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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle