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Check Out These Vivid Wildlife Illustrations From a Victorian Fossil Truther

Philip Henry Gosse believed that God placed fake fossils on Earth, but he was still a renowned and talented naturist and illustrator.

by Becky Ferreira
Apr 6 2017, 9:04pm

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

The English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, born on this day in 1810, has been described as a brilliant scientist who sparked the Victorian aquarium craze, a "bible-soaked romantic" (in the words of his own son), and "that crazy Englishman who goes about picking up bugs," from the perspective of his contemporaries.

Needless to say, Gosse left diverse impressions on the scientific, artistic, and religious communities of his time, especially in light of his scripture-based theories that fossils were theological red herrings that did not represent once-living creatures.

Restless and seemingly indefatigable, he left his native Dorset for zoological research stints in Newfoundland, Ontario, Alabama, and Jamaica, where he meticulously documented the biodiversity of each region with ornate illustrations and descriptions.

Image: Mann Library

He also commented on social issues like American slavery, an institution that he viewed as "so enormous an evil" that he abandoned his research in Alabama as soon as possible to avoid living alongside it. The first-hand experience of the Antebellum South motivated him to mentor and employ black naturalists and illustrators, especially during his two-year stay in Jamaica.

Jamaican boa and anole. Image: Philip Henry Gosse

After returning to England in 1846, Gosse became fascinated by the ocean life of the Devon coast, and began working on ways to create transparent artificial habitats to better observe marine species. Though he wasn't the first to come up with the idea of fish tanks, he coined the word "aquarium" and was the key figure in popularizing these aquatic environments in both the academic and household spheres, thanks in part to his flair for science communication.

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Gosse viewed his own enormous creative output through a rigidly Christian lens. It was his greatest lifelong obsession to square rigorous observations of the natural world with biblical scripture.

Image: Gosse, Philip Henry; Hullmandel & Walton

This fixation culminated in his infamous 1857 treatise Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot, in which Gosse argued that emerging evidence that Earth might be millions or billions of years old were not mutually exclusive to the Christian account of creation that dates the planet's origins back only 10,000 years, at most.

Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library

Essentially, he was the progenitor of the argument that God deliberately placed false flags on Earth, including fossils, and that these skeletal remains did not therefore prove that such exotic ancient lifeforms ever existed. The book was an enormous commercial flop and was widely panned by the scientific community, primed as it was for Charles Darwin's 1859 tome The Origin of Species. Gosse may have seen Omphalos as his masterpiece, but the book did permanent damage to his professional reputation.

Read More: This Seminal 16th Century Animal Encyclopedia Includes Mermaids and Unicorns

Still, Gosse was admired for his vivid illustrations and energetic curiosity, and lived comfortably until his death in 1888. His legacy lives on through these rich snapshots of Victorian wildlife, and the ideologically kaleidoscopic lens through which he viewed them.

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