The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones

Alec Ryrie on an intriguing book that doesn’t do what it says on the tin

July 11, 2013

The Bible Retold as Science: the title suggests a quixotic project, not unlike Shakespeare Retold as Engineering, a work of crass debunking that is likely simply to miss the point. But Steve Jones is a subtler thinker and writer than that, and has produced an engaging and an intriguingly peculiar book.

Quite a lot of it is very loosely connected to its supposed theme. Three- quarters or more could have appeared in almost any of Jones’ popular science books, being a set of freewheeling, immensely readable riffs on vaguely biblical themes.

So the Exodus story leads him into genetics and the history of human migration; the biblical concern about leprosy opens up a survey of epidemic disease; and Methuselah (this one is particularly tenuous) is a peg on which to hang a discussion of ageing. Any non-specialist will collect fascinating titbits and see bracing new vistas during the course of these tours. And specialists and non-specialists alike, I imagine, will enjoy the ride. But this isn’t the Bible retold as science: it’s just science.

Elsewhere, there is slightly more obvious “retelling”. Inevitably, we have a contemporary scientific alternative to the biblical creation myth: done, as ever, with an engagingly light touch.

Learned, fascinating: but what is it for? Jones is by his own admission writing for a sceptical rather than a religious readership (he sees these as opposite categories). The idea seems to be to fit some new songs to some old tunes.

But the last couple of chapters grapple with the subject more directly, looking at the science of mystical and visionary experiences, and at evolutionary-psychological treatments of religion itself. Both are sometimes used in crudely reductionist attempts to explain religion away, but Jones avoids such full-frontal attacks. Instead, with almost charming faux-naivety, he says he is simply looking at what science can say about these questions. The avowed purpose is not to make a case for atheism, but to reach a point, like French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, at which theism is a redundant hypothesis.

Naturally, the “religion” that Jones is trying thus to put up on bricks is a pretty rickety old banger to begin with. It seems to consist of a set of just-so stories and ex post facto rationalisations of observed phenomena, hitched to some sophisticated mechanisms for social control and oiled with hallucinatory experiences.

At this point I, from my theological perch, ought to harrumph about this being an impoverished and tin-eared concept of religion - which it is. But it’s better than my concept of genetics, and Jones’ subtle approach deserves more.

The introduction tells us that the book is “about dry fact, not theology (nor, God preserve us, philosophy)”. “Dry” is patently untrue, but the sideswipe at philosophy is I think revealing. I’m a historian and carry no brief for my philosophical colleagues, but I know that if science wants seriously to engage with these issues it needs a little more self- examination.

Scientists (like historians) instinctively dislike unanswerable questions, such as “What is knowledge?” We prefer, as he says, facts. But since (as Jones proves) sensory perception is very easily deluded, “facts” are not matter of fact, and intellectual systems of all kinds are contingent. In the end we are all up on bricks. Some sort of philosophy of science (explicit or implicit) is the only way off.

In other words: if this wants to be more than another postmodern narrative, it needs to have a means of accessing truth, not mere fact. At which point, it may discover a debate with religion that is not so one- sided.

The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science

By Steve Jones
Little, Brown, 448pp, £25.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781408702857, 2864 and 9780748121113 (e-book)
Published 2 May 2013

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