Leaving the Fold

Leaving the Fold

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Problems with the Genesis Flood

On the flood

The Genesis flood is considered a fact by many Christians despite an enormous number of plausibility issues. Many are first introduced to it in Sunday school or some Christian kids group with pictures of content looking animals upon a boat riding the waves of a vast ocean with a rainbow somewhere in the background, often Noah or the iconic dove are also included in these pictures. These pictures often include well known animals including giraffes, lions and elephants (of course it would not be kid friendly to suggest that the lions were likely to get peckish). However few Christians question whether or not the flood was global or if it was even possible for it to be global. Rarely is it considered that the author may have simply chosen to exaggerate, to convey the idea of the flood being very large. It is not impossible that a boat, or boats, could have been used to ship domestic animals and people to somewhere safer in an attempt to ensure that they were not killed in a very large flood. Or they could have fled to another land following  a cataclysm in their own country. People fleeing a cataclysm in a region populated by some of the worlds largest civilizations would have been able to spread the story far and wide. To the people of an ancient civilization without science, and little in the way of technology to help provide an answer to why an enormous natural disaster was occurring, it would look like the work of an angry deity pouring their judgement upon the Earth.

 It is never suggested that God simply ‘pressed the reset button’ in the narrative but that is the only way the flood could have actually occurred without running into the problems listed below.

  • A basic knowledge of the biological sciences, helped with a decent knowledge of the fundamental workings of ecology raises many problems, especially for creationists who think the Earth is much younger than the age generally accepted by the scientific community. Ecology is far more complicated than many give it credit for, given the number of things that can an effect an ecosystem and the organisms found within it and given how easy changes in conditions one or more factors either living or non-living can have significant and often complicated effects on an ecosystem, a global flood would have been disastrous for the Earth’s biodiversity. To illustrate how complex ecology is think of everything that makes someone who they are: that is, their genetics, family, environment, health, financial status, peers and friends (even these categories are quite broad). In this example there are many variables that make someone the person. Even small mutations within a persons genes can have profound consequences (cells, both plant and animal, have ‘fail safe’ mechanisms that prevent these consequences most of the time). In the same way the characteristics that make up an ecosystem are determined by a variety of variables many of which if altered or destroyed, as in the case of a global flood, would change that ecosystem or cause it to collapse if it could not recover. Ecosystem collapse can happen in the event of a significant disturbance and the flood could definitely be categorized as that.
  • Every ecosystem on Earth, to sound very unscientific about it, would have been trashed. Including those in the ocean and rivers where organisms require specific light levels, temperatures and salinity to survive. Estuarine organisms can survive variable salinities more however, this account for a small majority of marine life. Organisms that live in freshwater systems that cannot tolerate large changes in salinity (or lack there of) of their environment let alone being inundated by seawater in which they would have had no chance (freshwater fish kept as pets will die if accidentally placed in seawater).
  • Organisms within ecosystems form complex interactions with other members of that ecosystem and sometimes rely on these for survival. These interactions would have been disrupted or destroyed by a global flood, leading to the extinction of many of these animals (and plants). This would also have led to the disruption of food webs and other complicated species interactions that meant the affected animals were not able to complete their life-cycle and would have died.
  • Kelp forests and coral reefs, which attract a large abundance of organisms, which reproduce in these areas, exist in a narrow range of temperature and depth. They would have most certainly been demolished by a global flood removing a vital component of the ecosystems of which they are part of. Without them, the survival of marine life dependent on these would have been unlikely. This would have included organisms that rely on them for food and shelter. Kelp and mangrove forests provide shelters in which juvenile fish can survive with much lower mortality rates than in the open ocean due to being eaten, these fish and animals that rely on them for food would have died when the kelp and mangroves were destroyed in a global flood. We are seeing a comparable situation with the loss f kelp forests and reefs where the organisms found in these areas have declined in numbers.
  • Some species reproduce in freshwater and upriver from the sea to do this, there would have been nowhere for them to reproduce so they would have died out to.
  • It is very unlikely Noah brought all the corals (which would not have survived and would have been dangerous to handle), plants and sessile marine and freshwater organisms onto the ark. Not to mention you then have to account for all the beetles and insects, some of which would have been inadvertently squashed during the voyage.
  • It is difficult enough these days to restore an ecosystem that has been fragmented, degraded or destroyed, particularly if the original inhabitants have been reduced to a very small number. It is impossible for an ecosystem to just restore itself within a very small space of time when there is little or nothing left of it, yet that is what many interpretations of this story suggest happens.
  • Any taxonomist can tell you that there well over a million species of animal, of which vertebrates make up a very small percentage. Among the vertebrates, many species, are unique to the areas in which they are found and cannot be found in the fossil records of areas such as the Middle East. Many of these areas are isolated and there is no way short of a miracle animals in these areas could have reached the Ark. Some animals are incredibly slow, so if summoned to the Ark would take a very long time to reach it, animals like the sloth would probably not have been able to make the journey within their lifespan. 
  • Recovery would not have been possible for animals with a low fecundity (where fecundity refers to birth rate, rabbits for example have a very high fecundity compared to some other mammals such as humans). This is a problem for wildlife conservationists today, even with far larger numbers of animals within a species than were available to Noah. Animals with minimal genetic diversity stand less chance of surviving any natural selection agents such as disease. Ecologists have now defined a threshold below which, a species becomes unrecoverable and extinction is inevitable, it is well above the number of animals of each species that are described as surviving the flood, of these survivors Noah sacrificed some despite God knowing how detrimental that would be to their recovery). Among the only organisms that could survive from only two individuals are bacteria which reproduce by binary fission that does not require a second individual.
    • On the subject of disease, disease would have been rife aboard the ark. 18th century sailing vessels carrying people, their cargo and livestock had terrible trouble with disease outbreaks not counting those caused by dietary insufficiencies that resulted from being offshore for so long. Assuming Noah had far more cargo than any sailing ship that has been built since; this would have been an enormous problem.
    • How did microbes and parasitic organisms survive the voyage? Some of these would have had to kill their host in order to survive. Other pathogens make their host sick, sometimes but not always killing them, so chances are if they were on board the Ark, Noah would have had some rather messy and unpleasant situations to deal with.
  • Some insects would have had to kill other insects in order to breed and thereby survive, there are some rather unpleasant reproductive habits in the insect world that often result in the death of the male organism involved in the process (the praying mantis being a better known example). I will not expand on this here but any entomology enthusiasts will find lots of information elsewhere.
Without a doubt the author of this story, whoever they were, had no idea how large the planet was or just how enormous the abundance and diversity of organisms on this planet is. Finding that out when they were trying hard enough to survive would have been far from the author’s mind. Likely, they were aware of animals and plants occurring in the region in which they lived but knew little of what lay beyond (which probably was meaningless to them). Therefore they would have had no knowledge of animal species or plant species occurring beyond the Middle-East or their homeland, which would mean they would have had no knowledge of most of the world’s animals. To them, their country and surrounding regions was the entire world, there was no Americas, no poles, no South-East Asia or Oceania, their world, the Earth, was the region in which they lived. These same people also believed the Earth had edges, was flat, was held up by pillars and that it did not move (Psalm 104:5). Without astronomy they had no way of knowing any differently.

If the water had risen above 5 km breathing would have become difficult, and if it receded within the time frame given then the resulting humidity would have killed everyone. Also, the amount of water required to increase the sea level by 8 km is enormous and would have resulted in a deluge that would have been difficult for the Ark or its inhabitants to withstand unless it was totally sealed (and with a large number of animals on board that would had some unpleasant consequences of its own, the smell might have been the least of Noah’s worries).
For the reasons described, the flood was likely a regional flood, which affected many civilizations within the region it occurred within the areas of the modern-day Middle East and North Africa.

What did the flood achieve?
In the context of the narrative, the flood achieves absolutely nothing. People still sinned following the flood. This included Noah who got drunk and as far as Noah was concerned this also one of his sons, who was cursed for covering his drunk father with a blanket (you do not notice the cold as much when intoxicated so that was unfair). Afterwards Noah curses his son, in a bizarre overreaction and curses all his descendants who later become known as the Canaanites, for whom the Bible authors offers little sympathy despite the fact they never asked to be cursed by someone who probably had a hangover at the time (given the stressful circumstances it’s hard to blame Noah for getting drunk).
  • No attempt is mentioned of God trying to intervene before the flood except for Noah and his family, they are said to be the only righteous people on Earth yet later on more than one occasion the bible states that there is no one righteous on Earth, not one.

  • Mankind populated the Earth twice, considering that the Earth was recovering from a flood on the second occasion and both instances started off with a very tiny population, this would have taken far longer than 6000 years (even if God restored all the ecosystems assuming he did not create more people to replace those who died, if he had then the idea of everyone being descended from Noah’s family is no longer valid). The bible says that humanity covered the Earth, which would have taken far longer than stated here given the size of the planet. Again the author was ignorant to this fact, so they are not entirely at fault. Young earth creationists ignore this problem. Extensive research into mass extinction events that have occurred throughout Earth’s history, the most well-known being the Cretaceous extinction event, can be used to provide clues as to how long it would take life on Earth to recover from a widespread catastrophe, though none of them are quite as profound as a flood drowning everything. Based on studies on mass extinction events it would take life far longer than just 6,000 years for life to recover, and that is without the disaster wiping out every single ecosystem in existence leaving just a few animals behind. Some journal articles put the estimated time for ecological recovery as approximately 20- 30 million years. So unless God hit the ‘reset button’ it is impossible that the Earth would have completely recovered from the flood if the Earth was less than ten thousand years old.

Further points:
  • Christians will say there is evidence of a global flood. More likely, this is the culmination of many flooding events across the Earth and the movement of the plates. It is also likely that based on the ice age events theory some flooding occurred at the end of these periods. Floods likely represented a terrifying paradox for ancient people; the idea that the very life source of their people could well kill them was probably not pleasant.
  • Some say that the receding water froze at the poles, while this accounts for a large volume of water this would only raise the sea level about 70 meters, maybe a bit more if you include glaciers found within mountain ranges but this still leaves over 7 km until reaching the peak of Mount Everest, you still need a kilometer rise in sea levels at least to inundate the smallest mountain ranges. While the author does say the mountains were covered, there is no reason to suggest they were not exaggerating.
There is actually evidence within the text to suggest that the flood was not global and it is a rather iconic image to. Noah sends out some birds as the flood waters receded, a dove returns with an olive branch signifying the flood is over. The fact that it was able to find an intact olive branch suggests that there was still some land exposed and it was at an altitude where olives can grow. On a final point, it is worth nothing that Jesus himself believed in the story of Noah's Ark and the flood, according to the author at least, and it is referred to at least once in the gospels.