Sunday, July 07, 2013

Breaking into the circle

…many earnest people of faith wondered whether Adam had a navel. He was, after all, not born of a woman and required no remnant of his nonexistent umbilical cord. Yet, in creating the prototype, would not God make his first man like all the rest to follow? Would God, in other words, not create with the appearance of preexistence?  

The strata and their entombed fossils surely seem to represent a sequential record of countless years, but would not God create his earth with the appearance of preexistence? Why should we not believe that he created strata and fossils to give modern life a harmonious order by granting it a sensible (if illusory) past? As God provided Adam with a navel to stress continuity with future men, so too did he endow a pristine world with the appearance of an ordered history. Thus, the earth might be but a few thousand years old, as Genesis literally affirmed, and still record an apparent tale of untold aeons. 

The problem lies with the usual caricature of Omphalos as an argument that God, in fashioning the earth, had consciously and elaborately lied either to test our faith or simply to indulge in some inscrutable fit of arcane humor. 

Gosse began his argument with a central, but dubious, premise: All natural processes, he declared, move endlessly round in a circle: egg to chicken to egg, oak to acorn to oak…When God creates…he must break...somewhere into this ideal circle.  

Gosse then invented a terminology to contrast the two parts of a circle before and after an act of creation. He labelled as "prochonic," or occurring outside time, those appearances of preexistence actually fashioned by God at the moment of creation but seeming to mark earlier stages in the circle of life. Subsequent events occurring after creation, and unfolding in conventional time, he call "diachronic." Adam's navel was prochronic; the 930 years of his earthly life were diachronic. 

If God created vertebrates as adults, Gosse claimed, their teeth imply a prochronic past in patterns of wear and replacement…All modern adult hippoes possess strongly worn and beveled canines and incisors, a clear sign of active use throughout a long life. May we not, however, as for our shark, argue that a newly created hippo might have sharp and pristine front teeth? Gosse argues correctly that no hippo could work properly with teeth in such a state.  

I find this part of Gosse's argument quite satisfactory as a solution, within the boundaries of his assumptions, to that classic dilemma of reasoning: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"  

But arguments are only as good as their premises, and Gosse's inspired nonsense fails because an alternative assumption, now accepted as undoubtedly correct, renders the question irrelevant–namely, evolution itself. Gosse's circles do not spin around eternally; each lifecycle traces an ancestry back to inorganic chemicals in a primeval ocean. If organisms arose by acts of creation ab nihilo, then Gosse's argument about prochronic traces must be respected. 
Stephen Jay Gould, "Adam's Navel," Granta 16 (Summer 1985), 133-44.

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