Thursday, January 09, 2014

Unpromising serpent

Review of Steve Jones, The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science (Little, Brown, 2013).

This must surely qualify as one of the worst books I read last year.  That I managed to finish reading it is itself something of a feat.

Jones purports to be writing something different to the “Polemical works for and against the power of belief” (p. 4).  But this book is nothing if not polemical. There is a (seriously held) view that science and religion have much that is complementary and that each can illuminate the other.  Jones has dismissed this by page 5.  What is more interesting is the reason why Jones junks this understanding.  There is no exploration of the view, let alone a philosophical account of why it does not hold water.  Rather Jones simply states “the view that science and doctrine occupy separate, or even complementary, universes and that each provides an equally valid insight into the world seems to me unconvincing and is pursued no further here” (p. 5).  Jones dismisses a whole school of thought because it ‘seems to me unconvincing’.  This is at least as doctrinaire as some of the religious positions that Jones seeks to attack.

But worse than the pick-and-mix doctrinaire approach that Jones takes to philosophy is his religious illiteracy.  Jones makes statements about religion and the Bible that are simply fatuous.  So we are told that “Genesis was the world’s first biology textbook” (p. 19); Jeremiah quotes God as “evidence that the fertilised egg has a soul” (p. 137); and that “Leviticus … is obsessed with hygiene” (pp. 276-277).  Any of these statements should be beneath a sixth-form essay in Biblical studies.  The anecdotal style of the book, means that there is little of substance, a lot of cheap shots and an overarching smugness that is very unattractive.

Worst of all is the simplicity of Jones utopian understanding of history.  He tells us that in the genealogy of ideas, science is the “direct descendant” of the Bible (p. 3).  Jones offers us an account of progress in which “many dogmas from animism to Scientology have succeeded each other” (p. 418) and which have ultimately resulted in science.  The Jonesian future is a totalitarian vision of “a single community united by an objective and unambiguous culture whose logic, language and practices are permanent and universal. It is called science” (p. 418).  Given the way in which Jones places scientific triumphalism alongside stories from the Bible, one might expect the tower of Babel to feature here.  But the biblical challenge to scientific hubris is curiously absent.

There are good books, written or yet to be written, on science and the Bible.  There are and will be books which pose serious challenges to faith, Christian or other, from the position of science.  This book is neither.  Don’t waste your time or your money on it.

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