Sir Jim R Wallaby
The Skeptic 17/3)
One of the unexpected benefits of lurking around the Skeptic's editorial suite lies in the unsolicited mail that filters ones way as the editor cleans out his in-tray. One regular correspondent is the lady from the Blue Mountains who, it seems, is concerned about the welfare of the editorial soul. She regularly sends him pages torn from recent issues of Creation magazine, a journal to which, because of his clinically diagnosed low tolerance to a diet of tripe, the editor denies himself the pleasure of subscribing.
The latest batch (Creation 19, March-May 1997) contains an astonishing offering from a Dr Jonathan Sarfati, an employee of the Creation Science Foundation (now Answers in Genesis) the perpetrators of this budgie cage-liner. Sarfati, quoting from a book, Noah's Ark: A feasibility study, by one John Woodmorappe, engages in the usual tortuous reasoning of the dedicated creationist in trying to make his naive literal interpretation of Genesis fit the ineluctable facts of nature. He begins with the standard creationist tactic of seeking to redefine species and genus to reduce the number of "kinds" that had to be accommodated on the mythical vessel.
Using a reasonable definition of "species" as "a group of organisms which can interbreed and produce fertile offspring...", he then flings caution to the winds and continues, in madcap fashion, "...most of the so-called species have not been tested to see what they can or cannot mate with." Well, of course, he is right (apart from ending a sentence with a preposition). Try as you might, you will find nothing in the zoological literature about attempted cross-breeding experiments between rabbits and rhinoceri; nor indeed, between chrysanthemums and crocodiles. Somehow, via this arbitrary exercise in reductionism, the intrepid author manages to slim down the number of individual animals on the Ark to a mere 16,000 (and Sucks! Boo! to all you atheistic scientists).
Still on the space reduction tack, he reminds us that Noah didn't need to take sea creatures on the Ark. Not only are they not specifically mentioned in Genesis, but they may have survived the flood anyway. He offers no real reason why fresh - and saltwater fish - should have, or even could have, survived, given the brackishness, turbulence and turbidity of the flood waters, but, typical of the genre, this is shovelled off into the creationists' too-hard-basket, labelled "God moves in mysterious ways".
For that matter, asks Sarfati, what business was it of Noah's if God decided to wipe out lots of species of fish? And rightly so; Noah was a mere ferry driver, not God's confidante. Thus, Dr Alex Ritchie can be assured that those Devonian fish species he found at Canowindra were rubbed out by the deity in a fit of pique, perhaps because they were all terribly sinful.
Obviously nettled by Ian Plimer's telling references to all the disease causing bacteria that each of the Ark passengers would have needed to host, Sarfati breaks new ground in bacteriology (also known as straw-clutching in the medical trade) by suggesting that, in those days, the bacteria were not necessarily as species specific, nor as virulent, as they are now (dare we say it, they must have ev***ed).
Insects pose no problems at all to the good Dr, as they, too, are not specifically mentioned in Genesis, Noah wasn't obliged to bring them along. (This is a good answer for those pesky Skeptics who ask, "Why didn't Noah swat the two mosquitos when he had the chance?"). Sarfati (or Woodmorappe - it is hard to tell who made up this drivel) gives the deity a get-out clause by deciding that the "...Flood wiped out all land animals which breathed through nostrils [his emphasis] except those on the Ark", and solves the insect question by pointing out that they breathe through tiny tubes in their exterior skeleton.
The Wallaby clan is notoriously deficient in theological expertise, so I will leave it to those more skilled in such matters to enlighten us as to exactly where the deity made known his distaste for nostril breathers. Nonetheless, it does force one to assume that Creationists must be grateful that their deity shows no similar bias against primates who speak through their fundaments, lest their own ranks be drastically thinned.
However, just in case the Supreme Being, in a moment of uncharacteristic absent mindedness, forgot to put that bit in his book, S (or W) calculates just how much space would be required to keep a million insect species in cages of 10cm per side, for a total of 1000 cubic m, figuring that that is quite enough of room for common old insects.
Insects aside, Sarfati seems to think that he had disposed of the large tanks necessary for keeping marine life alive by leaving the fish to survive as best they could, at the mercy of divine neglect. (Come to think of it, he may have a point here. God clearly doesn't think much of fish, else why would he expect Catholics to eat so many of them?) But what he forgets are all the marine mammals and reptiles, nary a one of which breathes through tiny tubes in their exterior skeleton. Cetaceans are nostril breathers to a man, so either Noah had whale and dolphin tanks aplenty, or Sarfati has cocked-up the divine get-out.
What about plant life, you ask? Well, these are not specifically mentioned in Genesis either, so, again, Noah was not obliged to give them ship-room. In any case, Sarfati avers, they could have survived as "seeds or on floating mats of vegetation". The problem of these seeds propagating in salt-laden silt, after the flood waters had receded (though where they receded to is a problem that remains unaddressed), is dismissed with the claim "...salt can readily be leached out by rainwater."
So now we have a body of land that has been under brackish water for several months; the water somehow recedes to somewhere, leaving a lot of mud; we get rain to leach out the salt (and keep the mud muddy); plants grow from seeds that fortuitously happened to survive, to feed the nostril breathing herbivores on their way back to where their ancestral fossils show they came from. Images are conjured up of Kev and Kylie Koala trekking the mud plains from Turkey to Australia, their dietary needs catered for by ultra-high-speed-growth gum trees every few hundred meters or so.
Perhaps the most original contribution to Biblical scholarship in the whole article comes towards the end, when one or other of the authors coyly considers the disposal of the waste products produced by these 16,000 animals during the best part of a year. With a certain insouciance, S (or W) invents an elsewhere unrecorded "flushing system under the sloped floors or slatted cages" and offers the suggestion that "the wastes could be destroyed by vermicomposting (composting by worms)". However, as he had earlier gone out of his way to reduce the number of species in the Ark, it seems likely that all this composting would have to be conducted by only two worms. Of course, having already disposed of the plant species, there seems to be no purpose behind composting - so Noah and his family would still have had the task of removing the compost, lest spontaneous heat generated within it caused the wooden vessel to catch alight. In any case, there seems to be no point to this exercise unless it is to feed the worms, which, as a consequence, must surely have been the best fed of all the species aboard the vessel.
According to the author's panel, Sarfati is one of those rarities in creation science circles, in that he appears to have a genuine science qualification (a PhD in chemistry from Victoria University in NZ). However, whatever his qualifications in chemistry, his recorded publications seem to indicate they concern high temperature superconductors, his risible expositions in this article show him to have not even a rudimentary understanding of biology, botany, zoology, bacteriology, icthyology, physiology, entomology, agronomy, hydrology (to name but a few of the many fields of which he is demonstrably ignorant). It seems a pity that among them is numbered a knowledge of the classics, or he may have come across the ancient Greek story that gives us the wise proverb, "Cobbler, stick to your last". Had he done so, it is unlikely that he could, in conscience, have presented this load of cobblers to his gullible audience.