The flood continued forty days upon the earth. … and all flesh died that moved upon the earth. … Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. Genesis 1 vv17-23
You might almost worry about the independence of science from the religious tradition of the Old Testament. Not only does the creation myth in the first chapter of Genesis foreshadow our modern understanding of the beginnings of the universe and of the development life on earth, but the story of Noah and the Flood seems to point towards our modern understanding of mass extinctions. We now know that in the long history of life on earth vast numbers, not only of individual creatures, but of whole species and genera have repeatedly been wiped out through natural events that have overwhelmed them. In each case the catastrophic effects of the natural disasters wore off and left the earth a different kind of place from what it had been before; many kinds of animals and plants disappeared but life survived, including of course our own ancestors. As a matter of scientific fact, counting the numbers of species that become extinct each year, we seem to be living through a rapid mass extinction at present, and uniquely in this case it’s one that a single particular species – us – has initiated through its conscious, intelligent actions. You and I cannot know whether homo sapiens will go the way of the land-based dinosaurs that were wiped out in the previous mass extinction, or will instead survive, albeit in smaller numbers – saved, you might say, though some miraculous-seeming intervention like Noah’s Ark.
It is truly astonishing that the people of the ancient world produced what appear to be mythologised accounts of mass extinctions, such as the story of Noah. They could have had no conscious knowledge of the various mass extinctions that recent scientific discoveries have revealed to us; even the most recent large-scale reduction of the human population that occurred when the Toba volcano erupted about 70,000 years ago probably happened before language had developed sufficiently to pass on a memory of that event in the form of stories. The idea is not one that would be likely to arise through speculation. Pure chance? Maybe, but then there is also the ‘pure chance’ that put equally astonishingly suggestive ideas into Genesis chapter 1. It’s tempting to wonder whether somewhere in our minds, out of reach of consciousness, we retain some kind of ‘memory’ of these things, and perhaps have a similar kind of ‘knowledge’ about a great deal else that we’re not consciously aware of. When such ideas bubble up, perhaps in a dream or in a work of art, and strike a chord with our conscious selves, we might speak of ‘inspiration’; earlier generations might have been prepared to call the inspiration ‘divine’ and to attribute it to ‘God’.
In one particular respect, the story of the Flood as told in Genesis is quite unlike the mass extinctions, except perhaps the present one. It is seen as a punishment for, or, we might say, a direct outcome of, human action – ‘sin’ is what Genesis calls it. Two primitive ideas coalesce here. First, there is the feeling like the one children have when they believe that they are personally responsible for what happens around them; for example, they often feel that if their parents divorce, it is because of something bad they have done. Second, there’s the difficulty early people had in accepting that anything significant could happen without someone intending it, and since the Hebrews did not believe in a malicious deity, they had to suppose that the Flood had been divinely intended for some good and rational purpose, punishment for example. It was a long time after the Genesis stories were written down that Jesus of Nazareth pointed out that natural calamities and genuine accidents, like towers falling down and crushing people, just do happen without any unseen power causing them in order to punish people.
That said, the current mass extinction is not principally a natural calamity or a genuine accident. Our crazily burgeoning population and our extraordinary wastefulness are what underlie it, and you’d think that both of these are in our collective human power to control. But we actually do very little to control them and tend rather to hope the problem will not really arise, just as, in the Flood myth, the people mocked Noah’s caution and carried on ‘sinning’. Perhaps we’re meant to imagine that Noah’s fellow-citizens only realised their mistake when the rains came and didn’t stop; and perhaps our successors here will have the same dismal experience of realising that it’s too late to avert the catastrophe. You might think that’s no reason for us to be troubled by the current mass extinction; after all, it’s most unlikely that any of us will personally witness its climax. The dinosaurs didn’t understand what was going on in their mass extinction event, and in any case could have done nothing about it. By contrast, we are conscious of what’s going on, and it troubles the best of us to think of a world whose development is being decisively and catastrophically transformed by us behaving as if we lacked the consciousness and intelligence that distinguishes us from other animals. It may turn out that we have enough consciousness and intelligence to get ourselves into serious difficulties but, tragically for our species, not enough to get us out again. And notice that when the people have failed to deal with their ‘sinning’, the Flood myth suggests that it will be dealt with by a force of nature. You don’t really need to posit a punishing god-out-there to understand that a sustainable equilibrium must somehow be restored.
The Flood story ends with the rescued remnant of life coming through the crisis thanks to the insight and effort of Noah, and being promised that no such thing would ever happen again. We need something of that optimism, provided it doesn’t turn into the insouciant optimism of human-imitating-dinosaur that says there’s nothing much to worry about, and even if there is there’s nothing we can do about it, so we should just carry on as we are. The kind of optimism we need is Noah’s kind, the grounded optimism of a man who recognises what’s going on, who can see what needs to be done to tackle if not avert the coming catastrophe, and who gets on and does it, in the face of criticism and mockery.