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5 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A wholly misconceived exercise., 26 Jun. 2014
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This review is from: The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science (Paperback)
Apart from being one of the world’s leading geneticists Steve Jones is also a brilliant writer: a great populariser of all things biological. With numerous highly acclaimed books to his name he is also a frequent guest on radio and television where his acerbic wit and eye for controversy does not go amiss. Neither is he daunted by a challenge, as when in ‘Almost like a Whale’ he took it upon himself to, “read Charles Darwin’s mind with the benefit of scientific hindsight” and rewrite ‘The Origin of Species.’

In ‘The Serpent’s Promise’ Jones takes on the even bigger challenge of the Bible, with similar intent. But there is a problem lurking in the undergrowth: not a serpent but a category error - writing of something in a way that it was never intended, then using it as a springboard to something completely different. Retelling the Bible as science is like pretending that ‘Wind in the Willows’ can be ‘upgraded’ into a textbook of natural history. In fact all that Jones is doing is using a naïve, literalist reading of the Bible as a peg on which to hang the insights offered by various sciences to our contemporary understanding of the world, like hanging baubles on a Christmas tree.

As an example, Jones uses the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel – ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David’, with its three sets of fourteen ancestors – as the basis for a consideration of where we are with the genetics of ancestry. I have no argument with Jones’s enlightening comments on genetics, but none of it has anything to do with what St Matthew intended us to understand and which Jones’s literalism completely obscures. For the biblical languages used letters for numerical content providing the basis for a rich symbolism found throughout the Bible of number forming words (hence the arcane ‘science’ of numerology). In this scenario ‘Dvd’ (there were no vowels in written Hebrew) has a numerical value of fourteen: thrice fourteen is a theological evaluation that the Christ will be thrice as great as David; the three sets of fourteen also comprise six sets of seven so Jesus would be born in the seventh seven i.e. the fullness of time. However one may regard this way of thinking it has little to do with literal genealogy and is a statement of aplomb rather than ancestry.

The deficiency of Jones’s approach becomes apparent in the very first sentence. Boldly setting out on the wrong foot he declares, “Genesis was the world’s first biology textbook.” It wasn’t! It is a collection of Middle Eastern tribal traditions and ancestral memories from the Bronze Age which was first recorded about the 7th century BCE. To these were finally prefixed three chapters, which were among the very last parts of the Bible to be written, probably in the 3rd century BCE. These chapters are a totally different genre, strongly influenced by earlier Hellenic writings on nature and cosmology, such as those of Aristotle, which provided their ‘sitz in leben’. As such they were intended as a stage setter for the subsequent unfolding drama of a putative Salvation History with its accompanying theological themes.

The premise of Jones’s book is that, “reason is a better way to understand the physical universe than is faith.” But is it? It is certainly a different way – but better? Leaving aside that long history of pseudo-sciences founded on reason – craniology, ‘rassenhygiene’, homeopathy spring to mind – it is important to remember science (and the scientific method) is but one prism through which we view the world. It is not the only one: music, poetry, drama, dance, are equally valid responses to the mystery of life. They are not comparable but help to shape the values we live by and we would be lacking in humanity without them. Hearing a blackbird singing on a summer’s evening, I am interested in neither the science or reason for its song, but I am transfixed by its ethereal beauty. It is such moments which make life worth living.

The inflated claims of science – and this book is not without its overt hubris – would have us believe that it can tell us everything worth knowing: Jones calls for “a complete explanation of what surrounds (us).” This is an impossible ambition. Whatever one’s level of knowledge or understanding, we cannot escape the fact that the world remains a magical place of profound mystery. One of the most enduring illusions of humanity is that, either by way of belief or knowledge, we can come to understand it - this book chases that chimera! In the end the most important knowledge we can have is the recognition of how little we know. All we succeed in doing is pealing back layers – and Jones is very good at this – but only to reveal deeper, labyrinthine levels of mystery that will for ever elude us. The proper response to mystery is awe.

This is something that infuses the biblical texts. But it is also important to remember that the Creation Story, and the subsequent Salvation History that follows, is exactly that – a story. It is a way of looking at the world, which is also the serpent’s promise. It is a view not interested in nature as such so much as man’s moral nature and destiny, which lies far beyond the remit of science. It is hardly the platform from which to build an analytical study of nature which Jones attempts. Disagree with the Bible by all means, but don’t traduce it by pretending it is something which it is not.
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