Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Serpent's Promise

The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as ScienceThe Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones

I like Steve Jones. I like his refreshingly sceptical attitude to almost everything. He has a way with words too, for a scientist. And the subject matter of The Serpent’s Promise promises to be fascinating - the hidden half-truths as well as wilder theories of the Bible given scientific scrutiny.

There’s a surprising amount of myth-making that seems on the surface to have a plausible scientific explanation, such as the Great Flood explained by catastrophic glacial melts at the end of the last Ice Age; the dietary prohibitions of Leviticus explained as early food hygiene regulations; even Adam and Eve (or a similar unnamed pair of common ancestors) explained by the double helix of our DNA.

But this book was a surprisingly slow read, partly because many passages demanded a second glance, but mainly because it just never quite took off as a narrative. That, and the fact that Jones is guilty of double-standards where his own views are concerned (allowing himself a leeway that would is utterly absent when scrutinising religious doctrine) spoils what should be a five-star read.

Just one example of the latter will suffice. On p.41 we get the bold assertion that the Battle of Brunanburh in AD937 occurred on the Wirral, all without so much as a ‘maybe’. Maybe it’s ok for the scientists to play fast-and-loose with the facts as far as other academic disciplines are concerned, I don’t know. Or maybe they feel so secure in their impregnable rational realm as to make such claims with impunity. But the idea that the Battle occurred on a Cheshire golf course is no more than speculation: in fact; there is a weight of evidence that suggests many other possible locations, some with a much stronger claim.

All of which is fine, of course. That's history. And as Jones repeatedly points out, that’s what science does, too: hypothesise, then test to destruction. What it doesn’t do (I thought I heard him say) is present hypothesis as fact. Especially, I would say, historical hypothesis relating to events over a thousand years old.

If anything that’s the weakness with what is otherwise an excellent book. Jones (and he’s not the only one to do this) can’t help being a little less rigorous with his own knowledge of other disciplines than he allows the rest of us to be with his.

Physician, heal thyself... as it says in the Bible (Luke, 4:23)!

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