Between 'wow' and 'ugh'

In the Blood
November 1, 1996

This is the beautifully produced book of the BBC television series by Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London. It has a very high "wow" factor. That is, Jones manages to produce many sentences to which the only appropriate response is "wow!" - like: "Everyone starts from six feet of DNA", or "Eve may have lived tens of thousands of years before Adam". This is not surprising, since genetics turns out to disclose some truly astonishing information. But Jones has a very attractive and felicitous style, which manages to convey some rather difficult facts while preserving the "wow" factor intact.

The book has, however, a serious, and I fear, unresolved problem. At its heart is a sober account of genetics, one of the most recent sciences, replete with fascinating information about human life and heredity. Here, Jones moves with sure-footed authority. But the truth is that, despite the "wow" factor, genetics is both difficult and boring for most general readers. The problem is what to do about that? Jones's solution is to subtitle the book "God, Genes and Destiny", in order perhaps to spice the brew with some religious controversy. Then he introduces a whole raft of disparate gossip of a general knowledge character - the archival researches of the Mormons, the search for the Lost Tribes of Israel, the secret of haemophilia in the royal families of Europe, and the history of the Pequot Indians among other things. Finally he adds a touch of philosophical debate about free will, good and evil.

The problem is that Jones is not an expert in either theology, cultural history or philosophy, though he has managed to unearth many recondite and curious facts. For a start, there is no serious discussion of ideas of God or of the implications of genetic discoveries for religious beliefs. All mentions of religion are confined to ancient Christian doctrines of a rather negative sort - here the "ugh" factor is heavily deployed.

It does not seem that Jones has any interest in placing his remarks in historical contexts which would take account of the primitive state of the sciences at the time. He does not mention that there are a number of diverse Christian positions, not to mention non-Christian religions. Nor has he spoken to any living theologian (like, for instance, John Habgood) about how genetics and religious beliefs about human nature might now be related. His introductory remark that "science differs from religion in that referring to authority . . . is simply not enough" warns any reasonably informed believer that we are going to get a grossly over-simplified caricature of what "science" and "religion" are. It is rather as though a theologian had written a book which only mentioned scientific theories until ad 1100, and then claimed it to be a responsible discussion of religion and genetics. To put it bluntly, the book is theologically incompetent (although one suspects that Jones doubts whether there is any such thing as theological competence).

When it comes to philosophical questions about freedom and morality, Jones's views are on the humane side. He disposes effectively of allegedly scientific arguments which might support racism. He shows some of the absurdities involved in the concern for "pure" descent from some famous ancestor. And he sets out some of the facts underlying the notorious discussion on possible links between genes and dispositions to criminal behaviour.

His own remarks on these important topics are rather tentative, but he is sceptical about any claims that genetics might somehow cause one to abandon belief in human dignity and responsibility. He says: "There can be no universal excuse for bad behaviour", and "scientific racism . . . has abandoned science". It cannot be said, however, that the genetic information he provides relates in a very tightly argued way to these conclusions. The arguments remain almost wholly implicit. Of course, that again is due to the fact that such arguments are highly technical, and not easy to convey. They have been propounded by some of his philosophical colleagues at University College, and the results are not suitable for a big glossy book with pictures, as this is. The facts he relates are undoubtedly significant for the "big questions" which are advertised on the cover - What is left for free will? Where is the soul? What room is there for good and evil? But what happens here is that the facts seem to have no effect on the basic moral line, which ironically appears as an unsupported assertion of faith: "We must be nice to people, but not have any nasty religious superstitions."

This is not at all to say this is a bad book. It is a truly fascinating book, which ought to lay to rest many prejudices about race and inheritance, and which sets out some basic information about genetics in an attractive way. But the problem it leaves is: how can one popularise without falsifying or over-simplifying to a misleading extent? The introduction of religion, treated as an exhausted collection of delusions, to be contrasted with the pure rationality of science, does not seem a very helpful way to do it. It undermines precisely that humane and sensitive understanding of human life for which Steve Jones calls, and which, for the most part, he provides. That being said, those who want some basic knowledge of genetics, who like being entertained with curious facts and incredible human beliefs, who appreciate superb illustrations and who enjoy a little very gentle philosophical probing, will find this a book well worth possessing.

Keith Ward is regius professor of divinity, University of Oxford.

In the Blood: God, Genes and Destiny

Author - Steve Jones
ISBN - 0 00 25511 5
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 289

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