Adventurers in Europe’s great age of exploration sometimes denied the humanity of newly discovered tribes on the grounds that their remote locations — inaccessible from the Middle East — meant they could not be descended from Adam. Explorers optimistically searched for the Garden of Eden or Noah’s Ark or the Tower of Babel, expecting to find them — and sometimes succeeding.
Columbus wrote home that he had discovered Eden in the Orinoco River Valley of what is now Venezuala. Hundreds claimed to have seen Noah’s Ark. Every animal and plant was thought to have been created purposefully by God just a few thousand years ago and named by Adam, the ancestor of all humanity. Animal and human migration patterns all radiated out from Mount Ararat, where Noah’s family and his seafaring menagerie came to rest after the Great Flood. For most of its history, the West saw the natural world through the lens of the Bible, supplemented by the ancient Greek writings of people like Aristotle.
Most educated people today see the natural world through the lens of science rather than the Bible. That shift in perspective is largely complete outside the United States, but the reorientation has been challenging and often painful. A recent Gallup poll indicated that more than 100 million Americans are not ready to abandon the biblical understanding of the natural world, insisting that the Earth is but a few thousand years old and that humans were created in their present forms.
Geneticist and science writer Steve Jones, winner of the Faraday Medal for the Public Understanding of Science, shines an articulate spotlight on this about-face in “The Serpent’s Promise.” Brief, eccentric and usually wrong biblical claims about the natural world are juxtaposed with elegant expositions of their scientific replacements.
The book is a loosely organized collection of essays ranging widely over questions so central to understanding the world that they are explored in depth both in religion and in science — topics such as the origin of the world, human genealogy, free will, human longevity and health, altruism, and human migration.
An observation about the biblical fascination with genealogy — the endless and much-lampooned tables of “begats” — leads Jones to undertake a discussion of mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam. Genetic explorations allow us to “find the universal ancestor of every male alive today,” he writes, and every female, too. Alas, the evidence shows that they did not live in the Middle East a few thousand years ago and were not even contemporaries of each other, a conclusion that has creationists fuming.
Jones joins Saint Paul, Augustine, Pelagius, John Calvin and countless social scientists in engaging the perennial question as to the limits to human freedom. Are we truly free? Or is freedom an illusion? Are humans all equal? Can we refrain from sinning by making right choices and following God? Does everyone, from the local priest to the distant aborigine, have the same chance to choose God? Is the world fair? Drawing on his own experience as a precocious “middle class child,” Jones tells how he got into the best schools by acing examinations of dubious utility: “I became an academic but my brother failed [an] exam . . . and spent his career as a bricklayer.” Tests of all sorts, genetics, propensity for crime and a sobering awareness of the effects of poverty reveal a playing field that is far from level: “How can there be equality,” Jones asks, “when some are given privileges, or face handicaps because their DNA predestines them to win or lose?”
In a chapter called “On to Methuselah,” Jones examines the biblical statement that the patriarch died at the unbelievable age of 969, a claim refuted by our modern understanding of the aging process as well as statistics on death accumulated over the past couple of centuries. In “Zwingli’s Sausages,” he points out that biblical restrictions against eating shellfish, pork and various other “unclean” animals turn out to make some limited sense — at least in their ancient contexts — now that we understand more about them. Pork, for example, carries more diseases and has to be cooked much more carefully than beef.
“The Serpent’s Promise” ends with an engaging exploration of altruism, a central Christian virtue that biogenetics has recently established as a deep part our human nature. Loving our neighbor is programmed into our genes, provided we understand that neighbors are members of our tribe — our extended family — and thus share many of our genes.
While acknowledging that Christianity can be a powerful force for altruism — “America’s Christian communes lasted several times longer than did their humanistic alternatives” — Jones sees religion as divisive and promoting of war. He looks for a day when the “shackles” of religion are at last “struck from [our] wrists” and we “no longer depend on the dubious promises of a serpent.” At that point we will be “free to form a single community united by . . . science.”
Jones writes with an unbridled faith in science and a suspicion of all things religious. In the preface to this American edition of the book, he writes, “No thinking Christian today . . . defends the notion that the earth is six thousand years old.” As mentioned above, however, a third of the U.S. population does believe that is the Earth’s age, and some of them are well-educated, with advanced training in science and professorships at universities. So while I share Jones’s dim view of creationism, I am not prepared to say that its adherents cannot think.
Unfortunately, Jones treats the Bible as little more than a source of oddball stories on which to hang engaging scientific expositions. “The Serpent’s Promise” does not, in fact, “interpret” the Bible through modern science, as the subtitle suggests. Rather, Jones reads the texts with a wooden literalism that would make both Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins proud, effectively contrasting a childish view of the Bible with a grown-up view of science. Jones never asks, for example, if the implausibly great age ascribed to Methuselah might be subject to a less literal interpretation. Scholars have argued that these great ages might refer to the duration of dynasties, or might be metaphors for the relative influence of the patriarchs, or may have come from oral traditions rich in mythology.
Jones is not a biblical scholar, of course, but rather an award-winning science writer — the British Carl Sagan — and by these lights his book does not disappoint. Each of its 10 chapters contains a lively, informed and remarkably wide-ranging essay on an important and timeless topic. The essays are filled with memorable phrases. My favorite would be his description of the Western obesity epidemic as “a wave of lard [that] has crashed upon these shores.”
In a much-quoted passage at the end of “The Origin of Species,” Darwin wrote elegantly of a quasi-religious “grandeur” in the scientific view. Jones, who updated Darwin’s classic work in 2000 with “Darwin’s Ghost,” is a marvelous evangelist for this new worldview, but he won’t be converting any creationists.
THE SERPENT’S PROMISE
The Bible Interpreted Through
By Steve Jones
Pegasus. 436 pp. $27.95