April 30, 2021 - 7:00am

Edwin Poots is the bookies’ favourite to be next leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, after Arlene Foster stepped down. Intriguingly, Poots is a young-Earth creationist: he is on record telling the BBC that the world is 6,000 years old. It makes me think of a man named Philip Henry Gosse.

In 1857, two years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Gosse published a book of his own. Gosse was a science writer of some renown, and a naturalist in his own right; a critic of slavery; and, marvellously, the inventor of the fish tank. He was also a lay preacher, and a deeply committed Christian, a member of the Plymouth Brethren.

The mid-19th century was a difficult time to be a Biblical literalist. Charles Lyell had published his Principles of Geology a quarter-century before, showing evidence from the Earth’s rocks that the world was many millions of years old, and shaped by the still ongoing processes of weathering, glaciation, volcanism and so on. Cuvier had argued that fossils demonstrated that species of animals had arisen and gone extinct, and Buffon and Lamarck showed that species changed and evolved; that the world was not now as it was, that God’s creation was not unchanging and eternal.

Gosse could not accept this. He wrote a book of his own, Omphalos, which – again marvellously – means “bellybutton”. It argued that, if God created Adam and Eve as fully real humans, they would have bellybuttons – scars from their mothers’ umbilical cords, even though they had no mothers. 

And, by analogy, when God created the world, he would have had to create a world which was rich and complete: so a tree at the dawn of creation “would display the marks of sloughed bark and fallen leaves, though it had never borne those leaves or that bark”, as his son Edmund prĂ©cised it later. Similarly, it would have geological strata millions of years old, and fossils buried in those strata. God created the universe recently, but made it look as though it was hundreds of millions of years old.

Omphalos was not a success. Christians were appalled at the idea of God as a deceiver: the Reverend Charles Kingsley described the book as “the first that ever made me doubt”. Scientists just thought it was silly. Most of the copies were pulped.

But the book is perfectly logically sound and consistent. If you want to accept the reality of scientific evidence — which Gosse, a scientific man, did — at the same time as believing in a recently created world, then to be coherent you need these contortions: God putting fossil foraminifera to make new-made rocks look old.

I don’t want to criticise someone for believing in false things — we all do that, and it’s not just the religious Right who do it with science. And you don’t necessarily need to have an accurate estimate of the age of the world to do good by your constituents.

But I find it fascinating. Does Poots, like Gosse, accept that fossils seem to be millions of years old, that there are zircons in the Jack Hills of western Australia that are 4.4 billion years old? Does he acknowledge that at night we are bathed in apparently ancient starlight from apparently ancient stars? Does he, like Gosse, then say “But God has created it to look old, because otherwise it would be incomplete”? Or does he ignore it, place it behind a psychological barrier: don’t look behind the curtain, don’t unlock those doors? 

Philip Henry Gosse has gone down in history as a sort of cautionary tale. He was slandered by his own son in a biography after his death; the “Omphalos hypothesis” has become a joke. In my own philosophy degree, it was taught as a textbook example of an unfalsifiable proposition.

But he actually bit the bullet; he accepted the facts and held onto his beliefs anyway in the only coherent way possible, contorted though it was. It’s noble, in a way. Most of us just hide from the facts that counter our deepest beliefs.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.