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

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Iain Duncan Smith says what most Brexiters think: economic harm is a price worth paying

The former cabinet minister demonstrated rare candour by dismissing the "risks" of leaving the EU.

Most economists differ only on whether the consequences of Brexit would be merely bad or terrible. For the Leave campaign this presents a problem. Every referendum and general election in recent times has been won by the side most trusted to protect economic growth (a status Remain currently enjoys).

Understandably, then, the Brexiters have either dismissed the forecasters as wrong or impugned their integrity. On Tuesday it was the turn of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), one of the most revered bodies in Westminster. In response to its warning that Brexit would mean a further two years of austerity (with the hit to GDP wiping out George Osborne's forecast surplus), the Leave campaign derided it as a "paid-up propaganda arm of the European commission" (the IFS has received £5.6m from Brussels since 2009). 

The suggestion that the organisation is corrupt rightly provoked outrage. "The IFS - for whom I used to work - is not a paid up propaganda arm of the EU. I hope that clears that up," tweeted Brexit-supporting economist Andrew Lilico. "Over-simplified messaging, fear-mongering & controversialism are hard-minded campaigning. Accusing folk of corruption & ill intent isn't." The Remain campaign was swift to compile an array of past quotes from EU opponents hailing the IFS. 

But this contretemps distracted from the larger argument. Rather than contesting the claim that Brexit would harm the economy, the Leave campaign increasingly seeks to change the subject: to immigration (which it has vowed to reduce) or the NHS (which it has pledged to spend more on). But at an event last night, Iain Duncan Smith demonstrated rare candour. The former work and pensions secretary, who resigned from the cabinet in protest at welfare cuts, all but conceded that further austerity was a price worth paying for Brexit. 

"Of course there's going to be risks if you leave. There's risks if you get up in the morning ...There are risks in everything you do in life," he said when questioned on the subject. "I would rather have those risks that we are likely to face, headed off by a government elected by the British people [and] governing for the British people, than having a government that is one of 27 others where the decisions you want to take - that you believe are best for the United Kingdom - cannot be taken because the others don't agree with you."

For Duncan Smith, another recession is of nothing compared to the prize of freedom from the Brussels yoke. Voters still reeling from the longest fall in living standards in recent history (and who lack a safe parliamentary seat) may disagree. But Duncan Smith has offered an insight into the mindset of a true ideologue. Remain will hope that many more emulate his honesty. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.