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Scripture under the microscope

From Genesis to genetics, scientist Steve Jones applies modern methodology to update the holy book, writes Steven Shapin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 4:10pm

The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science
by Steve Jones   
Little, Brown 

You've always thought of the Bible as an early science text. You'd like to compare its factual content with what modern experts have to say. The Old Testament, for example, has all those begats, but little or nothing about the mechanics of generation; it records the ages of the patriarchs, topped by Methusaleh's 969, but you'd like to find out what life scientists now think about human longevity and its prospects.

And, of course, you'd want to know about the latest scientific wisdom on the origin of species, Egyptian plagues, universal floods, the sun standing still in the sky, and whether certain foods are in fact unclean abominations.

The Serpent's Promise, then, is the book you've been waiting for, its title an allusion to the eye-opening and the knowledge-of-all-things the snake promised Eve in Eden. You will not have been wholly satisfied with Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, since what you have been searching for isn't a foam-flecked denunciation of religious ignorance, lies and superstitions, but a calmer and more patiently informative update of the good book.

You will not have been in the market for one of the many current suggestions about how science and religion can carve up the culture and divide authority without serious inconvenience to each other: it's not cultural harmony you really want but solid information.

You will surely be open-minded enough about the stories respectively told by scripture and science to have reserved judgment on their validity and to be on the lookout for a book that will sort things out, even though it's pretty clear from the cover and first pages that The Serpent's Promise is going to side with science.

The story of a common descent from Adam is wrong, but DNA techniques securely establish the reality of astounding lineages

But if you are the person just described, you will probably not know many others like you. Most people have made up their minds long ago whether to trust Genesis or geologists, and even those who have problems with evolution-by-natural selection seem to have no difficulties with scientists' teachings about lots of other subjects - for example, inorganic chemistry, photosynthesis or electromagnetism. (Trusting "science" or the "Bible" usually turns out, on inspection, to be a matter of nuance and the exact context in which trust is at issue.)

Outside the circles of Young Earth creationists and other fundamentalists - who aren't likely to buy a book by Britain's "favourite geneticist" and one of its best-known scientific popularisers - not many people think of religious texts as proto-science, potentially in need of bringing up to date.

Galileo argued, 400 years ago, that the Bible was to be read allegorically: its purpose was "to teach us the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go", and you don't bring allegory and myth up to date in the same way you might update factual matters. Updating the "scientific" bits of the Bible is a bit like annotating Hamlet to make sure we know that adolescent depression can now be treated much better with Prozac.

Steve Jones considers that the holy book does indeed contain lots of supposed facts, embedded in a series of "questions" that constitute a biblical research agenda. So far as these questions are concerned, science is the Bible's "direct descendant", and all the factual questions found in scripture can and should be re-addressed "with the latest technology". The Serpent's Promise is an attempt to do just that, to "scrutinise the biblical pages from the point of view of a scientist".

That's a huge task: you'd expect anyone taking it on to get to grips with creation and the origin of species - and Jones doesn't disappoint - but he casts his net much more widely. The result is a miscellany of scientific stories.

The six-day creation story is part of the biblical cosmogonical research agenda, and Genesis is "the world's first biology textbook". The story of a common descent from Adam is wrong, but DNA techniques securely establish the reality of astounding lineages: we are all related to each other, and it's a good thing to know that. In the 17th century, Archbishop Ussher famously used biblical begattings to calculate the date of creation as 4004 BCE, but the Big Bang happened 13.77 billion years ago.

A chapter on diet begins with Jones' observation that "food is everywhere in the Bible" - manna, milk and honey, last suppers, sacrificial burnt offerings and fatted calves - and then forgets about the Bible-updating mission while stitching together a patchwork of stories about the evolutionary importance of cooking, the way in which dietary rules serve social solidarity, and how molecular gastronomy has given the lie to the old adage that there is no accounting for taste.

The Bible is full of stories about holy visions - prophets in direct contact with the divine - but modern science suggests a long list of possible secular causes of such religious experiences: mental disease, self-delusion, the ingestion of naturally occurring psychedelic drugs, the release of melatonin from the brain's pineal gland induced by meditation, the effect of breathing techniques, a misinterpretation of the visual "scintillating scotomas" associated with migraines. "Science shows that many of our perceptions of reality lie between the ears as much as in the world outside or, for that matter, beyond," Jones writes.

The geneticist's treatment of longevity doesn't break sweat in dismissing biblical gerontology - no one really lives to the patriarchs' years - but he is refreshingly sceptical about the current scientific hoopla offering an imminent prospect of living for hundreds of years, even forever.

Biologists know sex and ageing are causally connected. We're built to have sex, so the only road to immortality is having children or persuading your brothers and sisters to produce them. Much-touted anti-ageing drugs "may work someday, but most routes to a healthy old age are already obvious", involving "little more than common sense".

And here, maybe, the good book stands in little need of updating: "The Bible is full of reminders that death will not long be delayed, and it is right."

Jones' The Language of the Genes, based on his 1991 Reith Lectures, remains his finest achievement as a science populariser. It was a level-headed and witty survey of what geneticists now know, and what they sometimes only claim to know, about the hereditary basis of human traits and the power of genetic technologies. Its deflationary tone met a genuine cultural need: "The molecular biology business promotes its wares as well as any other, and the four letters of the genetic code might nowadays well be restated as H, Y, P and E."

There were a handful of secularising assessments of the Bible-as-research-agenda even there, and many more in Jones' 1996 In the Blood: God, Genes, and Destiny. But in The Serpent's Promise that's the whole point, and, by now, he is preaching to a well-rehearsed choir. The Bible's resigned acceptance of mortality apart, Jones' judgment is that holy scripture is a miserable science textbook.

If this comes as news to you, then Jones and his publishers have done a good piece of work; if not, then a nugget of biblical wisdom is apposite: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

Guardian News & Media

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