It comes as no surprise that, having previously updated Darwin's writings, the geneticist Steve Jones has now turned his attention to the Bible. That it comes as no surprise is a reflection of the state of affairs Jones seeks to alter by his new exegesis. Forty-odd years ago, when he arrived at University College London's Galton Laboratory, he was accosted by a Christian zealot who later took to shouting in the corridors about the Saviour. It was a prophetic kind of encounter. In those days science and religion generally made way for each other. Nowadays they can't seem to help but step into each other's paths.
His gloomy references to his youth suggest that Jones has always been disposed to disappointment, which confirms his expectations rather than provoking outrage; his characteristic tone is sardonic rather than indignant. It extends to his view of his own book, "quite free of any taint of originality". The Serpent's Promise is also, he affirms, not about theology or "God preserve us, philosophy". Jones is an evidence-based biologist who doesn't believe knowledge can be created in the abstract.
In order to re-tell the Bible without calling on theology or philosophy, Jones makes a couple of questionable suggestions about its kinship with science. One is the claim that science is the Good Book's "direct descendant", although the roots of natural inquiry are not in the Holy Land but ancient Greece. The other is in his title. The serpent in the Garden of Eden did not promise knowledge of how the universe works, but of good and evil. It offered a moral consciousness, not an understanding of natural processes. As Jones expounds science as a source of the latter but not the former, he can't re-tell the greatest story ever told without diminishing it.
Rather than a rewrite covering everything between Genesis and Revelation, The Serpent's Promise is a succession of essays whose texts are taken, in the manner of sermons, from Biblical verses. Thus Ezekiel's vision of wheels, faces and "the colour of the terrible crystal" enables Jones to discuss hallucinations, illusions and altered states. He records the mundane phenomena hallucinogens induced in the psychologist William James and, in a geodesic dome in Colorado, himself: diarrhoea for James, "the sense that the whole event had gone on for too long" for Jones.
In some respects, this formula is an opportunity passed up – Christ's enjoinder to turn the other cheek and "give to every man who asketh of thee" challenges modern science to render it in the language of evolutionary game theory. But it does allow Jones to go about his task in the manner that suits him, picking "dry facts" with a shrewd eye from life's tangled bank and bringing them together in ways that help make the world make a little more sense. It is his tone rather than his facts that are dry; its effect is not to dull the narrative but to infuse it with an ironic sense of life's incongruities.
A sense of irony can be a fine attribute for a scientist, since it is a way of viewing phenomena from more than one perspective. Science proceeds by perspectives: reviewing research, building alternative models, arguing jealously and strenuously. Yet science as Jones presents it is an opaque, impersonal entity whose processes need not concern the public. He barely mentions any scientists by name, and offers no information about his sources – no endnotes, or even a reading list. This is a backward step as readers' engagement with the details of science has never been more open or intense, thanks to the internet and the grass-roots communities it supports. By presenting science as revealed truth, Jones obscures a fundamental way it differs from religion.
The one scientist who gets more than a passing mention is the one who greeted Jones at UCL by asking him if he had a hotline to Jesus. George Price was an outsider who made original contributions through mathematical analysis to evolutionary theory, while believing in divine creation. His faith became increasingly fervent: taking "give to every man…" as his precept, he gave his possessions away and devoted himself to the chaotic poor of the neighbourhood. Eventually he took his own life.
A scientific rewrite of Luke 6 would offer a poignant reflection upon a man who applied game theory to individual interests in animal conflict, but chose to turn the other cheek in his dealings with his fellow humans.
The message relayed by Luke flies in the face of our intuitions about fairness, of Christianity as practised by the vast majority of its adherents, and the Old Testament histories that precede the Gospels. It implies a radical incoherence to the Bible, which rationalists may take as an illustration that religions are dysfunctional systems for living good lives. But if the knowledge constituted by the Bible retains such power despite its flagrant contradictions, perhaps we are missing something about how it meshes with human psychology that science has yet to capture.
Steve Jones himself takes the Good Book as it comes. He is a storyteller, not a campaigner, and the Bible is full of stories from which he can strike out in all sorts of directions. But he lines up with the enemies of organised religion, portraying it as the last great barrier dividing people. He looks forward to the day when an "objective and unambiguous culture" of science will unite the human race, which could "embrace the globe into a single system of shared values".
This leaves the reader with hand raised, begging to ask "How's that going to work, then?" The Serpent's Promise is about facts, but it does not argue that values can be derived from them. Science can show us how we live, and suggest how we might live, but on its own it cannot tell us how we should live. As Luke implies, values may oblige us to defy facts. But without God to preserve us, we are going to need philosophy after all.
Marek Kohn's books include 'Trust: self-interest and the common good' (Oxford)
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