Noah's Ark Found Alas!

by Chris Bayer, PhD 

September 10, 2016

The search is over: after millennia of speculation, expeditions and claims of Noah’s Ark location on snowy Mt. Ararat in Turkey, low and behold it has now been sighted in Williamstown, Kentucky. 
In a way, I am thrilled someone who actually believes that Genesis is in fact a veritable geographical and historical account of world history, would take his interpretation of that text to its logical – and preposterous – end.  A $100 million monolith replete with dinosaur babies exposes just how far-fetched the proposition of young earth creationism really is. 

What explains these findings?  Many high school teachers are not adequately teaching the evidence for evolution.  While 13% of American high school teachers taught creationism/intelligent design as a valid alternative to evolutionary biology and spent at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light, according to a national survey by professors Berkman and Plutzer, a “cautious 60 percent” endorse neither evolution nor its non-scientific “alternatives,” while 28% of biology teachers do teach – and are proponents of – the theory of evolution.

Having rubbed shoulders with high school biology teachers over the years, I submit to you, a big part of the problem is that high school biology teachers are not categorically equipped with the best possible evidence and pedagogy to make a compelling case for evolution.

During the Nye vs. Ham debate, which unintentionally led to Ham’s organization Answers in Genesis being showered with a critical mass of funding, Nye has a slide of hominid skulls that he referenced as prime evidence for human evolution.  Right he is.

But for the vast majority of the debate's audience, that is as close as they had come to these skulls.  In my own case, I was fortunate enough to – by chance – come across these skulls in Kenya back in 2004.  In a small room in the Nairobi National Museum, the skulls' replicas, unearthed from the East African soil, were lined up in a row on a table, where I proceeded, like a doubting Thomas, to poke my fingers through the empty eye sockets of our ancient ancestors and relatives.  "Why," I asked myself, "did I have to come all the way to Kenya to see this?"

It became painfully obvious to me that these skulls had to be brought into the high school biology classes in a manner in which students could actively participate in the science that would allow them to agree with – not just accept – this "controversial theory."  

Michael Luberda and I met in a New Orleans bike store in 2013, joined forces, and the two-member AncientAncestors team set out to develop an inquiry-based lab in which students gathered data on hallmark characteristics of a core set of prime skull fossil.  Cranial capacity is a proxy for brain size, the degree to which the animal stood upright can be measured through the position of where the spine enters the skull, and the animal’s diet can be studied in part through the size of its mouth. 

A high-school teacher who witnessed the proof-of-concept lab that Michael delivered to a handful biology classes in the greater New Orleans region, afterwards observed: “Talking about those three measurements – foramen magnum, cranial capacity and prognathism – kids definitely got into the idea of what those things mean, and I think this mixing of the social sciences (us studying ourselves in a way) and then looking at what the complexion of earth was at that time, with all these different species, was a really useful way for the students to experience that.  I think [inquiry-based learning] is something the students need, and I think you are providing a really great way to do that with evolution in a way to which most students don’t have access.”

Is the scientific community effectively bringing to the classroom the amazing evidence that paleoanthropologists, over the past decades, have unearthed through sweat, genius -- and sometimes sheer luck?  Are we manufacturing or 3D printing hominid skulls in a concerted manner for the purpose of education?  Are we rolling out skull libraries – skulls-on-tour – so that teachers with limited science budgets can borrow the skulls and measuring tools?  Are we summoning the pedagogical experts to assess the human evolution labs out there, and elect a “best practice” among them?  Are we further studying the impact of the recommended approach?

The answers to these questions are, to date, unfortunately a resounding "No!"  

The good news is the facts comprise evidence for the theory of evolution – also to human evolution in the form of a plethora of fossilized skulls.  And no amount of tax revenue levied by the world’s religions can drown out human reason and intellectual honesty. 

Last but not least, such that we have the necessary contrast to Ken Ham’s world, and his dinosaurs-in-a-boat tale can be accorded the humor it deserves.

Although it was not built to float, the great irony is not lost on us that Ken Ham could be the one having to put his “boat” to the test in a “second” flood: science denial (in the sense of denying scientific theory around which a consensus has coalesced), and the discomfort of rigorously engaging in scientific methods, includes the denial of climate change.  A twisted self-fulfilling prophecy, albeit one in which the sin was science denial in the age of the Anthropocene.

The glorious new construction would in fact be a major source of humor, if only the requisite contrast between “scripture” and “science” was clear in the minds of the arks visitors and Americans in general.  Unfortunately this is not the case. 

Pew Research Center survey last year found that only 65% of the American public agreed with the statement “Humans and other living things have evolved over time,” and active disbelief in evolution appeared to be around 30% of the population.

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(AP Photo/John Minchillo)