Noah’s Ark and the creation of the species rank

This is a section of my forthcoming revision to Species, presented here for comments that I can steal – umm, I mean for peer commentary.

At this point in our narrative, we still do not have a uniquely biological notion of species, nor of a fixed rank in logic. As species concepts evolved, at some point both of these must arise. The origin of species the rank, is, ironically, in the changing interpretation of the book of Genesis, especially the creation story of chapter 1, verses 21, 24 to 26 (Table 1) and the Flood narrative of chapter 6 verse 9 to chapter 9 verse 17 (Table 2).

The shift from rationalism to empiricism in theology is driven by the Reformation insistence on the plain meaning of the scriptures. However, the shift to rationalism in theology occurred much earlier, in the twelfth century[1]. Then, the issue was between reason and revelation. In the post-Reformation age, it is between observational evidence and revelation. Allen notes that Abelard was the first “to completely surrender to the charms of reason”, but that it was the influence of Avicenna, in the Islamic tradition (then recently translated into Latin) who started the issue of faith versus reason in the West[2].

In the period leading up to the modern era, the interpretation of the Bible was a mixture of literal readings, allegory, mystical meanings, analogy, and metaphor. In the twelfth century, for example Hugh of St Victor (d. 1141), wrote De arca Noe morali[3], in which he allegorized the Ark as the Church, stating that

… this spiritual building … is Noah’s Ark. … this Ark denotes the Church, and the Church is the body of Christ …[4]

However, by the fifteenth century, in the wake of the Reformation, biblical texts were more literally interpreted and treated as factual, historical accounts[5]. Spanish bishop Alonso [or Alfonso] de Madrigal, known as Tostado (c1400–1455), wrote, in his commentary on Genesis:

And because Noah took care of the animals and gave them food which was kept in the apothcea on the second level, there was a stairway from the habitation of Noah to this place so that he could descend and take up food. So he gave them food, walking between the apes, dragons, unicorns, and elephants, who thanks to God did not harm him but waited for him to give them nourishment at the proper time. The divine pleasure saw to it that there was a great peace among these animals; the lion did not hurt the unicorn or the dragon the elephants, or the falcon the dove. There was also a vent in the habitation of the tame animals and another in that of the wild animals through which dung was conveyed to the sentina. Noah and his sons collected the dung and cast it by mean of an orifice into the sentina so that the animals would not rot in their own offal. One could also believe that the odour of the dung was miraculously carried off so that the air was not corrupted and men and animals were not slain by the pest. So the men in the ark laboured daily and had no great time for leisure.[6]

Thus began the tradition of treating the scriptural texts realistically rather than allegorically, in the Christian tradition. The contrast with Hugh of St. Victor’s exposition three centuries earlier is striking. Arguably this is due to the emphasis in renaissance humanism of taking texts in their historical context and authorial intent.[7]

Jean Borrell, also known (after a local hawk[8]) as Johannes Buteo (French Catholic, 1490–1560/1572?), attempted in his tract De arca Noe to work out the size of the Ark, the food required, and the number of kinds of animals it could contain; he gave 93 such beasts, but not the bird kinds (Table 3)[9]. The term he mostly uses is genera but he does use the term species as well.

Buteo knew there were many living animals that were not included on the Ark, but as his comment on mice (generated from corruption, what came later to be known as “spontaneous generation”[10]) shows, he expected some kinds to generate out of the mud. Moreover, he is unsure if other kinds should be included, such as mules:

There are those, however, who think that mice were not brought in the ark nor anything of that family since they are born of corruption, as they also say of mules because they come from another kind [ex alio genere procreatur].[11]

This began a tradition of calculating the logistics of the Ark, which became, over the next century, a pressing problem, since more and more species were being discovered.

The task was taken up by Walter Raleigh in his 1614 History of the World. Raleigh argued that the Ark was of sufficient capacity to include the beasts (but not fishes).

… it is manifest, and undoubtedly true, that many of the Species, which now seeme differing and of severall kindes, were not then in rerum natura. For those beasts which are of mixt natures, either they were not in that age, or else it was not needfull to præserve them: seeing they might bee generated againe by others, as the Mules, the Hyæna’s and the like: the one begotten by Asses and Mares, the other by Foxes and Wolves.[12]

He estimated 130 kinds of herbivores, and 32 carnivores and that all other kinds of animals from the Americas and India (i.e., that differed from “Northerne” species), etc., were hybrids or varieties caused to transmute by local conditions:

Wee also see it daily that the natures of fruits are changed by transplantation, some to better, some to worse, especially with the change of Climate. Crabs [crabapples] may be made good fruit by often grafting, and the best Mellons will change in a yeare or two to common Cowcummers by being set in a barren soile: Therefore taking the kindes præcisely of all creatures, as they were by God created, or out of the earth by his ordinance produced: the Arke… was sufficiently capacious to contain of all, according to the number by God appointed…

The next major work of Ark logistics was that of the German Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), who had a reputation as a polymath. In a tract entitled De arca Noë (1675)[13], he expanded upon Buteo’s work, and listed no more than 50 kinds of quadrupeds[14]. The rest were hybrids formed afterwards from these kinds, or geographical varieties from by the conditions in which they found themselves. The lower animals were formed, as with Buteo, by spontaneous generation. As Breidbach and Ghiselin note, however, he immediately came under criticism by Francesco Redi (1626–1697), after he carried out numerous experiments to test spontaneous generation[15]. Kircher held fast, in part because his entire argument relied upon these methods of generating new kinds, and in part because of his commitment to a universal taxonomy of all things which God had intended.

The next such work was offered by Bishop John Wilkins[16]. We shall encounter him again below[17], but for now it is sufficient to note that he listed only 58 kinds, even fewer than Buteo (Table 4), although slightly more than Kircher. He notes that there is no problem with some species:

The Serpentine-kind, Snake, Viper, Slow-worm, Lizard, Frog, Toad, might have sufficient space for their reception, and for their nourishment, in the Drein or Sink of the Ark, which was probably three or four foot under the floor for the standings of the Beasts. As for those lesser Beasts, Rat Mouse, Mole, as likewise for the several species of Insects, there can be no reason to question, but that these may find sufficient room in several parts of the Ark, without having any particular Stalls appointed for them.[18]

However, although he does not mention insects spontaneously generating (Francisco Redi’s experiments against mice and insects spontaneously generating having had a bite[19]), he does exclude hybrids, as his predecessors had:

In this enumeration I do not mention the Mule, because ‘tis a mungrel production, and not to be rekoned as a distinct species. And tho it be most probable, that the several varieties of Beeves, namely that which is stiled Vrus, Bisons, Bonasus and Buffalo and those other varieties reckoned under Sheep and Goats, be not distinct species from Bull, Sheep, and and Goat; There being much less difference betwixt these, then there is betwixt several Dogs: And it being known by experience, what various changes are frequently occasioned in the same species by several countries, diets, and other accidents: Yet I have ex abundanti to prevent all cavilling, allowed them to be distinct species, and each of them to be clean Beasts, and consequently such as were to be received in by sevens …[20]

Here we see that the term species is being given a peculiarly zoological meaning. Given that his collaborator John Ray gives our first definition of species in a biological context (below), it is clear that the issue of Noah’s Ark has contributed to the rank of living kinds being of one particular level. The very need for a lowest level of kind on the Ark generated the rank of living species. It is this question that Ray addressed. This also explains why later writers spoke of the primum genus or species (see, for example, Fuchs, below). These were the initial kinds from which other kinds (secundum genera or species) were formed, usually by hybridization or local climatic modifications. The influence of Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium on Kircher[21] and Wilkins is also evident, and to this novel tradition we now turn.

Table 1. The creation account, with kind terms highlighted – Genesis 1:21, 24–26.

[21] Creavitque Deus cete grandia, et omnem animam viventem atque motabilem, quam produxerant aquae in species suas et omne volatile secundum genus suum. Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum. [24] Dixit quoque Deus: Producat terra animam viventem in genere suo, jumenta et reptilia et bestias terrae secundum species suas. Factumque est ita. [25] Et fecit Deus bestias terrae juxta species suas, et jumenta et omne reptile terrae in genere suo. Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum. [Vulgate 1682]

[21] God created the large sea creatures, and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind. God saw that it was good. [24] God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, creeping things, and animals of the earth after their kind,” and it was so. [25] God made the animals of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind. God saw that it was good. [NIV]

Table 2. The Animals on the Ark – Genesis 6: 17–20.

[17] Ecce ego adducam aquas diluvii super terram, ut interficiam omnem carnem, in qua spiritus vitae est subter caelum: Universa quae in terra sunt, consumentur. [18] Ponamque foedus meum tecum: et ingredieris arcam tu, et filii tui, uxor tua, et uxores filiorum tuorum tecum. [19] Et ex cunctis animantibus universae carnis bina induces in arcam, ut vivant tecum: masculini sexus et feminini. [20] De volucribus juxta genus suum, et de jumentis in genere suo, et ex omni reptili terrae secundum genus suum: bina de omnibus ingredientur tecum, ut possint vivere. [Vulgate 1682]

[17] I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. [18] But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. [19] You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. [20] Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. [NIV]

Table 3. Buteo’s list of beasts on the Ark.

Animals that eat forage and grain

Animals that eat meat




Wild ox

One horned ox

Arabian camel

Bactrian camel







European bison




One horned Indian ox


Common cow



Red deer

Common horse

Wild horse

Spotted horse



Wild donkey

One horned Indian donkey




Domestic goat

Wild goat






Long-tailed monkey

Other monkeys


Alpine white hare

Rabbit of the hare family

Common rabbit

Wild rabbit




Mice and mole (born of corruption, so not on ark)

Mule (not on ark)









Bulls with flexible horns





Dog wolf

Deer wolf (Jackal)






Wild axis

Sea otter


Giant otter


Common otter

Hyena (glavum)

African hunting dog



Egyptian weasel

Common weasel

Sea calf




Horned snakes



Lizards otherwise green and tiny




Not enumerated

Table 4. Bishop Wilkins’ table of animals on the Ark.

Beasts feeding on Hay. Beasts feeding on Fruits, Roots and Insects.

Carnivorous Beasts



Proportion to Beeves.

Breadth of Stalls



Proportion to Sheep.

Breadth of the Stalls.



Proportion to Wolves.

Breadth of their Stalls.




2 Horse






2 Lion



2 Asse







2 Beare



2 Camel






2 Tigre



2 Elephant






2 Pard



7 Bull




Sloth 2 Ounce



7 Urus




Porcupine 2 Cat



7 Bisons




Hedghog 2 Civet-cat
7 Bonasus




Squirril 2 Ferret



7 Buffalo




Ginny pig 2 Polecat
7 Sheep






2 Martin
7 Stepciseros





2 Stoat
7 Broad-tail





2 Weesle
7 Goat



2 Castor
7 Stone-buck




2 Otter
7 Shamois


2 Dog



7 Antilope


2 Wolf



7 Elke



2 Fox



7 Hart



2 Badger
7 Buck



2 Jackall
7 Rein-deer



2 Caraguya
7 Roe



2 Rhinocerot


2 Camelopard



2 Hare

2 Sheep.

2 Rabbet
2 Marmotto






Allen, D. C. 1949. The Legend of Noah. Renaissance rationalism in art, science and letters. Urbana: University of Illinois.

Breidbach, O., and M. T. Ghiselin. 2006. “Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) on Noah’s Ark: Baroque “intelligent design” theory.”  Proceedings of the California Academy of Science 57 (36):991–1002. doi: papers3://publication/uuid/5360506C-E778-430B-8A97-F6A86C32CF40.

Buteo, J. 1554. Opera geometrica: De arca Noe, de sublicio ponte Caesaris, Confutatio quadraturae circuli ab Orontio Finaeo factae etc. Lugduni: Thomas Bertellus.

—. 2008. Johannes Buteo’s The shape and capacity of noah’s ark. In Issues in Creation. Eugene, Oregon: Center for Origins Research.

Cohn, N. 1996. Noah’s flood: the Genesis story in Western thought. New Haven: Yale University Press.

—. 1999. Noah’s flood: The Genesis story in Western thought. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Farley, J. 1977. The spontaneous generation controversy from Descartes to Oparin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Harrison, P. 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hugh Of Saint Victor. 1962. Selected Spiritual Writings. New York: Harper & Row.

Kircher, A. 1675. Arca Noë in tres libros digesta. Amsterdam: Joannem Janssonium à Waesberge.

Pleins, J. D. 2009. When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah’s Flood. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Raleigh, S. W. 1614. The history of the world. 6 vols. Vol. 1. London: William Stansby for Walter Burre.

Subbiondo, J. L., ed. 1992. John Wilkins and 17th-Century British Linguistics. Amsterdam; Philadelphia PA: John Benjamins.

Wilkins, J. 1668. An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. London: Sa. Gellibrand, and for John Martyn, printer to the Royal Society.


[1] Allen 1949, chapter 1.

[2] Allen 1949, 6–7.

[3] Hugh Of Saint Victor 1962.

[4] Op cit. I.7.

[5] For a compelling account of this shift and the contribution of Protestant theology to empirical natural philosophy, see Harrison 2015.

[6] Translated in Cohn 1999, 38f.

[7] For example, Lorenzo Valla’s debunking of the Donation of Constantine, in 1440, using philological techniques. See also the influence of rabbinic ideas in Cohn 1996, 33ff and the discussion in Pleins 2009, chapter 5.

[8] According to Buteo 2008, 4, he was so named due to there being a local hawk called bourrel; a Middle Latin name for hawk is buteo.

[9] Buteo 1554; English translation in Buteo 2008 , although this is a work of creationist scholars and should be treated carefully.

[10] Farley 1977.

[11] Buteo 2008, 31.

[12] Raleigh 1614, Bk I, Pt I, ch. 7, § 9, pages 111–112.

[13] Kircher 1675.

[14] Breidbach and Ghiselin 2006, 998.

[15] Breidbach and Ghiselin 2006, 999.

[16] Wilkins 1668. See the essays in Subbiondo 1992 for context and commentary.

[17] See page 96 below.

[18] Wilkins 1668, 165.

[19] Farley 1977, 14f

[20] Wilkins 1668, 164f.

[21] Breidbach and Ghiselin 2006, 998.

9 thoughts on “Noah’s Ark and the creation of the species rank

  1. I grew up in an American fundamentalist school, and there was much stock put in “kinds” as the essential biological unit. Kinds could undergo microevolution but not macroevolution. However, there was no discussion of mules on Noah’s ark or even its magically unsmelly dung, which is a real shame.

  2. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Earlier Christian thinkers certainly went in for allegorical readings of Genesis on a grand scale, but they didn’t doubt the literal truth of the Bible stories. As Erich Auerbach pointed, it was absolutely foundational for Augustine and others that sacred history was at once real and symbolic—”Such ideas were implicit in the very fact of the Incarnation.”

    2. You reference Hugh of St. Victor’s De arca Noe morali. It’s worth pointing out that this work wasn’t just edifying. It was a practical memory system for teaching priests and monks how to remember the events in the Bible.That’s why there are so many surviving manuscripts. (I know Hugh’s book from Mary Carruther’s account of it in her books on the art of memory. She also included it in her anthology The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures.) An assembly of beast and bird kinds (however you gloss “kinds”) is a pretty natural basis for a memory system. Levi-Strauss famously claimed that so-called primitive societies understood the organization of their societies by analogy to plants, animals, and other natural features of their environment. My clan or totem is related to yours as, for example, beavers are to bears. Even in our culture, the first body of knowledge that children acquire is the suite of familiar animals (the cow says “Moo.” etc). so this framework is a handy index to the rest of the cosmos. Natural species or what we take to be natural species are, to use expression of Levi-Strauss, good to think.

    1. I agree with you on the facts of point 1, but I think there was a change of tone. Earlier thinkers considered the bible literally true but didn’t bother to think about how to quantify that because the literal truth was less important to work out than the symbolic/mystic truth. The shift was really just a shift of emphasis because later thinkers would probably agree that there was a symbolic element to the text, but they wanted to understand was not “how does the ark represent the church,” but “how many pounds of dung were generated and how did they keep from getting buried in it?” The shift was subtle, but I do think it was real.

  3. And when you believe in miracles, then nothing is a problem. Just think of Arthur Weasley magicking a Ford Anglia to have 6 trunks and room for 8 passengers. Putting constraints on God is a no no.

  4. I liked the last post on lifeforms. I think you should run with the subject here in relation to the state (is the state a lifeform?).

    You can date some early 6th century history to the 6th century as it is literal i.e its written within living memory and is somewhat terse and factual. later use of allegory, myth anology or political alteration gives you the later timeline.

    The written here is the literary tip of a much more fluid iceberg shaped by the circulation of the living. Mass of information is not flowing through books, its organized differently and the vast quantity of knowledge lives and dies in each generation.

    Redistributive nature of the state alters the ebb and flow of the parts here I think.

    “in the wake of the Reformation, biblical texts were more literally interpreted and treated as factual, historical accounts”

    Know nothing about this but it looked like the inclusion of more technical data. A sixth century scribe may have acessed the knowledge of a shit shoveller differently and organized the knowledge differently in a less permenant manner.

    I wonder if by the 15th century literary production had the resources to start writing technical manuals on the subject and had an adminstrative audience use to such genres with a taste for such details?

  5. e.g. 573 bellum Arderydd (6th century source)

    573 the battle of Arderydd, Merlin flees insane into the woods (12th century source)

    Living memory keeps the early source literal and terse (in the extreme). Its organized somewhat differently in the 12th century to be kept alive in mind.

    1. Re “is the state a life-form”

      If Donald Trump and Theresa May are the peak of that life form – the only option left is to flee insane into the woods. Merlin had it right. Welcome back to the 12th century.

    2. “the only option left is to flee insane into the woods.”

      Ritual is important at these times. Flee insane into the woods, become a penitential sinner, re-find god and then die a spectacular death. 6th to 10th century Merlin rather than the later model.

      Penitance was popular for the elite as it offered to rehabilitate you into society. Unusual spectacular three fold death sets you apart and confirms status as not ordinary.

      Would not be surprised to see the Conservatives engage in some modern day take on the theme, not so sure about Trump, as its emotional language is one of shame and the acceptance of being wrong.

      Denial with Trump going for a bigly political end with all guns blazing . Viking ship burial type affair, a massive display of wealth and power. Standard tactic for a non-established hierarchy seeking to stay in power when the big man falls.

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