Book Festival review: Steve Jones | Andrea Stuart | Chris Dolan

Edinburgh International Book Festival Scotsman review: Ninian Dunnett reports on events featuring Steve Jones, Andrea Stuart and Chris Dolan

[Chris Dolan talks slavery]

NOT an ideal week in Edinburgh for Christian fundamentalists, then. First we had Colm Toibin deconstructing the story of the Virgin Mary (one that has continued to evolve as recently as 1950 with the doctrine of the Assumption – “God zooms Mary straight up to Heaven at the moment of her death,” as the Irishman put it).

Now here’s Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London (and an atheist), with the scientific angle on the stories in the Bible.

The curious irony of this is that Jones’s book The Serpent’s Promise has suffered just the sort of criticism that is usually directed at Creationists themselves. As he told his Book Festival audience, it seems that we in the chattering classes now understand biblical mythology so reflexively as metaphor that any attempt to trace factual origins is seen as foolishly literal-minded.

Still, the professor made original sin the starting point for an entertaining romp through nature and nurture that took in Mo Farah and his car mechanic identical twin, a mutant bull bred at Roslin and the attractiveness of various women as tabulated by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton – without any noticeable disrespect to believers.

In fact, as he explained, religion – which itself seems to have heritable characteristics – is on the rise, because fundamentalists globally are having far more children than atheists.

Contested stories loomed large again in the session featuring two more conventionally historical writers, Andrea Stuart and Chris Dolan.

The Englishwoman has traced her ancestry back through eight generations to both a plantation owner and a slave on the island of Barbados, and her book Sugar in the Blood is enlivened not just by the tides of history but by her rich engagement with these forebears.

Stumbling on the records of her first black ancestor in a Barbadian library, she told us, she had punched the air in excitement. “I’d got him back,” she said,” I’d saved him from the dustbin of history.”

The Scot has also written of colonial Barbados in his novel Redlegs, and the two writers concurred passionately about the way in which the sugar trade and slavery, which became a cornerstone of British prosperity, have since been written out of history.

“For black children in Britain who go to schools where this is not taught or discussed,” Stuart proclaimed, “it’s important to know how massively important their part is in building modern Britain.”

Originally published in The Scotsman

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