SCIENCE: Little, Brown £25

The Serpent’s Promise, By Steve Jones

The gospel according to Steve Jones

Some book ideas are so high concept that you suspect they were workshopped to death during a marketing brainstorming session rather than springing from a single human mind.

While I don’t doubt that The Serpent’s Promise was the concept of the author and famous geneticist Steve Jones, his publisher’s publicity department must’ve been salivating and rubbing their hands with glee when he pitched it.

The Serpent’s Promise is, according to its subtitle, “the Bible retold as science”. Controversial! Ambitious! Profound! In actual fact, the book is none of these things. Instead The Serpent’s Promise is a very tenuously connected set of occasionally interesting scientific anecdotes and round-ups of recent theories, which uses the idea of the Good Book as the most feeble of hooks to hang itself on.

The way in which Jones links his scientific discussions to Bible passages is at times so half-hearted it’s embarrassing, and the idea that “the Bible was the first scientific textbook of all” and “the greatest scientific story ever told” (both quotes from the back cover) doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. So we begin, of course, with Genesis, which the author uses as the starting-off point for a decent discussion of the Big Bang, followed rather clumsily by an analysis of where the scientific community is with the theories of life on planet earth.

And so on, with the story of Adam and Eve leading to a discussion of DNA and genetics, the concept of the Virgin Mary loosely inspiring a look at the role of sex in animals and humans, and the story of Methuselah kicking off a half-baked round up of ageing and mortality. None of these chapters has anything new to say on the scientific front, and their apparent relevance to the Bible is remote at best. The first half of the book is based on Jones’s home turf of genetics, so it’s strange that it’s all very dry and boring, as if the author is reverting to stern lecturing mode.

As the book progresses and Jones gets further away from his specialisation, it actually becomes more engaging. His look at the Biblical tale of Noah’s flood and the subsequent field of geomythology that has grown up around it is fascinating and the writing here flows much better, taking in all manner of natural disasters as well as the concepts of insurance in nature and climate change.

The other truly interesting chapter here is about the nature of ecstatic religious visions and intense worship, and the relationship such experiences might have, both with artificial stimulation through natural drugs, and with various forms of mental illness.

But such enlightening passages are few and far between; too often the reader is left with superficial or boring scientific bluster that has little or no bearing on the famous book that The Serpent’s Promise is meant to be “retelling”. I’m not against book covers making grand claims, but the content has to back up those boasts. It doesn’t here.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor