Science in Christian Perspective



Apparent Age and its Reception in the 
19th Century

Science Division
Henry Ford Community College Dearborn, Michigan 48128

From: JASA 32 (September 1980): 146-150.

Recently the use of "apparent age" as an apologetical tool has enjoyed a remarkable revival among many who argue for a "short" time scale for the earth and universe. Examination of an earlier period, 1800-1858, during which such arguments were utilized as a means of reconciling science and Scripture, reveals that when these ideas became widely known they were quickly and virtually unanimously rejected, and remained essentially unknown for a century thereafter.

Within the last twenty years there has been, in certain circles, a remarkable increase of interest in theories of the origin and development of the natural world that involve a "short" time scale, much shorter than the billions of years generally accepted by scientists today. Among the more interesting features of many such views is the inclusion of a principle of "apparent age," that dates back at least as far as the early 19th century: the belief that the universe or certain of its parts was created with the appearance of an age greater than its actual age. This belief, which is, for example, an integral part of the world-view espoused by Whitcomb and Morris in their influential hook of 1961, The Genesis Flood,1 and continues to he advocated by them and others of similar persuasion 2 is evidently a characteristic of periods when the tension between contemporary scientific theories and a literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis is perceived by some as being especially acute. The years from 1800 to 1858 were evidently one such period, but most discussions of this interval include only brief references to the apparent age concept and its prime advocate, Philip Gosse.3 In view of the resurgence of this belief at the present time, I felt that a closer look at apparent age in the 19th century, and particularly at the nature of its reception, might be illuminating. I have, in large part, allowed the words of the individuals involved to speak for themselves.

Historical Background

The belief that the world and its variety' of living things were originally created with essentially the forms that they exhibit today was probably implicit in the thinking of many in the years before 1800. It seems likely, however, that apparent age as an explicit doctrine arose initially as one attempt to understand the nature of fossils. Among the multitude of such attempts during the 18th century, were those that attributed fossil remains to the original, direct creative act of God, for various or unknown reasons) Such claims, however, were not at that time part of any consistent, overall world view, but by the beginning of the 19th century Hutton, Playfair, and others had begun to advocate the concept of a vast age for the earth, and the relationship between the teachings of Genesis and the new geological theories became of increasing concern to many. Of the numerous and varied responses that this concern elicited, that of Chateaubriand is of particular interest. Writing in 1802 during the conservative reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution, his Genius of Christianity was an attempt to defend Christianity and its role in the progress of history. Among the main propositions that Chateaubriand argued for was the view that all evidence cited in support of a great age for the earth was refutable. After a defense of the traditional short time scale view of Genesis, he then provided one of the earliest clear statements of the apparent age doctrine:

"The earth'', it is said, ''is an aged nurse, who betray her antiquity in every thing..."this difficulity has been solved a hundred times by the following answer: God might have created, and doubtless did create, the world with all the marks of  antiquity which it now exhibits.

and added further that "The oaks, on springing from the fruitful soil, doubtless bore at once aged crows and the
new progeny of doves the very day the ocean poured its first waves upon the shores, they clashed against rocks already worn, over strands covered with fragments of shell-fish . Chateaubriand here made very explicit
what many undoubtedly simply took for granted previously. In subsequent years some writers openly adopted apparent age arguments to help solve the perceived difficulties between Genesis and geology. In the anonymous Conversations on Geology of 1828, for example, it is stated that, according to his system of Mosaic geology, Granville Penn

concludes from the argument, that rocks were not formed by deposition nor it melting, but by the fiat of the great Creator, in the same way as animals and plants were formed...6

Gosse himself stated in 1857 that the concept was originally suggested to him by a tract he encountered a dozen or more years earlier, and that he recognized the "germ of the argument" in another of Granville Penn's works of 1822. Most of these early writers seem to have used apparent age primarily as a stop-gap, to deal with arguments for great age that could not he handled in any other way.

On the other hand, there were also those of this period who were dealing with the relationship between science and Scripture who, even though they held a high view of biblical teaching, nevertheless refused to take apparent
age seriously. In 1840, for example, John Pye Smith published On the Relation Between the Holy Scriptures and Some Parts of Geological Science, a work which went through several editions, in which he attempted to maintain the integrity of both science and Scripture. He discussed with great clarity the various evidences for a great age of the earth and the universe, but it was clear that lie wanted no part of any explanation that involved an appearance or an illusion of age.

Can any man imagine that granite was created in its characteristic state, a composition of visibas and palpably distinct minerals...? It would be almost its reasonable to affirm that the stomachs of the first amimals were created with bitten and masticated fragments of the appropriate food in then.7

Smith also discussed the relatively new evidence from astronomy, which was based on the work of Sir William Herchschel, the builder of great reflecting telescopes, and provided a simple but powerful new argument for the antiquity of the world that was independent of the geological theories of the day. By 1800 Herschel had concluded that his large instrument could reveal objects at a distance of some 12 million, million, million miles from us,8 and by 1802 he had explicitly connected this distance to vast intervals of' time:

I shall take notice of an evident consequence attending the result of the computation which is, that a telescope with a power of penetrating into space, like my 40 feet one, but also, as it may be called, a power of penetrating into time past To explain this, we most consider that, from the known velocity of light, it nay be proved, that when we look at Sirius, the rays which enter the eye cannot have been less than 6 years and 4 1/2 months coming from that star to the observer, thence it follows, that when we see an object of the calculated distance at one of these remote nebulae may still be perceived, the rays of light which convey its image to the eye, must have been  more that) nineteen hundred and ten thousand, that is, almost two millions of years on their way; and that, consequently, so many years ago, this object must already had an existence in the sidereal heavens, in order to send out those rays by which we now perceive it.9

That apparent age could explain all of the evidence for great age in a logical manner was generally agreed. Few, if any, however, were prepared to take this logical possibility seriously.

"These views of the antiquity of that vast portion of the Creator's work which astronomy discloses," wrote Smith, "may well abate our reluctance to admit the deductions of Geology, concerning the past ages of our planet's existence."" Although, as exemplified by Smith, the implications of the geological and astronomical evidences were increasingly being accepted, apparent age was to experience a brief but spectacular revival. In 1857, Gosse published Ompha/os: An Attempt to Untie' the Geological Knot.

Philip Henry Gosse

Philip Henry Gosse wa a person whose views would be heard. No irresponsible fanatic, he was a fellow of the Royal Society, an acquaintance of Darwin, "an eminent naturalist" with "acute powers of observation" and "no undistinguished place among British Naturalists." While his earlier works on zoology and marine biology gave no hint of what was to come, it is evident that the reconciliation of the scientific theories of his day with a literal interpretation of Genesis was of great concern to Gosse, and Omphalos was to be the basis of that reconciliation. As mentioned above, some years earlier the apparent age concept had been suggested to him by a brief tract. Now, faced with an ever increasing flood of evidences for the great age of the earth and universe, Gosse decided to use apparent age, not as a stop-gap where other arguments failed, but rather as an overarching, fundamental principle, "the Law of Prochronism in Creation."11 His motive was clear.

I would not be considered as an opponent of geologists: but rather its a co-searcher with them after that which they value as highly as I do, Truth. The path which I have pursued has led me to a conclusion at variance with theirs, I has-c a right to expect that it be weighed; let it not he imputed tovanity if I hope that it may be accepted. But what I much more ardently desire is, that the thousands of thinking persons, who are scarcely satisfied with the extant reconciliations of Scriptural statements and Geological deductions-who are silenced but not convinced,-may find, in the principle set forth in this volume, a stable resting-place. I have written it in the constant prayer that the God of Truth will deign so to use it: and if He do, to Him Be All theGory.12

Gosse based his thinking on two major propositions. The first was that "All organic nature moves in a circle," a circle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, with the result that for any living creature any stage of its existence automatically bears the evidences of its previous stages. Much of the book is devoted to demonstrating this fact for a great variety of life forms. His second proposition was that "Creation is a violent irruption into the circle of nature," and therefore all created living things most have possessed, at the time of their creation, all the evidences of a previous but unreal existence, these evidences being therefore "effects which never had causes." Adam, for, example, although never horn of a woman, clearly must have had a navel (and hence, the title of the book). This led Gosse to draw a distinction between developments that were "diachronic," those which occurred in real time, and those that were "prochronie," being "unreal developments whose apparent results are seen in organism at the moment of its creation...," adding "Now again, I repeat, there is no imaginable difference to sense between the prochronic and diachronic development."13 It seemed that his conclusions simply could not be denied. "This is not put forth as a hypothesis, but as a necessity; I do not say that it was probably so, but that it was certainly so; not that it may have been thus, but that it could not have been otherwise."14 On the degree to which these concepts could be applied to the inorganic world Gosse was less certain, but still believed in the basic validity of his "Law of Prochronism." He suggested, for example, "that the strata of the surface of the earth, with their fossil floras and and faunas, may possibly belong to a proc/Ironic development of the mighty plan of the life-history of this world."

Hence the minuteness arid, undeniableness of the proofs of life which geologists rely on so confidently, and present with such justifiable triumph, do not in the least militate against my principle. The marks of Hyaeuas' teeth on the bones of Kirkdale cave; the infant skeletons associated with adult skeletons of the same species; the abundance of coprolites; the foot-tracks of Birds and Reptiles; the glacier-scratches on rocks; and hundreds of other beautiful and most irresistible evidences of pre-existence, I do not wish to undervalue, nor to explain away. On the hypothesis that the actual commencing point of the world's history was subsequent to the occurrence of such things in the perfect ideal whole, these phenomena would appear precisely as if the facts themselves had been diachronic instead of prochronic, as was really the case.

But what about other, non-geological evidences for great age, such as the astronomical work of Herschel, indicating that the light from distant objects would take thousands, even millions of years to get to the earth?

Beautiful, and at first sight unanswerable as this argument is, it falls to the ground before the spear-touch of our Ithuriel, the doctrine of prochronism. There is nothing more improbable in the notion that the sensible undulation was created at the observer's eye, with all the prerequisite undulations prochronic, than in the notion that blood was created in the capillaries of the first human body. The latter see have seen to be a fact: is the former an impossibility?18

And then, in summary;

Finally, the acceptance of the principles presented in this volume, even in their fullest extent, would not, in the least degree, affect the study of scientific geology. The character and order of the strata; their disruptions and displacements and injections; the successive floras and faunas; and all the other phenomena, would he facts still. They would still be, as now, legitimate subjects of examination and inquiry. I do not know that a single conclusion, now accepted, would need to be given up, except that of actual chronology. And even in respect of this, it would be rather a modification than a relinquishment of what is at present held; we might still speak of the inconceivably long duration of the processes in question, provided we understand ideal instead of actual time; - that the duration was projected in the mind of God, and not really existent.17

Gosse's scientific reputation insured that the book would not be lightly dismissed, and that its thesis would be at least considered by his contemporaries.

The Reaction

The reaction was almost totally negative. The most frequently quoted source for this interpretation, although possibly not the most objective, has been the autobiography of Gosse's son Edmund, the literary historian and critic. In speaking of his father's motive for Omphalas and the nature of its reception, Edmund wrote:

never was a book cast upon the waters with greater anticipations of success than, was this curious, this obstinate, this fanatical volume. My Father lived in a fever of suspense, waiting for the tremendous issue. 'l'his "Omphalos'' of his, he thought, was to bring all the turmoil of scientific speculation to a close, fling geology into the arms of Scripture, and make the lion eat grass with the lamb. It as not surprising, he admitted, that there had been experienced an ever-increasing discord between the facts which geology brings to light and the direct statements of the early chapters of ''Genesis." Nobody was to blame for that. My Father, and my Father alone, possessed the secret of the enigma; he alone held the key to open the lock of geological mystery. He offered it, with a glowing gesture, to atheists and Christians alike. This was to be the universal panacea; this the system of intellectual therapeutics which could not but heal all the maladies of the age. But, alas! atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, arid threw it away.15

and added that his father was plunged into deep depression as his prochronic theory failed to gain a favorable hearing.

Recently it has been argued that in certain particulars Edmund's story may not he entirely accurate, and that his literary talents may have outrun his memory, at least with regard to the Omphalos episode." While this suspicion may indeed he correct concerning certain details, Edmund seems clearly right in his analysis of the general tone of the reception of his father's work. Charles Kingsley, for example, the Anglican clergyman, writer, and early supporter of Darwin, was a good friend of the elder Gosse, on for whom he had hoped to obtain a favorable reaction toward prochronism, but it was not to be. Kingsley, while never losing his admiration for Gosse as a scientist, indicated that "I would not for a thousand pounds put your book into my children's hands, "20- and wrote to him:

If we accept the tact of absolute creation, God becomes a Deus quidam deceptor. I do not mean merely in the case fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead annuals, but in the one single case of your newly created scars on the paudanus trunk, and your newly created Adam's navel, you makeGod tell a lie. It is not my reason but my conscience which revolts here.

and added further in a footnote to a new edition of his Glaucus:

It is with real pain I have seen my friend Mr. Gosse make a step in the direction of obscurantism, which I can only call desperate, by publishing a book called Omphalos.
-It seems to me that such a notion is more likely to make infidels than to cure them. For what rational man, who knows even a little of geology, will not he tempted to say-If Scripture can only he vindicated by such an outrage to common sense and fact, than I will give up Scripture, and stand by common sense.21

After the passage of a century the wheel had turned full circle, the philosophical corpse was disinterred.

Omphalos was also reviewed by numerous journals and publications in the years immediately after its 
appearance. Their reactions are probably reflective of the general tone of the book's reception. The British Quarterly Review, for example, wrote that "More than once we have had occasion to write of Mr. Gosse as an eminent naturalist. Here we must view him in a somewhat different capacity. He now comes forward as a fanciful theorist." "Indeed, before we can entertain Mr. Gosse's proposition for a moment, we must put down all human reason-his own as well-and adopt a supposition which is monstrous. and "desperate," involving "lying geological appurtenances." It also pointed out the ultimate scientific obstacle to theories of this kind by saying, "It is impossible, however, to deal argumentatively with a theory which starts with a miracle, and draws upon that miracle for an answer to all your objections. "22 The Westminister Review stated, "It will doubtless be a surprise to our readers, as it has been to us, to find the geological notions of the dark ages resuscitated in the latter half of the nineteenth century by a writer who has acquired no undistinguished place among British Naturalists . His ideas involve "the material embodiment of a sort of dream." "The thing is too monstrous for belief; and the whole notion affords a lamentable instance of the degree to which the vision of even an intelligent man may be blinded by theological prejudice." Of Gosse's attempt to explain away the astronomical evidence of great age, by appealing to the direct creation of the light rays at the observer's eye, it was said, "This is cutting the Gordian Knot with a vengence." The review concluded with some advice for "Mr. Gosse and his disciples-if he has any."23 A review in The Geologist included the following comments, stating that Ornphalos was

unworthy of Mr. Gosse, and indeed of anybody else, in its doctrine . . . . the world itself is thus, like everything else, made to offer a fallacious display of an antiquity it does not possess. As if God could create anything with the impression of untruth upon it...We most not take upour Bibles and, with certain notions of our own, point out certain passages and say the Bible says so and so, and, therefore, no evidence of the senses must be allowed to contradict it . . . . We think most persons, not, in the least degree, geologists, would prefer to use their senses rather than blindly to be enslaved by such wild and hypothetical speculations, alike derogatory to the intellect of man, and to the power and wisdom of God.24

Perhaps the most penetrating analysis was that written in The Natural History Review which compared Gosse to Berkeley, and agreed that, logically speaking, the theory was impeccable.

We have no hesitation in pronouncing this book to be the most important and best written that has yet appeared on the very interesting question with which it deals. We believe the logic of the book to be unanswerable, its postulates true, its laws fairly deduced, and the whole, considered as a play of metaphysical subtlety, absolutely complete; . . But the important question remains to be asked, whether, after all this display of logical subtlety, the world at large will believe one word of Mr. Gosse's theory. We are confident, and so we think is Mr. Gosse, that they will not .... Front Berkeley's day to the present hour, his theory of the non-existence of an external world has not gained a single convert: and we believe that Mr. Gosse's theory of Prochronism will prove equally barren and unfruitful. They are idle speculations, fit only to please a philosopher in his hours of relaxation, but hardly worthy of the serious attention of any earnest titan, whether scientific or not...we do not think that the cause religion is served by these attempts to remove difficulties by metaphysical subtleties.

"Non tali ausilio, nec defensoribus istis 
Tempos eget."25

The most wonderful mystery of all, the salvation of man by the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God, has more than once been endangered by the rash attempts 0f injudicious friends to explain what God had left obscure. For ourselves, we believe that a mode of reconciling all difficulties connected with the relation of the Bible to Science, does exist, and may be readily found, which would not detract one tittle from the authority of the former, nor require of us to abandon the use of our reason in the investigation of the latter26

If the publication of Ompholos in 1857 was the high-water mark of the apparent age concept, reviews such as those cited evidently marked, in the very next year, its rapid decline as an acceptable means of reconciling science and Scripture. Gosse had, in effect, taken the idea as far as it could go.27 That apparent age could explain all of the evidences for great age in a logical manner was generally agreed .28 Few, if any, however, were prepared to take this logical possibility seriously. Gosse continued to advocate prochronism in various letters and minor publications, but in his later scientific work, which includes some of his best, he is silent on the issue. No new champion of the cause appeared, and the concept seemingly vanished from sight. Upon his death in 1888, Gosse's obituary in the Proceedings reviewed his life and work but contained no reference to Omphalos or prochronism.29 The National Biography of 1890 identifies Omphalos only, rather cryptically, as an "unfortunate" volume written "in a conservative spirit" that was "not warmly received, either by savants or the public."30 In 1927 Brewster reviewed the historical background of non-evolutionary theories of origins, and acknowledged, as had been conceded by many in the 19th century, that "Logically, then, there is no refuting Gosse," but adding significantly "But men will not, in the end, set logic above eyesight," and concludes "the notion seems never to have been revived."31 As recently as 1954 Ramm, in his review of past attempts at the reconciliation of geology with scripture treats Gosse and apparent age strictly as a 19th century phenomenon, with no evident awareness of such ideas in the 20th century.32 And then, in 1961, Whitcomb and Morris published The Genesis Flood, and after the passage of over a century the wheel had turned full circle, "the philosophical corpse was disinterred "34 and apparent age was with us once again."

Ecelesiastes 1:9



1John C. Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1961). See pp. '232-34, 237-39. .344-46, 354, 356-57. 366, 369.

2 Henrv Xl. Morris, ed., Scientific Creationism (San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, 1974): John C. Whitcomb, Jr., The Early Earth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book house, 1972). Every advocate of a greatly shortened time scale to whom I hav e spoken has, when pressed, used apparent age arguments.
3Gosse has received little attention from historians of science. The most complete source for his life is Douglas I.. Wertheimer, Philip Henry Gosse: Science and Revelation in the Crucible (1977), a PhD dissertation completed at the University of Toronto.
4See, for example, Francis H. Haber, The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959), pp. 112-15.
5Viscount de Chateaubriand, Genius of Christianity, tr. Charles White, Baltinniec: John Murphy and Co., 1956), 1). 136, 37.
6Anynomous, Conversations on Geology (London: Samuel Maunder, Nescgate Street, 1828), p. 306.
7T John Pye Smith. On the Relation Between the Holy Scriptures and Some Parts of Geological Science, from the fourth London edition (Philadelphia: Robert E. Peterson, 1850), ti 299.
8The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel (London; The Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, 1912), V-2, p. 51 A reprint of the original paper "On the Power of Penetrating into Space by Telescopes" in Philosophical Transactions (1800), pp. 49-85.
9The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel, V-2, p. 213. A reprint of the original paper, "Catalogue of 500 new Nebulae, nebulous Stars, planetary Nebulae, and clusters of Stars; with Remarks or, the Construction of the heavens" in Philosophical Transactions (1802), pp. 477528.
10 Smith, On the Relation ..., p. 254.
11Philip Henry Gosse, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (London: John VanVosiest, 1857), p. -vi,
12Ibid., pp. vii, viii
13Ibid pp. 124-26.
14Ibid., 1). 335.
15Ibid., p. .347, 353.
16Ibid., pp. 362-63. This is precisely the position taken by Whitromb and Morris in The Genesis Flood (p. 369).
17Ibid., p. 369.
18Edmond Gosse, Father and Son (London: William I Heineniann, 1907), pp.12l -22.
19Frederick R. Ross, "Philip Gosse's Omphalos, Edmond Gosse's Fatherand Son, and Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection," Isis (1977) 'V'-68, pp. 85-96.
20Quoted in Wertheimer, Philip Henry Gosse, p. 261.
21Quoted in Una Pope-Hennessy, Cannon Charles Kingsley (London: Chatto and Windns, 1948), pp. 184-85.
22The British Quarterly Review (1858), V-27, pp. 557-600.
23The Westminister Review (1855), V-69, pp. 143-46.
24The Geologist (1858), V-i, pp. 213-16.
25Roughly being, "This time needs neither such help nor defenders."
26The Natural History Review (1858), V-5. pp. 55-60.
27But not quite, perhaps. The most extreme use of apparent age arguments I have ever encountered is that of  Henry Morris in his Scientific Creationisn, where he suggests that various astronomical bodies may have been visible before they actually existed. (p. 210).
28The logical status of apparent age continues to draw comment- Thomas Leith (Journal of the American Scientific' Affiliation, V-17 #4, 1965. p 119) argued that apparent age is "a logical impossibility.- his discussion seems somewhat obscure, and a series of exchanges (JASA V18 #2, pp. 61-63; X'-18 #4, pp'. 125-126; V19 #2, pp. 62-63) evidently has not clarified the issue. Whatever the merits of Leith's suggestion, it is evident that many in the 19th century, even while rejecting apparent age, agreed that it is logically consistent.
29Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (1888),V-XLIV, pp, xxvii-xxviii
30Dictionary of National Biography (New York: MacMillan and Co., 1890), V-XXII, p. 261).
31Edwin, 'I'. Brewster, Creation, a History of Non-Evolutionary Theories (Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill, 1927) p.121. Bernard Ramm (see note 32 p. 194) faults Brewster as "a most glaring example of failing to follow through the logic of the man he is criticizing.'' I believe, however, that it is Ramm who has misunderstood here. Brewster's point is that, even granting the logical possibility of a world created instantly with even the most detailed evidences of age built in, men will always, faced with this possibility, forgo logic and instead accept such evidences as indicators of a real past. This is the force of  Brewster's comment that apparent age "depend (s) on logic and outrage (s) common sense...(p. 121). This is also what I see as the meaning of Kingsley's statement quoted above (see note 21); ''It is not my reason but my conscience which revolts here."
32Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, (1954), pp. 192-95.
33 James R. Moore's tern, from note 4l. of his article ''Charles Lyell and the Noachian Deluge'' in Journal of The American Scientific Affiliation, (Sept. 1970), p. 115,
34The version of apparent age advocated by Henry Morris and his followers to me seems to contain a  fundamental flaw that was not present in the work of Gosse. Gosse accepted the reality of the evidence for great age and explained it, in a consistent manner, as "prochronic." In The Genesis Flood and Scientific Creationism (to pick just two examples) however, the authors confusingly oscillate between two incompatible positions. On the one hand, the claim is made that certain evidences seem to indicate that the world is "young." These evidences are then accepted as being the result of processes that actually occurred in real tune. Faced with other evidences that indicate that the world is "old, however, the apparent age doctrine is them, invoked to explain why the implications if these evidences seed not be accepted. This semis to be an obvious attempt to both have and eat the proverbial cake. Thus, apparent age as utilized by present day "creationists" does not correspond to its consistent use by Gosse, but rather bears a distinctly closer resemblance to its use by the early apologists of the 19th century who, when geology was first developing, invoked apparent age primarily to explain away data that could not he otherwise reconciled with a short tune scale, While this oscillation between mutually incompatible alternatives may indeed provide a quick, convenient answer to any possible objection, it hardly seems to be an adequate' base upon which to build a satisfying scientific world view .