Antediluvian fauna and flora

Noahs Ark by Edward Hicks (1780-1849)According to the Genesis tradition, plants and animals existed on Earth from the beginning. What they looked like, however, is unknown. The fossil record shows plant and animal species over time increasing in number and continually changing, so that what we see now is their final forms, not the forms as originally created. In that sense they evolved; they were programmed to evolve. Originally just one pair of each animal kind was created (although this is explicitly stated only in the case of humans), and these were then instructed to reproduce, to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Species would have begun to diversify as they spread across the earth and their growing populations began to lose touch with each other. Then came the Deluge, after which the colonisation of the earth from single pairs had to start all over again.

In the early 19th century geology was still a young science, and many of its practitioners were clergymen, but even among them the biblical framework for understanding prehistory had been lost. They no longer saw, as Thomas Burnet had in his Sacred Theory of the Earth, published in 1683, that the Deluge had completely destroyed the original landmass. Consequently they got seduced into trying to interpreting the whole geological succession as the immediate effect of the Deluge, and as knowledge grew, that became impossible. The geological record attested to many catastrophes and extinctions, and also to periods inbetween when nothing much happened. And where were the human fossils that should have been the prime evidence of God’s wrath? If given any credence at all, the Deluge was seen as accounting only for a few superficial deposits at the end of the record. Thus, by the 20th century, the event had been relegated in mainstream culture to the Sunday school and children’s story-books. There, illustrations of Noah’s Ark invariably showed modern-looking animals, reinforcing the assumption that the story lay outside the realm of historical reality.

In sketching the antediluvian world, Genesis mention few kinds with any particularity. The creation account refers to broad groups of animals: marine creatures, winged creatures, beasts (behemah, translated ‘quadrupeds’ in the Septuagint and as ‘cattle’ or ‘livestock’ in most English versions), animals that creep, and animals of the earth. They are categorised according to whether they move in the sea, in the air, above the ground, on the ground or in the ground. Livestock, miqneh, are first mentioned in connection with Jabal, the first man to keep livestock as a bedouin, while cattle, baqar, are not mentioned until we come to Abraham (12:16). The only terms that suggest specific kinds are (in English) serpent (3:1) and – at the end of the antediluvian period – olive, raven, and dove (8:7-11). Nonetheless, the names pose a problem. Little can be said about the botanical family in which modern olives sit because its fossil record is poor, but modern-day snakes are legless and evolved from lizards, sheep evolved from a group that include goats, deer and cattle, and ravens evolved from the same ancestors as sparrows and birds-of-paradise. Is the problem one of language, or do we have to examine assumptions at a much deeper level?

Consider the ‘sheep’ kept by Abel. The Hebrew word, tson, actually means ‘flock’: a group of tended animals not as big as cattle, usually sheep and/or goats. Hebrew had other words specifically for sheep or goats. So how similar were these animals to the sheep or goats known to the author of Genesis near the end of evolutionary history? Just like species, languages change over time. The original animal or animals might have been very different from those known today. Sheep and goats descended from an ancestor that was neither one nor the other, and since they are now distinct, English has a word for each; there is no vernacular word that lumps them together. The technical term is caprid.

Several types of evidence help to determine the extent to which living animals might be related to each other: cross-breeding experiments, similarities in anatomical character or feature, and molecular-level analyses of proteins and DNA. On these grounds it is clear that the genus sheep (Ovis), comprising at least eight species, is related to the genus goat (Capra), comprising nine species. Capra, in turn, is related to other genera, such as Barbary sheep, various goat-antelopes and the Tibetan antelope. Character similarities and molecular analysis then support the further step of grouping all sheep, goats and goat-antelopes with true antelopes, the Antilopinae. Hence, further back in time – around the end of the Oligocene, according to the fossils – there were no sheep, goats or antelope as such, only more generalised animals that would later diversify into sheep, goats and antelope. If rates of radioactivity were slowing down, the Oligocene will have been correspondingly further back in time relative to the whole fossil record, but even so, it was long before man appeared in the record and, a fortiori, long before the earliest evidence of animal domestication.

what was the nature of the animal that gave rise to caprines-cum-antelopes? The answer seems to be a still less differentiated animal. For if we trace back the ancestry of domestic cattle, buffalo and bison, we must conclude that they too are interrelated, and form a group parallel to the Antilopinae called the Bovinae. With the Bovinae being more similar to the Antilopinae than to any other group, there is a case for linking these together in a group called the Bovidae. Could these have been the animals kept by Abel – a sort of sheep-goat-antelope-cow? Could these have been the animals kept by Abel? Linguistically it’s just possible. The term tson, or flock, could be that wide and still be narrower than the term miqneh, given that the latter comprises all manner of livestock, including asses and camels, both of which are classified outside the Bovidae.

Intuitively we might feel that caprines and bovines differ so much that they are unlikely to be related. Only one morphological character unambiguously defines the Bovidae: their non-deciduous, unbranching horns and keratinous horn sheaths. Molecular evidence is also somewhat unclear. However, Antilopinae and Bovinae have numerous points of similarity. It’s just that the characters they have in common besides their particular type of horn are not exclusive to them.

Often in such cases important clues come from species that straddle more than one group, whether in microbiology or morphology. One example is the saola (Pseudoryx), a goat-like antelope which was unknown to science until its formal description in 1993. While skeletal and dental characters allied the saola with Antilopinae, genetic studies put it among Bovinae. So which was correct? In the end, the genetic evidence was held to be decisive. The main point is that the difficulty of determining which group the saola falls into suggests that Antilopinae and Bovinae are not separate kinds, but related to each other.

Even this is unlikely to be the final frontier. Bovidae are one of six families that cluster to form a group called the Ruminantia, namely:
  • Tragulidae (mostly extinct but including chevrotains or mouse deer)
  • Antilocapridae (a North American family that is entirely extinct except for one species, the pronghorn)
  • Giraffidae (living representatives include the giraffe and the okapi)
  • Moschidae (musk deer)
  • Cervidae (deer with antlers)
  • Bovidae

What primarily distinguishes the ruminants is their digestive system, in which hard-to-digest food such as grass and leaves is passed through a series of four stomach chambers. Their teeth are also characteristic. Ruminants lack upper incisors and, as with horses, their teeth are predominantly high-crowned, suited to abrasive diets such as grass or the abrasive conditions of dry habitats. The most primitive (least evolved) of the six groups are the Tragulidae; the others are all roughly on a par, implying that they diverged from their ancestral stock about the same time.

Since the multi-chambered stomach is a highly specific feature unique to ruminants, and the ruminants, so-defined, have other characters linking them as a group, could they also be interrelated? The idea is supported both by DNA studies and by (not fully documented) cases of hybridisations between the cervid and bovid families: for example, the roe deer crossing with the sheep, and moose with domestic cattle.

At present, the Ruminantia mark the limit of what can safely be taken to represent the genome of the original kind. Support for the integrity of the next level – linking ruminants with Suina (pigs), hippopotamids and camelids – is weak (Gatesy et al. 2002, Chen et al. 2019), and the morphological and molecular data conflict. That the animals all have even-toed hooves could be what palaeontologists call a ‘convergence’, a similarity that has no evolutionary significance. The much more specific and complex feature of the multi-chambered stomach could also be a convergence, for, at the molecular level, camels (with three chambers) and ruminants (nearly all with four) are less similar to each other than either Ruminant phylogeny as summarised by Chen et al 2019. Click to view larger figuregroup is to hippos, which do not have multi-chambered stomachs. As always, judgements need to be made in the light of all the relevant evidence, and there are no hard and fast rules: morphological discontinuities are not necessarily evidence of phylogenetic discontinuity (a ‘phylogeny’ is an evolutionary family tree), and shared characters are not necessarily evidence of relationship. Intuition about what may or may not be related is also not a good guide.

The idea that cattle might be related to sheep, or bison to giraffes, is of course unsettling from a creationist point of view. The blood circulation system of the giraffe, perhaps the most iconic of Noah’s Ark animals, appears so perfectly designed for the strains imposed by its long neck that one might suppose it had to have been created that way. ‘Giraffes have always had long necks, and they have always been giraffes,’ maintained one such organisation, until recently. Although few believe that the form of created kinds was completely fixed, there is a strong reluctance to concede evolvability, and if the creature seems particularly remarkable, fixity will be defended. The creationist, after all, is approaching the question from the opposite end: whereas Darwinism sees all species as related, the creation-evolution antithesis demands a contrary view that is equally absolute. The short-necked from the earliest Miocene,Climacoceras, is nonetheless an early giraffid, and is succeeded by other giraffids. Only later did the family split into okapis and something like the long-necked modern giraffe.

However, the real issue is not so much the degree of evolution as the mechanism: whether the evolution suggests something accidental or a path whose unfolding route was pre-planned. Here it is the Darwinist who should have cause to feel uneasy, for the pattern is not usually one of slow, continuous change from one form to another. The changes are abrupt, the extent of the change – as when sheep, bison, deer and giraffes all arise from the same stock – enormous. While fossilisation may have been a rare and chance occurrence, there is nothing to support the idea that evolutionary change was the result of miniscule, fortuitous, slowly aggregating mutations. How could the fourth chamber of the ruminant stomach – the omasum – have evolved by miniscule, fortuitous, slowly aggregating mutations? Anything less than a complete and fully integrated fourth chamber would have been useless, so could not have been selected for. If keratinous sheaths were the product of trial-and-error evolution, why did the innovation not appear in giraffes and deer? If they conferred an advantage, why did the Moschidae lose them? On the one hand, the continuity presented by the tree seems sufficient to justify an inference of relationship; on the other, the discontinuities cast doubt on the presumption that chance processes were at work. Uncoordinated step-by-step evolution should have left clear evidence of its operation: myriad branching events forming consistent family trees, whether traced through morphological data or molecular data. Inconsistencies between morphological and molecular data, common enough even at the lowest level, as with Bison and Capra (Calamari 2021), are evidence that the mechanisms were non-random and not even always cumulative.

Ontogeny, the process whereby an individual develops – evolves – from a single fertilised cell all the way to adulthood and old age, we know is biologically programmed. The cascade of changes we call puberty does not happen haphazardly; it is timed and regulated. So too with the menopause and all the other changes of later life. The body ineluctably carries us where we do not wish to go. The more scientific presumption therefore must be that phylogenetic evolution is likewise programmed. Genomes are programs written in DNA, the optimal coding language, and are so complex that the emergence of new characters and structures can hardly have happened otherwise.

And if this is a presumption, it is precisely what the fossil record corroborates. The appearance of the Bovidae in the Miocene was ‘geologically near-instantaneous’, for at that point the group was already species-diverse. The lineages split rapidly, showing ‘a rapid radiation that is unparalleled in other mammals of large body size’ (Gatesy et al. 1992). Often the same novelty arose independently in different lineages. Morphological characters ‘evolved several times resulting in various parallelisms and convergences that obscure true relationships’ (Fernandez & Vrba 2005). The nature of the evolutionary process suggests orchestration from the outset.

Prior to the Ruminantia, the trail grows cold. It is clear, nonetheless, that the further back we go, the further we leave sheep-, goat- or even deer-like animals behind. The identity of Abel’s animals cannot be determined by simply tracing the genealogy of modern species backwards through time, even though a pair of animals that descended from them must have been on the ark. If forms denoted by words such as ‘raven’ and ‘dove’, or in the case of plants ‘olive’ and ‘vineyard’, bear any correspondence to forms familiar to us in the living world, it must be because evolutionarily we have arrived at the same point. This would be ‘convergence’ – independent evolution – on the largest scale of all. The antediluvian world was a created world; it came down from God out of heaven. But it perished. In the Deluge the creation was abrogated. Although seeded from created forms, the postdiluvian world did not come into existence instantaneously. Noah and his family stepped onto a landscape of chaos, denuded of soil and vegetation, and most of the land was under water. Probably the only mountains were the rims of impact craters, the biggest of which were shortly to be flooded with lava. Earth had to begin anew. The regeneration of marine habitats and marine life, of terrestrial habitats and terrestrial life, stage by pre-ordained stage, had to be a natural process. Had we eyes to see, we would understand that the arrival of the world at its present, final state, hosting millions of species of plants and animals, teeming with life in every corner, was no less miraculous than the Creation itself. It’s as if God was showing that he was no less capable of producing sheep by a long pathway of evolutionary steps than he was of creating sheep in an instant.

Examples of duality of origin are numerous. Stars, we have seen, form naturally, and as we discovered in the 1990s, so do planets. It does not follow that our own star and planets formed naturally, and the continuing uniqueness of the solar system suggests it did not (more here). Genesis indicates that animals of every kind, large and small, swam in the seas from the beginning. None, however, survived the Deluge in forms recognisable from today’s fauna. The earliest fish in the fossil record are jawless fish, appearing well before jawed fish, and support the view that jawed fish in the post-Deluge world evolved from jawless fish. Whales, seals and dolphins evolved from land animals long after jawed fish. Some bird species, for example Archaeopteryx, or in the modern world ratites, apparently evolved from dinosaurs. However, most of the birds that make up the modern fauna are best understood as descendants of birds that were created as such and survived on the ark. Attempts to link all birds to the dinosaurs have so far failed. Modern birds appear suddenly in the fossil record, and so far as molecular date are concerned, ‘widespread incongruences in evolutionary histories across avian genomes have left the phylogenetic relationships of major extant groups unclear and possibly irresolvable’ (Stiller et al. 2024).

As for animal husbandry, the earliest archaeological evidence dates to the Neolithic, when subsistence strategies began to shift from hunting-and-gathering to herding and farming (Zeder 2012). The Neolithic is a chronological/cultural phase late in the history of the new world, and comes long after man appeared in the fossil record. Before the Neolithic sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys and cattle were all wild. The story is much the same in the case of grapes. Noah was the first man to cultivate grapes and make wine in the new world, using seeds conserved in the ark. While the origin of the grape family (Vitaceae, consisting of 16 genera) are obscure, the earliest fossils are no older than Late Cretaceous. The earliest evidence of wine-making and wild-grape domestication dates to the late Quaternary, at the end of the Ice Age (Dong et al. 2023). This was tens of thousands of years after Noah. It seems likely that the art of wine-making had been forgotten and needed to be discovered anew.