Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The isolation of a Creationist

The Creationist W Welch believed that many planets throughout the Universe are colonised by intelligent beings and that they lived on cool parts of our sun [1]. Philip Henry Gosse, also a Creationist, thought differently [2]:

I venture to suggest that not only the Planets and Satellites of this system, but the Sun itself,- nay, the millions of Suns, that, to our eyes are but specks in space,- (yet each one, perhaps, with its system of planets and satellites) are none of them habitable as yet, but are being prepared by God for habitation; each in succession to be got ready for Colonization from Earth by Adam’s race. That God is, we may say, furnishing his great House of many mansions, of which one small apartment alone is occupied.

If I be asked how living, breathing human bodies can possibly be transferred from world to world, I reply, I have no conception, how. But if man himself has invented means of travelling across oceans; of floating in the air; of living for hours under water; of conversing audibly across hundreds of miles; of conveying written messages thousands of miles in a minute,- I am quite sure the Omnipotent God will find no difficulty in conveying men through stellar space, when He pleases.

Certainly a contrast in views, with one writer letting his imagination run wild and the other taking a much more measured approach, believing colonisation would be from the Earth, the site of God’s initial Creation.

In addition to their consideration of the colonisation of planets, Welch and Gosse both published theories about the origin of the Earth: Welch in his book Religiosa Philosophia [3] and Gosse in Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot [4]. Both men felt that their theories did not contradict the account in Genesis in the Bible, that they held to be sacrosanct. 

Welch suggested that some part of the water from the firmament formed a large globular mass from which particles condensed and then sedimented to form a solid core [3]. Over thirty years later, Gosse also tackled the conflict between the then contemporary knowledge of geology and the Biblical account of Creation with his theory of prochronism: the act of Creation included rock strata, and their associated fossils, that thus bore evidence of “life before time”.

Little is known about Welch, but Henry Gosse was a very well-known figure in the world of Natural History and I have a great admiration for his descriptive and observational powers, his industry and his skills as an illustrator. Until recently, I have steered away from his religious books, as I feel little empathy with his rigid beliefs.

Given the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species two years after Omphalos, and the extraordinary effect that Darwin’s book had, it is remarkable that Gosse held so firmly to his theory. This is what he wrote in The Mysteries of God about scientific thought in the Nineteenth Century:

The vast accession made to the knowledge of natural things, during the past century, by the observations of innumerable students, and by the conclusions deduced therefrom, has been, by the Arch Enemy, turned into a most potent weapon against the faith, used with marvellous skill for insidiously discrediting, first, and then arrogantly denying, the teachings of Holy Scripture.

It is startling to mark how fatally successful have been his tactics. A very large number of professed Christians,- perhaps even the majority of such as are competent to think about the matter,- are, more or less, tainted with the prevalent unbelief; conscious of, at least, a lurking suspicion that some of the Bible statements are not absolutely trustworthy; but must be, if not rejected, explained away, in some non-natural exegesis. Even in those who read Papers, or deliver Lectures, professedly to defend Revelation against sceptical Science, this unworthy trimming is sometimes painfully manifest.. .. Various subterfuges and shifts are used to evade the verbal accuracy of the Sacred Word; needless concessions here, and admissions there, allow the truth of God to pass by default. One makes a distinction between the veracity of different parts, ignoring, or denying its integral unity. There is often an underlying assumption that, at whatever cost, the teachings of the Bible must be subject to the accepted conclusions of Science: and, in general, the tone of the Lecturer is one of frowning severity toward the simple believer, and of tolerant sympathy toward the scientific infidel.

I sympathise with Gosse’s position on deciding what is, and what is not, factual in accounts in the Bible and it is something that must be difficult for many contemporary Christians. Not for Gosse though. He was unbending in his belief in the literal truth of the Bible and preached this to the small group of fellow believers he led in St Marychurch in Torquay. The Mysteries of God is based on his sermons, but it was not well received, even by fellow members of the Brethren and it had few reviews [5]. In the book, Gosse again propounds the theory of prochronism, stating that it had not been refuted in the 27 years since the publication of Omphalos. Unfortunately, this was probably because no-one bothered much about Gosse’s ideas, especially as he rarely ventured far in the later part of his life (he died in 1888). He spent much time at “Sandhurst”, his home in St Marychurch (see below – picture from [6]), save for many visits to the shore, the local countryside, and to the Brethren chapel he founded.

Another characteristic shared by Gosse and some contemporary Christian Creationists, is their ability to see Satan (the “Arch Enemy”) everywhere – as is so clear in the passage quoted above. Henry’s son, Edmund, found this, and the religious fervour that drove it, unbearable, as we know from his well-known book Father and Son. In it, Edmund wrote [7]:

He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain and distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension. My Father’s inconsistencies of perception seem to me to have been the result of a curious irregularity of equipment. Taking for granted, as he did, the absolute integrity of the Scriptures, and applying to them his trained scientific spirit, he contrived to stifle, with a deplorable success, alike the function of the imagination, the sense of moral justice, and his own deep and instinctive tenderness of heart.

Isn’t that sad?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1884) The Mysteries of God: A series of expositions of Holy Scripture. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

[3] W Welch (1821) Religiosa Philosophia. Plymouth, W. Byers.

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

[5] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[6] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Wm Dawson & Sons.

[7] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A study of two temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation

The rapid development of geology in the first part of the Nineteenth Century brought challenges to those who believed in the literal truth of The Holy Bible. Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in three volumes from 1830-1833 [1] synthesised contemporary views on the accumulation of different strata over very long time periods, with the strata containing the fossilised remains of plants and animals. Clearly, the Earth was more than 6000 years old, as maintained by Christian Creationists, and believers were thus faced with a conflict that they needed to resolve.

In 1821, ten years before Lyell’s synthesis, W Welch of Plymouth produced his Reliogiosa Philosophia [2] and I am grateful to Dr Patrick Armitage of the Freshwater Biological Association for suggesting that I would be interested in Welch’s work. I had no knowledge of it before Patrick contacted me, although a copy is available as an e-book. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out anything about Welch except that he lived in Stonehouse in Plymouth and believed in the truth of everything written in The Holy Bible.

Reliogiosa Philosophia, subtitled A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation (thus the title of this blog post), opens with its dedication to Sir Humphry Davy, the President of The Royal Society (PRS):

Presuming on your well known regard for, and patronage of, the Arts and Sciences, I have taken the liberty to dedicate to you this first production of my pen, on a subject which has long engaged the attention of Geologists.

Should the present work meet your approval, it will afford me gratification, from a conviction that you would not bestow your approbation, unless you conceived the conclusions I have drawn to be founded on truth; and if my attempt to reconcile recorded facts in the book of Nature with the history of Creation, as given by Moses, in the Sacred Volume, prove successful, true religion and philosophy will be benefited; and as they are derived from the same source, they should be united to promote the same end.

I do not know how Davy responded to the book but, although Welch’s thoughts on the formation of the Earth are imaginative, they are also eccentric and it is unlikely that the PRS took them seriously.

Welch’s theory is this: the power and word of the Almighty, by the agency of fire, a union of the gases was effected, and which, in a state of Nebula, uniting, formed a globe of water, of much larger dimensions than the present earth, with its seas, now only encompassing our shores. These gases contained and combined all the principles of future matter.. ..a globe of water thus formed, became the emporium, or grand magazine; a union of stony particles probably then took place, which, when they became specifically heavier than the water, descended from every part towards the centre, and formed a nucleus, whilst the stony particles, in their descent, obtained from the diurnal motion, the form of a spheroid..

..The nucleus being of a nature suited to marine vegetation, plants were, by the creative power of the Deity, first produced, suited to the wants of testaceous and crustaceous animals. From these sources, I presume, the earth received its gradual increase:- that, in proportion as vegetables and animals have been produced, the layers or strata have been formed, and the waters lessened; and that, in the process of time, the earth approached towards the surface of the waters, when the long confined volcanic matter acquired a force superior to the resisting external pressure, burst the hitherto unbroken globe, raised the Continents with the Mountains, producing various phenomena..
Welch’s ideas on the formation of the Earth are summarised by an illustration in his book (see above). In propounding these views, he provides an explanation, albeit an extremely unlikely one, for the origin of the huge volume of water in the oceans covering so much of the Earth's surface: contemporary theories proposing that this water comes from comets, or from the release of water from crystalline rocks. Like Welch, we don’t know.

The development of rock strata described by Welch must have taken a lot longer than the few days demanded by the account in Genesis. He addresses this point [2]:

It may.. asserted by some persons, that the Almighty could as easily have constructed our Globe at once, and that the means here laid down are inadequate to the end. To the former I reply, that it would be a species of blasphemy to doubt his power; but that the point is, not what he could do, but what the book of Nature shews he has done; and to the latter position, it will appear obvious.. .. that the production of marine animals is incalculable, and that the myriads of millions in a globe of water, and which the Creator abundantly filled, to produce and execute his designs, by the shells cemented with decomposed plants making layers, and constantly forming into rock, tending in every part to raise the bed of the Ocean.

This is confusing, as Welch is a believer in Creation, yet appears to accept the idea of change over long periods of time – not of evolution, but of the formation of rock strata with their associated fossils. It certainly requires a lot of faith to accept the description given in Genesis.

Much of the rest of the book elaborates on Welch’s theory, but he also gives us an Appendix that shows us the power of his imagination [2]:

..we may safely infer, that the Deity would not have provided the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and the Herschel, or Georgium Sidus, with moons, (of no sort of utility to us,) unless he had intended to have placed beings on those globes, possessed with the faculty of vision, and capable of receiving and enjoying light, in a manner similar to ourselves; and it is more than probable, nay, it amounts almost to a demonstration, that not only the planets in our system are inhabited, but those in every other throughout the universe..

What is the basis for these assumptions? Is there any statement in The Holy Bible to support this extraordinary view? Did each of these myriads of planets, which had the same Creator, also have the same Jesus Christ?

Welch’s views on planets are fantastic, but nothing compared to what he has to say about the sun:

The Sun, which is evidently the most glorious orb in our system, has been very generally supposed to be a globe of fire; I shall, however, on this subject offer a few observations, and conclude the present essay by endeavouring to illustrate that not only the planets, but that our sun also, is probably the abode of intelligent and more exalted beings.. may.. reasonably inferred, that the source of our day is surrounded with a luminous atmosphere, suited by the Creator to his all-wise and beneficent purposes; and, that owing to a break or opening, which at times occur, we are enabled to perceive a part of his orb, and which, contrasted with the brilliancy of his luminous part, appears black, demonstrating that it is not a body of fire; it is, therefore, more than probable, that the sun is a suited habitation to superior and exalted beings.

I had never considered “sun spots” in this way and I wonder what Davy, and other readers grounded in science, made of Welch’s extraordinary theories. How did he develop them? Did they stem from a threat to his religious beliefs? I cannot answer these questions. However, it is worth pointing out that currently accepted theories on the origin of the Universe may seem equally preposterous in two hundred years’ time and we may have to accept that we will never explain what we observe. That acceptance provides a niche that religions exploit, yet it can be argued that religious explanations may be as valid as “scientific” ones when dealing with the unknown. Welch, however, seems just a tad wild in his metaphysical imaginings…

[1] Charles Lyell (1830 – 1833) Principles of Geology (three volumes). London, John Murray.

[2] W Welch (1821) Religiosa Philosophia. Plymouth, W. Byers.

Many thanks to Patrick Armitage for suggesting that I would be fascinated by Welch’s book – I certainly was, but probably not in the way that Welch intended.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Conscientious Objection

I worked at UCL in Bloomsbury for 23 years and, although I walked around the campus area to shop, to go to different lecture rooms and Departments, and for pleasure, I had never visited the garden in Tavistock Square, just a few hundred metres away from my office. Three days ago, I travelled into London from my home in Berkhamsted for a meeting and afterwards walked back to Euston Station past Tavistock Square On the spur of the moment, I decided to pop in and look around this lovely green space. In addition to the lawns and shrubs, there are interesting trees, including a cherry tree dedicated to those who were killed by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and among the monuments in the garden is an impressive statue of Gandhi. I was drawn to a large stone (see below, image from Wiki) that had been covered by white carnations, laid out singly in a rather striking way all over its surface. This stone bore a plaque bearing the inscriptions:

To commemorate men & women conscientious objectors to military service all over the world & in every age.

To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope.

This stone was dedicated on 15 May 1994 International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

How interesting, then, that I decided to discover the Tavistock Square garden on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the day that the monument was unveiled. That explains the presence of the carnations and I’m only sorry that I couldn’t take a picture of it at the time (unfortunately, I don’t own a mobile telephone and wasn’t carrying a camera, or my iPad).

The monument set me thinking about what I would do if threatened by the need to fight and kill opponents. Firstly, I don’t think that I could take the life of another human being and, while I have killed mammals when I was younger, I’m not sure that I could now. That’s not to say that I respect all life forms, as I’m an enthusiastic killer of wasps and flies when they invade “my” space and I am an omnivore, so cannot object to killing of mammals by others. Secondly, I find it difficult to accept that war is inevitable and that killing opponents results in anything but pain. Of course, there are victors and vanquished (at great cost on both sides), but settlements are negotiable without resort to force.

A web search reveals the names of many famous objectors, especially during the First and Second World Wars, but large numbers of other citizens, who are less famous, followed their conscience and beliefs and refused to fight. Among famous conscientious objectors was Kathleen Lonsdale (see above) and her story has a personal ring for me as she worked for many years at UCL. She was a distinguished scientist who was raised as a Baptist (as I was), but became a Quaker as she believed in pacifism. Gill Hudson writes [1] that:

..Kathleen saw her life as scientist, Quaker, and mother as inextricably linked. She gave the Eddington lecture in 1964 and described how the practice of science, of religion, and of child rearing should be founded on common themes of scepticism and of knowledge gained at first hand.

She was a firm believer in Gandhian non-violent resistance and in civil disobedience. During the Second World War she refused to register for civil defence and when she refused to pay the fine for this was committed to Holloway prison for one month. Although she would have been exempt from civil service duties, it seemed important to her that she should make the point as a conscientious objector.

Not everyone has the courage of Kathleen Lonsdale and the Peace Pledge Union [2] provides support for conscientious objectors in the contemporary world.

In thinking about my views on conscientious objection, I find myself in a quandary. In my last blog post [3], I recalled the tragedy of the Harrowell brothers, just two of many millions who died prematurely while fighting for their country. I don’t know if they were enthusiastic volunteers in the Great War, or whether they were reluctant conscripts, but many would argue that their deaths, and those of many others, resulted, eventually, in the maintenance of civilised society. Certainly, many combatants show extraordinary bravery and sacrifice and I cannot belittle their contribution in allowing me to enjoy my way of life. However, I still think that I would be a conscientious objector, although who knows? I just hope that the situation does not arise where I have to make the choice.   

It surprises me that this series of thoughts all came about after a serendipitous detour into one of London’s squares, while strolling back to Euston Station to catch the train home. Should it?

[1] Gill Hudson (2010) Lonsdale [née Yardley], Dame Kathleen (1903-1971). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Monday, 30 April 2018

Origami doves

I attend an Art History group run by our local U3A. Last month, we looked at examples of Japanese Art and some in the class brought along examples from their own collections. We met again last Monday and our leader, Val, didn’t make the usual prior announcement of the art we would be discussing: we were just told that there would be visitors. All very intriguing.

On turning up at the Quaker Meeting Place in Berkhamsted, where we hold our meetings, I was surprised to find two tables, with chairs arranged around them, and the visitors all wearing T-shirts with “Dacorum Heritage Trust” written on the front. They were to lead us through a session making origami doves, so there was a connection to our previous subject. We were given paper sheets that had been cut to shape and which had lines drawn on them to show where we should make folds. I quickly completed two doves and handed them in. 

The doves from our group will be added to many others to form an installation in an empty building in Hemel Hempstead [1]. Each dove (see below for an image from the Dacorum Heritage Trust) will represent a soldier who died in the First World War and we could select his name from the thousands available. I chose at random and was given the names of Private Albert Harrowell and Lance Corporal Frank Harrowell, two brothers who were brought up in a cottage in the centre of Berkhamsted. After visiting the road where it was located, I’m fairly sure that this cottage no longer exists.

Albert operated a Lewis gun and was injured during an attack at Ypres on 31st July 1917, during which he was recorded as missing. He was married to Florence and was aged 31 when he died, his grave being at Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial [2]. Frank was also a machine gunner and he was killed at Loos in France on 5th May 1918, aged 34. He was married to Ada Jane and, Frank being the elder brother, the couple lived in the cottage where Frank and Albert grew up. Frank’s grave is at the Loos Memorial [3], 43 km from Ypres. I don’t know more about the family and I can only imagine the grief suffered by the wives of the two men and the loss felt by William and Lizzie, their parents. I wonder how close they were as brothers? What were their occupations?

The brothers are commemorated on the War Memorial at Berkhamsted (see above) and, if it hadn’t been for the Dacorum Heritage Trust initiative, they would just have been names to me among many others. Now I feel differently and, on Remembrance Sunday, I will remember “my” Albert and Frank. I look forward to seeing the installation of all the origami doves. It is a little like the display of poppies that made such an impression at the Tower of London and I’m sure it will have a similar impact on the residents of Dacorum.

Doves are symbols of peace and help us to reflect on the horrors of war and each of us who made an origami dove now has a soldier (or soldiers) who is special to them. It is a lovely, and involving, thing to do and I realise once again how lucky I have been in not having to go through the horrors of war that the Harrowell family suffered a hundred years ago.

Many thanks to the Dacorum Heritage trust for letting me be a part of this marvellous initiative.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Torbay and a passion for collecting on the shore

Many British seaside towns are currently fighting a reputation for being run down, having many residents suffering financial hardship, having an influx of homeless people with all their problems, and also for open drug use. This is, of course, a generalisation, as there are many “bijou resorts” with many (un)occupied second homes and even the major resorts have marinas filled with craft owned by wealthy residents or by visitors who own apartments where they spend a few weeks, or week-ends, each year.

The influx of visitors to UK resorts has always been at its height during summer and in the 1950s and 1960s tourists poured in by train, coach and, latterly, by private car. “No Vacancy” signs were everywhere: on large and small hotels and also on guest houses, often converted from large Victorian properties built for a quite different type of visitor. I was brought up in Torbay and, as a year-round resident, was aware of the huge differences in the numbers of people in Paignton and Torquay in the summer months compared to the population in winter, when so many businesses that catered for holidaymakers shut down. All this was obvious, but I was not as curious as I should have been about the origins of the handsome villas and large houses that had been converted to accommodate visitors (and are now more widely used as holiday apartments). The young rarely are curious about history: it is something which comes with age and a sense of time passing.

Torquay was especially lucky in having a building boom in the mid-Nineteenth Century, with villas in an Italianate style being common, mirroring the Riviera feeling that the location of the town provided. Some of the villas were permanent residences and some were for shorter-term stays for those who wanted to own property in this fashionable resort. Then there were hotels that catered for First Class passengers and for members of the burgeoning middle classes who were attracted by the climate, beautiful setting and social cachet of the town. It was a time when visitors enjoyed a gentle walk, or a carriage ride, through the beautiful countryside and many also joined in the passion for Marine Natural History that was at its height at this time.

We get an idea of just how important a visit to the shore could be from the writings of Philip Henry Gosse, who lived in St Marychurch in Torquay, venturing round the coast and out to sea [1]. He was one of the great popularisers of Natural History and part of the fascination for visitors to the shores of Torbay was down to him [2]. In his book Land and Sea [3], Henry Gosse describes the local coastal scenery and the book is illustrated by woodcuts in a highly Romantic style that must have encouraged readers to visit Torbay (some are shown below).

Another woodcut from the book (see below) shows a man and woman on the shore, dressed appropriately for collecting and making observations [4]. This is what Henry Gosse writes about the effects of collectors, especially of sea anemones, that would be added to their parlour aquaria, a popular form of “entertainment” at the time:

Ah! gentle reader, I’ll whisper a secret in your ear; but don’t tell that I said so for ‘tis high treason against the ladies. Since the opening of sea-science to the million, such has been the invasion of the shore by crinoline and collecting jars, that you may search all the likely and promising rocks within reach of Torquay, which a few years ago were like gardens with full-blossomed anemones and antheas, and come home with an empty jar and an aching heart, all now being swept as clean as the palm of your hand! Yet let me do the fair students and their officious beaux justice: the work is not altogether done by such hands as theirs; but there is a host of professional collectors, small tradesmen whom you must search-up in back alleys, and whose houses you will easily recognize by the sea-weedy odour, even before you see the array of pans and dishes in front of the door all crowded with full-blown specimens. These collect for the trade, and are indefatigable. Only think of the effect produced on the marine population by three or four men in a town, one of whom will take ten dozen anemones in a single tide!

A reflection then of the popularity of the pursuit of collecting marine animals. It is not something that we recognise today, although families still venture on the shore to examine rock pools.

Later in Land and Sea, Gosse describes travelling to parts of Torbay that were less popular for collectors [3]:

Therefore it was that we ran some miles away from home, and pursued a pleasant road, partly through green lanes, rank with the glossy young leaves of the arum, and the arching fronds of the hart’s-tongue fern, scarcely embrowned by the late arctic winter; and partly sweeping along the shore-line and over the cliffs that make the base of this beautiful bay; till, Paignton being some distance behind us, we turned off to the left down a little lane, and drew up at the margin of the broad flat beach called the Goodrington Sands.

Far away is the edge of the sea, for the tide is wonderfully low, though we have yet a full hour and a half before it will be at its lowest point, and an immense breadth of soft, wet sand lies exposed. We pause for a moment to gaze on the boundary to the right. It is Berry Head, a noble headland that projects like a long wall far out into the sea, and presents its bluff termination, crowned with fortifications, to the impact of the waves that drive in with impotent fury from the wide Atlantic.

Berry Head is mentioned in the label to the woodcut of collectors shown above and, in Land and Sea, Gosse goes on to describe his methods of collecting, although contemporary Natural Historians would frown at his use of chisels and hammers to remove specimens together with the rocks to which they are attached.

Above are two contemporary images of Goodrington Sands and I wonder how many visitors today are aware of the activities of the passionate collectors of the mid-Nineteenth Century? The rocks in the lower picture were one of the collecting sites used by Henry Gosse and it is good to see young children in the picture following his example, but presumably without chisels and hammers. If only they knew about their enthusiastic predecessors.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[2] Charles Kingsley (1855) Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore. London, Macmillan and Co.

[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.