The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold As Science

  • Steve Jones
Little, Brown: 2013. 448 pp. £25 9781408702857 | ISBN: 978-1-4087-0285-7

The Serpent's Promise is a believer's book. It expresses belief in the power of language, imagination, scholarship, high art, enduring myth, tribal tradition, unforgettable poetry, irrational vision and inspired insight. If you wanted to find all of these things between just one set of covers, you might pick up the Authorized Version of the Bible; but this is a not a book by somebody who believes in God. It is a book by the distinguished geneticist, broadcaster, lecturer, writer and Welshman Steve Jones, who has a sharp awareness of moral imperative and a warm feeling for those Joneses before him who invoked the bread of heaven and yearned to be safe on Canaan's side. It is the ambivalence at the heart of this book which makes it so hugely enjoyable and, perhaps, so important.

Jones' story is not of the science of the Bible, but of the science invoked by the Bible. The Good Book (his words, his capitals), he says, was always more of a guide book, “a handbook to comprehend the world ... it sits firmly in the genealogy of ideas. Science is its direct descendant.” In each chapter he takes a text — from Genesis or the Gospel of John, from Ecclesiastes or Matthew, from Exodus, Leviticus, Job and so on — as the starting point for a rationalist sermon on a biblical theme. So Jones uses Genesis 6:4 (“There were giants in the earth in those days”) as a springboard less for talking about Goliath than for using “the power of science to illuminate myth” and for discussing the growth-hormone disorder acromegaly, linked to tumours of the pituitary gland. The long life described in Ecclesiastes 11:8 prompts reflections on insulin, the French paradox (high consumption of saturated fats coupled with low rates of coronary heart disease), the joys of red wine, the connections between sex and death and the enhanced lifespans of castrati.


His choice of stories from the Bible (Noah's Ark and the flood, Joseph in Egypt and the years of plenty and famine, among others) are no surprise. The delight is in the delivery — often witty and laconic, always generous. He does not waste much energy on the three great mysteries resolved with such confidence in Genesis (“the world's first biology textbook”): science may never be able to explain why the Universe happened at all, precisely how life began or what exactly turned an omnivorous foraging African bipedal primate into a creature with a taste for abstract speculation. The reward arrives with all those other Biblical preoccupations — Eden, a homeland, long-lived Methuselah, dietary rules that distinguish one group from another, the treatment of leprosy, the emerods or swellings with which God smote the Philistines, and ancient and modern insurance policies. (“Noah, unlike his feckless fellows,” writes Jones with a characteristic flourish “was seen as a good bet in the eyes of the Lord and quite soon, his policy paid off.”)

He is, of course, terrific on genetics. Jewishness is historically defined by descent, and the Bible is big on begetting. The stories told in human DNA sometimes square with tradition, and sometimes do not. Yes, the human race was all but extinguished — but perhaps more than once. Yes, the mutations in the male Y chromosome point back to a single progenitor in Africa 100,000 years ago. But the mother of all humans — the only one whose daughters all had daughters — lived in Africa 200,000 years ago. Adam and Eve can never have met, “let alone have committed the first and perhaps least original of all sins”.

About half of all the Ashkenazim, the biggest group of Jews, share descent from just four women (the number of women who survived on the Ark, Jones teasingly reminds us). Half of all Russian males have a Y chromosome linked to the historical Arya people of Iran. But this is not the case in Germany — Teutonic purists of the early twentieth century who claimed Aryan supremacy in fact shared their chromosomes with people in the Middle East. They had on average a closer tie with the Jewish men they despised than with the Arya. Almost all native Britons can trace descent from a single anonymous individual who lived around the thirteenth century. The most recent universal common ancestor for the entire planet dwelt about 100 generations ago in the Bronze Age, perhaps around the time of the destruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem in 600 BC. As we count back through the generations, our ancestors multiply. But populations were smaller, so we begin to share forebears. We have roots in common, says Jones: “Ancestry is a forest not of pines but of mangroves.”

In 1999, in Almost Like a Whale (Doubleday), Jones updated Darwin, starting each chapter with Darwin's own words: hardly an impertinence, given that every evolutionary biologist updates Darwin. The Serpent's Promise cannot advance divine revelation, but it offers a new context for old myths. It is of course superbly written by someone who quotes historian Edward Gibbon, Marxes Karl and Groucho, Mark Twain, James Boswell and Giovanni Boccaccio, and gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin with the casual ease of an omnivorous reader. This book is not an overt condemnation of religious belief: skilfully, it selects stories that have informed Western culture for 2,000 years to illuminate modern research, and Jones ends with an envoi on behalf of a future enriched by “an objective and unambiguous culture whose logic, language and practices are permanent and universal. It is called science.”

That is the problem with humans. They can intellectually endorse one thing and stubbornly love another.

I don't think even Jones believes that things are going to work out that way, if only because he also begins each chapter, and the book, with illustrations by William Blake, “who demonstrates, better than almost anyone else, the power of sacred imagery to move even those who do not share his convictions”. That is the problem with humans. They can intellectually endorse one thing and stubbornly love another, which is why The Serpent's Promise is more than just another science book, and all the more humane for its wider dimension.