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”.