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

Creation myths.

The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science
Steve Jones
Little, Brown, 448pp, £25

The Bible shows little curiosity about subjects we normally place under the rubric of science, such as the origin, age, structure and diversity of the physical world. Aside from a stray verse in 1 Kings 4 that boasts of King Solomon’s wisdom (“He spoke about plant life . . . He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish”), the only time the good book seems to ask proto-scientific questions is in moments of poetry, dialogue or aphorism, such as in Proverbs or at the end of Job.

Because of this, a book that hopes to retell the Bible as science promises to be pretty thin gruel. The biologist Steve Jones’s latest book, on “the Bible retold as science”, isn’t thin but it is something of a curate’s egg. Jones is an unbeliever with a healthy contempt for religion. He protests that he wishes to avoid New Atheist vituperation, but when he does write about Christianity his attitudes are clear.

The Bible was not, as he claims, “a handbook to help comprehend the world”. Genesis is not “the world’s first biology textbook”. To criticise the opening line of Psalm 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of the Lord”) for “empty logic” is a strangely wooden way of reading poetry. The scroll that hints that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is not “early”.

Jones sees religion as something invented by priests to keep themselves in power and the plebs in order. He explains how sorrow binds people together and then remarks that the Church has not been slow to notice this, with “grief and recovery . . . at the heart of the Christian message”, in the process revealing not only an impressive level of cynicism but also the bizarre idea that the Church somehow invented Good Friday and Easter Sunday as means of group therapy.

Were this all there was to The Serpent’s Promise, it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. Thankfully, it isn’t. The book’s guilty secret is that the Bible angle is really not much more than a marketing ploy, a hook on which Jones can hang some very engaging scientific discussions. He clearly knows this, since he notes that the Bible “has much more interest in the universe of the spirit than in the banalities of the physical world”. However, the mask is not allowed to slip entirely presumably because books about how science disproves, replaces or retells religion sell more than books about science alone.

Nevertheless, it is the science book hung on the odd verse from the Bible that is worth reading. Jones uses various biblical stories – a disproportionate number of them from Genesis – to discuss the origins of the universe, the origins of life, human evolution, the meaning of sex, the complex and unpredictable interactions of nature and nurture, life expectancy, floods, the development of language, and so on. Here, Jones is on home territory and he writes with the fluency and wit that make him one of our best science popularisers.

The book ends with a rousing prophecy about how, when the “shackles” of religion “are at last struck from [our] wrists”, we will be free “to form a single community united by an objective and unambiguous culture whose logic, language and practices are permanent and universal . . . science.” Mercifully, such rhetoric is rare today, being more suited to an age before nerve gas and nuclear weaponry. It is also rare in this largely entertaining and informative book, which reminds us that when scientists write about science, they are often readable and sometimes riveting – and when they don’t, they aren’t.

Nick Spencer is research director of Theos

The Bible was not “a handbook to help comprehend the world”. Genesis is not “the world’s first biology textbook”. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.