What did Adam and Eve never have, yet they gave two of them to each of their children?
—Old children’s riddle
A classic example of an untestable theory to explain nature was the “Omphalos” hypothesis of Philip Henry Gosse. He was a well-respected naturalist in early nineteenth-century England who had written best-selling books about natural history. He was also a very devout member of a Puritanical sect called the Plymouth Brethren. As a good naturalist, Gosse was finding more and more evidence that life had evolved (long before Darwin), but as a Biblical literalist, he felt obligated to follow creationism. Gosse resolved his problems by publishing Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot in 1857, just two years before Darwin’s book was published. The curious title omphalos means “bellybutton” or “navel” in Greek, and refers to the common theological conundrum of the day: if Adam and Eve were specially created and did not have human parents (and therefore no umbilical cord), did they have a navel or bellybutton? Many religious artists avoided this issue by painting Adam and Eve with a fig leaf not only over their genitalia, but also over their midriffs. Gosse’s answer was yes, of course Adam and Eve had navels. According to Gosse, God created nature to look as if it had a history, to look as if it had evolved, but in reality it was created quite recently. In order for the world to be “functional” God would have created the earth with mountains and canyons, with trees that have growth rings, and with Adam and Eve with a navel. No evidence that indicates the presumed age of the earth or events in the past can be taken at face value. In this manner, Gosse felt that he had solved his own dilemmas about the fact that nature appears to have evolved, yet this solution allowed him to retain his creationist beliefs.
Naturally, an idea as bizarre as this didn’t go over very well with most religious people of the time, since it implies that God created a fake world and makes God into a deceiver, not a benevolent deity. His son, Edmund Gosse, wrote in Father and Son (1907), “He offered it, with a glowing gesture, to atheists and Christians alike… But alas! Atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away . . . even Charles Kingsley, for whom my father had expected the most instant appreciation, wrote that he could not … ‘believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie.’”
More importantly, it is a classic example of a completely unfalsifiable theory of the world. No observation could ever prove it wrong, since everything looks as if it evolved, but it was just created to look that way! As described by Martin Gardner (1952), “Not the least of its remarkable virtues is that while it won not a single convert, it presented a theory so logically perfect, and so in accordance with geological facts that no amount of scientific evidence will ever be able to refute it.” Some philosophers have argued that all of reality is an illusion, and it is perfectly logical to suggest that the world was created a few minutes ago, with everyone having memories of a past that doesn’t exist. Any memories you might have of the past were created in your head when you were created, just as the fossils were placed in the rocks to look as if they were from the ancient past. This idea is nicknamed “Last Thursdayism” by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell, as in “the world might have been created last Thursday—how would we know the difference?” Of course, this idea is just as untestable as Gosse’s original hypothesis.
Gosse had high hopes that his ideas would resolve the growing divide between natural history and religion, but he was ignored or ridiculed, and just two years later, Darwin’s book came out and made his ideas irrelevant. Gosse ended up an embittered old man, whose natural history books were no longer important in a Darwinian world. His troubled later years were vividly described by his son, Edmund Gosse, whose famous biography Father and Son (1907) is considered a classic of its genre.
One would think that such a bizarre and untestable idea, which was rejected and ridiculed even by the religious and devout in the days before Darwin, would never be revived. But modern creationists have brought in their own versions of the “Omphalos” hypothesis. When young-earth creationists are confronted with evidence that shows that galaxies are millions of light-years away, and their light is just reaching us after millions of years, they say that God created the universe as it is with the light from those galaxies already on the way! This seems like an extreme form of pretzel logic in order to explain away an inconvenient fact and salvage their cherished hypothesis.
The “Omphalos” story, however, raises an important point about our models of the world. If we want them to make sense and not violate what we have learned about nature, we have to be true to the conclusions to which nature leads us. We cannot twist and bend our explanations into pretzels like the “Omphalos” hypothesis just to save some cherished belief.