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The Serpent's Promise

The Bible As Science

Steve Jones

Christians try to incorporate new scientific findings into their belief system, but basic problem - you don't need a god to explain them. You can add a god by asserting that there is room for him, but he's not needed.

Untestable mysteries are of no interest and of no use to anyone except those determined to believe in them.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but certainty is much worse. To the scientific method, faith is a vice; to the religious, it is a virtue. Martin Luther's "Faith ... grips reason by the throat and strangles the beast."

Einstein: the Bible is "a collection of honourable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish."

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If a man has no sons, his surname and his Y chromosome will be lost ("daughtered out" as geneologists say). As years pass this process continues until the last bearer of a surname dies. Edevane, Ajax and Silora are down to last 200; Pauncefoot and Foothead has already gone.

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Royalty prunes the ancestral tree. A child of unrelated parents would have 64 ancestors 3 generations earlier. Alfonso of Spain (1874-85) had six, because of repeated marriages to relatives.

Traditional marriage: David had at least 5 wives, plus a retinue of concubines. Solomon "loved many strange women ... and he had 700 wives, princesses and 300 concubines."

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Evolution is a series of successful mistakes.

Mo Farah, who won gold at 5000 and 10000m at London Olympics 2012, has an identical twin brother, Hassan. As children in Somalia, Hassan used to outrun Mo. Mo then moved to London to join his father, and, his potential recognized, began a long training programme. His brother remains in Somalia where he is a successful engineer with little interest in sport.

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Dogma always has its problems. Catholic Church teaches that a soul is formed at the instant of conception. So with identical twins, which form after conception, do they have half a soul each, or does God have a stock of spare souls that he sends down for the extra? And the flip-side of this are chimera, which form when two fertilised eggs fuse together shortly after conception. Do these individuals wind up with two souls?

About 80 Americans get leprosy every year, mostly in Texas and Louisiana, where they kill and eat armadillos, the only animal apart from man that gets the disease.

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Heliobacteria responsible for stomach ulcers, and remedy is antibiotics. Farmers have given chickens and pigs antibiotics to control disease, and found that they put on more weight. Turned out that due to same thing - the medicine cleared out heliobacteria which was suppressing appetite and scavenging nutrients.

Parasites can be helpful. Dose of pigworms sometimes reduces symptoms of MS; and live pig worm eggs helps about half people with inflammatory bowel disease.

Our intestines are half the length of other primates. The saucepan is our external stomach. They have to spend half their daylight hours chewing; we spend less than an hour. If we eat raw starch, half is broken down before it gets to the part of stomach where it is absorbed. If boil it first, ten times as much is digested.

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Heat preprocesses food saving the body doing that, so get more energy. Heat kills the trace poisons present in many foods from parsnips to beans. And by killing bacteria and other pathogens, it reduces need for immune system to have to fire up. As some foods taste a lot better cooked, extends menu options. And finally, by freeing up table time, more time for other things.

Those who choose raw food or vegetarian-only are united by a painful experience - hunger. A diet based on unprocessed food alone cannot sustain life. It lacks the essential amino acids freed by heat and is also low in energy.

Most creeds have dietary rules that bind their members. They use them as symbols of identity, rather than necessary for health.

All cats, big and small, have a damaged sweetness-receptor gene, and are not tempted by sugary snacks.

Scent is important. Pinch your nose while eating a steak and it will lose most of it's flavour. But durian is repulsive if you sniff it, but delicious if the enter nose via the mouth.

Aversion therapy (1). Wyoming rancher laced carcasses of dead lambs with vomit-inducing drug. Coyotes quickly learned to avoid all sheep, alive or dead.

Aversion therapy (2). Patients acquire a dislike for a (previously enjoyed) food tasted just before chemotherapy. So doctors offering novel tastes, such as unusual ice cream flavours, in hope that nausea will be associated with the food rather than the treatment.

Plenty of items - grubs in Australia, dogs in Korea, snails in France, locusts in ancient Judea - are palatable to some cultures but repellent to others.

(London Times 1)

Forget the blurb's claim that Steve Jones is going to step aside from "the noisy debate between believers and non-believers". Brace yourself instead for a ten-round heavyweight bout between the Prophets and the Professor, between the gods and genetics. The scoring system used in The Serpent's Promise owes everything to the secular rationalism of University College London and nothing to the Vatican, so you already know the outcome. But you won't know whether a knockout blow is landed until you read the final chapter. By then you will have had a treat, a tale from an experienced writer who is always interesting, often illuminating and seldom vexing.

In his earlier book, Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones brought up to date Darwin's The Origin of Species. In The Serpent's Promise, he attempts a partial rewriting of the Bible itself. In this reinterpretation of both Old and New Testament, we are treated to some superbly presented genetics, coupled with pungent excursions into the territories occupied by the likes of astronomers, bookmakers, doctors and lawyers. A minor frustration is that Jones guides us wonderfully round the Bible, but not round the literature underpinning his commentary. A list of further reading, as in Almost Like a Whale, would be welcome.

Jones has previous form in taking on those who interpret the Bible literally. He has mounted vivid attacks on the creationists who have contaminated the school curriculum in several states in the USA. Biologists and geologists have traditionally set aside any quarrels within the science family when attacking creationism. Jones, the geneticist, and the late Stephen Jay Gould, the paleontologist, differed in their views on aspects of both science and religion, but they made common cause in publicly defending evolution as an established theory, not open to reasonable doubt.

The Serpent's Promise is not simply a continuation of an ancient confrontation on evolution between scientist and believer: the events chosen by Jones reflect well the breadth and quality of the questions asked in the Bible. Answering on one side is Jones the unbeliever, armed with the genetic code; on the other side are those who believe that in the beginning was the Word ... and the Word was God. Who might claim no-man's land?

The late Professor Thomas Torrance, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, would keenly discuss the cosmic microwave background as well as St John's Gospel. Jones dedicates his book to the memory of his great-grandfather, 40 years a preacher in Wales: Jones perpetuates a part of that family history with his familiarity with the Bible. Yet the central beliefs of scholars such as Jones and Torrance remain distinct.

In his There are no Dinosaurs in the Bible, Robert Hanbury Brown quotes a prominent churchman who recognised three distinct types of people when it came to matters of religion. There were those who were all for religion, there were those who were all against religion, and there were those who took religion seriously.

Readers of The Serpent's Promise will make up their own minds about just how seriously Jones takes religion. Only cautiously does he hand over responsibility to non-scientists where he feels that science does not yet have the answer; only momentarily is there a yearning for the comfort of Christian ritual for the bereaved. Jones believes that complete scientific understanding will come with time: not for him the concept of J. B.S. Haldane that the universe might be "queerer than we can suppose".

What of the conciliatory view, promoted by Gould, that religion and science can reasonably occupy separate domains of inquiry and teaching? This notion is to Jones "unconvincing", and beyond his Preface he has no truck with it.

So it is with science red in tooth and claw that Jones takes us through the Bible. We are led from Adam and his descendants, through the origin of the universe, the Earth and life, to nature and nurture, the battle of the sexes, old age, climate change and floods, migration (a great chapter), disease, food and drugs, to a final showdown between science and religion. We are told that, insofar as various Biblical events actually took place, the scientist can explain them all.

For Jones there is no room for divine intervention, no intellectual space that may be as happily occupied by the padre as by the paleontologist. Far from it: that door is slammed shut at the close of the final chapter. Here we are told that, for the sake of all mankind, now is the time for science to be declared the winner of this ancient conflict.

Is this truly a big win for science, maybe even a knockout? Our individual judgments will be moderated by both nature and nurture. I can offer Professor Jones for study a juicy family mixture of Wesleyan preaching, legal perspectives, quasars and oily rocks. Whatever your own starting point, you will need to read the evidence set out in this important book to judge for yourself its outcome. Has Steve Jones merely stunned the Serpent, or this time has he really scotched it?

(London Times 2)

This book claims to 'revise' the Bible in the light of modern scientific understanding. Drawing heavily on his native genetics, and more lightly on other sciences, Steve Jones tackles such weighty Biblical themes as the origin of life, sex, old age, natural disasters, disease, divine revelations and morality. The idea seems to be to produce a Good News According to Steve. It is, he modestly announces, six times shorter than the King James version.

As you would expect, Jones - a genetics professor at UCL - is good on the subject of ancestry. His first chapter explores how DNA sampling has reshaped our understanding of the human family tree. He reveals, for example, that up to 1% of European men are not the son of their supposed father, and that a tenth of all marriages, worldwide, are between partners closer than second cousins. On disease, he explains that we lived free of the common cold until we invented agriculture and started exchanging diseases with domesticated animals, and that our bodies contain a kilogram of vital bacteria. "Cleanliness is not as close to godliness," Jones purrs, "as the Good Book makes out."

This is all fascinating, but it's hard to discern a bigger point - apart from the desire to kick at religion. In his final chapter, Jones attempts to stamp it into the ground. He begins by trying to define religion, calling on a bizarre parade of mostly inexpert witnesses. First, he cites Charles Darwin, of course. Then he brings up Richard Payne Knight, who alleged in 1786 that all religions were rooted in worship of the penis. From this shaky foothold, Jones jumps to the sceptical views of the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, before triumphantly concluding with a psychological experiment on children that apparently tricked them into accepting the presence of an invisible authority called "Princess Alice". His point seems to be that religion is infantile - though elsewhere he suggests that being female, or working-class, or African may also be to blame.

It is hard to know if ignorance or arrogance best explains this refusal to engage with genuine scholarship on religion, but the pages of this book are soaked in a reductive contempt, and speckled with outright error: he claims, for instance, that the Church of Rome relies on papal infallibility, when infallible pronouncements are both a recent invention and a rare occurrence. He compares "long" religious wars with "short" secular ones, as if the two were distinct categories. So don't throw away the King James yet. This book amounts to a re-cranking of the Darwinist barrel organ - accompanied by the monkey of New Atheism, of course, as it screeches petulantly at religion. Talk about serpent's promises.

(London Times 3 Stephen Jones defence)

Yes, miracles stand outside physics. But scientific inquiry can explain biblical events and why we turn to religion.

The relationship between science and religion is often presented as an endless and insoluble conflict. Atheist as I am, it seems to me foolish to try to reject, or accept, faith on scientific grounds. Fundamentalists might claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, but to laugh at their ideas is to kick a straw man when he is down, and they do more harm to religion than they do to science.

Beliefs that turn only on personal conviction are in a domain separate from those relating to the real world.

In my recent book The Serpent's Promise I attempt to update the Bible as if I were revising a scientific textbook. The idea seemed reasonable, for many of its chapters try to explain the hard facts of nature, from the origin of life to the end of time, and from inborn fate to the sorrows of old age.

The response by some critics was less than positive: 'a re-cranking of the Darwinian barrel organ - accompanied by the monkey of New Atheism, of course, as it screeches petulantly at religion'

I don't mind if people burn my book, as long as they buy it first, but I find such reactions odd. The Serpent's Promise ignores issues - the existence of God, the afterlife, the nature of good and evil - which science can neither confirm nor deny. One correspondent bemoaned the fact that 'Jesus is not even in the index' (which would make a good subtitle), but that omission is deliberate. Miracles, of their nature, stand outside physics.

Some biblical observations are easy to explain. There really was an ancient flood in the Middle East, and the obsession of Leviticus with disease emerged just as the first cities - and the first epidemics - made their appearance. The universal ancestor of us all, men and women, traced through both mothers and fathers, lived only about 6,000 years ago, at about the supposed time that Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden.

There is science in religion, but also a science of religion. How do such things arise, who chooses to accept them, how do they change with time and what experiences do believers share?

To Darwin, evolution was involved: 'As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.'

What makes us human is that urge to explain. In biblical times, the explanation was obvious: God did it. Since then, scientists have begun to use logic rather than assertion in the search for truth.

In 1872 Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, made a Statistical Enquiry into the Efficacy of Prayer by asking whether royalty, prayed for as it is, might live longer than average. In fact the opposite is true: kings, queens and princes died a couple of years younger than did admirals or doctors. Supplication did not work.

Visions, too, almost beg to be explained in scientific terms. Saint Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century composer, wrote of seeing 'a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars . . . and suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned to black coals . . . and cast into the abyss'. Her illuminated manuscripts show saw-toothed lines that look like parapets. Anyone who has had a migraine will be familiar with the bright pulsing zig-zags that spin in the visual field and may blot out part of the landscape. Brain scans, too, show that certain parts of the grey matter light up when someone has a spiritual experience.

As ever, DNA is involved, for identical twins are twice as likely both to be believers as are non-identicals. People on the autism spectrum, with their interest in order and precision (which may in part be biological), also tend to reject religion. One chromosome is certainly important, because all over the world women go to church while men play golf.

There are plenty of fossils of faith. The Old Testament is among them, for after Eve falls for the serpent's promise, the primal pair are expelled from Eden with instructions to found a new economy: 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.' They became farmers, and farming, we now know, began some ten thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent, not far from where Eden may have been.

A decade ago an extraordinary excavation began in southeastern Turkey. It unearthed the oldest buildings ever found. The ruins at Gobekli Tepe were constructed at the very beginning of agriculture. The circular structures with intricately decorated slabs were, almost certainly, the cathedrals of their day. All around is evidence of the population explosion that followed (and it is worth noting that the first of the 600 direct instructions given by God in the Old Testament is: 'Go forth and multiply'). The new productivity gave rise to affluence, to inequality ('Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred threescore and six talents') and - perhaps - to organised religion.

There is a striking difference between the societies of the few hunter-gatherers who remain and all others. They are egalitarian, have no great chiefs and tend to share and share alike. Their beliefs fit well with that. Hunters do have deities but they cause the grass to grow or the chase to succeed and are not much interested in the behaviour of mere humans. The Old Testament, in contrast, has a jealous God, easily provoked to rage and happy to smite those who dare disagree with Him. Peasant societies across the world are still much more likely to have such punitive deities than are their predecessors. There is even a global fit between the incidence of fierce gods and the amount of meat in the local diet.

All these are observations of science, whose accuracy is hard to deny. How to interpret them is a different matter, and at Cheltenham next week I will be interested to debate this with someone who has the talent that I lack, faith. I hope, and indeed expect, that we will have a rational discussion rather than, as so often at such events, talking past each other.

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(Telegraph 1)

The Bible has been rewritten many times. The King James Version itself was designed to avoid difficult words such as “tyrant”, while Noah Webster, of American Dictionary fame, was shocked by its lewdness: in his edition, men have no stones and women no teats; fornication has gone, as have legs (replaced by limbs).

Thomas Jefferson considered the miracle stories to be 'a ground work of vulgar ignorance ... superstitions, fanaticism, fabrications'. He cut many of the wonders and dubious additions (and by that he meant the Trinity and the question of Jesus' divinity) in a search for its essence. The 46 pages left, he said, provided 'the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man'. His successors in the American Conservapedia movement have a similar project, with an attack on the liberal bias they see in modern translations ('volunteer' replaces 'comrade').

That work in its much-revised form is many things: a history - some supported by physical evidence, some not; a code of morals; and, for believers, a tie to a supreme act of sacrifice and the promise of eternity to come. The Bible is also an attempt to make sense of the physical world: to explain the wonders of nature and of ourselves.

In that narrow task, its many authors were the ancestors of today's scientists, and asked many of the questions still pursued by those in the profession. How did the Universe, and life, begin? What is the meaning of sex? Why do we get old and die? Is our fate, or our talents, inborn or do we form our own destiny? And why, most of all, do we sometimes act in a way that appears to diminish our own prospects while benefiting those of our fellows: why do we do unto others what we have them do unto us? Science also says a lot about historical events such as the Flood (and the successors that might soon be upon us) and the origin of the great plagues that began with the first cities in Old Testament times. It might even give an insight into the visions seen by some of the faithful and into the origin of religion itself.

In The Serpent's Promise I try to give an account of all this and more (although I avoid altogether biblical notions such as the afterlife, the resurrection, a variety of miracles and even the Deity himself as beyond the capabilities of science). The book is not an attack on, or a defence of, religion but rather an attempt to explore what might be called Dawkins' Canyon: the yawning and largely unexplored chasm between believers and their opposites which is, in truth, filled with a variety of rather remarkable creatures.

The response has been interesting (as Sibelius once said, 'Who ever saw a statue to a critic?') Some have been kind, others less so, which is fair enough. But what surprised me was the peevish frothing from those who see any attempt to introduce science into religion as a form of literary, if not moral, blasphemy. Some reviews accuse me of knowing no theology, which is true (although one accused me of failing to understand the 'Reincarnation' of Jesus), while another said my book is nothing more than a re-cranking of the Darwinist barrel organ (I'd not realised that the Pope was a Buddhist nor the literary editor of The Sunday Times a creationist).

I hope that my talk today will allow you to make up your own minds about its merits or otherwise. By all means, burn the book (that's if you can light a match in the rain) - but please buy it first.

(Telegraph 2)

Steve Jones is a master of deadpan one-liners that illuminate biological realities even as they make you laugh. So, for example: 'Every one of us, however eminent, is a 10-metre tube through which food flows, for most of the time, in one direction.' And again: 'The life cycle of a sea squirt is like that of a professor given tenure: after an active life, it settles on the sea floor and absorbs its brain.'

Prof Jones himself, however, is living disproof of the second maxim. Overcoming the formidable disadvantage of his anchorage as emeritus professor at University College London, he sustains insightful repartee throughout this, his ninth book for the general public, on the riddles and wonders of genetics, evolutionary biology and what as a whole is revealed by the scientific method. The Bible, Jones observes, is many things: 'A set of laws, some serious and some trivial, a history both real and imagined, a collection of precepts and poetry, and an extended speculation about the glorious future that awaits those who accept its message.' Science, he says, is its direct descendant, and the factual, if not the spiritual, questions asked long ago can now be explored with the latest technology. The Serpent's Promise is 'an attempt to do just that, to scrutinise the biblical pages from the point of view of a scientist. In an attenuated version of its original, it tries to imitate the Testaments by weaving what might seem a series of unrelated facts into a coherent whole.'

What we have here, then, is a shaggy God story: a 400-plus-page ramble through major Bible stories that lays out what science has to say about the physical and material realities underlying those stories, combined with a running commentary on how science can expose absurdities and iniquities in the world today as well as help improve the human condition. The first chapter, riffing on Genesis, covers the origin of life and the descent of man with a fairly concise and often witty retelling of the latest understanding of the evolution of complex life and the emergence of modern humans. The last chapter, starting from Ezekiel's vision of the chariot, explores the natural history of religious experience, noting that psilocybin administered in the Marsh Chapel experiment in 1962 produced or facilitated spiritual experiences no less real and intense for their test subjects, who were Harvard Divinity School students, than those occasioned down the ages by ritual, fasting and prayer alone.

In between the first and last chapters, nine more explore the relation between genes and physical and intellectual performance (in the process brushing away a lot of simplistic conceptual cobwebs and incidentally landing a heavy blow on the iniquities of Britain's educational system), the nature and evolution of sex, the science of ageing, the role of 'great floods' in Earth's history, the spread of humanity over the planet, disease, and the science (and politics) of food and obesity.

Appended to the whole, rather as the New Testament is to the Old, a lengthy envoi considers the future of religion, steering by way of a remembrance of George Price, once Jones's colleague at UCL, who sought to combine groundbreaking mathematical modelling of human behaviour with a radically selfless form of Christianity, and died wretchedly. Jones observes that the least religious societies, such as those of Scandinavia, are the healthiest, most equitable and least violent, but they also tend to have the lowest birth rates, with the consequence that they are likely to be outbred by the most devout nations, which have more crime, more infant deaths, more mental illness and less social mobility.

(The pious do, however, tend to be fissiparous. As Jones observes, 'The Mormons have in their brief existence splintered into 70 factions, from the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Time to that of the School of the Prophets. Even the Church of God with Signs Following faces a schism between the brethren who handle snakes to demonstrate their trust in the Lord and those who drink poison instead. A recent outbreak of forcible beard-cutting among sects of the Old Order Amish has the same roots.')

Jones says that he comes neither to praise nor to bury religion. Unambiguously, however, reason and the scientific method are his credo. Against St Augustine, who condemned curiosity about the natural world as concupiscentia oculorum (lust of the eyes), and against Martin Luther, who wrote 'All articles of our Christian belief are, when considered rationally, impossible and mendacious and preposterous... Faith, however, is completely abreast of the situation: it grips reason by the throat and strangles the beast,' Jones adheres to nullius in verba (the motto of the Royal Society, which means 'take nobody's word for it'). Faith for him is by and large a vice, evidence a virtue.

Sardonic and self-deprecating in a way that is, perhaps, characteristically Welsh, he is not angry in the way of so-called New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins. And while he quotes both Napoleon - 'Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich' - and Groucho Marx - 'The secret of life is honest and fair dealing: if you can fake that you've got it made' - he is sensitive to the strength and power of religious ceremony that was absent from the humanist events that marked the death of his own parents. Each chapter of this baggy, entertaining book is prefaced with a beautiful image by William Blake, one of England's great mystics, who thundered against the mind-forged manacles of organised religion but who saw beauty and glory in the rising sun and heaven in a wild flower.


The Good Book is many things to different people. For believers, it is a guide to life whose every word was handed down directly from God and must therefore be treated as the literal truth. To others, the Bible is a historical record that provides an intriguing insight into war and sex in the ancient Middle East. As for the Scottish philosopher David Hume, he thought it was simply "a book, presented to us by a barbarous and ignorant people… corroborated by no concurring testimony".

Steve Jones takes a different view from these interpretations, however. For him, the Bible is primarily a practical work: a handbook to help its readers comprehend the world. "Thus the Bible sits firmly in the genealogy of ideas - and science is its direct descendant," he states.

This is a rather contrived definition to say the least, though I can see that it serves a purpose, for without it Jones has no excuse for trying to retell scripture from a scientific perspective and so produce a book. Thus we are asked to believe a number of intellectual contortions including the claim that Genesis was "the world's first biology textbook".

Really? With its 140 mentions of "begat" and its 2,000 mentions of "son", Genesis looks less a piece of scientific text and appears to be more a simple genealogical record of Hebrew tribes. For good measure, Genesis tells us that God commanded the Earth to bring forth grass – even before he created the sun. Such notions stray far from my idea of a work of science and look more like a publisher's wheeze to maintain a popular and undoubtedly gifted writer in the public's gaze.

On the other hand, it is always fun to compare past visions of "cosmic truth" with our own understanding of the origins of life and the universe, and I cannot think of a wittier guide for such a journey than Jones. As he says: "Scientists have gained insights into the physical world rather more dependable than those of the Scriptures. Science has, in its brief history, lived up to most of its promises."

Thus we embark on a voyage through time and space, starting with the big bang and ending with the evolution of Homo sapiens 13bn years later. The book of Genesis covers that time in 700 words (as I said, it's not much of a textbook) and focuses primarily on the importance of humans, as God's handiwork, in the firmament.

By contrast, science gives us a very different picture of our cosmic relevance, a point summed up with delicate irony by Jones. "It reminds us that mankind lives in a minor solar system at the edge of a suburban galaxy, is in his physical frame scarcely distinguishable from the creatures that surround him, and - most of all - that he still understands rather little about his place in nature."

Nor does science indicate that there is much perfection in men and women despite the fact that the Good Book would have us believe we were created in the image of the Lord. Just walking upright puts us through a mangle of physiological discomfort, for example. "Our knees and hips bear the whole load of an upright body and have grown larger to cope," Jones tells us. "Natural selection expanded the spongy inner bone and kept the thin, hard outer layer – which means weaker bones and real problems if we fall over in old age." Not much sign of perfection there, it would seem.

And so it goes, with science continuing to chip away at humanity's vision of its own exalted importance. We may not like end result, but there is no denying the supremacy of science over scripture with its icons - the double helix and the mushroom cloud of atomic bomb blast - now rivalling those of religion: the cross, the crescent and the star of David. It remains to be seen which ones will outlast their rivals, of course.

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