Steve Jones
Geneticist and acclaimed science author Steve Jones

When meeting a long-lost relative, you might expect a handshake, maybe even a hug. Certainly the offer of a comfy chair and a cup of tea. But this morning, in a small office on the fifth floor of the Darwin Building at University College London, I am left parched, standing and unhugged.

I should explain: I am meeting geneticist Steve Jones, one of Britain’s most distinguished scientists, who informs me of our unexpected shared bloodline.

“You and I have a joint ancestor,” the Professor reveals, “who we know nothing about, who lived sometime in the mid-19th century. Roughly speaking, we are fifth cousins.”

I feel like we should go to a pub, sink a few pints and catch up on the family news. But I quickly see that Jones is not one for family gatherings. “Oddly enough,” he continues, “as a geneticist, I’m not particularly interested in human family trees, because, really, everybody belongs to the same family tree. What we can now do [in genetics] with DNA technology is work out quite accurately how random people are related. A paper that came out a few months ago read the DNA of a hundred people in Europe and worked out that most Europeans, on average, are probably about fifth cousins.”

So, maybe you, dear reader, will come for a pint with me when you’ve finished reading this. And in light of Jones’s comments on how all members of the human race are actually very closely related, perhaps we can invite some of our other relatives along too:

“The common ancestor for everybody alive today in the world – with some wild guesswork about rates of mutation, migration and so on – probably lived around 3,500 years ago,” Jones declares. “So, we are much more closely related to each other than we think. We don’t have a unique path through history, apart from the Y chromosome. Human beings are a remarkably homogenous and closely related species.”

Right. Looks like we may need a slightly bigger pub.

But back to Steve Jones and his office in UCL with no tea. We’re discussing family trees. Perhaps we should say our shared family tree, because this is one of many subjects broached in Jones’s new book The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold by Science, in which the now partially retired Emeritus Professor of Genetics uses the Bible as a starting point to explain contemporary science. The story of this family tree is Jones’s spin on the endless “begettings” of the Old Testament.

In his preface Jones writes “the Bible plays a large part in the history of science”, and claims that his book will 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.”

I find this a bit surprising. Either Jones is underestimating the intelligence of his readers, or he’s involved in a bit of a marketing ploy. It’s well known that books with religion and science in their title can stir a bit of controversy in the public domain, which is never bad for business. But Jones is well known both as a scientist and as a trenchant atheist: so why write a book that takes the Bible as its starting point?

He parries the question, suggesting that the anti-religion agenda of many high-profile atheist scientists is somewhat futile, “because you can shout and yell as much as you like about religion being harmful, damaging and stupid – which to an extent I would agree with – or you can say that religion is the glue that binds society together, which does have some truth in it. But there is very little objective evidence, one way or another. You can go round in circles doing that to no useful end. Having said all that, I am anti-religious, but I do believe in freedom of religion.”

There is a touch of irony in this, however. Despite the ostensible generous reception he is giving to religious people – and the accommodating tone of his preface – Jones spends the rest of our interview disparaging religion pretty thoroughly, arguing that really it has very little in common with science. I happen to agree with most of his opinions. But I just don’t understand, or see the point of, the initial obfuscation: why would a militant atheist write a science book based on the foundations of the most famous work of fiction of all time?

“When we look at the Bible we need to look at facts,” says Jones. “And the Bible, if you look at it simply as a piece of literature, is largely an attempt at a factual narrative. It looks at the world around us, and tries to explain what is going on. This is quite a unique human attribute. It asks many questions, particularly in the Old Testament: about the origin of life; the origin of the universe; about what sex means; it asks if we are we born with an inborn fate? And so on. So using the Bible as a framework, I find it a useful way to explore basic questions, in the light of modern science.”

I’m really not convinced about this enthusiasm he is professing for what he ironically refers to as the Good Book, so I try to steer the conversation towards science. This does prove an easy task.

Each chapter of the book begins with a well-known biblical quote. Jones then uses this as a starting point to guide the reader towards the path of reason and scientific fact. In the chapter about the origin of life, he quotes the Gospel According to St John 1:1: “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Jones writes a correction: “It began not with a word but a bang.” He then goes on to explain the so-called “Big Crunch” theory, which states that time and space are cyclical and the universe will start again from scratch. According to this theory, in the distant future the expansion of the universe will go into reverse, and the cosmos will collapse into a tiny point. Does he see mankind surviving long enough to witness the crunch? “I think mankind will be extinct long before that happens,” Jones replies. He’s finally dropped the charade of the religious enthusiast.

Jones the scientist is a far more interesting and honest character. “Life itself on this planet will become extinct,” he explains. “But it’s very hard to know when this might be. As a pessimist, I would say by the end of the present century, given the capability of physicists to make machines to blow up the world. As an optimist, I would say, ‘I don’t know’.”

“Darwin has a great line in one of his letters, where he [puts his own spin on a classic Latin phrase]: ‘Sic, transit, gloria, mundi.’ He writes out the translation in English, which means, “thus passes the glory of the world”, adding the phrase, ‘with a vengeance’, which he underlines. He kind of looks forward to this. It is bound to happen. But if you want to know when it is going to happen, ask a physicist.”

And what of the favourite bone of contention between believers and atheists, the Big Bang? The problem with this idea, says Jones, is that it’s just too big to grasp: “I find it hard to contemplate nothingness before the Big Bang. I think that is the big difference between science-based explanations and faith-based explanations. Scientists admit that they could be wrong. Scientists also admit that they don’t understand what is going on sometimes. But religious people could never possibly admit that, because it would kill their entire belief system. That is a crucial difference.”

The reason why this is not better understood, for Jones, is down to the inadequacies of scientists as communicators, particularly those working in his own field: genetics. He thinks geneticists have done a woeful job conveying the complex and ambiguous influence that genes have on our fate. He insists that genes are not, as once assumed, simple beads on a string, with easily traceable consequences.

Jones posits that the influence of the double helix – the structure formed by double-stranded molecules of nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA – on man’s destiny is far more ambiguous than was once assumed. He loathes the idea that society can conduct a debate about crime rates, bad parenting, class divisions or any other social issue by way of a simplistic nature-nurture debate. “People tend to think that your very being is like a cake, with a slice called nature, and a slice called nurture. But this is not how it works. You cannot slice up the cake of intelligence, height, criminality and so on. The greatest failure of modern science is the inability to get that message across.”

In another passage of the book Jones tackles the issue of free will. “From Aristotle onwards,” he writes, “philosophers have been interested in our apparent ability to decide on an action without a reference to an external constraint.” Hitherto, it’s a topic that has lent itself more to philosophy than to science. Jones is keen to show he has read the philosophical literature, before he pours cold water on it.

“I have read several books about consciousnesses. I don’t get much out of them, because there is a huge problem stating what our definition of it actually means. It is clearly the case that there are many things we [as human beings] feel we are in charge of, which actually, we are not.” To modern day neuroscientists, Jones says, free will looks like an illusion.

“[As human beings] we have internal machineries that we have no control over. Nobody can hold their breath for 15 minutes, for example. What science has shown is that even when we think clearly, the brain has already sparked into action. That means there is an unconscious motive behind every so-called conscious movement. But what that tells you about consciousness is slightly mysterious to me.”

This sense of mystery may be one of the factors that have led all societies – in the history of mankind – to have some form of religion. As far as Jones is aware, Homo sapiens is the only creature that calls on transcendental presence to explain the world.

“We don’t know if other animals have their own religion. It could be that chimps have Gods of their own, as could fruit flies. But we don’t have any way of finding out. We are certain that mammals have causation. But with humans, I think it goes much further. That search for what makes the causation. That is what makes us human, it’s what makes a person become a scientist, or a philosopher. That search poses the big questions like, how does it all happen?”

Jones is engagingly sardonic when discussing the over-blown claims of both philosophy and neuroscience to be able to explain consciousness. And, despite his earlier comments, he rarely misses the opportunity to put the boot in to religion. I remind him of a David Hume quote from the book: “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous, those in philosophy only ridiculous.” Why did he include it?

“Well, I don’t think many philosophers have stabbed each other to death, over whether they are for Nietzsche or for Bertrand Russell. But plenty of [religious people] have killed each other with a feeling that what they are doing is absolutely right. That is where the problem lies. In the end it’s what drives me away from religion. That people have their own explanation for mystery, and then if everybody doesn’t agree with that interpretation they deserve [in their eyes] to be killed. That is the pragmatic, not the philosophical reason, why I think religion is a bad thing.”

Teaching in a multicultural university campus like UCL, and having such firm secular beliefs, can at times become awkward, Jones admits. His course in evolution, for example, can become challenging, particularly for Muslim students who find Darwin’s theories hard to square with their own spiritual beliefs.

Jones tackles the dilemma in a characteristically forthright way: “I just tell my students, look, many people who don’t like the theory of evolution think that it makes them less human. They say it feel like it drags them down to the level of the apes. That was a very widespread view after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Then I tell them that the theory of evolution, actually, makes me feel more human than I ever could be. Just look at everything that makes us human: the sense of the distant past; the sense of the indefinite future; the sense of concern for other humans who we are not related to; the sense of responsibility; and the sense of ethics. All these things – as far as we can see and measure – are uniquely human. Now that actually tells me something special about being human. You wouldn’t know that without the theory of evolution. You wouldn’t see that what evolution does is give you an identity far more convincing than anything produced by religion. Why? Because it is backed up by facts.”

My fifth cousin is just getting into his stride now. But he informs me he has to go downstairs to teach a class. No doubt he’ll be encouraging his students to think using evidence rather than prejudice, and facts rather than hunches. I’d like to sit in on a lecture. He’s an entertaining and erudite teacher.

Despite Jones’s apparent desire to appease believers – his book even claims that that science is the “direct descendent” of the Bible – you don’t have to dig too deep to reveal his true colours. In the end, he’s too honest to hide his disdain for the ungrounded claims of religion, or the factual errors of the Bible.

What would he say to those who argue that the Bible really is a document of indefinite truth, the infallible word of God? “[I’d tell them] science is uncovering certain things that you find uncomfortable. Well, that’s tough. The earth didn’t start 6,000 years ago.”