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Ship of Foolishness

by Donald Prothero, Oct 10 2012

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

—Lewis Carroll, 1872, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Every few months or so, you see a “documentary” on a cable program searching for Noah’s ark. Every other year or so, the media picks up a story where someone has “discovered Noah’s ark.” The latest incident occurred when former Baywatch actress and Playboy model Donna D’Errico was injured trying to climb Mt. Ararat. All it takes is a quick web search to discover that these foolish quests and dubious claims happen over and over again, year in and year out, just like false prophets who proclaim the end of the world in six months. The most famous of these “false alarm” discoveries occurred in 1993, when George Jammal hoaxed a documentary about “discovering” the Ark; it was later revealed he never went to Turkey, and that the “wood” he showed was a piece of pine soaked in soy sauce.

What is striking about all these amazing claims that there is NEVER any further research, or follow-up. After the big splash of the hot story in the media, one never hears that they actually tested the “Ark wood” to see if it was really old, or return to the same place for more data. (Ironically, since creationists deny radiocarbon dating, they can’t very well use it for their own purposes and then reject it for all others). Most of the time we’re given some lame excuse, such as the “Ark” vanished under an avalanche after their visit, or the Turkish authorities would not allow them to return to Ararat. Surely, if they had actually found something, they would have gone back again and again and accumulated more and more evidence, as true scientists and archeologists always do. Instead, it’s a flash in the pan of media publicity, then…nothing. Lord knows these people have LOTS of money to follow the pursuit. Nearly every “Ark” story on their broadcasting or on their websites is followed by a plea for more money to continue this work. If real scientists were funded for real research at the levels these creationists are for phony research, just think of the useful discoveries we would have made by now! Instead, the money goes down the rabbit-hole of their mysterious and untaxable income, and we never get any results. Now they are taking an even bigger bite, not only out of their own flock, but out of taxpayers. Ken Ham’s ridiculous “Answers in Genesis” organization has bamboozled the Governor of Kentucky and much of their legislature to give them tax breaks and new roads and infrastructure to build a Noah’s ark replica in Kentucky, adjacent to their phony creationist “museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky. Now, no matter what you think of these matters, the State is supporting the Church, and Kentucky taxpayers who object to this expenditure of their tax dollars have no choice. Fortunately, the AiG organization is having trouble raising money for the “Ark Park” and has postponed construction indefinitely, and even attendance at the “Creation Museum” is declining and hurting their finances. (Check out this clever parody, “Koran Kountry”, that imagines a Muslim-themed park supported by Kentucky tax dollars).

Most creationists believe that the Noah’s ark story is historical fact. Never mind that there are actually two different stories in Genesis 6 from different sources that don’t even agree with one another, or that large parts of both flood myths are cribbed almost word-for-word from the much older Sumerian and Babylonian accounts in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Never mind that creationists must explain why one verse has seven pairs of clean animals on the ark, while another only has one. Creationist books are full of incredible mental gyrations needed to make the Noah’s ark story remotely believable. However, as I found out from my debate with Duane Gish in 1983, they will avoid discussing it if it is brought up in debate, since it sounds foolish and ruins their credibility with most audiences. First, let us start with what the Bible says and delve into the world of “arkeology”. McGowan (1984, Chapter 5) and Moore (1983) discuss the logistical details of the Noah’s ark story at length, so I will not repeat their entire analysis here. A whole series of questions and problems come up when you look at the ark story in detail. First of all, naval engineers learned long ago that  wooden boats longer than about 300 feet cannot work, because there is no kind of wood in a boat that size that can stand up to the stresses and torques of the open ocean. Only with the invention of iron hulls was it possible to build longer boats. Then there is the issue of volume. McGowan (1984, p. 55) calculates that the Biblical dimensions give a boat with about 55,000 cubic meters of internal volume. Depending upon whose estimate you follow, there are at least 1.5 million species on earth today, which gives us only about 0.0367 cubic meters per species, or about one-third the capacity of a small shoebox—and these animals would have to be packed like shoeboxes stacked on top of one another to make this solution work. Clearly, this is not enough space for most large animals. The pair (or is it seven pairs?) of elephants, rhinos and hippos would take up much of the ark all by themselves. The problem gets even worse if we realize that the true estimate is about 4 or 5 billion species on earth.

The creationists, of course, are aware of this problem. When the flood myths were written, most ancient Middle Eastern cultures recognized only a handful of animals (domesticated plus wild), and paid no attention to insects or many other less conspicuous forms of life, so they saw no problem in accounting for all living things that were important to them in a single boat. But the modern-day creationists must account for all of the millions of life forms on earth, or else admit that some things have evolved from other since the days of Noah. They do this by claiming that Noah only took the created “kinds” (baramin in Hebrew) on the boat, and that these “kinds” have since evolved into many more forms (a concession that evolution occurs!). By this method, they claim that there were only about 30,000 to 50,000 created “kinds” on board, but then that only gives each “kind” about a cubic meter to live in—still not much of an improvement. This “solution” creates a whole new set of problems. Not only does it concede a tremendous amount of evolution from the created “kinds,” but the “kinds” have no basis in biology at all. When you examine the creationist literature or try to pin them down, sometimes the “kinds” are species, sometimes they are genera, and sometimes they are whole families, orders, or even phyla of animals (Siegler, 1978; Ward, 1965)! Creationists are so wildly inconsistent, and completely out of line with the known taxonomy of organisms, that it is clear that a created “kind” is one of those slippery words that people use to weasel out of difficult spots. As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice (in Through the Looking Glass), “Whenever I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” Nevertheless, a lot of the creationist “research” focuses on just this fruitless unscientific version of chasing their own tails, and they even have a name for it: baraminology. Some creationists try to squirm out of the problem by claiming that the fish and marine invertebrates stayed outside in the ark, and lived through the floodwaters. But this reveals their complete lack of understanding of basic biology. To a creationist, apparently, if it lives in the water, it’s all the same, but marine fish and invertebrates are highly sensitive to changes in salinity, so if the oceans were flooded by fresh water, these organisms would die immediately. If, on the other hand, these supernatural clouds rained marine water (a physical impossibility, since salt is left behind when water evaporates), then the salty world ocean would have killed all the freshwater fish and invertebrates, which cannot tolerate high salinities. Of course, pushing all these aquatic forms off the boat and into the water doesn’t begin to solve the space or numbers problem, since they account for only a few hundred thousand species, anyway.

Any attempt to rationalize the ridiculous aspects of the “Noah’s ark” story is just a classic case of special pleading and ad hoc rationalizations.

But we have only addressed the issue of cramming millions of species into shoebox-sized spaces stacked to the top of the ark. Where would they put all the food for so many animals? How did the carnivores survive without eating their neighbors? Finally, the most unpleasant thought of all: so many animals produce a lot of dung. Did Noah and his sons spend most of their 40 days and nights shoveling out of the boat? Instead of evaluating a reasonable and testable hypothesis, all this special pleading and twisting of the facts of nature makes it clear that we’re dealing with an explanation that is a load of dung.

References

  • McGowan, C. 1984. In the Beginning: A Scientist Shows Why the Creationists are Wrong. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.
  • Moore, R. 1983. The impossible voyage of Noah’s Ark. Creation/Evolution 11: 1–40.
  • Siegler, H.R. 1978. A creationist’s taxonomy. Creation Research Society Quarterly 15:36–38.
  • Ward, R.R. 1965. In the Beginning. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
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Ship of Foolishness, 4.7 out of 5 based on 26 ratings

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53 Responses to “Ship of Foolishness”

  1. tudza says:

    They can’t just say it’s one of those miracles? If you can do miracles, who needs engineering?

  2. Adrian Morgan says:

    I think “baramin” sounds like a musical instrument — presumably a sort of baritone theremin. :-)

  3. Other Paul says:

    So OK, take it from the other end. What’s the best that could have been achieved with an ark of biblical proportions, assuming all other life killed due to an event of, umm, biblical proportions? Could enough have been preserved to restock the planet, and end up with what we have today?

    Although it seems somewhat implausible to start with an arkload of biodiversity round about 6000 years ago, and end up with what we’ve got now, ending up with anything at all would be something, wouldn’t it?

    We’ll need to know this sort of stuff for when we do that Mars seeding jobbie.

  4. BillG says:

    “…the state is supporting the church, and Kentucky tax payers who object to this expediture of their tax dollars have no choice.”

    I’m ignorant on any details regarding Ken Ham, his whimsical creation museum or future fantasies of “Ark Park” (how about Southpark instead?), but isn’t this a blatant violation of the seperation of chuch and state??

    Where is FFRF or the ACLU? On the surface this seems to be a cakewalk case.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I agree. I trust some Kentuckian can correct me on this, but I believe the deal the Governor cut was to provide state-supported roads and infrastructure to make it easier to get to Ham’s haven of religious craziness, not spending state money on the Ark Park itself. However, I regard it as good news that those latest links I posted show he’s having a hard time raising the money…

    • WScott says:

      I’m not thrilled about taxpayer funds going to support Ham’s House Of Crazy either. But governments do this sort of thing all the time to support all kinds of projects, both secular and religious – especially if they’re likely to attract tourism dollars. So I expect it would be very easy for the State to argue that the practise is “content-neutral.”

      • LovleAnjel says:

        My husband’s hometown county government spent tax money building roads & lots to accommodate a new Walmart Supercenter. The argument is it brings in tax & tourist money, so it’s like an investment.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Well, it appears to be wasted tax dollars if it fizzles out and never gets built, and the traffic to the “creation museum” declines…

      • Daniel says:

        Given that the country is evidently filled to the brim with dangerous religious zealots, one would think the museum has a good shot at being smashing economic success. Just think about all the taxes collected as a result of tourist dollars that can be used to fund a biology lab in the local high school. True, when dissecting the frog, students might be told it was on Noah’s Ark, but at least students will get to see the inside of the frog.

  5. Glenn Branch says:

    You can find Robert A. Moore’s “The impossible voyage of Noah’s Ark,” cited here, on-line at http://ncse.com/cej/4/1/impossible-voyage-noahs-ark and http://ncse.com/files/pub/CEJ/pdfs/CEJ_11.pdf (PDF).

  6. khan says:

    I’ve always wondered how the koalas got back to Australia dragging the 100′ eucalyptus trees (which they then replanted in salt-poisoned earth)…

  7. Janet Camp says:

    It is all well and good to laugh at fundamentalists, but the bigger question is WHY do people living in the 21st century cling to these superstitions and refuse to give them up? Many people’s religious views have themselves evolved and most mainstream churches accept evolution even if they do cling to the idea that their god put it all in motion, but the fundies just keep twisting and contorting even their own logic to hang onto their literalist interpretations of their magic book.

    I’m aware that there have been a few books from the neuroscience and psychology fields on this topic, but haven’t read any of them yet. Perhaps I should as my own mother fervently believes that men have one less rib than women! If this level of belief is a genetic glitch, I seem to have been fortunate enough not to have inherited it.

    • David Hewitt says:

      Try “Supersense” by Bruce Hood and “The Believeing Brain” by Micahael Shermer, for a start. Great books, very readable.

  8. Donald Prothero says:

    @Janet: I discuss this at length in my upcoming book “Reality Check” (Indiana Univ. Press, due out next spring). But if you read Matt Taibbi’s “The Great Derangement” (about his immersion in the fundie universe), you can easily see why. The fundie community is much like what you hear about “cult” communities: highly insular and self-isolated, so the members don’t read the news, don’t get exposed to the outside world, and read and hear only what their Church wants them to–everything else is from the Devil. Fundamentalism involves a total commitment to a belief system and a community, so they check their rationality at the door and believe what they are told to believe, no matter how insane it sounds. (After all, LOTS of the dogmas of mainstream Christianity sound insane to outsiders, and you only accept them if you are raised to believe it from childhood). Their religious community IS their extended family, so they dare not disagree with them, or listen to information outside this world, or they might be ostracized. I’ve lived in tiny rural communities in Illinois where the main thing a stranger asks you is “What church do you belong to?”
    Given these powerful constraints, logic and reason and common sense don’t stand a chance. Their schools are equally full of fundies, so the limited exposure they get in biology doesn’t make a dent. As long as they remain isolated and part of that local community, they’ll probably never be exposed to anything which challenges their worldview. (That’s how they can also believe lies like Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, or that we found WMD in Iraq). And no attempts by outsiders will shake this belief–studies show they actually retreat to STRONGER beliefs when threatened. As long as they define themselves by their religious community, this will never change in the US, and creationism will never recede. Only the gradual secularization of the US (as has happened in Asia and Europe) offers some hope.

  9. WScott says:

    I remember the first time I heard one of these ark stories as a kid, I was really excited! But after the 5th or 6th time (or 60th), you’d think people would start to get a *little* skeptical.

    I once made a snide remark about fitting that many animals on one ship, and had a Christian respond “Maybe God made it bigger on the inside than on the outside.” Me: “Like Doctor Who’s Tardis?” Him: “Yes, exactly like the Tardis.” He managed to keep a straight face for almost 5 seconds before I realized he was joking.

    Trivia note: the largest wooden ship ever built was the Tessarakonteres (“The Forty”), built for Ptolemy IV of Egypt in the 3rd century BC. It was 425’ long, comparable to the supposed dimensions of Noah’s Ark. However, even ancient historians agreed that it was built entirely for show, and certainly never would’ve survived the open ocean for 40 minutes, let alone 40 days.

    • Ryan says:

      And if I remember correctly Greek/Hellenistic vessels were never designed to be used in the open ocean anyway. More for coastal and river sailing around comparatively smaller seas (like the Mediterranean & Aegean) and delta systems of the area. So even if it was practically sailed in Egyptian waters it wouldn’t have said much for the ark.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      Didn’t Caligula build several yachts that were 100 meters long? Granted, they were in a lake and meant to piss of the Senators…

  10. WScott says:

    Oh, one nitpick: the height of the Titanic listed in the photo is to the tops of the funnels, which presumably Noah’s Ark wouldn’t have had. So a more apples-to-apples comparison would be from the keel to the top of the bridge, which was 104 feet.
    I don’t see how that helps the creationists any.

  11. WScott says:

    @ Glenn Branch – Thanks for the link; I hadn’t read that before!

    The more I think about the flood story, what strikes me most is not how implausible it is, but how utterly pointless and inefficient it is. If God really wanted to wipe out humanity (except for one righteous family) wouldn’t it be far easier to just send a plague or something? Nevermind the moral question of condemning all animals on Earth (minus 1 or 7 pairs each) to a painful death because of the sins of humanity! Oh, and then the whole exercise is proven pointless when Noah and his family immediately begin sinning again – which you’d think an omniscient deity would’ve forseen.

  12. Me says:

    Baramin is not a Hebrew word, it is a concatenation of 2 words.
    Bara = Created
    Min = kind

    Who decided to glue them together ?

  13. Greisha says:

    @Donald:

    In light of your comments (#8) what is a point to post it at all?

    I always find your posts educational and entertaining, but this one is just redundant.

  14. Carl says:

    There’s another huge problem with the Genesis account: the concept of “clean” and “unclean” animals wasn’t handed down to the Hebrews until much later (Leviticus) and didn’t exist at the alleged time of Noah.

    Of course, this is hardly news to Biblical scholars, so what is it really telling us? It’s telling us that the Old Testament was composed by people for whom “literal truth” and “historical linearity” were simply not important concepts — indeed, the idea of “literal” truth in a story handed out down orally for many generations would have been incomprehensible to them. All of this makes it even more absurd that people would insist on the literal or historical truth of Genesis.

  15. Daniel says:

    “If real scientists were funded for real research at the levels these creationists are for phony research, just think of the useful discoveries we would have made by now!”

    Do you have any evidence at all how much money creationists get to do their research, whatever that might be? Even if you assume that the people who fund that sort of thing would otherwise give it to some useful scientific pursuit, I highly doubt that there’s any legitimate scientific research that’s being held up as a result.

    Despite the hysteria over the theocracy that’s either already upon us or right around the corner, science is not underfunded (although you might think that the scientific inquiries that interest you might be). If you include all private and public funds, inclusive of things like R&D (which was $368 billion in 2007) science funding may be close to $1 trillion per year.

    Somehow I don’t think we’d be enjoying the benefits of fusion energy or have the cure for cancer if we rerouted all that money that people choose to spend on creationist museums in the middle of nowhere.

    • Me says:

      How about if we rerouted all the BRAINS ?

    • spectator says:

      Yeah,I scratched my head on this claim,too.If they can’t finance Ark Park, never collected any evidence, ran careful analysis, spent more than a weekend poking around, then how much money was thrown down the “rabbit hole?”
      Donald goes on to reply in a comment how Fundies don’t have contact with anyone outside of their clan. How many checks are inundating the postal annex? Obviously they wouldn’t have internet access (what? with all that tempting access to porn and atheist bloggers ridiculing believers). Forget PayPal!
      Donald is shooting fish in a barrel again. Kinda like the cartoon posted above.

    • WScott says:

      How much of that $1 Trillion consists of defense spending? Not that defense shouldn’t count, but I suspect funding for pure science is a teensy fraction.

      I expect that part of the reason why creationists always seem to have so much money is simply that they don’t do any actual research. So all their money goes into publicity/marketing.

      • Daniel says:

        Admittedly, my estimate was very off-the-cuff, and my conception of spending on science for purposes of the point I was trying to make was intentionally broad. This is the link where I got the $368 billion figure.

        http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/guitotal.htm

        Again, off the cuff, but I’d bet that “defense” R&D is probably less than you would think. While we all hear giant numbers being passed around about how much it costs to build a stealth bomber, or an aircraft carrier, a lot of the defense budget (which hovers at around $700 billion per year) goes into maintaining troop readiness, salaries and veterans’ benefits.

        Beyond R&D, you can include a part of spending for science education, both public and private, from elementary school through universities. Total K through 12 public education in the US is about the same, or even larger than the defense budget. You add spending on private elementary, secondary, and university education that total number increases significantly. STEM, one could conservatively estimate, accounts for ten percent of that number. Even indirectly, the amount that gets spent on buying copies of Of Pandas and People and taking a few minutes to teach students about intelligent design amounts to something that is not statistically significant.

        The point of all this (beyond being a proud chest-beating American) is to put the lie (or at least put in perspective) claims that science, and education of the non-religious sort, is underfunded in the US. The money that might be diverted to creationist endeavors is miniscule in comparison. All in all, the creationists in our midst don’t really effect the overall picture, and really just give non-believers something to talk about a cocktail party.

      • Max says:

        U.S. defense R&D is about $75 Billion. Of that, $7 Billion is for basic and applied research. Key areas are robotic systems, cybersecurity, electronic warfare, and remote sensing.
        http://www.rdmag.com/articles/2011/12/2012-global-r-d-funding-forecast-industrial-r-d%E2%80%94aero-defense

      • Daniel says:

        One other thing, you’ll have to be more specific about what constitutes “pure science” to formulate an opinion as to whether it’s underfunded or how much it ought to be funded. Yes, I know NASA has had to cut some space exploration-type projects because of budget concerns. (Gratuitous fun fact, Ronald Reagan proposed a budget that would have had the equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider built in Texas. Democrat controlled Congress killed that).

        But again, the amount that NASA (and just NASA) spends on even the narrowest definition of “pure science” dwarfs what creationists spend on all of their efforts. Have you ever seen the Discovery Institute wedge strategy memo? A decent high-school newspaper is more slickly designed.

  16. d brown says:

    ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Georgia Rep. Paul Broun said in videotaped remarks that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell” meant to convince people that they do not need a savior. Remember they vote. As I remember it the old Readers Digest ran Noah’s ark stories. I think one said old wood was found in ice on Mt. Ararat and it must have been from the ark.

  17. dylan says:

    +1 for the title of this post

  18. Paul Johnson says:

    I want to know which one of the humans on board offered to house Pthirus pubis (pubic or crab lice)during the voyage …

    • Carl says:

      How about diseases that exist only in human hosts, e.g. smallpox?

      Which of Noah’s sons or daughters-in-law carried syphilis so it could infest the post-Flood world?

  19. Blaze says:

    The animals are secondary to me. I want to know which of Noah’s children was Chinese, which was Zulu, which was Inuit, etc, etc. Perhaps I’m not well read in my bible and am ignorant of the passage describing the amazement of Noah’s family when they stepped off the ark and changed ethnicity by Holy Crap Miracle. I haven’t met any Officially Credentialed Ark Researchers, so maybe they have the answer. The casual citizen believer sure has nothing to suggest.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      The dirty little secret is the belief that non-whites are degenerated humans, spiritually corrupted to the point that their physical features have changed.

  20. Phil says:

    How did they mix the tropical animals with the polar animals? Refrigeration and heating on the same ship eh? How did they keep the freshwater fish and saltwater fish alive? What about the termites? The Ebola? How about the sloths, how did they get back home seeing as how they don’t really move other than trees which are all dead due to the flooding? And where did all the water go in the Sahara since there’s no rivers leading out to the ocean? Where did they keep the microscopic plankton (Bikini Bottom perhaps)?

  21. Mustang55 says:

    Maybe it was like Harry Potter, where you can have a tent the size of a tent, but on the inside it can be as spacious as a hotel. But of course, if that’s the case, why did Noah have to build and ark so big? Oh, God and his magickness.

  22. d brown says:

    SEE The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements —–”A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer — the first and most famous of his books — was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences.Completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today, The True Believer is a visionary, highly provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.”

  23. DeLong says:

    Gary Trudeau’s Doonsbury strip had a great final punchline to the teaching of Noah’s Ark story – they forgot the dinosaurs! Since many of the creationists believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, then humans must have “walked with” dinosaurs. Why were the dinosaurs left off the Ark? What about the most recent ice age animals that are also extinct, the wooly mammoth, saber tooth tiger or any animal that can be found at the Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits in L.A.?

  24. Dr. Dim says:

    I didn’t see it in the thread, but if someone has already mentioned this, then I guess I’ll repeat it. The 40 days and nights is how long it rained, not how long the flood lasted. According to the account in Genesis, the flood lasted 150 days (Gen. 7:24).

    I know it’s silly to be nit-picking about such a ridiculous story, but it’s been a common mistake made about the bible that has always bothered me. It bothers me almost as much as that far more common mistake – the bible is literally true.

  25. d brown says:

    i read the frisyt museum of fantasies hjasd a kind of a dinosaurs with english ridind sadd;les. god put man over the beasts so they must have used the dinosaurs thgey were wiyth. “literal truth”

  26. d brown says:

    opps!!I read the first museum of fantasies had a kind of a dinosaur with English riding saddles. God put man over the beasts so they must have used the dinosaurs they were with. The “literal truth” crowd of today use a 16 century bible that was miss translated by one con man who did not know what the English of the king James bible meant.

  27. andy says:

    Your usually pretty good, not sure why you resorted to the old picture tactic. Noah’s arc should have been WAAAAY smaller than the titanic in the pic. The specs say a whole different story.