The word “Noachian” almost always describes what kind of disaster?

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Published April 4, 2024

Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.

In the beginning, everyone believed Noah’s flood was real.

Consider 17th-century French polymath René Descartes. His namesake Cartesian method of doubt calls for shedding all beliefs you haven’t actually experienced, and then building them back from reason.1 And sure enough, that’s what he did with the flood. According to David R. Montgomery’s fantastic history-of-geology, The Rocks Don’t Lie, Descartes laid out this theory: 

Above [the earth’s fiery core] lay an ocean, trapped below an outer crust made of stones, sand, and clay. Over time the heat of the Sun evaporated water trapped between the inner and outer crusts. Fissures coalesced into large fractures … triggering a great flood and forming both mountains and seas.

Okay, so it’s not exactly 40 days of rain, but it still seems pretty credulous in 2024, n’est-ce pas?2 But he–hell, Europe–wasn’t alone. By this time, folks had enough evidence from non-Judeo-Christian traditions to support belief in a worldwide flood:

  • Greek historians preserved Babylon’s story of Ziusudra. Warned by a god, he built a big boat to save his family from a great flood–and later figured out the waters had receded by sending out a series of birds, just like Noah.3
  • The Greeks had their own myth too: Tipped off by Zeus, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha built an ark that alit on Mount Parnassus after nine days of flooding. Afterward they threw some stones over their shoulders, and those turned into all the new people.
  • In the 16th century, the Old World learned of the Aztec legend of Coxcox. With his wife Xochiquetzal, he hunkered down in a hollow tree, becoming the only human survivors (mercifully, everyone else was turned into a fish rather than summarily drowned).

A certain strain of believers use all these stories–and still more, like famous Utnapishtim from The Epic of Gilgamesh, discovered later–to justify their insistence on the original story.

But in the world of science, the tides started turning (so to speak) in the late 18th century. The unfortunately named Comte du Buffon proved in the 1770s that if the earth was birthed by the sun, it would take at least 75,000 years to cool to its present temperature. Rather than dismiss Genesis outright, he advanced the still-popular idea that the “seven days” of creation weren’t literal days.

And then there was Scottish polymath James Hutton. In 1784, he told the Royal Society of Edinburgh about the variegated bands of rock visible near his farm, at Siccar Point. They implied, he said, that the world’s landscapes were formed by multiple rounds of erosion and deposition–not just one big flood.

It took decades for the scientific community to fully accept this model–a cycle with “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,” as Hutton put it. But there’s a reason Montgomery’s book is called The Rocks Don’t Lie:

It is impossible to stand at Siccar Point and reasonably see how to fit what you can read in the rocks into just 6,000 years of time. When Roman ruins still stand after 2,000 years, how could raising and eroding off two mountain ranges happen in just twice as long before that?


  1. That famous quote of his, “I think, therefore I am”? The full version starts with “I doubt, therefore I think.”
  2. Besides not knowing any better, he also happened to be a Roman Catholic working at the same time they were excommunicating Galileo. Just saying.
  3. Astute readers will note that Babylon’s in the same area Genesis calls the source of all life, so this may not be coincidence …

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