The Serpent’s promise? Not so much

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The U K version

The U K version

The U.S. version

The U.S. version

I’ll admit it, at times, when I’m depressed, it’s hard for me to concentrate on a book. There have been times in my life when even the simplest of novels turn into monsters I cannot subdue. I find myself reading sentences over and over again, trying to grasp and hold onto their meaning. Usually when this happens, I put reading aside to tackle whatever external thing has taken over my ability to concentrate.

But here’s the thing; I know when it is me. When it’s my problem. I know the difference between my lack of ability to comprehend words due to depression or stress and books that may just be over my head. Or worse, written in such a dry style as to dull the senses, making it difficult to even stay awake.

But never in my life, have I picked up a book, and after reading for just a short while think, “Did I just have a stroke? Should I go see my doctor?” That is, until I read The Serpent’s Promise. The retelling of the Bible Through the Eyes of Modern Science by Steve Jones. What a mess of a book!

To be fair (as fair as I can be) I’ve wanted to read this for quiet a while. The book (under a shorter title) came out in the U.K. last summer to a warm reception. I’ve heard Jones talking about his book on several occasions. Each time I make a mental note to pick it up as soon as it becomes available in the U.S. . Jones comes across as an intelligent easy to understand biologist. It finally hit the U.S. market in late June so last week I decided to t read it. Sadly, there is a lot wrong with the book. It’s hard to connect it to the man I’ve heard interviewed.

I’ll get to the stroke part in a minute, but first, what book needs two prefaces and one prologue? I understand Jones’ need for one preface, as he admits up front this is not a re-writing of the Bible through the eyes of science. Even though this is in the title of his book! To be fair, maybe he didn’t pick the title. I can easily see how a publisher would try to “sex” up the book. After all, it’s primarily a science book and we all know how hard it is to get people to read about science these days.

In the first preface Jones explains why he wrote the book and what readers should expect from it. A lot of non-fiction books usually have introductions that do the same thing. I had no problem with Jones calling his introduction a preface. What I did have a problem with is the idea that Jones needed a second and called it “The American” preface”.

In the “American” preface, Jones rambles on about not wanting to offend Christians by taking away the “spiritual” aspects of the Bible. He explains that his intent is to show what we now know about the natural world and how it relates to “Biblical science based stories”. Jones goes so far as to tell the clueless American audience, “Science’s job is to dispel mysteries, not to invent them, and, as I hope to show here, it often does the job better than do metaphysical stories”. Seriously, you had to tell your audience this? I’m pretty sure the people reading your book appreciate this fact already. He then goes to explain why he doesn’t talk about God, the afterlife or resurrection. “Science can neither confirm or deny such notions, as they are based on spirituality alone”. Humm, I’m pretty sure science can deny the dead coming back to life after three days, but okay, it’s your call sir. Let’s move on to the prologue.

The prologue could have been chapter one. It’s all about genetics. Where we came from and how we know this. Jones goes deep into DNA sequencing. I am afraid he may lose some of his general audience who may not have a good grasp of the subject. I found it fascinating, yet there were times, I had to admit I had no idea what he was trying to say. It was as if I couldn’t connect the dots. The sentences almost seemed nonsensical. This is when I started to think I might have suffered a stroke. I read some of his sentences over and over. Then, out of shear frustration, I read them out loud. It wasn’t me, it was him! Entire words were missing from his sentences. Either he had a small stroke, localized to pronouns and adverbs, or the typesetter had a stroke mid work. Once I figured this out, it was easy to spot and fill in the mistakes. Unfortunately, the problem with this book doesn’t stop at typos.

The prologue introduces the Out of Africa theory. Jones talks about our ancestor’s descent from the trees to walking upright. So far so good, right? Well, a few pages later going back to DNA, Jones says this, “in the end the primates, the group to which apes, monkeys, lemurs and humans belong, were all born in on the island of Eurasia”. Wait what? So, those African upright mammals weren’t considered “primates”? If not, and I am sure he knows better than his readers, he should have explained the difference. Instead it is like he is giving his readers two different origin stories.

These two different stories remind me of the two Genesis “birth” stories. In one, Adam is made before the animals and in the other after. This is ironic as Jones mentions this odd Genesis conundrum in the beginning of the prologue! Here, Jones is offering two “birth” stories, one in Africa and one in Eurasia. Which is it? If this isn’t bad enough a couple of pages later when he talks about Neanderthals and the Denisovans, he says, “Denisovans, too, were distinct. They were close in kin to Neanderthals but their ancestors left Africa eight hundred thousand years before ours”. So we left Africa but were born in Eurasia? For the record, I did some research and it seems Jones ‘idea that human primates evolved in Eurasia does not hold up. In fact the idea that lemurs evolved in Eurasia is a disputed new theory.

At this point, I am assuming Jones has failed to connect the Out of Africa theory to the Eurasia theory. I was willing to give him a pass; perhaps our upright ancestors were proto-primate. But and here is the kicker, later on as Jones describes genomes he goes back to Africa to describe, wait for it… the first primates! He talks about the Australopithecus, Lucy, found in Ethiopia (Africa) in 1974. It would seem Jones is just as confused about our origin as are the writers of Genesis.

Continuing on Jones describes our evolution. He says a narrow pelvis means babies must be born early in development. This he says, “demands more interaction between mother and child. As the infants become less able to grasp fur with feet as well as hands, their mothers have to hold them tighter than in the days of tree-dwellers. Perhaps woman became less independent as a results (bold italics mine) Wait, what? Less independent? From who? From their children; from their mate? Jones never finishes this thought so the reader is left to imagine the evolution of female nagging. “Darios, you’re never around when I need you. You’re always out trying to see how far you can walk on two legs while I sit here under this tree holding a screaming child. I need some “me” time. I’m starting to feel less independent”. It would seem Jones might be just as misogynistic as the Bible.

As I read on it became clear that while the Bible is obsessed with sex, violence and rules, Jones is obsessed with DNA. The first three chapters evolve around DNA and genetics. It’s his very own version of all of the “begats” featured in the Bible.

Towards the end of the book Jones moves from genetics to possible reasons for man’s need for spirituality. His simplistic take on social science clearly shows a man uncomfortable with his writing. He goes into about as much detail here as he does explaining women’s lack of independence. He stops short of making complete and complex arguments.

I wish I could highly recommend this book, but I cannot. However, I would encourage those who wish for nothing more than to read a whole book centered on our history through DNA to read it. Perhaps a better title for this book would be “The Ladder’s promise; the retelling of our history through DNA”.

Sorting books

The cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld is well known for his Guardian cartoons, especially in the Saturday review pages. One of his more popular items appeared on the 9th June this year; entitled ‘My Library’. This inspired my friend Chris from Calmgrove to take the idea and write his own list based on Tom’s categories. Chris is in the middle of downsizing his book collection, as am I. I loved reading his answers and asked if I could steal the idea. Chris was only too happy to share. If you haven’t read Calmgrove, go over and check his site out. Not only is Chris an amazing book reviewer, he will introduce you to books you’ve probably never heard of but should.

From this mess

From this mess

 

I am not so much downsizing as I am getting rid of books in order to make room for new ones. It’s a shell game. Between amassing a huge collection of medieval books (it’s starting to look like the British Library over here) science, religion, philosophy and for the last three years, Shakespeare related books, I am feeling rather squeezed in. Books are starting to show up in some rather inconvenient places. I’ve begun the painful process of trying to decide which books must stay and which ones I can live without. Last night I learned a valuable lesson on how to do this. Simply remove all books from the shelves, clean and move the shelves then start the process of reshelving. Trust me, after an hour of sorting and moving books, you quickly find out which ones you don’t want to spend another minute on. Though painful both physically- I dropped a shelf on my foot- and mentally my efforts were rewarded. I now have a small library in the spare bedroom, though this is only a fraction of the books I own. Sigh..this is going to take awhile.

To this! And yes, this is the "Dolly Llama" on the left.

To this! And yes, this is the “Dolly Llama” on the left.

Read

I’ve read the majority of the books I own. The reason I keep them is because most are used for reference. And as I could not possibly remember everything I’ve read, my nonfiction –which are most of them- sit collecting dust just in case I need to refresh my memory. It amazes me how many have come in handy for college papers. I have an almost up to date master list housed over at Librarything. This list says I own over 600 books marked as “Read”. Considering it is not quite up to date, I’d move that closer to 700. I never did include my college texts and old novels.

Intending to Read

Here in lies my overflow problem. I have a bookshelf dedicated to books I need to read as well as books housed on tops of shelves. Last year I figured out it would take two books a week to turn these into Read books. But as I keep adding to the pile, it’s now going to take three or four a week. I really need to turn the cable off.

Half-read

Full disclosure, many of my half-read are in my Intending to Read list. If a book is half read due to it being bad, it is easy to get rid of. But, if I think I may come back to it (yeah, sure Sari) I keep it.

Pretend I’ve read

I cannot imagine pretending to read a book. But then again, I am a terrible poker player. My luck, if I said I read a certain title, the other person would be all set to talk about it, in great detail!

Saving for when I have more time

This category goes hand in hand with my half-reads. Sometimes I realize I am not giving a book my full attention, so back it goes for when I have time.

Will never read

If I could get myself to admit that many of the books on my Intending to Read shelves will never be read by me and just give them away, we’d all be the better for it.

Dante and Shakespeare and medieval history You'd be amazed how this shuts books snobs up when they come over

Dante, Shakespeare and medieval history
You’d be amazed how this shuts books snobs up when they come over

Purley for show

Coffee table books count right? I’ve got a few books on famous painters sitting under my glass coffee table. The books on this shelf are for show, but I have read them. That doesn’t count, right? Just makes for good conversation with the right people.
Read, but can’t remember a single thing about it

Refer back to my answer as to why I keep so many of my Read books.

Wish I hadn’t read

I am certain, over the years there have been many books I wish I hadn’t read, especially when I was a copy editor, but the one that jumps out is Twilight, but this book stayed in my house a few days. After that I had a priest, a shaman and a rabbi come over to cleanse my house, because I couldn’t figure out what possessed me to read that rubbish! There are days when I still feel the urge to bleach my eyes.

 

Now, back to sorting!

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