Steve Jones is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London. Some of his previous books include: The Language of Genes, Y: The Descent of Men, The Single Helix, and Darwin’s Island.

Jones’ latest book is called The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold by Science. The title suggests that Jones uses the Bible as a starting point to explain the world of science. In the preface, he says that the book is an attempt ‘to stand back and take a fresh look at the sacred writings in a volume that tries to interpret some of [the Bible’s] themes in today’s language.’ Really, this is a clever marketing ploy: the theme of religion and science is a hook to make this book shift more units. The book does, however, offer some very interesting observations about evolution, disease and ontology, as well as asking a number of interesting scientific questions that have a philosophical context, such as: how long will the human species survive until the universe expands and starts again?

I met Jones in his office at the Darwin Building at University College London. Our chat covered many topics, including his reflections on genetics, religion, and politics.

You say the Bible plays a prominent role in the history of science because many great scientists were believers. Can you talk about this idea?

Well you go back to people like Isaac Newton, it’s absolutely clear that he was much more interested in the book of God’s words, which is the Bible, than the book of God’s works, which is the universe. He wrote much more on the former than the latter, much of which seems like the ravings of a schizophrenic, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he was a great genius.

It’s interesting that [Pierre-Simon] Laplace, who was also interested in calculus, took the opposite approach. When Napoleon asked Laplace why there was no mention of God in his book about the structure of the universe, Laplace replied: ‘I have no need for that hypothesis’. In other words, in the short period between Newton and Laplace, really, we had moved into the modern world.

When great geniuses like Newton and [Joseph] Priestly were around, they were part of a culture where much of their explanatory machinery had to do with religion. Now most of us — in the western world at least — are not. I find it rather distasteful that so much effort is put into British education with a faith basis, given that most of us, to be honest, have no faith at all.

In one part of the book you state that ‘evolution is a series of successful mistakes — and a far greater number of failures — in the endless battle against the world outside. It’s tactics — once its machinery lumbers into action — seem in retrospect almost inevitable’. What do you mean by this?  

Once [evolution] gets started it’s almost impossible to stop. So if you stop running, you will go extinct. It’s an endless circular relay race, and in the end, most runners drop out, they go extinct. But they have been replaced by more efficient mechanisms, which continue the race. The power of evolution is a factory for making almost impossible things. Look at the human eye, or the human fingernail, for example: it’s almost impossible to imagine that could emerge without being designed. But the key word here is almost.

Speaking about the nature vs. nurture debate, you argue that they are intertwined, and that usually they cannot be separated. In this sense does the debate lack meaning?

Yes. I mean that is the most central point about genetics. People tend to think that your very being is like a cake, with a slice called nature, [your genes], and a slice called nurture, which is the environment. But this is not how it works. You cannot slice up the cake of intelligence, the cake of height, of criminality, and so on. The honest answer is we don’t and cannot know. One of the most heritable attributes in British society is wealth. If you are born rich your kids are rich, if you are born poor, your kids are poor.

So wealth has nothing to do with genes, right?

Well it is possible that some of it has to do with genes, but it’s also possible that a huge amount of it has got to do with environment. But the debate about nature vs. nurture makes no sense. I can’t believe that Roman Abramovich has got a gene that makes him uniquely rich.

You argue in your book that genetics, like the church, promised more than it can deliver. And that the influence of the double helix on man’s destiny is far more ambiguous than it once seemed reasonable to assume. Can you expand on this point?  

Well the history of genetics is very strange. In some sense it’s the only science that hasn’t got a history. Because if you look at chemistry, or physics, or any of the other disciplines, you can take them all back. There is a kind of roadmap. But genetics is not like that. Before Mendel, there was nothing. There were lots of strange beliefs without evidence. The thing about genetics is that what is obvious is nearly always wrong.

But the guy who got it right was [Gregor] Mendel. But of course Mendel was ignored. His theories were rediscovered in 1904, then within ten years, Mendel’s rules, which were shown to apply to human diseases, started to be applied to things like criminality, and violence. People then began to use that information, to push us to the horrors of the Second World War. Many of those who set up the Wannsee Conference, which implemented the Final Solution, were people who worked in the discipline of what we would now call genetics. They called it race hygiene. Now I don’t want to damn present day genetics with the same brush, but it’s worth remembering that we are dealing with sensitive stuff here.

Do you think that technology is hindering our understanding of certain things in science? For example how the mind works?

I see big parallels between modern brain science, and modern genetics, in that they are both entranced by the technology that they use in what they can do. Brain science has all these various scans you can do, which is very entrancing. But it’s easy to fool yourself. You’ve got a great cloud there where you are not really finding anything out. And it’s just reshuffling, and reorganising itself every generation. My own view is that brain science hasn’t come to terms with that. That technology is fooling us that particular bits do particular things. But at the moment the technology is ahead of the understanding, and that is always a big mistake.

You also say that differential reproductive success is as central to the evolutions of religion, as it is to that of life itself. Could you talk about this briefly?

This is a slightly surprising observation, but it’s true. It’s clearly the case that one of the reasons behind the success of particular faiths, as opposed to religions as a whole, is that they out reproduce other social systems. I’m no expert on church history, but it is often said that one of the reasons for the great success of early Christianity is that as a social system, it was far superior to the barbaric Roman world, which was basically a male orientated world where women really had no importance at all. Girl babies were killed. The early church, for good and honest reasons, saw that this was bad. So they gave women much more power than the Romans did. As a result, their populations grew.

So where populations grow, there is usually a sign of an increase in a religion?

Yes, look at Africa today, where the population growths are enormous. This happens to a lesser extent in South America, and ironically not at all in the Middle East. In Iran, which is a strongly faith-based-society, they have westernized themselves to such an extent that they have taken the non-believers route to reproduction.

Even within Europe, believers of whatever persuasions, tend to have more children than non-believers. But that can change very quickly. Look at Ireland, for example, where it has changed dramatically in the last fifty years.  I live in hope that it will change dramatically in Africa too.

There is a good quote from David Hume that you use in the book, which says: ‘Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous, those in philosophy only ridiculous’. Do you agree with that? 

I don’t think many philosophers have stabbed each other to death, whether they are for Nietzsche or for Bertrand Russell. But plenty of people have, who argue about the utter minutiae of faiths, Sunni and Shia, for example. Many of them have killed each other, with a feeling that they are doing right.

This is also true with Christianity.  They are absolutely sure that they are right, and the other side is wrong. And that is where the problem lies. That in the end is what drives me away from religion: there is a mystery that you don’t particularly share. And everybody who doesn’t agree with that mystery deserves to be killed. That is the pragmatic reason, not the philosophical reason, why I think religion is a bad thing.

Tags: evolution, genetics, Interviews, Non-fiction, Religion, Science, Steve James