questions by the catch-all appeal to teleology. Why do birds fly south? Because they were made to do this. As Jacques Monod has observed, the notion of teleology is inimical to scientific inquiry, and has always served to nip it in the bud. How "scientific," then, can "scientific creationism" be? Let us pursue this question along a slightly different avenue for a moment. Then we will be in a position to recognize the final irony of the omphalos argument as it reflects on creationism as "science."

Will Creationists Revolutionize Science?

Creationists often assume the pose of righteous prophets crying in the wilderness, ignored by pharisaical "establishment" scientists. If only their voice of truth were heeded! We would have a scientific revolution! Thomas Kuhn, in his celebrated work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has drawn a compelling picture of the history of science involving a series of turnabouts just such as the fundamentalists anticipate. Now it is far from clear that the creationists are in reality the "scientific revolutionaries" in the scenario. But we will see that their polemical efforts are helpfully illuminated by Kuhn's schema, which will be briefly reviewed here.

Kuhn writes to correct the naive notion that the progress of science is simply the accumulation of new discoveries. No, while new empirical discoveries do occur, real movement in science comes when scientists accept a new "paradigm," a conceptual model in the light of which the same old data may be better understood. A scientist will notice certain troublesome data which the current paradigm cannot accommodate. Such data sticks out like a sore thumb, as it were. An example would be the retrograde motion of the planets in the Ptolemaic paradigm for astronomy. Everything else in the heavens moved like clockwork, and was tidily accounted for by Ptolemy, but a fantastic and elaborate series of "epicycles" (celestial wheels-within-wheels) was needed to make retrograde motion predictable. Copernicus was eventually to find this unsatisfactory. Could not some new paradigm be formulated that would deal more naturally, more economically, more inductively, with all the data, instead of dealing fairly with part of it and imposing contrivances on the rest? So Copernicus set to work and, going Archimedes one better, he moved the sun. He transferred it from the earth's periphery to the center of our orbit. Now everything seemed naturally explainable—no more epicycles. The lesson we are to learn from this brief history is that a scientific revolution occurs when somebody offers a new, more natural, way to construe the data. The new model must make economical sense of as much as possible of the data in its own right; it must make the most possible sense of it without reference to extraneous factors (e.g., invisible epicycles, dictated not by the evidence, but by the Ptolemaic model itself!).

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Though the model is imposed on the data by the theorist, he has derived the model from the suggestion of the evidence itself. It is like one of those puzzles where one must connect all the dots with the fewest possible lines.

On this basis, might the creationists be justified in expecting to usher in a new revolution in biology? How closely do their efforts match the pattern traced out by Kuhn? First we may observe that much (perhaps most) creationist literature concentrates on only half the job—pointing out epicycles. Creationists never tire of indicating troublesome data regarding the theory of evolution, data supposedly far more troublesome that evolutionists believe. Whether their claims are correct or not, creationists could expect no "scientific revolution," according to Kuhn's scenario, until they had supplied an alternative model capable of doing a better job. But insofar as they restrict their efforts to demolition, they are committing one of the most blatant of logical fallacies. They assume that there are but two options, and that one must be true. And, as if we were all playing "Let's Make a Deal," the elimination of evolution automatically vindicates creationism! Not so fast—Lamarck, Lysenko, and a host of other contestants are waiting backstage.

Our second observation is that when creationists occasionally do try positively to defend the elusive "creation model," they violate the necessary criterion of inductiveness. That is, a paradigm must be derived as much as possible from the data themselves, and as little as possible from outside considerations. But Duane T. Gish is forthright in his admission of where his model comes from; "a sound Biblical exegesis requires the acceptance of the catastrophist—recent creation interpretation of earth history. If this interpretation is accepted, the evolution model, of course, becomes inconceivable." [Evolution: The Fossils Say No!, p. 64.] Henry M. Morris is equally clear that "the general method of [Bishop] Ussher—that of relying on the Biblical data alone-is the only proper approach to determining the date of creation." [Evolution and the Modern Christian, p. 63.]

So the hidden agenda is revealed. After all, "There is nothing hid except to be made manifest" (Mark 4:22). The "scientific" creationists, it would seem, are closer to the Inquisition than to Galileo in whose footsteps they claim to follow. They begin with a biblical dogma imposed heavily on the data. It will put the efforts of creationists in proper perspective if we compare them to another famous school of pseudoscience, the offbeat astronomy of Immanuel Velikovsky. In fact the parallel is virtually exact.

Velikovsky reads in Exodus that the Nile turned red ("to blood"), and in American Indian myths that the sky once turned red. First he concludes that Mars once must have nearly collided with the earth; then he shuffles astronomy accordingly. In the same manner Gish and Morris discover in Genesis that the earth is merely thousands of years old with a six-day period of creation; then they practice ventriloquism with the data of geology and biology.

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In both instances, the dusty pages of ancient legend dictates in advance the results of scientific "research."

And thirdly, we must note the methodological outworking of this a priori dogmatism. With their "paradigm" thus derived from an entirely different quarter, it would seem the wildest stroke of luck if the data happened to conform spontaneously to the predetermined pattern. So it must be squeezed into place. With a skill well-developed in dealing with the contradictions found in the Bible, fundamentalists go to work harmonizing the data of science. Let us return momentarily to the deliberations of Morris et al. on the question of starlight. Listing other options besides the unvarnished "omphalos" approach, they point out that:

There are several possible approaches to the solution of this problem, each of which is worthy of careful study by creationists. Some propose that the distance scale represented by the Hubble constant which relates distance to observed red shift is greatly in error and that the distance scale should be drastically reduced . . . Another proposal made by creationist scientists is based upon the hypothesis made by Moon and Spencer in 1953, namely, that light travels not in Euclidean but in Riemannian curved space with a radius of curvature of five light years, so that no transit time could exceed 15.71 years. And a third proposal ... is that further study of the meaning of the scriptural terms . . . "[the heavens were] stretched out," etc., may give an understanding of how vast distances correlate with Biblical chronology. It is hoped that creationists may be able to gain a fuller understanding of this problem and attain a satisfactory solution in the near future. [Science and Creation, pp. 26-27].

What of the insistent claims that the "creation model" fits the data better than the evolution paradigm? For suddenly the data has become a "problem" requiring a "solution." Notice how various hypotheses are being preferred on the basis, not of their inherent cogency, but rather of how much aid and comfort they provide for the creation model. And this case is symptomatic of the dilemma of creationism in general. The model is prior to the data, and the latter will be coerced and manipulated in any fashion in order to fit the Procrustean bed of the former. Alas, the creation paradigm is almost all epicycle! Obviously, this is the very opposite of what we would expect if the creationist model were the harbinger of a new "scientific revolution."

Now, what is the bearing of the unannounced rehabilitation of Gosse's omphalos argument on all this? Remember that the tendency of the navel argument is always to admit implicitly that the evidence actually does favor evolution, but that it is misleading. Fortuitously, God merely "did it that way."

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In the original version, Gosse's, there were two possible explanations for this. Either God made it all look like evolution in order to test our faith (this was actually suggested by some fundamentalists in order to explain away dinosaur bones). Or, Gosse's own preference, God created the world as if the very real processes now observed in nature (e.g., alluvial deposit) had always been in operation, just so that the curtains could open on a fully set stage. In either case, every time the omphalos argument is invoked, even anonymously, creationists are admitting that they hold to their "new" paradigm despite the fact that the old paradigm (evolution) fits the data better!

Creationist arguments evolve as everything else does, reluctant though some are to admit it. And just as in biological evolution we occasionally run across cases of atavism, such a throwback reveals the origins of fundamentalist pseudoscience. No matter how much "scientific" creationists would like to forget that "black sheep of the family," the omphalos argument of Philip Gosse, now and then its characteristics reappear in the population. And when they do, we see what sort of animal we have been dealing with all along—not scientific theory but religious propaganda.

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