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The Serpent’s Promise, by Steve Jones - review

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

The Serpent’s Promise Steve Jones

Little, Brown, pp.446, £25

The weight of bacteria that each of us carries around is equal to that of our brain, a kilogram of the creatures, billions of them, ten times as many in the gut alone as the number of human cells in the body. There may be 10,000 distinct kinds, with a different community on the forehead from that on the sole. There are fewer kinds in the mouth or stomach than at the back of the knee, which has a more diverse population than any other part.

This is surprising and interesting, and we would like to know more about this teeming personal nature reserve. The intestinal appendix, Steve Jones explains, ‘once assumed to have no useful role’, acts as a reservoir from which, in the event of an attack on the internal ecosystem by aggressive bacteria, useful cells can emerge once the coast is clear. I knew I shouldn’t have let a surgeon make off with my appendix, but science knew best.

The connection with the Bible here is that a bacterium (of the kind that causes leprosy) was found in the shroud of a man buried in the first century in Jerusalem, at Haceldama, the ‘Field of Blood’ mentioned in the Gospel. ‘In biblical times that disease was feared above all others,’ Professor Jones says.

Is that true? There are two chapters in Leviticus that go into bewildering detail about the signs of leprosy. There is the separate case of the Syrian Naaman, cured of leprosy by Elisha. Then there are the lepers cured by Jesus. There is no talk in the Bible of the disease being feared. In any case ‘the leprosy of Leviticus may not have been the malady we now know by that name, the author says. ‘The biblical version was probably a complex of skin infections such as ringworm, psoriasis and boils.’ In which case, the Haceldama discovery would be something of a side-issue.

At the root of Professor Jones’s attitude to the leprosy of Leviticus lies a comical misunderstanding. ‘Leviticus,’ he declares, ‘is obsessed with hygiene.’ He writes as if the ancient Israelites washed in order to get rid of the germs of a nasty disease. But the Levitical concept of clean and unclean had nothing to do with contagion from germs. Anyone would be made unclean by touching a woman in her period or by emitting semen, and there was no fear of disease in either. The Israelites were also forbidden to wear clothes woven of linen and wool together, and, unlike the loony theories of Bernard Shaw and the scientistic advocates of Jaeger clothing, this had nothing to do with health.

What it did have to do with is hardly for an experimental scientist to say, unless he recognises anthropology as a valid discipline of study. Orifices, body-fluids and food are commonly used as ritual metaphors in religious practice. It was hard luck on the lepers that, as their disease was regarded as a symbol of an impure society, they had to live outside the camp. Not that Judaism alone cast out lepers: hundreds, Professor Jones notes, ‘were shut away against their will’ into the 1990s in Japan. You can hardly blame the Bible for that.

Just as The Serpent’s Promise gets interesting, its author, like Mr Dick with King Charles’s head, feels compelled to wrench it back to some brief, mocking mention of the Bible. After a fascinating discussion of the connection between modern hygiene and allergies he declares: ‘Cleanliness is not as close to godliness as the Good Book makes out’ — even though that proverb does not, of course, come from the Bible. After explaining how bacteria in the intestine ‘generate nitric oxide, which helps to pass information between nerves and is important in emotion’, he can’t help observing: ‘Their unexpected ability to keep us cheerful adds fresh significance to the biblical “bowels of compassion”.’ Yes, very droll.

The fatal flaw of The Serpent’s Promise is that it is not, as its subtitle says, ‘The Bible retold as science’. Biblical ‘questions asked long ago can be explored with the latest technology’, writes the respected geneticist and Daily Telegraph columnist. ‘This volume is an attempt to do just that.’ That promise, like the serpent’s, is hardly attempted. One chapter is on food. ‘Food is everywhere in the Bible,’ it begins. ‘The Good Book is obsessed with diet.’ (Obsession is a word with which Professor Jones seems obsessed: ancestry, diet, hygiene, you name it, the Bible is ‘obsessed’ with it.) Anyway ‘food is everywhere in the Bible’. But so it is in the Odyssey or in Oliver Twist — how is the Bible different?

Without stopping to answer, Jones launches into an interesting essay on the science of the sense of taste. Coming to the topic of fasting he declares: ‘In the 16th century the habit of starvation as a sign of piety reached absurd levels.’ He exemplifies this statement with the cases of Catherine of Siena, who lived in the 14th century, and St Wilgefortis, first heard of in the 14th century, the details of whose life are without doubt mere legend. In Westminster Abbey, she is depicted in stone with her legendary attribute of a full beard. The legend says that it grew miraculously to repel an unwanted suitor. Professor Jones says that she ‘may have been in the last stages of starvation, for facial hair appears as the body fades away’. No one had mentioned that St Wilgefortis was starving. Is this random remark about a medieval legend what Professor Jones calls ‘The Bible retold as science’?

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