Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1154:
ADAM'S BELLY BUTTON

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1154.

Today, a silly question about Adam's navel paves the way for evolution. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Stephen Jay Gould talks about the problem early artists faced when they painted Adam and Eve. Should they portray them with or without navels? Adam was molded from spit and clay and Eve from Adam's rib. They weren't born of woman, so how could they have navels? Yet they'd look pretty silly without them. Artists often dodged the question by extending fig leaves over the lower belly.

That may sound foolish, but it took on huge significance in the 19th century. Just before Darwin, geologists began seeing a world far older than Adam written in fossils and geologic structures. Suddenly, all this history before the Creation! Navels suggested only that Adam had a history before he was created. Now these geologic remains suggested that Earth itself existed -- alive and changing -- long before the biblical Creation.

In 1857 a fundamentalist scientist, Philip Henry Gosse, addressed the matter. He published a great treatise: Ompholos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. (That was only two years before Darwin completely changed the conversation about biblical literalism with his Origin of Species.) Gould calls Gosse, "the finest descriptive naturalist of his day." And ompholos, of course, is Greek for navel. Did Adam have a navel, asked Gosse? Sure he did.

Gosse went on to list other figurative navels. The teeth of an adult hippopotamus, for example, are worn down to a chisel shape. Hippos aren't born that way, but they'd be in serious trouble if they didn't get there as they matured. They wouldn't even be able to close their mouths. So did God create adult hippos with fresh unground teeth? No, of course not.

Gosse looked at the fossil record. It proclaimed a world with a very long history -- much older than hippos' teeth, much older than Adam and Eve. Gosse said that God had created a world with a built-in history -- just plopped it down, history and all. But it was history that hadn't really happened.

Still, Gosse said, that history is worth studying and understanding nevertheless, because God put it there. Naturally logic like that cooked Gosse's goose. He left us with a huge looping tautology. His deep error, writes Gould, occurred when he wrote that the question of history made no practical difference. Gosse plainly said that a created world and an evolved world would both look exactly the same.

In the end, Gosse had made the scientific search for reality into a great cosmic joke. At best God had deceived us. At worst, nothing was worth knowing anyway. After that, we were ready to quit messing with specious logic and to take the fossil record seriously, We were ready to allow that Adam had a navel after all, along with all his forbears. After Gosse, we were ready for Darwin.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S. J., The Flamingo's Smile. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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