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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“Why are you here?”: Juncker and MEPs mock Nigel Farage at the European Parliament

Returning to the scene of the crime.

In today's European Parliament session, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, tried his best to keep things cordial during a debate on Brexit. He asked MEPs to "respect British democracy and the way it voiced its view".

Unfortunately, Nigel Farage, UKIP leader and MEP, felt it necessary to voice his view a little more by applauding - the last straw even for Juncker, who turned and spat: "That's the last time you are applauding here." 

MEPs laughed and clapped, and he continued: "I am surprised you are here. You are fighting for the exit. The British people voted in f avour of the exit. Why are you here?"  

Watch the exchange here:

Farage responded with an impromptu speech, in which he pointed out that MEPs laughed when he first planned to campaign for Britain to leave the EU: "Well, you're not laughing now". Hee said the EU was in "denial" and that its project had "failed".

MPs booed again.

He continued:

"Because what the little people did, what the ordinary people did – what the people who’d been oppressed over the last few years who’d seen their living standards go down did – was they rejected the multinationals, they rejected the merchant banks, they rejected big politics and they said actually, we want our country back, we want our fishing waters back, we want our borders back. 

"We want to be an independent, self-governing, normal nation. That is what we have done and that is what must happen. In doing so we now offer a beacon of hope to democrats across the rest of the European continent. I’ll make one prediction this morning: the United Kingdom will not be the last member state to leave the European Union."

The Independent has a full transcript of the speech.

Now, it sounds like Farage had something prepared – so it's no wonder he turned up in Brussels for this important task today, while Brexiteers in Britain frantically try to put together a plan for leaving the EU.

But your mole has to wonder if perhaps, in the face of a falling British pound and a party whose major source of income is MEP salaries and expenses, Farage is less willing to give up his cushy European job than he might like us to think. 

I'm a mole, innit.