David E Romm

Rhetoric 1152W

Oral Presentation 3/20/01

Stephen Jay Gould, "Adam's Navel"

In 1857, a naturalist named Philip Henry Gosse wrote Omphalos, a book wherein he proposed that God had put fossils in the rocks to deceive geologists. Gosse kept insisting that his ideas about God creating animals already developed would not make a difference to anyone. He speculates about "prochronic" developments; that is, things placed there before God started time: and "diachronic" developments; that is, things that happened after time got revved up.

A century and a quarter later, Stephen Jay Gould examines the work of Gosse in the article "Adam's Navel". Gould defends Gosse's reputation as a naturalist and writer, calling him "Britain's finest popular narrator of nature's fascination" in the mid-1800s. While clearly admiring much about Gosse, Gould is constantly putting him down, describing his arguments in Omphalos as "preciously ridiculous" and "spectacular nonsense". He digs into Gosse's rhetorical technique of copia, saying that 90% of Omphalos is "a simple list of examples", and dissects one of them as refutation that the list supports the initial proposition.

Gould starts off with a thought analogy: Did Adam have a navel, and if so, why? He then turns that basic analogy around on Gosse. If what Gosse is proposing will not make a bit of difference, why, then, is it important or even useful to speculate about it? I like to speculate that if God can create animals fully evolved 6000 years ago, what's to say that God didn't create the entire world, including human history and our memories of it, five minute ago. What's to say that God didn't create the world five minutes from now. Why assume God is lying to us? Are our senses and intellect part of God's creation or do we have to create tautological constructs to attempt to show that God's gifts mean nothing?

Gould gets a bit further with his statement that "arguments are only as good as their premises". Kepler had to go to great lengths to show how planetary orbits required further circles to justify his theory that the planets went around the sun in circles; this wasn't resolved until Copernicus showed that the orbits were ellipses. If Gosse starts out with one epistemology, he won't accept another cosmology. He abruptly dismisses Evolution (this being before Origin of the Species laid it out with examples), which hurts his argument.

Despite the constant rhetorical haranguing, Gould finally defends Gosse's position, but not as science, and not as a good example of observation. Because Omphalos must be rejected for bad science doesn't mean it's inherently wrong, just untestable. Says Gould, "we reject Omphalos as useless, not wrong".

Gould sort of meanders around his main point and doesn't really use his analogy to Adam's Naval very effectively. Still, in the last page or so he really nails exactly why Gosse is not merely wrong but ignorable. Gould shows that Omphalos is an interesting exercise in rhetoric, but Gosse is wrong by assuming his theory to be "unambiguously factual".

Unanswered question: If Adam has a navel, was it an innie or an outie?

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