Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The paradox of the flood

I really don’t mean to be a fundamentalist basher. In fact, the point of this post is more to satisfy my own curiosity than to advocate a particular position. And since I did the research, I figured I may as well post it.

That being said, the preceding comic seems to capture all that is wrong with extreme religious zealotry. It’s human nature to cherry pick the facts that support our worldview, but we ignore contradictory facts at our own peril, especially if this comic is correct.

As I’ve mentioned before, inasmuch as I believe the Bible, much of it has to be taken metaphorically or the only other rational option is to dismiss it outright. A perfect example is Noah’s flood.

I don’t intend to argue about whether the separation of Pangea into six (or if you’re Euro-centric, seven) continents happened all at once five thousand years ago while the earth was covered with water, rather than at roughly the same pace your fingernails grow, as scientific data suggest. Nor do I intend to argue as to whether or not the entire earth, all the way to the nearly six-mile-high summit of Mt. Everest, was completely covered with water, as is asserted in the text.

I prefer to limit my remarks to the practical matter of fitting a not-insignificant quantity of biomass on what is in reality a not-very-large boat.

According to Genesis, Noah was commanded to build the ark to dimensions of 300 cubits in length (~450 feet) x 50 cubits wide (~75 feet), a size that, unlike many modern shipping vessels, would allow it to pass through the Panama Canal. It was to have three levels or decks.

Ignorant as I am in the ways of divinely-architected shipbuilding (or any shipbuilding for that matter), we’ll assume that each deck was of the dimensions specified above, but that one deck had higher ceilings than the other two, since, if they were ten cubits each, a giraffe and probably an elephant would be unable to stand upright.

Fundamentalists argue that the flood happened as described when described, and they also argue against evolution by natural selection. Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways: there simply wasn’t room in the boat.

If you assume that each of the roughly 1.1 million species of known invertebrates (to give the literalists the benefit of the doubt, we aren’t even going to consider unknown species here)—not including crustaceans and mollusks, since they don’t need space on the boat to survive a flood—needs only one square inch per individual or two square inches per pair, half of the first deck is already full of nothing but bugs. If you consider that most animals, including insects, can’t go half a year without food, then we’ll assume they’ll need half again more space for food (we’re not going to consider a need for water, since it was raining).

That leaves another fourth of the first deck for the seeds and cuttings of the 287,655 species of plants (assumes that the aquatic plants that could survive the flood will be offset by the need to store fungi and lichens that could not).

The vertebrates are going to need a bit more space. Fortunately, half of them are fish, and again, don’t need room on the boat. If we figure the amphibians and reptiles and birds are small and can fit into a space, on average, of two square feet per mating pair, then we’ve used up the next deck and 1/3 of the deck above for these three classes of animals.

Some of the bigger lizards and birds would have needed more space than that, but we’ll assume that they also stacked enclosures and otherwise maximized usage of space in order to keep things as compact as possible. We’ll also assume that the food for these animals was similarly stored above or below the space where they lived. And that none of the food rotted, and that there was no disease or predation, lest something go extinct.

So now our well-packed boat is down to about 20,000 square feet and a mere 5,416 species of mammals. You can see where this is going, but we’ll try anyway.

The eminent preacher of planning, Stephen Covey, teaches us that we need to put the big rocks in the jar first (actually, I saw this in church years before Covey ever did it, but who can fault the guy for repackaging Sunday School lessons and charging corporations $60,000/day to give them provided the corporations are willing to pay?). After throwing out the 88 species of whales and dolphins, let’s start with the elephant.

We’ll simplify from four species of elephants down to two, African and Asian, each of which is about 20 feet long. We’ll assume, given the extenuating circumstances, that each animal can fit in a space 40 feet square. That means the four elephants are going to occupy 6,400 square feet, or roughly 1/3 of the remaining space.

Each of the five species of rhinoceros is about 10-12 feet long, so we’ll use the same rule of thumb for the elephants and give them each a space 20 feet square. These much smaller spaces mean we can fit all five species in about 4,000 square feet. We’ve got 10,000 square feet left and only 5,326 species to go!

If we alot 225 square feet for the hippo, 1,575 for seven species of great apes, 600 for six species of camels, 475 for 19 species of pigs, 100 for the pronghorn, 325 for both species of giraffe, and 1,908 for the 53 species of deer, then we’ll have enough space left for just over half of the 140 species of cattle.

Which means one of four things: 1) quarters were way more cramped than I realized and everything really did fit; 2) evolution really does happen and speciation has absolutely exploded in the last 5,000 years to account for the biodiversity seen today; 3) the account of the great flood simply can’t be taken literally; or 4) dogs, cats, horses, rodents, anteaters, lemurs, aardvarks, sloths, monkeys, and really most of the animal kingdom are way better at swimming than we give them credit for and are fully capable of treading water for six months at a time.

Given that even the most ardent supporters of evolution by natural selection wouldn’t suggest that number two is plausible, then number three is the only viable choice. Even if number two were correct, it destroys the case for literal interpretation. Regardless, the basis for rejecting evolution by natural selection is out the window since the only evidence that contradicts the theory is a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Which is not to say there's anything wrong with the Bible. If we view it as a collection of stories--without making value judgments as to their authenticity--that provide guidance on how to respond to a moral dilemma or patterns for how to treat other people, then the book is of great value. But using it as justification to mistreat or discriminate against others or otherwise wallow in ignorance is completely missing the point.

But then again, I could be dead wrong. It’s happened before, after all. And if you think I am, I hope you paid attention to the last two frames of the comic above.


  1. we run into this a lot.

    for example, did you know that rye is poisonous to fowl?

  2. I was going to make some sarcastic comment but I edited myself. There are obvious problems with mathematics and the bible, biology and the bible and the whole 3 in one Trinity can be troubling for people. This is where I usually tread lightly because at some point I will get myself in trouble. The fact that you are comfortable questioning religion is refreshing. And that is not sarcastic. Spending most of my life here anytime I have ever questioned anything it is like getting hit with a hammer. It is not just the LDS church. The Lutherans are rough here too. The debates about evolution are particularly gnarly. I feel like they are going to revoke communion every time I disagree. Anyhow I am with you on this one.. By the way Maxx Hall hates me.

  3. Speaking of evolution and religion, Doug Fabrizio interviewed Richard Dawkins today on RadioWest. Whatever your views, he’s a fascinating guy. You can listen to the piece here.

  4. Blackdog, I thought about posting a comment about Max Hall, but I withheld. It was an embarrassment to the university and almost enough to turn me into a full-time Utah fan.

    Watcher, thanks for the link to the Dawkins interview. One of the more humorous things I've heard him say was that something was so preposterous, "not even the people in Salt Lake City would believe it."

  5. Can't wait for your piece on Lot's wife and the deleterious effects becoming a pillar of salt has on your health.

  6. SBJ- I think the SLC quote was him repeating the line from a Douglas Adams book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Adams was a friend of Dawkins, and also wrote Hitchihiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

    One time I thought my wife had turned into a pillar of salt, but then she told me she just had a headache.

  7. Interesting post.

    By all accounts I am a evangelical Christian who believes the truth of the bible and the overall story of the bible:
    God created
    Man sinned
    God redeemed/saved man through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

    I think you are in error to believe the bible is simply a collections of stories to give us moral guidance. Fundamentally, the bible teaches us about God and his interactions with mankind. Not to say there are not a lot of great moral teachings, just that those teachings are not the main point of the book.

    All of the above makes me a bit repugnant to the atheist scientist.

    Guess what? I also believe and follow scientific models about origins/evolution/cosmology, etc. While those models certainly do change, over time there is enough data to approximate the truth, and to explain the natural world without reference to miracles. This is what I believe honest science should pursue.

    This makes me a bit repugnant to my more conservative church brethren.

    It can be a hard line to walk. Are the two beliefs mutually exclusive? I have been doing a lot of thought about this lately and don't have any real conclusions except a few preliminary ones:

    1. Science is necessarily limited. We will never see beyond the limits of this universe. Models simply represent our best explanation for the data we collect.
    2. There is not just one way to interpret the scriptures, and we need to be gracious to those who see it differently.
    3. There is more to God than just what is written in the bible. The bible is accurate revelation of him, but not the only revelation. Sometimes I think folks worship the bible more than its originator.

    Nothing definitive, like I say, I am on a journey right now, processing lots.

  8. Hey man, I dug up a few things in my reading. These have a clear young earth creationist bias, but are interesting as folks have put a lot more though into the ark and the worldwide flood than I ever thought.



    Good thought experiments.

  9. Opposing viewpoint:


    The second article I linked to in the last post is responding to the above.

  10. Enel, the articles lost me with "what did the dinosaurs eat?"

    I don't mean to denigrate anyone for his or her beliefs. If someone finds a belief system that works, that's great. That's the most important thing. Whether or not something is true, if one believes it to be true and finds comfort in it, then the truthfulness becomes secondary.

  11. Actually, all the mollusks and crustaceans, as well as corals and most fish, would have needed to be kept on the ark as well. The amount of water needed to raise the ocean level to cover "all the earth" would have caused a decrease in salinity of the ocean and most sea creatures are very sensitivity to salinity, particularly sudden changes in salinity. It's not likely all the saltwater species would have survived such an event.

  12. NeuroDawg, I was giving the literalists the benefit of a doubt here. They need SOMETHING to hold on to with such a preposterous story. Why do you think I didn't even bring up where all the water came from?