Walking with Gosse – review
Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts, by Roger S. Wotton, September 2012. Clio Publishing, 214 pages, ISBN 978-0-95569-839-2. RRP £11.95 (paperback)
In this fascinating and highly-readable book, Roger S. Wotton, Emeritus Professor of Biology at UCL, introduces us to the life and work of the Victorian naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. However, this is by no means a dry biographical account of one naturalist by another, but a sensitive and insightful portrayal by the author. Roger Wotton achieves this by skilfully interweaving the details of his own biography into that of his subject, a man who never quite reconciled his strongly held evangelical Christian beliefs with his work as a natural historian.
Roger Wotton had a Christian upbringing and lost a parent at an early age. This enables him to have empathy for Gosse who lost his first wife through cancer, and of his only son, Edmund Gosse, who was later to become a major literary figure. Like Gosse, Roger has been a passionate natural historian from an early age and it is this that allows him to enter with some sympathy into Gosse’s world as a natural historian and its conflicts with his literal understanding of the Bible. A conflict he attempted to resolve through his book, ‘Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot’, published two years before Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’.
Gosse’s strong religious beliefs alienated him from some of the mainstream scientists of his day, as well as his son, Edmund, but in no way diminished the esteem in which he was held for his many achievements in the field of Natural History. For example, he was a fine illustrator, observing his subject matter in meticulous detail and carefully executing a painting or a woodcut. He also popularised and encouraged the use of the microscope for the amateur natural historian, and developed the marine aquarium. He was also an excellent teacher and a fine lecturer. Roger Wotton is in no doubt that he should be justly recognised for these achievements.
Roger sees in Gosse various aspects of his own character and he explores these with humility and insight. However, unlike Gosse, Roger Wotton abandoned his religious upbringing early in adulthood and has not returned to it. He describes himself and an atheist and evolutionist, though it is obvious through his statements that he retains respect for those of a religious disposition and an open mind on the subject. His stance is one of personal integrity in belief, rather than animosity towards believers, which is a refreshing change from some scientists.
I could not help wondering when I read this book why there is still so much difficulty in reconciling Science with Christianity, particularly in the light of excellent books by Christian scientists such as John Polkinghorne, and almost 60 years after the publication of ‘The Phenomenon of Man’. However, this did not in any way diminish my enjoyment of the book, or my desire to find out more about Henry Gosse. I may also add that the book is beautifully typeset, with many illustrations and photographs to add to the reader’s interest. It is a book I would thoroughly recommend for sheer enjoyment and understanding of a world where the conflict between Religion and Science still echoes in our own time.
Comments on "Walking with Gosse – review"
Dr R C J Carling:
This is an excellent review. It is a remarkable book. I was privileged to be involved in the placement of Roger Wotton's book with Clio Publishing. More details about the book are here and here on Amazon. (N.B. don't be put off by the message to say it is not yet available - it is). Roger Wotton has his own website and blogs regularly.