A rationalist, Darwinist, rabid anti-creationist has surprising things to say about the Bible.
Steve Jones, former head geneticist at University College London, is a Darwinist’s Darwinist. Not only does he relegate everything in life to gradual natural selection (including the Cambrian Explosion, 12/19/08), he celebrated London’s Darwin Centre (9/24/02), and has been a model of making disparaging remarks about creationists, considering them annoying, depressing, and irrational (11/27/06). One of his best-known podcasts was entitled, “Why Creationism Is Wrong and Evolution Is Right” (4/21/06). Now he has a new book out, The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold As Science. It was reviewed by Tim Radford for Nature.
One might expect Jones to tear the holy book to shreds. On the contrary, Radford found it “a masterly take on science invoked by the Bible.” Jones apparently finds a lot to like in the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Job, Joseph, Moses and Solomon. He even called it the Good Book, with capitals. He called Genesis “the world’s first biology textbook.” Radford has a hunch why Jones was accommodating to those he considers irrational:
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.
Could there be in his soul a wistful longing for the faith of his fathers? If so, it’s probably shallow. Jones looks at the Bible as a collection of tribal myths that, for all their inspired insights and poetry, have been superseded by science. His book is “not of the science of the Bible, but of the science invoked by the Bible,” as if Biblical texts become springboards for a “rationalist sermon on a biblical theme,” showing “the power of science to illuminate myth.”
Consequently, Jones chose Biblical texts based on their potential to launch him into high dives of scientific rationalism. The “giants” of Genesis 6:4 become an opportunity to discuss the pituitary gland and acromegaly. The genealogies evolve into discussions of the genetic inheritance of Ashkenazy Jews, the Arya and Britons from recent forebears. “The Serpent’s Promise cannot advance divine revelation, but it offers a new context for old myths,” Radford explains. He found Jones’s book remarkably accommodating to the religious:
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.”
To Bible believers, this is condemnation with faint praise. It may not be overt, but it is surely covert: old myths are out. Now that we’ve had our 2,000 year entertainment, it’s time to be objective with logic and universal cultural practices based on science. It’s not clear if Jones has been told that logical positivism died in the 1960s.
Radford appears to have caught Jones standing on a slippery rug. “He does not waste much energy on the three great mysteries resolved with such confidence in Genesis…” he said; “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.” Radford used Jones as an example of “the problem of humans. They can intellectually endorse one thing and stubbornly love another.”
Jones has made a certifiable fool of himself. Remember when he attributed the Cambrian explosion to gradual Darwinian processes? (12/19/08). Remember when he was asked for his best evidence for evolution, and it was HIV? (5/30/06). But those are freshman flaws in the school of irrationality. His Ph.D. level (Post hoc Dottiness) is attributing his own rationality to an unguided material process that, somehow, “turned an omnivorous foraging African bipedal primate into a creature with a taste for abstract speculation” (see yesterday’s commentary). From whence did Jones get his “moral imperative”? Radford (a freelance journalist and author) at least has a grasp of the big questions “resolved with such confidence in Genesis” and unexplained by science.
Jones has given up on talking to creationists (5/30/06). One can only hope he will open the Good Book more often and find more inspiration other than the Serpent’s promise that he would be as gods, knowing good and evil. Some deprogramming out of logical positivism might be a prerequisite. Even so, the ambivalence in his soul was sensed by Radford. With God all things are possible, even directing a modern Saul to safety on Canaan’s side, where the Joneses before him would yearn to see him come.