Today, a silly question about Adam's navel paves
the way for evolution. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Stephen Jay Gould talks
about the problem early artists faced when they
painted Adam and Eve. Should they portray them with
or without navels? Adam was molded from spit and
clay and Eve from Adam's rib. They weren't born of
woman, so how could they have navels? Yet they'd
look pretty silly without them. Artists often
dodged the question by extending fig leaves over
the lower belly.
That may sound foolish, but it took on huge
significance in the 19th century. Just before
Darwin, geologists began seeing a world far older
than Adam written in fossils and geologic
structures. Suddenly, all this history before the
Creation! Navels suggested only that Adam had a
history before he was created. Now these geologic
remains suggested that Earth itself existed --
alive and changing -- long before the biblical
In 1857 a fundamentalist scientist, Philip Henry
Gosse, addressed the matter. He published a great
treatise: Ompholos: An Attempt to Untie the
Geological Knot. (That was only two years
before Darwin completely changed the conversation
about biblical literalism with his Origin of
Species.) Gould calls Gosse, "the finest
descriptive naturalist of his day." And
ompholos, of course, is Greek for
navel. Did Adam have a navel, asked Gosse? Sure he
Gosse went on to list other figurative navels. The
teeth of an adult hippopotamus, for example, are
worn down to a chisel shape. Hippos aren't born
that way, but they'd be in serious trouble if they
didn't get there as they matured. They wouldn't
even be able to close their mouths. So did God
create adult hippos with fresh unground teeth? No,
of course not.
Gosse looked at the fossil record. It proclaimed a
world with a very long history -- much older than
hippos' teeth, much older than Adam and Eve. Gosse
said that God had created a world with a built-in
history -- just plopped it down, history and all.
But it was history that hadn't really happened.
Still, Gosse said, that history is worth studying
and understanding nevertheless, because God put it
there. Naturally logic like that cooked Gosse's
goose. He left us with a huge looping tautology.
His deep error, writes Gould, occurred when he
wrote that the question of history made no
practical difference. Gosse plainly said that a
created world and an evolved world would both look
exactly the same.
In the end, Gosse had made the scientific search
for reality into a great cosmic joke. At best God
had deceived us. At worst, nothing was worth
knowing anyway. After that, we were ready to quit
messing with specious logic and to take the fossil
record seriously, We were ready to allow that Adam
had a navel after all, along with all his forbears.
After Gosse, we were ready for Darwin.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds