Friday, 21 July 2017

Two Creationists, Christian sects, and religious tolerance

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) and Francis Orpen Morris (1810-1893) were two of the most well-known Natural Historians of the mid-Nineteenth Century. Gosse is famous as the populariser of aquaria, the use of microscopes, and the observation of marine organisms on the shore; Morris for his works on moths, butterflies and birds, and also for his campaigns against fox hunting, vivisection and much else besides. Both had biographies written by their sons [1,2] and it is from these that we know much about the two men.

Henry Gosse (above) was the son of a painter of miniatures and, as a young man, was sent to work as a clerk in Newfoundland, returning to England after travelling to Alabama where he held a teaching post. He was interested in insects as a boy and was introduced to shore life by a knowledgeable aunt. Like Gosse, Morris (below) was also very interested in Natural History as a boy, but his background was rather more privileged, being the son of a Royal Navy officer (who became an Admiral) and going on to study Classics at Oxford University. On graduation, Morris was ordained in the Church of England and progressed to be rector of Nunburnholme from 1854-1893 [3]. From this small village in the Yorkshire Wolds, Morris kept up a correspondence on many topics and he was an enthusiastic pamphleteer, best known today for attacking Darwinism and, especially, Darwin's On the origin of species [3].

Having returned from North America, Henry Gosse was a schoolmaster and also wrote books, the first being based on his experience in Canada and published by Van Voorst. This was followed by a number of other publications, most of which he illustrated, having acquired the skills and training of an artist from his father (the plates in Morris's books were by others). Eventually, Gosse became recognised and he was able to live off his work as an author and lecturer, settling in Torquay from 1857-1888. He was a devout non-conformist and he produced his book Omphalos [4] as an "attempt to untie the geological knot": the conflict between geological periods of time and the account of Creation in The Bible. Although written in London, Omphalos was published soon after Henry moved to Torquay and this was two years before the publication of Darwin's famous book. Gosse's thesis was that geological time periods, strata and fossils were all likely to be real but that they were created at the time the Earth and all organisms came into existence. Needless to say, this idea was not met with any enthusiasm by either the scientific or religious communities [5] and Gosse continued his work in Natural History, making many outstanding contributions.

Both men were Christians and Creationists, but I wonder whether they would have enjoyed each other's company if they met (I cannot find a record that they did so, and both travelled little in their mature years). Gosse was shy, but this did not stop him proselytising his views if he had the chance. He was an evangelical Christian with a profound belief that the second coming of Christ was imminent, something that strongly influenced his thinking. He was intolerant of Catholicism and always referred to the village in which he lived as Marychurch, rather than St Marychurch (its proper title), as he objected to the use of the term saint in the Catholic tradition [5]. Morris had equally strong views about the practice of religion, but these centred on the need for the traditions of the Church of England. On the organisation of religion, then, the two men are likely to have clashed – would their mutual love of Natural History and the evidence it provided constantly to them of Divine Creation have enabled them to celebrate together? Somehow, I doubt it. Yet, if there weren't religious differences to get in the way, one can imagine Gosse and Morris talking for hours about the boyhood collection of insects, their love of birds and all manner of other Natural History.

Henry Gosse's religious views provided difficulties in his relations with Edmund, his son and biographer and these led Edmund to write Father and Son, published anonymously in 1907. In contrast, Morris's son not only became ordained in the Church of England, but also followed his father as the Rector of Nunburnholme. Both "official" biographies written by the sons are factual and, in parts, affectionate, but Father and Son is rather different. It paints Henry Gosse as being intolerant of Edmund's views and he was always encouraging him to return to the values of the Brethren that Henry believed in so profoundly. The result of Henry's unshakeable beliefs was thus alienation from the scientific world and also from his only child. It all seems so unnecessary, especially as he was such a splendid enthusiast for Nature. Having asked whether Morris and Gosse would have enjoyed each other's company, I'm tempted to ask whether I would get on well with either of them. I like to think that the answer is yes, but I'm not sure. Religious belief has a way of becoming so intrusive and damaging.

It is not far-fetched to suggest that both Gosse and Morris had a Christian faith that made them isolated and narrowly focussed and which provided challenges from the scientific developments occurring in the mid-Nineteenth century. Their faith was the most important thing in their lives and they believed in all that was written in the Bible, yet their preferences in form of worship were different and neither was likely to budge from their position. As a non-Christian, that is something I find difficult to understand, yet it has been a feature of the Christian religion, with its many schisms and formation of splinter groups. As there must be one God and one Heaven, I am puzzled about the inability of some Christians to agree and to believe that their version of the faith is the only true one.

To gain some insight, I looked up the website of the Evangelical Alliance to find out if we are now living in an age of greater tolerance. In a piece entitled "Should we all go to one Church? What denominations mean for unity" Amaris Cole begins by introducing two questions [6]:

Anglican. Baptist. Brethren. Assemblies of God. Vineyard. Elim. Newfrontiers. Foursquare. The list goes on. There are many churches in the United Kingdom, all with their own worship styles, preaching practices and theological frameworks. But if we're aiming for unity as evangelicals, is it a problem that we are split down denominational lines? Shouldn't we all go to one Church?

One of the five respondents, Alexandra Davis, replied as follows [6]:  

God created us in diversity, with differences in style on so many levels – learning, worshipping, fellowshipping, communing. I suspect if we all went to one Church we'd just end up in a very mono-cultural way of doing things. Meeting with God and other Christians in a diversity of ways is one way of bringing glory to the creator God whose imagination is beyond anything we could... imagine. We could, of course, get a bit better at being more accepting of difference, keeping a check on how valuable our particular preferences really are, and making more.. ..effort to cross those diversity lines. We will be one Church in heaven so we might as well start practising for the perfection now.

Alexandra implies that the various sects and branches of Christian practice derive from differences inherent in human individuals and society. In advocating tolerance between sects (as I believe she is doing) she will attract the wrath of those like Gosse and Morris who were firmly of the opinion that only their version of Christianity was the correct one. Also, what are evangelical Christians proselytising if it is not their own personal version (usually shared by a few others) of belief?

Of course, if religions are the result of human imagination, one could understand it all. It must be difficult to be a Christian believer and face the questions that Amaris poses.

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

[2] M. C. F. Morris (1897) Francis Orpen Morris : A Memoir. London, John C. Nimmo.

[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.

The illustration of Christian worship above is taken from

Friday, 7 July 2017

Visits from a leaf cutter

Our friends Fiona and Conor gave us a potted houseleek plant (Sempervivum sp.) and it has grown so well that it has now been divided. Four of the rosettes were re-planted into the attractive ceramic pot that was part of the original gift and this forms the central decoration on the large table in one of the seating areas in our garden.

Yesterday, while enjoying a cup of coffee in the warm sunshine, I noticed that the pot was being visited by a leafcutter bee (Megachile sp.). It flew around the pot, landed on the soil at the margin, and then disappeared under the lip. Although my photographic skills are less well developed than my patience, I was able to get an image of the bee in flight just before it landed (see above). In addition to making frequent foraging flights for pollen and nectar, it also brought in sections of leaf on three successive occasions and the bee then looked just like the one in this wonderful image taken by HymenOphrys  and published on the urbanbees website [1]:

To find out more about the bee’s behaviour, I looked up Shuckard's British Bees [2]. The prose of Nineteenth Century Natural Historians is often appealing, as they had few other methods of describing their observations, only being let down by excesses of anthropomorphism. Shuckard was no exception, and he conveys his passion for the study of insects, something which overtook his ability to manage his finances [3]. These are his descriptions of the behaviour of this solitary bee [2]:

The proceedings of these bees are very curious. Although the tubes they usually form are long, they are so constructed as not to branch far away from the exterior of the material into which they bore.. ..Both the sides of the tube, and the cells they form within them, will necessarily vary in diameter and length with the size of the species, but in the larger species they are about an inch and a quarter long and half an inch in diameter..

..The cylindrical tube [is] prepared.. the gradual removal of the particles of the wood, or sand, or earth of which it consists, the insect's instinct [then] prompts it to fly forth to obtain the requisite lining, that the lateral earth may not fall in, or the wood taint the store to be accumulated for the young.. .. Having fixed upon the preferred plant .. alights upon the leaf, and fixing itself upon the edge, it holds it with three legs on each side, then using its mandibles as the cutter of silhouettes would his scissors, and, just as rapidly as he cuts out a profile, does this ingenious little creature ply the tools it is furnished with by nature. The oval or semicircular cutting being thus speedily dispatched, with the legs still clinging to the surfaces, the insect biting its way backwards, the piece cut off necessarily remains within the clutch of the legs, and, when about falling, the rejoicing labourer expands her wings and flies off.. ..[to arrive] at the mouth of the aperture within which she has to convey it..

Shuckhard then describes how other pieces of leaf are brought in to complete the lining and it was this that I was watching. The bee then collects pollen and nectar (flights that I also saw), and deposits these in the leaf-lined tube. An egg is laid on to the mass and the cell completed by another leaf fragment of circular form.

Shuckard  continues:

The whole process is again renewed in the same manner as at first, the bottom edge of the cutting of the external leaf is again curved to form a concave bottom to the next cell, and the sides are similarly formed, and each cell fits the preceding like the top of one thimble placed in the mouth of another.

The analogy to thimbles is rather dated, but we can now picture more clearly the biology of the bee. In time, larvae hatch from the eggs, consume the food store provided for them, and grow through stages to then produce a silk cocoon in which they pupate. Emergence of the adults from pupae completes the cycle, with mating occurring and the next generation of female bees starting to build tubes and cut leaves.

It is intriguing to ask oneself how the habits of the bee evolved: its burrowing behaviour; the use of leaves to provide a lining of the tubes it makes; the manner in which leaf segments are brought together; the collection of pollen and nectar; the evolution of life stages of such markedly different form; and the ability to fly and to navigate. All this was going through my mind when watching "my" bee and I'm so pleased that she chose our pot of Sempervivum as the home for the next generation. They will not be disturbed.

[2] W. E. Shuckard (1866) British Bees: An introduction to the study of the natural history and economy of the bees indigenous to the British Isles. London, Lovell, Reeve & Co.

[3] Yolanda Foote (2004-2016) Shuckard, William Edward (1802/3-1868), entomologist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.