It’s turtles, all the way down

This year I’m taking part in “Bloganuary” – a series of writing prompts published throughout the month by Mindy Postoff. Today’s writing prompt is “What is your favourite quote and why?”

My favourite quote of all time is the tagline of my blog – “it’s turtles, all the way down”.

It supposedly comes from an audience member of a lecture given by William James – which the quote almost certainly pre-dates, but it’s a nice story, so I’ll repeat it here:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly,

“It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down.”

If you read a little further about the history of the quote, it’s obviously a re-framed version of an ancient question about the origin of things – that you can always argue that something came before. Even those with a religious bent struggle to explain what created god – and divorce themselves of all logic in event attempting to do so.

14 replies on “It’s turtles, all the way down”

Interestingly the most widely accepted scientific theory about the origin of the universe is the Big Bang Theory. Which states that all of the matter and energy that is currently in the universe was originally compressed to a tiny point. Despite all of the evidence to support the theory there is no explanation to address the obvious question. What was around this tiny point and how did it compress all of that energy into such a tiny space? I am not a religious freak but I do find it interesting that the best science we have is not that different from Genesis.

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The “what came first” question is predicated by the assumption that time is linear – which it almost certainly isn’t. I love the way the movie “Arrival” explores the struggles we would have communicating with a species where time, sequence, and order are not sequential.

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I would disagree. Darwin didn’t publish his theories for a very long time because of the reluctance of the scientific community to accept it. If a scientist were to present evidence that time and by default evolution were not linear they would struggle to be accepted


It wasn’t just the reaction of scientists he feared – it was persecution by the church. There’s a fantastic book by Deborah Cadbury about the consternation, vitriol, and campaign of slander the Christian church went on in England when the first dinosaur bones were discovered. There were slanging matches at the Royal Society. I think the part of the story that made me smile the most was that the building of the Natural History Museum was funded by the church to celebrate the glory of god – and then was usurped by the discovery of dinosaurs during the building of the various canals and railway lines throughout the country. It’s ultimately a human story about power and greed, but fascinating nonetheless 🙂

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Yeah, these kind of thoughts can truly make your head spin. This blog is not only great for “quotes” but for the other Bloganuary prompt for mystery. As a side note, that gorgeous picture reminds me of the Nirvana album “Nevermind” (but this turtle is cuter than the baby!)


I wondered if your quote was about that story, about the earth being on the back of a turtle, and that turtle being on the back of another, etc. A few weeks ago, we were in a bookstore and I saw a novel titled ‘Turtles all the Way Down’, and of course I thought of you and your blog, and wondered if perhaps you were a fan of the novel…

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Thanks for this post, it prompted me to look into this quote as I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (he has the world resting on 4 elephants who spin the world while walking the shell of a gigantic turtle, the Great A’Tuin), and it led me down a bit of a creation myth rabbit hole, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Apparently the turtle / elephant concept Pratchett used was borrowed from the ancient Cosmic/ World Turtle mythologies found in Hindu, Chinese, and Native American cultures. You learn something new every day!

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I love Discworld 🙂 I’ve never forgotten the moment in the first book when Rincewind hid from Death in the Luggage, and a void came out of the darkness.. “DARK IN HERE, ISN’T IT” 🙂


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