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Bellybuttons and Testable science

by Donald Prothero, Oct 09 2013

What did Adam and Eve never have, yet they gave two of them to each of their children?

Answer: parents

—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.

33 Responses to “Bellybuttons and Testable science”

  1. Otto Mäkelä says:

    Another problem with this line of reasoning is that it logically reduces to last thursdayism.

  2. WScott says:

    The fact that it’s unfalsifiable isn’t a problem from a theological viewpoint, since they don’t see falsifiability as necessary. (I’m not agreeing with that view, just pointing it out.) The more troubling part is what it implies about the nature of their God. God becomes either a trickster who likes to yank us around, or else He genuinely wants us to behave as if the world evolved naturally over billions of years. If the latter is true, then belief in creationism becomes actively irrelevant even from a theological perspective.

  3. Mike Gleason says:

    Isn’t there also some silly line of reasoning among creationists regarding Adam and Eve having “ultra-pure” DNA so that humanity didn’t quickly devolve from inbreeding?

    • Yes, I’ve heard something along those lines, because the creationists get tangled in knots when they have to answer the question of incest and where did Cain get his wife if he was only one of three humans on the planet.

    • Justin Case says:


      How do you explain away the inbreeding problem?

      Did a large herd of humans come into existence through process of evolution at precisely the same time? What’s the statistical probability of that?

      In fact, what’s the statistical probability that two humans of opposite sex would evolve at precisely the same time. Because if one gender came into being without the other being present, the age of man would have been over.

      • I see we have a Ray Comfort-following creationist troll in our midst! FYI, men and women didn’t evolve separately–like any natural species, there are populations of males and females that change their gene frequencies through time. Homo erectus and several other species lived on this planet in populations ranging from Africa to China to Java as early as 1.6 million years ago. We have well-dated fossils in all those places that demonstrate this. Some of the populations of Homo evolved to have our characteristics (smaller brow ridges, larger cranial capacity, smaller canines) and by 100,000 years ago we have fossils of both males and females of archaic Homo sapiens in South Africa and several other places–and an excellent fossil record of a variety of species of Homo (H. neanderthalis, plus the Flores people and the Denisovans) ever since. SO there was NEVER a time when human populations didn’t include a balance of males and females, any more than any other natural population in the geologic past.
        SO before you pollute this blog with any more ignorant statements from the idiocy of ignorant people like Ray Comfort, I suggest you read up on biology and anthropology, and not waste our time with these ridiculous misconceptions of how evolution works. Even more, if you REALLY want to know what your BIble says, I suggest you learn to read it in Hebrew as I did, and you will be SHOCKED at what it really says, and why no one who can read it in the original takes it literally.

      • markx says:

        Justin Case says: October 11, 2013 at 4:09 pm

        …… the inbreeding problem?
        ……what’s the statistical probability that two humans of opposite sex would evolve at precisely the same time?…

        Amazing questions, but they did prompt me to realize some have not tried to think through the process and likely events of natural selection.

        The main point to note is that new species do not spring complete from an ancestor species and continue on their merry way.

        Imagine some Primitive Ancestors Of Man (shall we call them PAOM?)living, surviving and reproducing in some benign ecosystem somewhere. At some stage, perhaps via a genetic mutation, is born an offspring with a Slightly Bigger Brain (SSB PAOM). In that benign environment which so well suits the PAOM, this turns out to be neither an advantage, nor a disadvantage, so the SSB PAOM grows up, mates with other PAOM, reproduces, and life and death goes on. His offspring likewise grow up, and as generations pass, mate and reproduce with other PAOM, gradually diluting out the SSB PAOM genes.

        In time the SSB PAOM genes would probably vanish and little evidence would be left of this strange little chromosomal mutation, except an ecological disaster occurs (volcanic eruption, drought, or cold etc), the harsh environment now does not favour survival, and the PAOM start to die out. ….. except that those with SSB PAOM genes (perhaps the bigger brain favours social co-operation, ability to plan ahead, better hand manipulation skills, etc) tend to survive at a greater rate than the others.

        Over time in this harsher environment there occurs a process of breeding and selection; those with more SSB PAOM genes tend to get the chance to pass these genes on, those with less, not so much.

        Eventually, the newer genetic type predominates, and when the environment eventually reverts to its original benign state, this now favours the rapid population growth of the now predominant (or perhaps exclusively surviving) SSB PAOM.

        Multiply that by a few more mutations and bottle necks over millions of years, and you can perhaps visualize how homo sapiens came to exist.

      • markx says:

        …and to pursue the “ultra-pure” DNA line of thought (Mike Gleason says: October 9, 2013 at 11:54 am):

        The problems of inbreeding are simply that closely related parents are far more likely both be carrying a copy of any particular gene which has been damaged in their ancestral past. Obviously this must have been a reasonably recessive or minor gene which was damaged, or that genetic line would not have continued.

        But, when BOTH parents pass on a damaged copy, the normal function of that gene is simply not available in the offspring, and an ‘abnormality’ is observed.

        So yes, this theorized ‘pure’ DNA would certainly negate the problems of inbreeding.

      • markx says:

        Speaking of early humans and brain size:

        Some 1.8 million year old homo erectus skulls found in Europe. A braincase capacity of 1/3 that of modern humans dating back to only 1.8 million years ago.

        Skull discovery sheds light on human species.

        Researchers have discovered the first complete skull of an adult early hominid, the class of apes that would eventually give rise to modern humans.


    • Douglas J. Bender says:

      And what, exactly, is “silly” about the claim that God created Adam and Eve without mutations in their DNA? I mean, if they WERE the first created humans, then Evolution itself would imply that they had no mutations initially, since mutations accumulate over time.

      And, given this, why wouldn’t incest then NOT result in malformed offspring, for at least several generations? And if preventing malformed offspring is the (at least main) reason for prohibiting incest, then there would be no need to prohibit incest for at least the first several generations. Genetics itself, from a purely scientific perspective, supports this.

      Now, how about dealing with the science and facts, and skip the gratuitous and juvenile attacks?

      • Mike Gleason says:

        Ha, ha, ha. You don’t even have any notion of what “pure” DNA even means. That’s because it doesn’t have any meaning. Mutations aren’t just bad, they’re the reason more complex levels of life evolve through (non-random) natural selection. To say man had some sort of ultra-pure DNA means we would not, even now, have any non-functioning evolutionary DNA. Surely you’re not proposing that nonsense are you?

  4. Loren Petrich says:

    Philip Gosse tried to argue that his theory was not a theory of divine fraudulence. He believed that the Universe goes in cycles, and that it had to be created in the middle of its cycles. Thus, it had to be created with the appearance of great age.

    He was very knowledgable, and he stuffed his magnum opus with discussions of oodles of seeming evidence of the great age of the Earth. If he was writing today, he would have discussed in gory detail radiometric dating, Milankovitch cycles, molecular phylogeny, the light from stars and galaxies, Population I vs. II (younger vs. older) stars, main-sequence turn-off points in star clusters, quasars, the cosmic microwave background, …

  5. starskeptic says:

    Edmund Gosse died or your sins…

  6. Max says:

    “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.”

    I can’t think of any such painting.

    • tmac57 says:

      Yeah,I did a Google image search for Adam and Eve,and turned up no such painting.Maybe this is just an atheist urban legend.
      Oh well…sounded like a good story.

      • tmac57 says:

        I’ll quickly add that there probably IS such a painting or two out there somewhere,but I question that “Many religious artists” really applies here.

    • Max says:

      So an arts patron commissions a painting of angels. When the painting is unveiled, the patron is horrified, and yells at the painter, “Where have you ever seen angels wearing sneakers?!!”
      The painter shrugs. “Where have you ever seen angels not wearing sneakers?”

  7. larrythethird says:

    If we were created by a “god”, why would he let us waste all of this time and effort on all of these quack theories and ridiculous assumptions? In fact, I have a lot of questions about what a true god would allow his creations to waste time on.

    Anyway, a “god” would have already embedded the answers to all these questions into our consciousness, since he knows all. Why would he let us be without the knowledge of what our father has done?

    Yeah, yeah. You get that forbidden fruit, tree of knowledge story. But the greatest gift a father can bestow upon his children is the knowledge of his experiences. Doesn’t the bible say “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; Teach a man how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”? No it doesn’t.

    That’s why knowledge comes from scientific methods and not camp fires songs. But I do like a cold beer with my camp fire songs.

    • uhhh says:

      devils advocate:

      why would god care? he is all powerful and we are his playthings. maybe he wanted us to figure it out. if i created a robot, i don’t think i would give it all the knowledge humanity has acquired, it may use that knowledge to kill me.

  8. laursaurus says:

    I don’t understand how they got Adam and Eve to pose for that portrait. This painting should not be treated as factual evidence that humans were created with belly buttons.
    Why do I need to explain this to a brilliant scientist like yourself?

    • tmac57 says:

      I hope you are jesting,but if not it’s just a metaphor for the bigger question of what science tells us about the age of the earth.(Did I just get Poe’d?)

  9. levinjf says:

    When the first man went into space–Yuriy Gagarin–Khrushchev assured the world that he did not see God up there, and therefore the official atheism of the USSR was corroborated. Sometimes the arguments of the village atheists are as silly as those of creationists. This column is an example. I have no doubt that Augustine or Acquinas could easily flick away this point.

    • Emma Sunningford says:

      Augustine and Aquinas may have been bright (for their day), but they were unable to think the consequences of their postulates through.
      As such, your assertion that they would flick this point away, isn’t just standard bad reasoning, as you lay the burden of making your counterpoint on someone who will never do so, which of course convinces no one, but exceptionally bad reasoning.
      Because we both know that Augustine and Aquinas really would have flicked away the point… but only to their own satisfaction. To the rest of us, the flaws would have been glaring.

  10. Justin Case says:

    Where’s the problem?

    A dog isn’t born with antlers, is it?


    Because antlers aren’t in a dog’s DNA.

    Adam and Eve had navels or bellybuttons because their DNA would create those that followed. Their DNA would produce offspring consistent with Adam & Eve’s likenesses. If Adam & Eve didn’t have navels or bellybuttons, their offspring likely wouldn’t have any either.

    • Apparently, you didn’t understand the point of the post. If God created Adam and Eve with bellybuttons, it implies that the either had a mother and were attached by umbilical cords (not in the Bible), or they were created to LOOK as if they had a mother and umbilical cords–which makes God a great deceiver. That the exact reason most creationists rejected Gosse’s viewpoint in his lifetime–except for creationists like you who just don’t get it.

      • Anon says:

        I think you’ve missed the obvious rebuttal.

        Assume that god creates in six days with the appearance of age, either for his own artistic purposes, or because it is necessary to provide the right initial and boundary conditions to make the diffEQs work, or for some other reason.

        Suppose further that he provides commentary that explicitly says, “Made in six days.”

        He then is not a deceiver. He’s simply an artist not being listened to.

        Please understand, that’s not an argument for the position. But I don’t think your article takes on the best possible arguments. It assumes that creation with appearance of age is deception, when there is no reason to assume so.

    • Borny says:

      Belly Buttons are not genetically determined, they are scars formed due to the attachment of the umbilical cord. Differences in belly button shape are used to distinguish between identical twins. Thus your argument falls flat.

  11. Scott says:

    Jorge Luis Borges wrote an essay on the Omphalos hypothesis, in which he referred to its “monstrous elegance.” Great phrase — I’m always looking for an excuse to work it into a conversation.

  12. Robbie616 says:

    I read a lot of pop science (Hawking, Brian Green, etc.), and of course I’m confident that the Creationists are just, well, wrong, but also it seems to me that the Universe could be broader than we can imagine. However, I don’t read Hebrew, and at my age I’m not going to learn it, so I would really be interested in what you were talking about when you mentioned reading the Bible “in the original”.

  13. Clair says:

    The kids’ tale is that the navel is where God poked each baby to see if they were done, like with dinner rolls in the oven. This article seems to assume something similar – that the navel is impressed in the child by the mother’s body.

    Could it not equally be argued that the navel is inherent in the child’s DNA and that it attracts connection from the mother’s tissues? If Eve were created with no navel, from where would her children inherit that trait?

  14. Clair says:

    And, if Eve had a navel that had never connected to a placenta, what would such a virgin navel look like? Thus the artists’ conundrum.

  15. Pete Attkins says:

    Had Adam & Eve not sinned they would have remained unaware of being naked and lacked the carnal desires necessary to create offspring.

    I’ve always thought it odd that the Garden of Eden lacked showers, wash basins, toilets, and a library of interesting books. The omission of a few science books plus one on critical thinking skills was a tragic oversight that we are still trying to correct today (without much success, it would appear).