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Turtles all the way down

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

There is a story, often told about the philosopher William James:

One day when the philosopher William James, who had a liking for scientific popularization, had just finished explaining in a small American town how the earth revolved around the sun, he saw, according to the anecdote, an elderly lady approaching with a determined look. Apparently, she strongly disagree, expressing herself in the following terms: no, the earth does not move, because, as is well known, it sits on the back of a turtle. James decided to be polite and asked what, according to the hypothesis, the turtle rested on. The old lady replied without hesitating” But on another turtle, of course.” And James persisted: “But what does the second turtle rest on?” Then, so the story goes, the old lady triumphantly exclaimed: “It’s no use, Mr James, it’s turtles all the way down.” [From Isabelle Stenger’s book, Power and Invention. However, in similar form, the story is widely found ascribed to James.]

So the story goes. The same event is also ascribed to Bertrand Russell or an unnamed scientist. I amuse myself from time to time, now I have access to and Google Books trying to find the source of these phrases. I may not have found the oldest of all, but the oldest accessible one is dated 1905 in a sermon (a “testimonial”) by Oliver Corwin Sabin, a bishop of the Reformed Christian Science church, in his Washington News Letter:

The old original idea which was enunciated first in India, that the world was flat and stood on the back of an elephant, and the elephant did not have anything to stand on. was the world’s thought for centuries. That story is not as good as the Richmond negro preacher’s who said the world was flat and stood on a turtle. They asked him what the turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and they asked what that turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and finally they got him in a hole and he said. “I tell you there are turtles all the way down.”

Of course, somebody found it before me in Wikipedia (what is the reason people belittle Wikipedia? There are pedants and curmudgeons aplenty contributing to it enough to make it pretty accurate). What’s interesting is that it is not ascribed to an old lady, but to a “Negro preacher”. In both versions of the story (also told by Stephen Hawking, whose literary and historical skills are not so good as one might think, given how often he is quoted authoritatively on this subject), the flat earther is a member of a despised and ridiculed group – blacks and old ladies – and in both they stand in for the stupidity of the folk belief and believer, overcome by the truths of science.

But the fact is, flat earth views (unlike geocentric views) were never the default view (“the old original idea”). Here is a picture I took in Exeter Cathedral, of a clock that dated to the 14th century:


It shows the “two sphere” universe, with a globe earth at the centre. Spherical earth representations also appear in images of European rulers. Here’s Charlemagne in the 9th century holding the orb that represents secular power over the earth:


and Harold II from the Bayeaux Tapestry:


These anecdotes serve to legitimate the narrative of the teller of tales, to show they are on the right side of history, and to lessen our appreciation for the ordinary person. And they are pernicious. The weak minded have failed and we strong minded have succeeded, and history was always moving towards this point. This is the positivistic narrative of Comte: society has shrugged off the superstitious and theological and achieved enlightenment. Except that it is a lie.

While folk science is often wrong, it is also often right, and we find evidence of clever people making good inferences any time, culture or region you care to investigate. In my species book I state that people were not stupid and bad observers before Darwin, and that Darwin did not make us clever and good observers. It turns out that humans all have pretty much the same neural material between their ears, and achieve much the same cleverness no matter what they are placed into. This means that we should not expect that having the historical accident of science and technology makes us better than the poor beknighted religious, natives, or old wives. We should not expect that we will behave any better, nor should we think that our scientific thinking is going to make our societies somehow free of the errors humans have always fallen into. Or else, how to explain the antiscience movements that run our attitude engineering technologies (mass medias)?

Recently, an article claimed that religion is becoming extinct in some countries. This is because the trends to date have been the decline of religious adherence there. But trends in social structure are not like the movements of continents or large weights on ice. They have no momentum. They change because conditions are such that individuals may choose not to put resources into religion, or because religion no longer serves a particular need, or simply because it hasn’t yet adapted to new technologies and economic conditions.

All religions have a social ecology to which they must adapt. And they do adapt, just like a species of plant or animal that must adapt to an invader or new disease. Some fail to do this, of course, and they become extinct. We do not hear very much about the Moravian Brethren or the Shakers these days. Others find a way to circumvent or even exploit the new conditions. Hence televangelists. But if we think that because we in these nine enlightened countries happen to have the conditions under which around 20% of people lack religious beliefs, that no more means that religion will fail ultimately than the fact some people have a resistance to AIDS means AIDS will eventually disappear. And no amount of Turtle Anecdotes will make it so.

We misunderstand the nature of history and science if we think that we make ourselves better through an act of will that the misled simply lacked the strength to choose. It is a bit like blaming the poor for being poor, as Reaganesque conservatives do. Things are more complex and more egalitarian than that. There, but for the grace of the right narrative, go we ourselves.

Late Note: Nick Matzke has found one, also in a sermon, from 1854. See the comments.


  1. Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    are you aware that some “Native American” “tribes” call what is today North america, turtle island?

    • John Harshman John Harshman

      I’ve heard that, but I’ve always found it difficult to believe that any of those tribes had a real concept of North America as a continent, or in fact a concept of “continent” at all.

      Can anyone provide documentation for this (I suspect) urban legend?

      • I don’t know about the ‘turtle island’ thing but I can tell you that Hopi legend had an idea of North and South America as continents because according to their tradition groups of them traveled to the northern, southern, eastern and western most regions of the new land after they emerged (according to their legend) from the underground.

  2. Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    You suspect wrong. Concept of a ‘continent’? It doesnt matter really what anyone calls “continent”, but anyone can distinguish another “island”. Why do you need documentation? ask the Indians.

    • John Harshman John Harshman

      Well, I am properly chastened. Thanks for the documentation.

  3. I wonder if the notion of the turtle holding everything up owes anything to the iconography of Kurma, Vishnu’s turtle avatar. In Hindu mythology Kurma saved the day when the Gods and Asuras were churning the sea of milk to produce the elixir of immorality. The deities tried to use Mount Mandara as the churn, but the mountain was so heavy that it threatened to break through the bottom of the ocean. That’s when Kurma arrived to serve as the base of the pillar. There are lots of pictures of this famous episode.

    • My favourite story of Vishnu as a turtle is as follows. Vishnu and Brahma were walking through heaven one day arguing as to which of them was the greatest god when they came across a mysterious pillar of fire. Neither of them could explain what it was and so they decided to investigate. Brahma turned into a swan and flew up the pillar and Vishnu turned into a turtle and swam down it. Both of them travelled for a thousand years but saw no end in sight. Returning to their starting point they shared their puzzlement. Suddenly Shiva appeared and said the pillar is my lingam and I’m the greatest of the gods.

      • You left out the rest of the poem:

        But Kali arrived and called Shiva a phony.
        An infinite prick needs a bottomless Yoni.

        • Was that before or after she borrowed his arms?

  4. According to Wikipedia Turtle Island is a concept created by the Beat poet Gary Snyder. Turtle Island is also an excellent jazz string quartet!

  5. Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    This is what actually Wikipedia shows. It is wrong regarding historical evidence. Ask the Indians.

    “Turtle Island is an English language translation ostensibly of many Native American tribes’ terms for the continent of North America. There is little if any historical evidence that any tribes had such a term in their language or used it in this manner, although it is used today by many Native tribes and Native rights activists. The newly coined term is proposed as a substitute for or synonym for North America. The term was brought into popular usage by Gary Snyder through his book Turtle Island [1] in 1974. In a later essay, published in At Home on the Earth,[1] Snyder claimed this title as a term referring to North America which synthesizes both indigenous and colonizer cultures by translating the indigenous name into the colonizer’s languages (the Spanish “Isla Tortuga” being proposed as a name as well). Snyder argues that understanding North America under the name of Turtle Island will help shift conceptions of the continent.”

  6. Anthony McCarthy Anthony McCarthy

    I’d love to have an etymological dictionary of common blog buzzwords and phrases. Or one that tracked their devolution into invariably meaning either “I like that” or, more often ” I don’t like that” and most often “I don’t like that but can’t think of anything to refute it with”.

  7. Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    What a good idea!! I would like a buzzword for “i dont know what you taking about”

  8. Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    That was totally great! It is “talking about” not” taking about”. Beautiful

  9. I always assumed that the phrase gained its popularity from a reference to the turtle-support theory in Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian,” whom in turn I assumed got it from either Hume (DcNR, IV) or Locke (EcHU, II:xxiii).

    • Well spotted, although in Hume it is an elephant:

      “Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.”

      Philo is speaking.

      In Russell, page 7, he writes:

      “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” ”

      which is as you say the same argument, but not the quote. I suspect Russell is half remembering both Hume and the saying/joke.

      This is getting interesting. Now we know why Russell is often cited here.

      Locke’s passage is more closely related to the saying:

      “If any one should be asked, what is the subject wherein colour or weight inheres, he would have nothing to say, but the solid extended parts; and if he were demanded, what is it that solidity and extension adhere in, he would not be in a much better case than the Indian before mentioned who, saying that the world was supported by a great elephant, was asked what the elephant rested on; to which his answer was — a great tortoise: but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what. “

      • TomS TomS

        By a remarkable coincidence, the Wikipedia article has been edited to include a citation to Hume.

      • “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”

        A causeless cosmology would exclude multiverse inflation hypotheses because all such hypotheses propose that each verse was caused by gravity in a previous verse. I also suppose that it would be pushing it to say that 21st century cyclic cosmology models are causeless because a big rip might be a prerequisite for the beginning of a new cycle. Additionally, the entire idea of an infinitely regressing cycle suggests an infinitely regressing cause. However, the good old fashioned big bang with no cause would best fit this bill, but science apparently rejects this as impossible.

  10. Leo inspired me and now I have found one from 1711:

    “We ought not to laugh so much at the Indian Philosophers, who to satisfy their People how this huge Frame of the World is supported, tell ’em ’tis by an Elephant. And the Elephant how? A shrewd Question! but which by no means shou’d be answer’d. ‘Tis here only that our Indian Philosophers are to blame. They shou’d be contented with the Elephant, and go no further. But they have a Tortoise in reserve; whose Back, they think, is broad enough. So the Tortoise must bear the new Load: And thus the matter stands worse than before.”

    From Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of men, manners, opinions and times, vol 2, p202.

    Locke beats it by 21 years, though.

  11. Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    Are you aware that “Native Americans” are Indians?
    So much for Russell, and quote a racist on Turtle island issues?)

  12. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    For some reason, all this talk of turtles suddenly reminded me of a short-lived British TV show called Turtle’s Progress. It was a sort of Minder style Cockney comedy, if I remember. I used to love it, never missed an episode. I doubt anyone remembers it now, though. I think my age is showing.

  13. Allen Hazen Allen Hazen

    Aristotle may not have liked the infinite, but at least one earlier Greek philosopher would have regarded “turtles all the way down” as at least coherent. Some of the early Ionians worried about what kept the Earth from falling. Xenophanes had an answer: the ground we walk on is supported by the subsoil beneath it, which is supported by what is beneath it, and so on down forever. (He was also a flat-earther, who thought — minor irregularities of hills and valleys aside — that we lived on an infinite plane. Since this didn’t have edges for the sun to rise over or set beyond, he also thought there were an infinite series of suns, following each other ever westward. Since it shows up in several places in his cosmology, I think it is clear that he had — and LIKED — a conception of the infinite.)

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      For every Greek philosopher there is an equal and opposite Greek philosopher.

      • Can I steal that please?

        • John Wilkins John Wilkins

          Not original to me. Knock yourself out.

  14. Jim Arnold Jim Arnold

    Stephen Hawkins “Information lost in black holes is recovered in the multiverse ”

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