The new film "Noah" stars Russell Crowe as the man chosen by God to collect pairs of Earth's animals on a massive ark to save them from a global flood. The film, which opened March 28, is sizing up to be a Biblical blockbuster, replete with star power and stunning special effects. But how realistic is it?
While many people consider the story of Noah's Ark merely an instructive myth or parable about God's punishment for man's wickedness, others believe that the story is historically accurate. To them, Noah's tale describes events that really happened only a few thousand years ago.
A plausible ark?
Henry Morris, author of "The Biblical Basis for Modern Science" (Baker House, 1984), a creationist text, states that "The ark was to be essentially a huge box designed essentially for stability in the waters of the Flood rather than for movement through the waters. ... The ark was taller than a normal three-story building and about one and a half times as long as a football field. The total volumetric capacity was equal to 1,396,000 cubic feet [39,500 cubic meters] ... equivalent to 522 standard railroad stock cars, far more than enough space to carry two of every known kind of animal, living or extinct." [Wipeout: History's Most Mysterious Extinctions]
The flaws in Morris's calculations become evident when you consider that, according to many creationists, Noah's Ark included hundreds of dinosaurs. That would mean, for example, the brachiosaurus (two of them, of course), each of which weighed about 50 tons and reached 85 feet (26 meters) long. Even if two representatives all of Earth's animals could somehow fit on the ark, enough space would be needed for drinking water and food for an entire year.
Furthermore, contrary to many depictions of the ark, God actually asked Noah to collect not one but seven pairs of "clean" animals and one pair of "unclean" animals (Genesis 7:2-3) — resulting, in some cases, in fourteen of many animals. There simply would not be nearly enough space for all of them.
There's also the problem of collecting all those animals in the first place, anthropology professor Ken Feder notes in his book "The Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology" (Greenwood, 2010).
"How would koala bears from Australia, llamas from South America and penguins from Antarctica have managed the trip to the ark's location in the Middle East?" Feder writes. "And how would their human caretakers have looked after this vast menagerie of animals? Noah, his wife, and his three sons and their wives (that's only eight people) providing food and water to the animals would have been an impossible task. What (or who) would the carnivores, living in close quarters with all those delicious herbivores, have eaten?"
Since the ark's purpose was merely to float (and not necessarily go anywhere), it would have had no means of propulsion (such as a sail) or even steering. According to Morris, "As far as navigation was concerned, God Himself evidently steered the ship, keeping its occupants reasonably comfortable inside while the storms and waves raged outside." [History's 10 Most Overlooked Mysteries]
Of course, this rather begs the question, because if God created the global flood and divinely steered the ark, then presumably He could have done any other miracle to assure the success of Noah's mission, from temporarily shrinking all the animals to the size of rats or even allowing them all to live for a year without food or water. Once a supernatural miracle is invoked to explain one thing, it can be used to explain everything.
A closer look
Another problem with the Ark story arises becausethere is no evidence for a global flood. Creation stories from many different religions and cultures include flood stories, and Feder notes that if a worldwide flood had occurred, "The archaeological record of 5,000 years ago would be replete with Pompeii-style ruins — the remains of thousands of towns, villages and cities, all wiped out by flood waters, simultaneously. ... It would appear that the near annihilation of the human race, if it happened, left no imprint on the archaeological record anywhere."
The lack of physical evidence of the great flood hasn't stopped modern believers from searching for Noah's Ark itself. But the boat is conspicuously missing. It has never been found despite repeated claims to the contrary. Forty years ago, Violet M. Cummings, author of "Noah's Ark: Fable or Fact?" (Creation-Science Research Center, 1973) claimed that the Ark had been found on Mount Ararat in Turkey, exactly as described in Genesis 8:4, which states, "and on the 17th day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat."
In February 1993, CBS aired a two-hour primetime special titled, "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark." It included the riveting testimony of a man who claimed not only to have personally seen the Ark on Ararat, but also to have recovered a piece of it. The claims were later revealed to be a hoax. In March 2006, researchers found a rock formation on Mount Ararat that resembled a huge ark, but nothing came of that claim.
A few months later, a team of archaeologists from a Christian organization found yet another rock formation that might be Noah's Ark — not on Mt. Ararat but instead in the Elburz Mountains of Iran. That sensational discovery fizzled out, too. In 2012, "Baywatch" actress Donna D'Errico was injured on Mount Ararat while on a quest to find Noah's Ark. She said she had been inspired to search for the Ark ever since she saw a movie about it as a child.
The fact that Noah's Ark has been "discovered" so many times yet remains lost is something of a mystery in itself. Whether "Noah" floats or sinks at the box office this weekend, it notably doesn't include the tagline "Based on a true story."
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books including "The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes" (McFarland, 2011). His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.