NOVEMBER 19, 2014
STEVE JONES, a former geneticist at the Galton Laboratory (University College London) is one of the foremost popular science writers and presenters in Great Britain. In his new book, The Serpent’s Promise, he ranges much more widely across the sciences than he has been wont to do. But he also takes on more than just science: the book is not just a “retelling” of the Bible, but a critique of religion and a clarion call for science to replace it in human affairs.
The text paints a charmingly miscellaneous scientific canvas, stretched, not always very tightly, on a biblical frame. The nine chapters (plus fairly substantial preface, prologue, and concluding “Envoi”) take in the story of creation, original sin, sex and death, flood, exile, the rise of the city, epidemics, basic hygiene, the psychology of prophesy, and scientific explanations. Yet religion is more than a literary device in this book: one of its main claims is that the biblical serpent did not keep its promise of knowledge — science has.
Jones writes with clarity and wit about tough technical issues, and has a natural pedagogue’s taste for the juicy fact: e.g., that DNA analysis shows that the first settlers in Eurasia from humanity’s ancestral African population numbered only six; that the end of the last ice age (ca. 7,000 years ago) created a mega river, the “Fleuve Manche,” of which the Somme, Rhine, Elbe, and Thames were all tributaries; that Japan still had leper colonies in the 1990s; that the human sense of smell can distinguish chemically identical molecules that differ only in how they are arranged; that Europeans have the weakest sense of smell.
At the scientific level, Jones does not have a “big argument” to make out, unlike his compatriot popular science writer, Richard Dawkins, who constantly emphasizes the importance of evolution. But Jones does present a salutary case for how little his discipline of genetics can contribute. At the risk of simplification, his call for humility in genetics has two parts. First, genetics is the modern — and much more knowledgeable — guise that nature takes in debates about the relative importance of nature vs. nurture. Almost no one nowadays believes that either nature or nurture is completely dominant: certainly the explosion of our understanding of genetics means that the idea of complete plasticity in the face of circumstances — the “blank slate” of John Locke fame — has been abandoned. The question now is: just how much influence do genes have in specific cases? Jones shows how the answer is very often “not much.” For most interesting traits, circumstances, usually poor ones, in fact overwhelm known genetic differences.
Consider horses. There are well-established genetic factors that help determine how fast a horse can run. In professional horse racing, possession of this gene can make a decisive, yet not very big difference: even very fast horses that win many races don’t usually win by huge margins — a win is enough! But for everyday horses on ranches or in the wild, without the benefit of the special treatment that racehorses garner, the effects of this gene are almost always outweighed by (poor) circumstances: bad health, lack of exercise, lack of interest in running as much as a horse must to get really good, adequate but not great nutrition. All these factors need to be evened out before nature’s genes can shine through. And usually they aren’t evened out. Thoroughbred racehorses, however, have such uniform propitious environments that genetic differences do become visible. The point is that these situations are very rare.
This makes for some interesting, and obviously heartfelt, political interventions on Jones’s part. Take intelligence, for instance. There is certainly some genetic component to this trait. When Jones was young, the dominant fad in education policy, embodied in the 1944 Education Act, was that intelligence was “genetic.” So British children, including Jones, took a crucial exam at age 11 that was supposed to measure their natural intelligence level. Those who passed, like Jones, were streamed into a much more challenging and effective educational system. Those who did not were not given such benefits. Why, after all, waste educational resources on those who are not able to take advantage of them? In principle, Jones has nothing against this policy. But it is precisely backwards, because poor environmental conditions make the genetic component of intelligence (whatever it is) almost completely undetectable. How could we make it visible? Only by giving all children access to high-quality educational circumstances. Then “individual variation in intellectual ability would be determined much more by genes than it is today … [and t]here might then be, as the Education Act of 1944 proposed, an objective test of native potential.”
The second rationale behind Jones’s plea for humility about genetics does not concern the nature vs. nurture debate, but the genes themselves. The Human Genome Project in particular encouraged the view that once we know the sequence of genes in human DNA, we will at least be able to explain traits — such as hereditary diseases — that have an uncontroversially large genetic component. Well, now we know the genetic sequence, and yet explanations and cures have not been as forthcoming as hoped. The reason is what Jones calls “simple Mendelism”: our erroneous assumption that there must be a single gene “for” a trait of interest.
There are cases in which simple links do exist between a small number of genes and a significant trait: Cyprus, for instance, eliminated the once-common blood disorder thalassemia by introducing a genetic screening program. But much of the justificatory discourse surrounding the Human Genome Project relied, more or less tacitly, on a generalization of a simplistic paradigm. Jones does not go as far as some biologists, such as Richard Lewontin and Eva Jablonka, in resisting this hubris, but his unwillingness, as a geneticist, to go with the hype is both welcome and admirable:
The biology of fate is much discussed, particularly by non-biologists. In truth, the subject is far less developed than many people imagine and has become more (rather than less) difficult to interpret as technology progresses. The happy days of simple Mendelism — of common genes for common diseases, or even for common social problems — are long gone.
Skepticism about our understanding of the role of DNA provides, however, a rather negative thematic unity for the book as a whole. Perhaps that’s why Jones opts for the unifying framework he does: religion. His aim, he writes, is “to scrutinize the biblical pages from the point of view of a scientist.” Often this frame provides genuine support for a scientific issue: the Jewish exodus, exile and Ark stories bear an uncertain relation to specific historical events, but do describe common features of the out-of-Africa human diaspora. Indeed, the six African pioneers who settled in Eurasia are a literal Ark-load. Similarly, Jones’s reframing of the nature/nurture debate as between a Calvinist dependence on divine grace, which determines us without our being able to do anything about it, and a Pelagian optimism, in which everything is circumstantial and our “works” can change it, is very witty.
However, the book’s religious frame commits Jones to a rather narrow conception of religion: a cognitive enterprise continuous with, but less successful than, contemporary science. As he puts it: science is the “direct descendent” of the Bible, and conversely “Genesis was the world’s first biology textbook.” In other words: religion is bad science. There are obvious problems with such a view, and Jones acknowledges them. The Bible, he says, “is many other things” beside a factual, proto-scientific document (yet it’s hard to figure out what “other things” Jones has in mind). He also mentions that the Bible is a legal and poetic document. But these are non-religious in nature and so don’t illuminate what religion might be beyond bad science. Jones talks on several occasions about the “spiritual” dimension of the Bible, but rejects the view that religion operates in a different (perhaps spiritual) arena from science. So his nod to the spiritual leaves the impression of being rather empty.
In Britain Jones is a supporter of the Humanist Association, and a noted public atheist. There’s none of Dawkins’s stridency in his urbane voice, but Jones leaves little more room for religion: “unlike the serpent,” science “has, in its brief history, lived up to most of its promises.” By the end of the book, he claims that we should abandon religion for science in the adjudication not just of factual issues but of normative social issues as well:
The time has come to abandon the last great restraint, William Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” of organised religion, which does so much more to divide than to unity. When those shackles are at last struck from their wrists, men and women, wherever they are, will no longer depend on the dubious promises of a serpent. Instead they will be free to form a single community united by an objective and unambiguous culture whose logic, language and practices are permanent and universal. It is called science.
The serpent of religion has neither brought us reliable knowledge of the world nor has it even kept its literal promise of knowledge of good and evil: science will liberate us in both domains.
Still, the track record of “scientifically” run societies is, to say the least, unimpressive: think only of Fourier and Stalin. And where Jones talks about the relation between religion and morality his formulation is strikingly crude: inculcating false religious beliefs might “benefit” people by encouraging them to behave better (although in fact it doesn’t, he goes on to argue). The inadequacy of his formulation comes from the limitations of his exclusively cognitive understanding of religious faith (belief without evidence). Many thinkers, not only religious ones, but even atheists, reject the view that religion is primarily about assenting to dogmatic beliefs. The atheist philosopher Alain Badiou, for instance, sees faith as a question of life-changing commitment to an emancipatory project. Marxist critic Terry Eagleton similarly thinks of religious faith as “performative” before it is cognitive, and analytic philosopher Jonathan Kvanvig takes faith to be primarily an “affective” attitude of hope in a task toward which one bends one’s whole self.
The Serpent’s Promise, Jones himself promises, is a book of “dry fact, not theology (nor, God preserve us, philosophy).” This promise is also broken. The facts are by no means always dry, and Jones does stray into the arenas of the philosophy of religion, not least in his view of religion as predominantly cognitive. There is no reason not to venture into this territory, but those who deny they have a philosophical theory are, to paraphrase Keynes, very often unconsciously in grip of an old philosophical theory. Jones’s rejection of religion would have been the stronger if he saw more to it than bad science.