Mr. Gladstone and Genesis This is Essay #5 from "Science and Hebrew Tradition"
Thomas Henry Huxley
Processed by D.R. Thompson
Mr. Gladstone and Genesis
by Thomas Henry Huxley
This is Essay #5 from "Science and Hebrew Tradition"
In controversy, as in courtship, the good old rule to be off
with the old before one is on with the new, greatly commends
itself to my sense of expediency. And, therefore, it appears to
me desirable that I should preface such observations as I may
have to offer upon the cloud of arguments (the relevancy of
which to the issue which I had ventured to raise is not always
obvious) put forth by Mr. Gladstone in the January number of
this review,<1> by an endeavour to make clear to such of our
readers as have not had the advantage of a forensic education
the present net result of the discussion.
I am quite aware that, in undertaking this task, I run all the
risks to which the man who presumes to deal judicially with his
own cause is liable. But it is exactly because I do not shun
that risk, but, rather, earnestly desire to be judged by him who
cometh after me, provided that he has the knowledge and
impartiality appropriate to a judge, that I adopt my
In the article on "The Dawn of Creation and Worship," it will be
remembered that Mr. Gladstone unreservedly commits himself to
three propositions. The first is that, according to the writer
of the Pentateuch, the "water-population," the "air-population,"
and the "land-population" of the globe were created
successively, in the order named. In the second place, Mr.
Gladstone authoritatively asserts that this (as part of his
"fourfold order") has been "so affirmed in our time by natural
science, that it may be taken as a demonstrated conclusion and
established fact." In the third place, Mr. Gladstone argues that
the fact of this coincidence of the pentateuchal story with the
results of modern investigation makes it "impossible to avoid
the conclusion, first, that either this writer was gifted with
faculties passing all human experience, or else his knowledge
was divine." And having settled to his own satisfaction that the
first "branch of the alternative is truly nominal and unreal,"
Mr. Gladstone continues, "So stands the plea for a revelation of
truth from God, a plea only to be met by questioning its
possibility" (p. 697).
I am a simple-minded person, wholly devoid of subtlety of
intellect, so that I willingly admit that there may be depths of
alternative meaning in these propositions out of all soundings
attainable by my poor plummet. Still there are a good many
people who suffer under a like intellectual limitation; and, for
once in my life, I feel that I have the chance of attaining that
position of a representative of average opinion which appears to
be the modern ideal of a leader of men, when I make free
confession that, after turning the matter over in my mind, with
all the aid derived from a careful consideration of Mr.
Gladstone's reply, I cannot get away from my original conviction
that, if Mr. Gladstone's second proposition can be shown to be
not merely inaccurate, but directly contradictory of facts known
to every one who is acquainted with the elements of natural
science, the third proposition collapses of itself.
And it was this conviction which led me to enter upon the
present discussion. I fancied that if my respected clients, the
people of average opinion and capacity, could once be got
distinctly to conceive that Mr. Gladstone's views as to the
proper method of dealing with grave and difficult scientific and
religious problems had permitted him to base a solemn "plea for
a revelation of truth from God" upon an error as to a matter of
fact, from which the intelligent perusal of a manual of
palaeontology would have saved him, I need not trouble myself to
occupy their time and attention  with further comments upon
his contribution to apologetic literature. It is for others to
judge whether I have efficiently carried out my project or not.
It certainly does not count for much that I should be unable to
find any flaw in my own case, but I think it counts for a good
deal that Mr. Gladstone appears to have been equally unable to
do so. He does, indeed, make a great parade of authorities, and
I have the greatest respect for those authorities whom
Mr. Gladstone mentions. If he will get them to sign a joint
memorial to the effect that our present palaeontological
evidence proves that birds appeared before the "land-population"
of terrestrial reptiles, I shall think it my duty to reconsider
my position--but not till then.
It will be observed that I have cautiously used the word
"appears" in referring to what seems to me to be absence of any
real answer to my criticisms in Mr. Gladstone's reply. For I
must honestly confess that, notwithstanding long and painful
strivings after clear insight, I am still uncertain whether Mr.
Gladstone's "Defence" means that the great "plea for a
revelation from God" is to be left to perish in the dialectic
desert; or whether it is to be withdrawn under the protection of
such skirmishers as are available for covering retreat.
In particular, the remarkable disquisition which covers pages 11
to 14 of Mr. Gladstone's last contribution has greatly exercised
my mind. Socrates is reported to have said of the works of
Heraclitus that he who attempted to comprehend them should be a
"Delian swimmer," but that, for his part, what he could
understand was so good that he was disposed to believe in the
excellence of that which he found unintelligible.
In endeavouring to make myself master of Mr. Gladstone's meaning
in these pages, I have often been overcome by a feeling
analogous to that of Socrates, but not quite the same.
That which I do understand has appeared to me so very much the
reverse of good, that I have sometimes permitted myself to doubt
the value of that which I do not understand.
In this part of Mr. Gladstone's reply, in fact, I find nothing
of which the bearing upon my arguments is clear to me, except
that which relates to the question whether reptiles, so far as
they are represented by tortoises and the great majority of
lizards and snakes, which are land animals, are creeping things
in the sense of the pentateuchal writer or not.
I have every respect for the singer of the Song of the Three
Children (whoever he may have been); I desire to cast no shadow
of doubt upon, but, on the contrary, marvel at, the exactness of
Mr. Gladstone's information as to the considerations which
"affected the method of the Mosaic writer"; nor do I venture to
doubt that the inconvenient intrusion of these contemptible
reptiles--"a family fallen from greatness" (p. 14), a miserable
decayed aristocracy reduced to mere "skulkers about the earth"
(ibid.)--in consequence, apparently, of difficulties
about the occupation of land arising out of the earth-hunger of
their former serfs, the mammals--into an apologetic argument,
which otherwise would run quite smoothly, is in every way to be
deprecated. Still, the wretched creatures stand there,
importunately demanding notice; and, however different may be
the practice in that contentious atmosphere with which Mr.
Gladstone expresses and laments his familiarity, in the
atmosphere of science it really is of no avail whatever to shut
one's eyes to facts, or to try to bury them out of sight under a
tumulus of rhetoric. That is my experience of the "Elysian
regions of Science," wherein it is a pleasure to me to think
that a man of Mr. Gladstone's intimate knowledge of English
life, during the last quarter of a century, believes my
philosophic existence to have been rounded off in
However reprehensible, and indeed contemptible, terrestrial
reptiles may be, the only question which appears to me to be
relevant to my argument is whether these creatures are or are
not comprised under the denomination of "everything that
creepeth upon the ground."
Mr. Gladstone speaks of the author of the first chapter of
Genesis as "the Mosaic writer"; I suppose, therefore, that he
will admit that it is equally proper to speak of the author of
Leviticus as the "Mosaic writer." Whether such a phrase would be
used by any one who had an adequate conception of the assured
results of modern Biblical criticism is another matter; but, at
any rate, it cannot be denied that Leviticus has as much claim
to Mosaic authorship as Genesis. Therefore, if one wants to know
the sense of a phrase used in Genesis, it will be well to see
what Leviticus has to say on the matter. Hence, I commend the
following extract from the eleventh chapter of Leviticus to Mr.
Gladstone's serious attention:--
And these are they which are unclean unto you among the creeping
things that creep upon the earth: the weasel, and the mouse, and
the great lizard after its kind, and the gecko, and the land
crocodile, and the sand-lizard, and the chameleon. These are
they which are unclean to you among all that creep (v. 29-3l).
The merest Sunday-school exegesis therefore suffices to prove
that when the "Mosaic writer" in Genesis i. 24 speaks of
"creeping things," he means to include lizards among them.
This being so, it is agreed, on all hands, that terrestrial
lizards, and other reptiles allied to lizards, occur in the
Permian strata. It is further agreed that the Triassic strata
were deposited after these. Moreover, it is well known that,
even if certain footprints are to be taken as unquestionable
evidence of the existence of birds, they are not known to occur
in rocks earlier than the Trias, while indubitable remains of
birds are to be met with only much later. Hence it follows that
natural science does not "affirm" the statement that birds were
made on the fifth day, and "everything that creepeth on the
ground" on the sixth, on which Mr. Gladstone rests his order;
for, as is shown by Leviticus, the "Mosaic writer" includes
lizards among his "creeping things."
Perhaps I have given myself superfluous trouble in the preceding
argument, for I find that Mr. Gladstone is willing to assume (he
does not say to admit) that the statement in the text of Genesis
as to reptiles cannot "in all points be sustained" (p. 16). But
my position is that it cannot be sustained in any point, so
that, after all, it has perhaps been as well to go over the
evidence again. And then Mr. Gladstone proceeds as if nothing
had happened to tell us that--
There remain great unshaken facts to be weighed. First, the fact
that such a record should have been made at all.
As most peoples have their cosmogonies, this "fact" does not
strike me as having much value.
Secondly, the fact that, instead of dwelling in generalities, it
has placed itself under the severe conditions of a chronological
order reaching from the first nisus of chaotic matter to
the consummated production of a fair and goodly, a furnished and
a peopled world.
This "fact" can be regarded as of value only by ignoring the
fact demonstrated in my previous paper, that natural science
does not confirm the order asserted so far as living things are
concerned; and by upsetting a fact to be brought to light
presently, to wit, that, in regard to the rest of the
pentateuchal cosmogony, prudent science has very little to say
one way or the other.
Thirdly, the fact that its cosmogony seems, in the light of the
nineteenth century, to draw more and more of countenance from
the best natural philosophy.
I have already questioned the accuracy of this statement, and I
do not observe that mere repetition adds to its value.
And, fourthly, that it has described the successive origins of
the five great categories of present life with which human
experience was and is conversant, in that order which geological
By comparison with a sentence on page 14, in which a fivefold
order is substituted for the "fourfold order," on which the
"plea for revelation" was originally founded, it appears that
these five categories are "plants, fishes, birds, mammals, and
man," which, Mr. Gladstone affirms, "are given to us in Genesis
in the order of succession in which they are also given by the
latest geological authorities."
I must venture to demur to this statement. I showed, in my
previous paper, that there is no reason to doubt that the term
"great sea monster" (used in Gen. i. 21) includes the most
conspicuous of great sea animals--namely, whales, dolphins,
porpoises, manatees, and dugongs;<2> and, as these are
indubitable mammals, it is impossible to affirm that mammals
come after birds, which are said to have been created on the
same day. Moreover, I pointed out that as these Cetacea and
Sirenia are certainly modified land animals, their existence
implies the antecedent existence of land mammals.
Furthermore, I have to remark that the term "fishes," as used,
technically, in zoology, by no means covers all the moving
creatures that have life, which are bidden to "fill the waters
in the seas" (Gen. i. 20-22.) Marine mollusks and crustacea,
echinoderms, corals, and foraminifera are not technically
fishes. But they are abundant in the palaeozoic rocks, ages upon
ages older than those in which the first evidences of true
fishes appear. And if, in a geological book, Mr. Gladstone finds
the quite true statement that plants appeared before fishes, it
is only by a complete misunderstanding that he can be led to
imagine it serves his purpose. As a matter of fact, at the
present moment, it is a question whether, on the bare evidence
afforded by fossils, the marine creeping thing or the marine
plant has the seniority. No cautious palaeontologist would
express a decided opinion on the matter. But, if we are to read
the pentateuchal statement as a scientific document (and, in
spite of all protests to the contrary, those who bring it into
comparison with science do seek to make a scientific document of
it), then, as it is quite clear that only terrestrial plants of
high organisation are spoken of in verses 11 and 12, no
palaeontologist would hesitate to say that, at present, the
records of sea animal life are vastly older than those of any
land plant describable as "grass, herb yielding seed or
Thus, although, in Mr. Gladstone's "Defence," the "old order
passeth into new," his case is not improved. The fivefold order
is no more "affirmed in our time by natural science" to be "a
demonstrated conclusion and established fact" than the fourfold
order was. Natural science appears to me to decline to have
anything to do with either; they are as wrong in detail as they
are mistaken in principle.
There is another change of position, the value of which is not
so apparent to me, as it may well seem to be to those who are
unfamiliar with the subject under discussion. Mr. Gladstone
discards his three groups of "water-population," "air-
population," and "land-population," and substitutes for them
(1) fishes, (2) birds, (3) mammals, (4) man. Moreover, it is
assumed, in a note, that "the higher or ordinary mammals" alone
were known to the "Mosaic writer" (p. 6). No doubt it looks, at
first, as if something were gained by this alteration; for, as I
have just pointed out, the word "fishes" can be used in two
senses, one of which has a deceptive appearance of adjustability
to the "Mosaic" account. Then the inconvenient reptiles are
banished out of sight; and, finally, the question of the exact
meaning of "higher" and "ordinary" in the case of mammals opens
up the prospect of a hopeful logomachy. But what is the good of
it all in the face of Leviticus on the one hand and of
palaeontology on the other?
As, in my apprehension, there is not a shadow of justification
for the suggestion that when the pentateuchal writer says "fowl"
he excludes bats (which, as we shall see directly, are expressly
included under "fowl" in Leviticus), and as I have already shown
that he demonstrably includes reptiles, as well as mammals,
among the creeping things of the land, I may be permitted to
spare my readers further discussion of the "fivefold order."
On the whole, it is seen to be rather more inconsistent with
Genesis than its fourfold predecessor.
But I have yet a fresh order to face. Mr. Gladstone (p. 11)
understands "the main statements of Genesis in successive order
of time, but without any measurement of its divisions, to be as
1. A period of land, anterior to all life (v. 9, 10).
2. A period of vegetable life, anterior to animal life
(v. 11, 12).
3. A period of animal life, in the order of fishes (v. 20).
4. Another stage of animal life, in the order of birds.
5. Another in the order of beasts (v. 24, 25).
6. Last of all, man (v. 26, 27).
Mr. Gladstone then tries to find the proof of the occurrence of
a similar succession in sundry excellent works on geology.
I am really grieved to be obliged to say that this third (or is
it fourth?) modification of the foundation of the "plea for
revelation" originally set forth, satisfies me as little as any
of its predecessors.
For, in the first place, I cannot accept the assertion that this
order is to be found in Genesis. With respect to No. 5, for
example, I hold, as I have already said, that "great sea
monsters" includes the Cetacea, in which case mammals (which is
what, I suppose, Mr. Gladstone means by "beasts") come in under
head No. 3, and not under No. 5. Again, "fowl" are said in
Genesis to be created on the same day as fishes; therefore I
cannot accept an order which makes birds succeed fishes.
Once more, as it is quite certain that the term "fowl" includes
the bats,--for in Leviticus xi. 13-19 we read, "And these shall
ye have in abomination among the fowls ... the heron after its
kind, and the hoopoe, and the bat,"--it is obvious that bats are
also said to have been created at stage No. 3. And as bats are
mammals, and their existence obviously presupposes that of
terrestrial "beasts," it is quite clear that the latter could
not have first appeared as No. 5. I need not repeat my reasons
for doubting whether man came "last of all."
As the latter half of Mr. Gladstone's sixfold order thus shows
itself to be wholly unauthorised by, and inconsistent with, the
plain language of the Pentateuch, I might decline to discuss the
admissibility of its former half.
But I will add one or two remarks on this point also. Does Mr.
Gladstone mean to say that in any of the works he has cited, or
indeed anywhere else, he can find scientific warranty for the
assertion that there was a period of land--by which I suppose he
means dry land (for submerged land must needs be as old as the
separate existence of the sea)--"anterior to all life?"
It may be so, or it may not be so; but where is the evidence
which would justify any one in making a positive assertion on
the subject? What competent palaeontologist will affirm, at this
present moment, that he knows anything about the period at which
life originated, or will assert more than the extreme
probability that such origin was a long way antecedent to any
traces of life at present known? What physical geologist will
affirm that he knows when dry land began to exist, or will say
more than that it was probably very much earlier than any extant
direct evidence of terrestrial conditions indicates?
I think I know pretty well the answers which the authorities
quoted by Mr. Gladstone would give to these questions; but I
leave it to them to give them if they think fit.
If I ventured to speculate on the matter at all, I should say it
is by no means certain that sea is older than dry land, inasmuch
as a solid terrestrial surface may very well have existed before
the earth was cool enough to allow of the existence of fluid
water. And, in this case, dry land may have existed before the
sea. As to the first appearance of life, the whole argument of
analogy, whatever it may be worth in such a case, is in favour
of the absence of living beings until long after the hot water
seas had constituted themselves; and of the subsequent
appearance of aquatic before terrestrial forms of life.
But whether these "protoplasts" would, if we could examine them,
be reckoned among the lowest microscopic algae, or fungi; or
among those doubtful organisms which lie in the debatable land
between animals and plants, is, in my judgment, a question on
which a prudent biologist will reserve his opinion.
I think that I have now disposed of those parts of Mr.
Gladstone's defence in which I seem to discover a design to
rescue his solemn "plea for revelation." But a great deal of the
"Proem to Genesis" remains which I would gladly pass over in
silence, were such a course consistent with the respect due to
so distinguished a champion of the "reconcilers."
I hope that my clients--the people of average opinions--have by
this time some confidence in me; for when I tell them that,
after all, Mr. Gladstone is of opinion that the "Mosaic record"
was meant to give moral, and not scientific, instruction to
those for whom it was written, they may be disposed to think
that I must be misleading them. But let them listen further to
what Mr. Gladstone says in a compendious but not exactly correct
statement respecting my opinions:--
He holds the writer responsible for scientific precision: I look
for nothing of the kind, but assign to him a statement general,
which admits exceptions; popular, which aims mainly at producing
moral impression; summary, which cannot but be open to more or
less of criticism of detail. He thinks it is a lecture. I think
it is a sermon" (p. 5).
I note, incidentally, that Mr. Gladstone appears to consider
that the differentia between a lecture and a sermon is,
that the former, so far as it deals with matters of fact, may be
taken seriously, as meaning exactly what it says, while a sermon
may not. I have quite enough on my hands without taking up the
cudgels for the clergy, who will probably find Mr. Gladstone's
But I am diverging from my proper business, which is to say that
I have given no ground for the ascription of these opinions; and
that, as a matter of fact, I do not hold them and never have
held them. It is Mr. Gladstone, and not I, who will have it that
the pentateuchal cosmogony is to be taken as science.
My belief, on the contrary, is, and long has been, that the
pentateuchal story of the creation is simply a myth. I suppose
it to be an hypothesis respecting the origin of the universe
which some ancient thinker found himself able to reconcile with
his knowledge, or what he thought was knowledge, of the nature
of things, and therefore assumed to be true. As such, I hold it
to be not merely an interesting, but a venerable, monument of a
stage in the mental progress of mankind; and I find it difficult
to suppose that any one who is acquainted with the cosmogonies
of other nations--and especially with those of the Egyptians and
the Babylonians, with whom the Israelites were in such frequent
and intimate communication--should consider it to possess either
more, or less, scientific importance than may be allotted
Mr. Gladstone's definition of a sermon permits me to suspect
that he may not see much difference between that form of
discourse and what I call a myth; and I hope it may be something
more than the slowness of apprehension, to which I have
confessed, which leads me to imagine that a statement which is
"general" but "admits exceptions," which is "popular" and "aims
mainly at producing moral impression," "summary" and therefore
open to "criticism of detail," amounts to a myth, or perhaps
less than a myth. Put algebraically, it comes to this,
x=a+b+c; always remembering that there is nothing to show
the exact value of either a, or b, or c.
It is true that a is commonly supposed to equal 10, but
there are exceptions, and these may reduce it to 8, or 3, or 0;
b also popularly means 10, but being chiefly used by the
algebraist as a "moral" value, you cannot do much with it in the
addition or subtraction of mathematical values; c also is
quite "summary," and if you go into the details of which it is
made up, many of them may be wrong, and their sum total equal to
0, or even to a minus quantity.
Mr. Gladstone appears to wish that I should (1) enter upon a
sort of essay competition with the author of the pentateuchal
cosmogony; (2) that I should make a further statement about some
elementary facts in the history of Indian and Greek philosophy;
and (3) that I should show cause for my hesitation in accepting
the assertion that Genesis is supported, at any rate to the
extent of the first two verses, by the nebular hypothesis.
A certain sense of humour prevents me from accepting the first
invitation. I would as soon attempt to put Hamlet's soliloquy
into a more scientific shape. But if I supposed the "Mosaic
writer" to be inspired, as Mr. Gladstone does, it would not be
consistent with my notions of respect for the Supreme Being to
imagine Him unable to frame a form of words which should
accurately, or, at least, not inaccurately, express His own
meaning. It is sometimes said that, had the statements contained
in the first chapter of Genesis been scientifically true, they
would have been unintelligible to ignorant people; but how is
the matter mended if, being scientifically untrue, they must
needs be rejected by instructed people?
With respect to the second suggestion, it would be presumptuous
in me to pretend to instruct Mr. Gladstone in matters which lie
as much within the province of Literature and History as in that
of Science; but if any one desirous of further knowledge will be
so good as to turn to that most excellent and by no means
recondite source of information, the "Encyclopaedia Britannica,"
he will find, under the letter E, the word "Evolution," and a
long article on that subject. Now, I do not recommend him to
read the first half of the article; but the second half, by my
friend Mr. Sully, is really very good. He will there find it
said that in some of the philosophies of ancient India, the idea
of evolution is clearly expressed: "Brahma is conceived as the
eternal self-existent being, which, on its material side,
unfolds itself to the world by gradually condensing itself to
material objects through the gradations of ether, fire, water,
earth, and other elements." And again: "In the later system of
emanation of Sankhya there is a more marked approach to a
materialistic doctrine of evolution." What little knowledge I
have of the matter--chiefly derived from that very instructive
book, "Die Religion des Buddha," by C. F. Koeppen, supplemented
by Hardy's interesting works--leads me to think that Mr. Sully
might have spoken much more strongly as to the evolutionary
character of Indian philosophy, and especially of that of the
Buddhists. But the question is too large to be dealt
And, with respect to early Greek philosophy,<3> the seeker after
additional enlightenment need go no further than the same
excellent storehouse of information:--
The early Ionian physicists, including Thales,
Anaximander, and Anaximenes, seek to explain the world as
generated out of a primordial matter which is at the same time
the universal support of things. This substance is endowed with
a generative or transmutative force by virtue of which it passes
into a succession of forms. They thus resemble modern
evolutionists since they regard the world, with its infinite
variety of forms, as issuing from a simple mode of matter.
Further on, Mr. Sully remarks that "Heraclitus deserves a
prominent place in the history of the idea of evolution," and he
states, with perfect justice, that Heraclitus has foreshadowed
some of the special peculiarities of Mr. Darwin's views. It is
indeed a very strange circumstance that the philosophy of the
great Ephesian more than adumbrates the two doctrines which have
played leading parts, the one in the development of Christian
dogma, the other in that of natural science. The former is the
conception of the Word [logos] which took its Jewish
shape in Alexandria, and its Christian form<4> in that Gospel
which is usually referred to an Ephesian source of some five
centuries later date; and the latter is that of the struggle for
existence. The saying that "strife is father and king of all"
[...], ascribed to Heraclitus, would be a not
inappropriate motto for the "Origin of Species."
I have referred only to Mr. Sully's article, because his
authority is quite sufficient for my purpose. But the
consultation of any of the more elaborate histories of Greek
philosophy, such as the great work of Zeller, for example, will
only bring out the same fact into still more striking
prominence. I have professed no "minute acquaintance" with
either Indian or Greek philosophy, but I have taken a great deal
of pains to secure that such knowledge as I do possess shall be
accurate and trustworthy.
In the third place, Mr. Gladstone appears to wish that I should
discuss with him the question whether the nebular hypothesis is,
or is not, confirmatory of the pentateuchal account of the
origin of things. Mr. Gladstone appears to be prepared to enter
upon this campaign with a light heart. I confess I am not, and
my reason for this backwardness will doubtless surprise Mr.
Gladstone. It is that, rather more than a quarter of a century
ago (namely, in February 1859), when it was my duty, as
President of the Geological Society, to deliver the Anniversary
Address,<5> I chose a topic which involved a very careful study
of the remarkable cosmogonical speculation, originally
promulgated by Immanuel Kant and, subsequently, by Laplace,
which is now known as the nebular hypothesis. With the help of
such little acquaintance with the principles of physics and
astronomy as I had gained, I endeavoured to obtain a clear
understanding of this speculation in all its bearings. I am not
sure that I succeeded; but of this I am certain, that the
problems involved are very difficult, even for those who possess
the intellectual discipline requisite for dealing with them.
And it was this conviction that led me to express my desire to
leave the discussion of the question of the asserted harmony
between Genesis and the nebular hypothesis to experts in the
appropriate branches of knowledge. And I think my course was a
wise one; but as Mr. Gladstone evidently does not understand how
there can be any hesitation on my part, unless it arises from a
conviction that he is in the right, I may go so far as to set
out my difficulties.
They are of two kinds--exegetical and scientific. It appears to
me that it is vain to discuss a supposed coincidence between
Genesis and science unless we have first settled, on the one
hand, what Genesis says, and, on the other hand, what
In the first place, I cannot find any consensus among Biblical
scholars as to the meaning of the words, "In the beginning God
created the heaven and the earth." Some say that the Hebrew word
bara, which is translated "create," means "made out of
nothing." I venture to object to that rendering, not on the
ground of scholarship, but of common sense. Omnipotence itself
can surely no more make something "out of" nothing than it can
make a triangular circle. What is intended by "made out of
nothing" appears to be "caused to come into existence," with the
implication that nothing of the same kind previously existed.
It is further usually assumed that "the heaven and the earth"
means the material substance of the universe. Hence the "Mosaic
writer" is taken to imply that where nothing of a material
nature previously existed, this substance appeared. That is
perfectly conceivable, and therefore no one can deny that it may
have happened. But there are other very authoritative critics
who say that the ancient Israelite<6> who wrote the passage was
not likely to have been capable of such abstract thinking; and
that, as a matter of philology, bara is commonly used to
signify the "fashioning," or "forming," of that which already
exists. Now it appears to me that the scientific investigator is
wholly incompetent to say anything at all about the first origin
of the material universe. The whole power of his organon
vanishes when he has to step beyond the chain of natural causes
and effects. No form of the nebular hypothesis, that I know of,
is necessarily connected with any view of the origination of the
nebular substance. Kant's form of it expressly supposes that the
nebular material from which one stellar system starts may be
nothing but the disintegrated substance of a stellar and
planetary system which has just come to an end. Therefore, so
far as I can see, one who believes that matter has existed from
all eternity has just as much right to hold the nebular
hypothesis as one who believes that matter came into existence
at a specified epoch. In other words, the nebular hypothesis and
the creation hypothesis, up to this point, neither confirm nor
oppose one another.
Next, we read in the revisers' version, in which I suppose the
ultimate results of critical scholarship to be embodied: "And
the earth was waste ['without form,' in the Authorised Version]
and void." Most people seem to think that this phraseology
intends to imply that the matter out of which the world was to
be formed was a veritable "chaos," devoid of law and order.
If this interpretation is correct, the nebular hypothesis can
have nothing to say to it. The scientific thinker cannot admit
the absence of law and order; anywhere or anywhen, in nature.
Sometimes law and order are patent and visible to our limited
vision; sometimes they are hidden. But every particle of the
matter of the most fantastic-looking nebula in the heavens is a
realm of law and order in itself; and, that it is so, is the
essential condition of the possibility of solar and planetary
evolution from the apparent chaos.<7>
"Waste" is too vague a term to be worth consideration. "Without
form," intelligible enough as a metaphor, if taken literally is
absurd; for a material thing existing in space must have a
superficies, and if it has a superficies it has a form.
The wildest streaks of marestail clouds in the sky, or the most
irregular heavenly nebulae, have surely just as much form as a
geometrical tetrahedron; and as for "void," how can that be void
which is full of matter? As poetry, these lines are vivid and
admirable; as a scientific statement, which they must be taken
to be if any one is justified in comparing them with another
scientific statement, they fail to convey any intelligible
conception to my mind.
The account proceeds: "And darkness was upon the face of the
deep." So be it; but where, then, is the likeness to the
celestial nebulae, of the existence of which we should know
nothing unless they shone with a light of their own? "And the
spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." I have met
with no form of the nebular hypothesis which involves anything
analogous to this process.
I have said enough to explain some of the difficulties which
arise in my mind, when I try to ascertain whether there is any
foundation for the contention that the statements contained in
the first two verses of Genesis are supported by the nebular
hypothesis. The result does not appear to me to be exactly
favourable to that contention. The nebular hypothesis assumes
the existence of matter, having definite properties, as its
foundation. Whether such matter was created a few thousand years
ago, or whether it has existed through an eternal series of
metamorphoses of which our present universe is only the last
stage, are alternatives, neither of which is scientifically
untenable, and neither scientifically demonstrable. But science
knows nothing of any stage in which the universe could be said,
in other than a metaphorical and popular sense, to be formless
or empty; or in any respect less the seat of law and order than
it is now. One might as well talk of a fresh-laid hen's egg
being "without form and void," because the chick therein is
potential and not actual, as apply such terms to the nebulous
mass which contains a potential solar system.
Until some further enlightenment comes to me, then, I confess
myself wholly unable to understand the way in which the nebular
hypothesis is to be converted into an ally of the
But Mr. Gladstone informs us that Professor Dana and Professor
Guyot are prepared to prove that the "first or cosmogonical
portion of the Proem not only accords with, but teaches, the
nebular hypothesis." There is no one to whose authority on
geological questions I am more readily disposed to bow than that
of my eminent friend Professor Dana. But I am familiar with what
he has previously said on this topic in his well-known and
standard work, into which, strangely enough, it does not seem to
have occurred to Mr. Gladstone to look before he set out upon
his present undertaking; and unless Professor Dana's latest
contribution (which I have not yet met with) takes up altogether
new ground, I am afraid I shall not be able to extricate myself,
by its help, from my present difficulties.
It is a very long time since I began to think about the
relations between modern scientifically ascertained truths and
the cosmogonical speculations of the writer of Genesis; and, as
I think that Mr. Gladstone might have been able to put his case
with a good deal more force, if he had thought it worth while to
consult the last chapter of Professor Dana's admirable "Manual
of Geology," so I think he might have been made aware that he
was undertaking an enterprise of which he had not counted the
cost, if he had chanced upon a discussion of the subject which I
published in 1877.<9>
Finally, I should like to draw the attention of those who take
interest in these topics to the weighty words of one of the most
learned and moderate of Biblical critics:--
"A propos de cette premiere page de la Bible, on a coutume de
nos jours de disserter, a perte de vue, sur l'accord du recit
mosaique avec les sciences naturelles; et comme celles-ci tout
eloignees qu'elles sont encore de la perfection absolue, ont
rendu populaires et en quelque sorte irrefragables un certain
nombre de faits generaux ou de theses fondamentales de la
cosmologie et de la geologie, c'est le texte sacre qu'on
s'evertue a torturer pour le faire concorder avec
In my paper on the "Interpreters of Nature and the Interpreters
of Genesis," while freely availing myself of the rights of a
scientific critic, I endeavoured to keep the expression of my
views well within those bounds of courtesy which are set by
self-respect and consideration for others. I am therefore glad
to be favoured with Mr. Gladstone's acknowledgment of the
success of my efforts. I only wish that I could accept all the
products of Mr. Gladstone's gracious appreciation, but there is
one about which, as a matter of honesty, I hesitate. In fact, if
I had expressed my meaning better than I seem to have done, I
doubt if the particular proffer of Mr. Gladstone's thanks would
have been made.
To my mind, whatever doctrine professes to be the result of the
application of the accepted rules of inductive and deductive
logic to its subject-matter; and which accepts, within the
limits which it sets to itself, the supremacy of reason, is
Science. Whether the subject-matter consists of realities or
unrealities, truths or falsehoods, is quite another question. I
conceive that ordinary geometry is science, by reason of its
method, and I also believe that its axioms, definitions, and
conclusions are all true. However, there is a geometry of four
dimensions, which I also believe to be science, because its
method professes to be strictly scientific. It is true that I
cannot conceive four dimensions in space, and therefore, for me,
the whole affair is unreal. But I have known men of great
intellectual powers who seemed to have no difficulty either in
conceiving them, or, at any rate, in imagining how they could
conceive them; and, therefore, four-dimensioned geometry comes
under my notion of science. So I think astrology is a science,
in so far as it professes to reason logically from principles
established by just inductive methods. To prevent
misunderstanding, perhaps I had better add that I do not believe
one whit in astrology; but no more do I believe in Ptolemaic
astronomy, or in the catastrophic geology of my youth, although
these, in their day, claimed--and, to my mind, rightly claimed--
the name of science. If nothing is to be called science but that
which is exactly true from beginning to end, I am afraid there
is very little science in the world outside mathematics.
Among the physical sciences, I do not know that any could claim
more than that it is true within certain limits, so narrow that,
for the present at any rate, they may be neglected. If such is
the case, I do not see where the line is to be drawn between
exactly true, partially true, and mainly untrue forms of
science. And what I have said about the current theology at the
end of my paper [supra pp. 160-163] leaves, I think, no
doubt as to the category in which I rank it. For all that, I
think it would be not only unjust, but almost impertinent, to
refuse the name of science to the "Summa" of St. Thomas or to
the "Institutes" of Calvin.
In conclusion, I confess that my supposed "unjaded appetite" for
the sort of controversy in which it needed not Mr. Gladstone's
express declaration to tell us he is far better practised than I
am (though probably, without another express declaration, no one
would have suspected that his controversial fires are burning
low) is already satiated.
In "Elysium" we conduct scientific discussions in a different
medium, and we are liable to threatenings of asphyxia in that
"atmosphere of contention" in which Mr. Gladstone has been able
to live, alert and vigorous beyond the common race of men, as if
it were purest mountain air. I trust that he may long continue
to seek truth, under the difficult conditions he has chosen for
the search, with unabated energy--I had almost said fire--
May age not wither him, nor custom stale
His infinite variety.
But Elysium suits my less robust constitution better, and I beg
leave to retire thither, not sorry for my experience of the
other region--no one should regret experience--but determined
not to repeat it, at any rate in reference to the "plea
NOTE ON THE PROPER SENSE OF THE "MOSAIC" NARRATIVE
OF THE CREATION.
It has been objected to my argument from Leviticus (suprÓ
p. 170) that the Hebrew words translated by "creeping things" in
Genesis i. 24 and Leviticus xi. 29, are different; namely,
"reh-mes" in the former, "sheh-retz" in the latter. The obvious
reply to this objection is that the question is not one of words
but of the meaning of words. To borrow an illustration from our
own language, if "crawling things" had been used by the
translators in Genesis and "creeping things" in Leviticus, it
would not have been necessarily implied that they intended to
denote different groups of animals. "Sheh-retz" is employed in a
wider sense than "reh-mes." There are "sheh-retz" of the waters
of the earth, of the air, and of the land. Leviticus speaks of
land reptiles, among other animals, as "sheh-retz";
Genesis speaks of all creeping land animals, among which land
reptiles are necessarily included, as "reh-mes."
Our translators, therefore, have given the true sense when they
render both "sheh-retz" and "reh-mes" by "creeping things."
Having taken a good deal of trouble to show what Genesis i.-ii.
4 does not mean, in the preceding pages, perhaps it may be well
that I should briefly give my opinion as to what it does mean.
I conceive that the unknown author of this part of the
Hexateuchal compilation believed, and meant his readers to
believe, that his words, as they understood them--that is to
say, in their ordinary natural sense--conveyed the "actual
historical truth." When he says that such and such things
happened, I believe him to mean that they actually occurred and
not that he imagined or dreamed them; when he says "day," I
believe he uses the word in the popular sense; when he says
"made" or "created," I believe he means that they came into
being by a process analogous to that which the people whom he
addressed called "making" or "creating"; and I think that,
unless we forget our present knowledge of nature, and, putting
ourselves back into the position of a Phoenician or a Chaldaean
philosopher, start from his conception of the world, we shall
fail to grasp the meaning of the Hebrew writer. We must conceive
the earth to be an immovable, more or less flattened, body, with
the vault of heaven above, the watery abyss below and around.
We must imagine sun, moon, and stars to be "set" in a
"firmament" with, or in, which they move; and above which is yet
another watery mass. We must consider "light" and "darkness" to
be things, the alternation of which constitutes day and night,
independently of the existence of sun, moon, and stars. We must
further suppose that, as in the case of the story of the deluge,
the Hebrew writer was acquainted with a Gentile (probably
Chaldaean or Accadian) account of the origin of things, in which
he substantially believed, but which he stripped of all its
idolatrous associations by substituting "Elohim" for Ea, Anu,
Bel, and the like.
From this point of view the first verse strikes the keynote of
the whole. In the beginning "Elohim<11> created the heaven and
the earth." Heaven and earth were not primitive existences from
which the gods proceeded, as the Gentiles taught; on the
contrary, the "Powers" preceded and created heaven and earth.
Whether by "creation" is meant "causing to be where nothing was
before" or "shaping of something which pre-existed," seems to me
to be an insoluble question.
As I have pointed out, the second verse has an interesting
parallel in Jeremiah iv. 23: "I beheld the earth, and, lo, it
was waste and void; and the heavens, and they had no light."
I conceive that there is no more allusion to chaos in the one
than in the other. The earth-disk lay in its watery envelope,
like the yolk of an egg in the glaire, and the spirit, or
breath, of Elohim stirred the mass. Light was created as a thing
by itself; and its antithesis "darkness" as another thing.
It was supposed to be the nature of these two to alternate, and
a pair of alternations constituted a "day" in the sense of an
unit of time.
The next step was, necessarily, the formation of that
"firmament," or dome over the earth-disk, which was supposed to
support the celestial waters; and in which sun, moon, and stars
were conceived to be set, as in a sort of orrery. The earth was
still surrounded and covered by the lower waters, but the upper
were separated from it by the "firmament," beneath which what we
call the air lay. A second alternation of darkness and light
marks the lapse of time.
After this, the waters which covered the earth-disk, under the
firmament, were drawn away into certain regions, which became
seas, while the part laid bare became dry land. In accordance
with the notion, universally accepted in antiquity, that moist
earth possesses the potentiality of giving rise to living
beings, the land, at the command of Elohim, "put forth" all
sorts of plants. They are made to appear thus early, not, I
apprehend, from any notion that plants are lower in the scale of
being than animals (which would seem to be inconsistent with the
prevalence of tree worship among ancient people), but rather
because animals obviously depend on plants; and because, without
crops and harvests, there seemed to be no particular need of
heavenly signs for the seasons.
These were provided by the fourth day's work. Light existed
already; but now vehicles for the distribution of light, in a
special manner and with varying degrees of intensity, were
provided. I conceive that the previous alternations of light and
darkness were supposed to go on; but that the "light" was
strengthened during the daytime by the sun, which, as a source
of heat as well as of light, glided up the firmament from the
east, and slid down in the west, each day. Very probably each
day's sun was supposed to be a new one. And as the light of the
day was strengthened by the sun, so the darkness of the night
was weakened by the moon, which regularly waxed and waned every
month. The stars are, as it were, thrown in. And nothing can
more sharply mark the doctrinal purpose of the author, than the
manner in which he deals with the heavenly bodies, which the
Gentiles identified so closely with their gods, as if they were
mere accessories to the almanac.
Animals come next in order of creation, and the general notion
of the writer seems to be that they were produced by the medium
in which they live; that is to say, the aquatic animals by the
waters, and the terrestrial animals by the land. But there was a
difficulty about flying things, such as bats, birds, and
insects. The cosmogonist seems to have had no conception of
"air" as an elemental body. His "elements" are earth and water,
and he ignores air as much as he does fire. Birds "fly above the
earth in the open firmament" or "on the face of the expanse" of
heaven. They are not said to fly through the air. The choice of
a generative medium for flying things, therefore, seemed to lie
between water and earth; and, if we take into account the
conspicuousness of the great flocks of water-birds and the
swarms of winged insects, which appear to arise from water, I
think the preference of water becomes intelligible. However, I
do not put this forward as more than a probable hypothesis.
As to the creation of aquatic animals on the fifth, that of land
animals on the sixth day, and that of man last of all, I presume
the order was determined by the fact that man could hardly
receive dominion over the living world before it existed;
and that the "cattle" were not wanted until he was about to make
his appearance. The other terrestrial animals would naturally be
associated with the cattle.
The absurdity of imagining that any conception, analogous to
that of a zoological classification, was in the mind of the
writer will be apparent, when we consider that the fifth day's
work must include the zoologist's Cetacea, Sirenia, and
seals,<12> all of which are Mammalia; all birds, turtles,
sea-snakes and, presumably, the fresh water Reptilia and
Amphibia; with the great majority of Invertebrata.
The creation of man is announced as a separate act, resulting
from a particular resolution of Elohim to "make man in our
image, after our likeness." To learn what this remarkable phrase
means we must turn to the fifth chapter of Genesis, the work of
the same writer. "In the day that Elohim created man, in the
likeness of Elohim made he him; male and female created he them;
and blessed them and called their name Adam in the day when they
were created. And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years and
begat a son in his own likeness, after his image;
and called his name Seth." I find it impossible to read this
passage without being convinced that, when the writer says Adam
was made in the likeness of Elohim, he means the same sort of
likeness as when he says that Seth was begotten in the likeness
of Adam. Whence it follows that his conception of Elohim was
In all this narrative I can discover nothing which
differentiates it, in principle, from other ancient cosmogonies,
except the rejection of all gods, save the vague, yet
anthropomorphic, Elohim, and the assigning to them anteriority
and superiority to the world. It is as utterly irreconcilable
with the assured truths of modern science, as it is with the
account of the origin of man, plants, and animals given by the
writer of the second chief constituent of the Hexateuch in the
second chapter of Genesis. This extraordinary story starts with
the assumption of the existence of a rainless earth, devoid of
plants and herbs of the field. The creation of living beings
begins with that of a solitary man; the next thing that happens
is the laying out of the Garden of Eden, and the causing the
growth from its soil of every tree "that is pleasant to the
sight and good for food"; the third act is the formation out of
the ground of "every beast of the field, and every fowl of the
air"; the fourth and last, the manufacture of the first woman
from a rib, extracted from Adam, while in a state
Yet there are people who not only profess to take this monstrous
legend seriously, but who declare it to be reconcilable with the
Elohistic account of the creation!
(1) The Nineteenth Century, 1886.
(2) Both dolphins and dugongs occur in the Red Sea, porpoises
and dolphins in the Mediterranean; so that the "Mosaic writer"
may have been acquainted with them.
(3) I said nothing about "the greater number of schools of Greek
philosophy," as Mr. Gladstone implies that I did, but expressly
spoke of the "founders of Greek philosophy."
(4) See Heinze, Die Lehre vom Logos, p. 9 et seq.
(5) Reprinted in Lay Sermons, Addresses, and Reviews,
(6) "Ancient," doubtless, but his antiquity must not be
exaggerated. For example, there is no proof that the "Mosaic"
cosmogony was known to the Israelites of Solomon's time.
(7) When Jeremiah (iv. 23) says, "I beheld the earth, and, lo,
it was waste and void," he certainly does not mean to imply that
the form of the earth was less definite, or its substance less
solid, than before.
(8) In looking through the delightful volume recently published
by the Astronomer-Royal for Ireland, a day or two ago, I find
the following remarks on the nebular hypothesis, which I should
have been glad to quote in my text if I had known them sooner:--
"Nor can it be ever more than a speculation; it cannot be
established by observation, nor can it be proved by calculation.
It is merely a conjecture, more or less plausible, but perhaps
in some degree, necessarily true, if our present laws of heat,
as we understand them, admit of the extreme application here
required, and if the present order of things has reigned for
sufficient time without the intervention of any influence at
present known to us" (The Story of the Heavens, p. 506).
Would any prudent advocate base a plea, either for or against
revelation, upon the coincidence, or want of coincidence, of the
declarations of the latter with the requirements of an
hypothesis thus guardedly dealt with by an astronomical expert?
(9) Lectures on Evolution delivered in New York (American
(10) Reuss, L'Histoire Sainte et la Loi, vol. i, p. 275.
(11) For the sense of the term "Elohim," see the essay entitled
"The Evolution of Theology" at the end of this volume.
(12) Perhaps even hippopotamuses and otters!
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