Thursday, 20 September 2012

No Way Noah!

What a ridiculous story the tale of the biblical flood and Noah's Ark is. It beggars belief that grown adults can believe such patently absurd nonsense. People who do believe it are probably capable of being persuaded to believe almost anything, such is the credulity and suggestibility of some people.

I went to a Church of England primary school in the 1950's in Oxfordshire, England and even then, in a school with close links to the local church, where the local vicar came and told us superstitious nonsense every Monday morning, the story of Noah's Ark was thought of as just another childish fairy tale. "She still believes in Noah's Ark!" was a playground taunt. It meant you were still a baby.

Let's look at some of the stupid things we need to believe to believe the Noah's Ark story:

1. That there is water above the sky and below the earth and that rain is made when the water comes through holes in the sky.

That in fact the bible is correct when it says:

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

Genesis 1:6-7

Which is the only way to make sense of:

In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.

Genesis 7:11

2. That somehow a six hundred year-old man and his three centenarian sons could make a wooden boat large enough to take two (or seven) of each of the millions of species complete with all the food and the special conditions in which many of them, especially the extremophiles, need, and robust enough to put to sea on an ocean with no land-masses to moderate the waves.

Admittedly, this was a monstrous boat, judging by what we can deduce from the Bible:

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

Genesis 6:14-15

So how big is a cubit? Experts differ, some say it was from the tip of the nose to the tip of the middle finger of an outstretched arm, but again the Bible gives us a clue:

And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

Genesis 7:19-20

Mount Everest, 29,029 feet.
So there we have a measure we can use to translate a cubit into today's measurements. The waters rose to fifteen cubits and covered the highest mountain. We know that Mount Everest is as near as makes no different to twenty-nine thousand feet so a cubit must have been a shade under two thousand feet, which means, at thirty cubits high, the Ark was twice as tall as Mount Everest at fifty-eight thousand feet.

So, the Ark then was twice as tall as Mount Everest at fifty-eight thousand feet (11 miles), one million one hundred and sixty thousand feet (two hundred and twenty miles) long and ninety-seven thousand feet (just over eighteen miles) wide.

I assume Noah and his centenarian sons used special equipment to work at that stratospheric height but, having mastered the art of deep-sea diving in water near boiling point to get the giant pacific tube worms and other sulphur-based extremophiles from around the black smokers, this shouldn't have been too difficult.

I expect they had some elaborate means to find enough trees to cut down, saw up into massive planks, transport them to the construction site and lift into place, then fix them somehow into a structure that tall, and robust enough. Though how such a massive structure, which was twice as tall as the water was deep, managed to float, remains a mystery. Maybe the laws of physics were suspended for the duration of the flood.

Great Buddha Hall, Eastern Great Temple, Nara, Japan
But, though that might solve the problem of where to keep all the different animals in their specialised environments ranging from Arctic to tropical rain forest, from deep oceans to arid deserts, etc, it just raises the problem of just where all the wood came from and the technicalities of making a wooden structure which can not only support its own weight without crushing itself but then stand up to the rigours of ocean voyages.

There is a reason mankind never managed to build very large wooden ships or wooden building of more than a few storeys. The world's largest known wooden building was, until 1989, the 8th century Great Buddha Hall of the Eastern Great Temple in Nara, Japan. The modern building, which was built in 1709 following a fire, is 30% smaller than the original. It is forty-nine feet tall. Noah's ark would have been one thousand two hundred and twenty-four times taller. The Anglican church in Georgetown, Guyana, at one hundred and forty-three feet, claims to be the tallest wooden building. Noah's Ark would have been a mere four hundred and twenty times taller.

Unless, of course, the Bible is wrong about either the depth of the water or about it covering the highest mountains...

And if so, we're back to the problem of where to put all the animals and how to create those specialised environments. It also raises the question about just how high these people thought the highest mountain was. With usual estimate of the length of a cubit being about three feet, fifteen cubits puts this at about forty-five feet! Not so much a mountain as a very low hillock... and a very small boat.

So how many animals were there on this boat?

With typical ambiguity, the Bible says:

And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shalt gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.
Genesis 6:19-21

Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female. Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth. For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.
Genesis 7:2-4

So, is that two of each, one male and six females of 'clean' species, three males and four females or what? And what about the hermaphrodite species, or did the author not know about those?

And what's all this about 'clean' species anyway? How was Noah supposed to know which of all the millions of species which were 'clean' and which weren't? This list wasn't announced until the Exodus.

How many species are there? According to Explore Biodiversity:

This is a very good question, but the truth is, its very hard to know, or even estimate. Currently there are about 1.4 million species described. Yet, we're probably far from being close to the actual number of species.

Take this into consideration. In a famous study conducted in Panama, 19 trees were "fogged" with insecticide and the dead were collected as they fell through the canopy. In this study, nearly 1,200 species of beetles alone were collected. Of those, 80 percent were not known to science. While it may be dangerous to extrapolate numbers like these to other places, it gives at least a high estimate of the number of species that could exist on earth - that high estimate being around 100 million species. A low estimate is 2 million. The best estimate might be around 10 million. But even if that’s the case, it means we've only known about a small fraction of what is presently there.

Let's go with the best estimate of around ten million different species. We won't bother ourselves about how Noah knew all these species and where to find them back then. I expect he had some help.

To load these onto the Ark, and only allowing for one pair, assuming they went in two abreast at the optimistic rate of one species per second, twenty-four/seven, that would have taken a little over one hundred and fifteen days to load. With the upper estimate, it would have taken about three years, so let's not be too hard on poor old Noah and his small family of geriatrics. Besides, all those protozoans could probably have been carried on in a box - apart from the extremophiles which need special conditions of course. I wonder if the estimated half a million different species of beetle walked or flew?

Lastly, so far as the logistics of getting all these animals on board, not to mention checking all those microscopic ones to ensure there were only two of each (just how do you sex an amoeba?) it must have been a nightmare ensuring that all the species, like the giant tube worms, ruminants, lagomorphs, and termites, which rely on bacteria and other micro-organisms in their gut to digest their food, only brought two of each along between them!

Of course, part of the microbiology problem would also be in deciding which humans carried the specimens of sexually-transmitted diseases like syphilis, gonorrhoea, herpes and chlamydia. Was it just one or was the task shared out amongst the family? And then other obligatory parasites on all the other species would have had to be apportioned each to his host. There are so many species of flea alone. Who hosted the tapeworms, hookworms and liver flukes?

Enough of that. I could go on but you've probably got the point by now. I won't even mention the problem of whales. (Oh! I just did!)

3. That the earth could be repopulated from a mere handful of surviving specimens without any supporting biota or ecological niches in which to live.

Admittedly the Bible is typically ambiguous, even contradictory about what exactly survived outside the Ark. On one hand it talks about God killing breathing things and then talks about everything, and twice refers to every living substance:

And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.

Genesis 6:17

and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.

Genesis 7:4

And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

Genesis 7:21-23

It seems to me that, despite the ambiguity, there is little doubt that the author thought all living substance was destroyed, which includes plants, micro-organisms, fungi, etc. It doesn't seem possible that the stuff about breathing, breath and nostrils limits the list to just animals with skeletal respiratory systems, otherwise why bother with the 'every living substance' phrase?

The only way to resolve this is to assume the author muddled 'living' with breathing and believed that only breathing things were alive. Echo's of the 'breath of life', and 'breathing life into...' superstition there.

But that's a bit hard to swallow for those who also believe the author created everything and especially created life itself. Perhaps, to believe in Noah's Ark, one has to believe in a creator of life who thinks plants and non-breathing things are not living things.

So, I'll assume that the Noah's Ark story is based on a belief in an omniscient creator who would not have made such a silly mistake and knew perfectly well that even non-breathing (as opposed to respiring) life is alive, so when the Bible talks about every living thing being destroyed, it means just that.

In any case, very few plants can survive total immersion in salt water for very long, especially at depths sufficient to cover Mount Everest so, even if God didn't destroy them, there would have been very few survivors, if any.

And that leaves the little problem of the olive tree that the dove reputedly found. How did it manage to survive the flood and why would it have been growing atop a mountain in the first place? No doubt there is a simple explanation for that, other than the author being hopelessly muddled...

So what world did the survivors discover when they left the Ark?

A world with no food and no means to get any, and a world with no oxygen being produce by green plants and in which carbon dioxide is increasing due to animal respiration.

At least a world with no food for the herbivores; the carnivores would have been okay for a while, or did the Ark contain enough food for the surviving herbivores to live on while they were waiting for plants to evolve again, and enough fresh meat, dried insects, meal-worms, etc. for all the various carnivores, insectivores, etc.?

Then there is the problem of all those simian species, like humans, who, due to a mistake in their genes, can't metabolise vitamin C and need it in their diets or they die eventually? Where would they have got the fresh fruit and vegetation they need to avoid scurvey?

You see, there are little problems like shrews and moles with such high metabolic rates that they consume practically their own body-weight in protein-rich food every day, or they die of starvation. The moles, for example, would have just one earthworm each then they (following closely after the earthworms) would have gone extinct. The bats would have quickly mopped up the surviving flying insects then died. The few surviving herbivores would have quickly starved to death, if they had been lucky enough to escape the clutches of the increasingly hungry lions, wolves, stoats, bears, eagles, snakes, etc., followed of course by the carnivores which had exterminated them. To try to repopulate a barren planet with just a few of each species would be doomed to certain failure, as anyone with the slightest inkling of ecology could tell you.

Quite simple, and quite obviously, there is no way earth could have been re-populated by a few surviving members of each species. Living things don't live in isolation but as part of an interdependent, dynamic and complex, evolved ecosystem which is dependant on all its component parts and which is irreducibly complex, with all its components having co-evolved. Taking away any part of the system will render the entire thing unworkable.

And all of that pales into insignificance when put against the problem of no oxygen when the animals had turned it all into carbon dioxide.

Then of course there is the missing fossil evidence of this massive extinction event. Fossilisation would have been the norm in an environment free from scavengers and bacteria, and in which dead things would have been covered in marine sediment, unlike in the real world, where it is an exceedingly rare event, especially on land. We would see a massive fossil layer in the geological column yet there is nothing like it to be seen anywhere in the world.

So, Creationists! Just were exactly are all those fossils, eh?

Whoever wrote the Noah's Ark story obviously knew nothing of irreducibly complex ecosystems which can only be accounted for as being built slowly over time by an evolutionary process. It is quite clear from the Noah's Ark story that the author of Genesis was as ignorant of biology as he was of other science and actually thought the absurd tale was even remotely plausible.

This really isn't very surprising when we take account of the low level of science and technology of the people who had this as part of their origin myth, living as they did in an insignificant part of the Middle-eastern desert in the Bronze Age, when human technology hadn't yet invented the wheel. In fact, it is a rather touching insight into the infantile thinking of humans in the infancy of our species as we were beginning to come to terms with our curiosity and a desire to understand what must have seemed an infinitely complicated and mysterious, magical world before we had the tool of science.

The surprising thing is that there are still grown adults living in technologically advanced societies with all our scientific knowledge and readily available information, who still believe it. Even more surprising perhaps is that these unfortunate people consider themselves to hold superior knowledge and understanding and demand the right to tell normal people how to behave.

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  1. Fifteen hundred years before the Iron Age, what did Noah use for a saw?

    (Creationist timeline)

    1. Ha! GREAT point!

      I just want to know a couple more things (sorry if you covered these - I skimmed closely but):
      HOW did the old dudes - three or four of them? - deal with all the shit that would necessarily pile up every day on that boat? Assuming cubits are such that the boat was so vast, how did the old dudes cover the distances each day. Even if the boat was closer to one third the size of the Titanic, it's still a lot of work, all that shit.

      What exactly did the old dudes do for the carnivores? Did they also bring on board a supply of non-essential, to-be-eaten other animals to feed to the carnivores?

      What did the old dudes do for food?

      I dunno...

    2. A magic man magicked it.

      Er... or was that the answer to another Bible mystery? I forget..

  2. I think I've read somewhere the story of Noah is a regurgitation of an even earlier tale of a flood. But that aside, why did bronze age man need a story of a flood and the eradication of all living things? Surely someone back then must have thought the story was a crock. If the God was that powerful, why not just wipe everything out and start again, getting it right the second time around?

    Then again, I'm fortunate to live in a country and in an age when I can ask those questions out loud....!


  3. If God was omniscient, in theory he wouldn't have had a mistake to correct in the first place, of course. This is a great article which gave me many laughs.

  4. Rosa, I'd like to tear apart that myth as much as you, but I think you misinterpreted a couple of the verses. After comparing several different translations, it looks to me like the fifteen cubits of water in verses 19 and 20 refer to the height of the water over the highest peak.

    1. Thanks for pointing out another ambiguity in the Bible. :-)

    2. Of course that means then the rain would have fallen at 6 inches per minute to cover even Mount Everest in 40 days, making breathing impossible.

  5. My favourite cartoon is of Noah and his son leaning over the rail on the ark, looking into the water. After a while, the son says "Dad, why do I have to have both the tapeworms?"


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