Professor Steven Jones

by | Jul 17, 2017 | Education / Academia, Interview, Science | 0 comments

Professor Steven JonesHow would you describe your personal religious beliefs or worldview?

I’m an atheist.

What made you decide to adopt or retain this belief/identity?

It seemed to me common sense, I was brought up in a fairly religious, Welsh speaking background. It was held together by membership of a particular chapel, in many ways it was a very successful society. But when I left that community and started to learn science, I decided that there was no need for religion, apart from any social need that there might be. So I slipped into atheism, like most scientists.

Do you see this outlook or identity as having shaped important decisions or relationships in your life?

No, I don’t see it as an identity really.

Do you see Great Britain as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?

Yes, it’s fairly tolerant, it could be better. I think that most of the intolerance comes from believers, not non-believers, so I think as religion becomes less powerful (as it has been doing, although perhaps that is changing) then tolerance becomes more widespread. I am quite happy to allow people to have religious freedom, as long as their freedom to believe doesn’t interfere with my freedom not to believe.

Are there any challenges for you in living in accordance your beliefs, and if so, are they social, legal or political in nature?

I don’t think so, we atheists can’t become bishops but I’ve never really wanted to be a bishop. I think it’s a fairly tolerant country. It could be better, there are areas of intolerance which I face in my professional life as a biologist and evolutionist. I find it is not very repaying to argue with some of my central, not beliefs but central facts I talk about, like evolution. So I don’t bother.

Has atheism contributed to human rights in your view?

No, I don’t think so, only in so far it is quite a common phenomenon in religion, to assume that members of your religion have greater rights than other people. That is especially true to Islam at the moment. I not aware of any schisms within atheism where people are saying you are this particular type of atheist therefore I will kill you. I think that atheism is more open to equal rights than religion. Some religions may preach human rights but if you look into the background very few of them practice it.

Are human rights a positive thing for our society?

Of course, it is essential for society in the modern world. Of course there are individuals who don’t have equal rights and I don’t quite know what to do, criminals say in prison whose rights are taken away, people with mental disorders. I think that societies are sophisticated enough to deal with this. There are things which are more complicated, closer to my own field of genetics, things like women’s and men’s rights to reproductive control, abortion in particular. As someone pretty much on the left I am very much in favour of women’s rights including the rights to abortion, but I would be foolish to deny that there aren’t others right involved there too. Quite how we approach those I don’t know, except to observe that in countries like Ireland where enormous rights are given to the foetus, that grossly reduces the rights of women. And if you give me the choice between the rights of an adult versus the rights of a foetus, I don’t think it is an automatic yes/no, but I would certainly give rights to mothers rather than their unborn children.

Are you aware of any atheists who have a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain?

The short answer is yes, Britain for better or worse is a much less overtly religious country than it ever has been. Whatever the attractions of the Church of England or the Catholic church, it is clear that they for many years they had an implicit and explicit negative influence on all sorts of human rights: sex education, homosexual rights, abortion, divorce…..with the decline in religion all these have now become accepted. They are still fought against, but the decline of religion has meant that free thinking rules and that is open to human rights. There are mixed attempts by atheist organisations to proselytise against faith schools. I do think that the whole faith schools thing is totally against human rights. I have lived in the States, and in some ways they are much more open to human rights, you are not allowed to preach education in state funded schools. The BHA to which I belong to has made quite a bit of fuss about faith schools… how successful they have been is another matter, but they have at least raised the question.

Do you think that human rights are generally respected by public bodies in Great Britain?

Well I can certainly point to cases where they are not, but in terms of the global levels of human rights Britain does fairly well. Less well than some Scandinavian countries, but they have fewer social problems. Interestingly, the whole debate about immigration. It is refreshing to see that people no longer discriminate on the basis of skin colour as much as they did in the 1970s. But the other side to that is that they do discriminate on the level of education when choosing a mate. Education is five times more important than race now. We might say that is obvious, but we could put that into human rights terms. Who gets education? Nice middle class people with money! So there are still barriers, but I hope that they are evaporating.

Do you think that the State gets the level of intervention right in the lives of citizens, particularly in relation to religion and belief?

I think it is the nature of the State to interfere with individuals, it is a mode by which individuals can interact on mass to limit the behaviour of other individuals. Some practices, such as FGM which are, however much religious people might deny it, are an intrinsic part of some religions. That is unacceptable to the majority of people and we legislate against it. Now you might argue that that is against the human rights of people belonging to these religions, but I wouldn’t be willing to accept that. So I think that inevitably, you limit rights, you cannot not limit rights. I have no right to beat you up. You have to be pragmatic.

Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society is a positive thing?

You know what Churchill said, it is a very poor form of government but it is better than any of the others which have ever been tried. Of course there are problems here, the voting system is very strange. The recent Scottish referendum, I know Scotland very well having studied and worked there, I was opposed to the idea of Scottish independence, there is a racist and nasty side to it which I don’t like. But what was striking was that they managed to get an 85/87% turnout on the basis I am sure that every vote counted. The problem is that in the parliamentary system that this is not true. I have always voted Labour, but I live in a Constituency which has been Labour since 1938. But I have still never not voted.

There is also the strange bicameral system, but I think that there is a lot to be said for having a weak revising chamber, you don’t get the problems which come up in France, or Holland or the US where the Republicans are blocking everything in one chamber, that just leads to deadlock. But I wouldn’t’ want to live in a non-democratic system, I couldn’t.

As an atheist, do you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?

I don’t think so as an atheist, I do believe that I have a personal responsibility to vote and have never failed to, but I don’t think that that overlaps with my religious beliefs or lack thereof.

Is it good or bad that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law?

I don’t think that I would like to see judges with powers like in the States, it is very easy for it to be abused and in the States it has been abused. Both for the good and the bad. The separation of the judiciary from the political system in important. The judiciary is drawn from a narrow part of British society and is more conservative than the population as a whole, but I think that that is true in most counties. It is better than it was.

Do you think that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority is a problem for minority groups? Do some groups find it harder to participate?

I think that everybody can participate, the question is whether their participation is manifested in effective action, and the answer is that very often it isn’t. Take the Green Party, a significant movement but they have only had one MP. But on the other hand if you have a system with dozens of fractured parties, they you’ll tend to get into unstable coalitions, which are less democratic than the stable result you tend to get in the UK. There is a thing in biology and chemistry which is called the activation energy, suddenly when you get to a particular level you get a change of state. Now you made not need very much to push this change of state from this to that, but once you have it is very difficult to get it back again. I think that something approaching that is better than a system which is in constant flux. I think that what we have in Britain is better than France and other European systems.

Do you think that it is a problem that members of the House of Lords are not elected?

I think that it is becoming more of a problem. The thing about the UK constitution is that we don’t have a constitution. There’s no written constitution. There is a lot to be said for having a weak revising chamber, all the Lords can do is delay and revise. Unlike the Senate in the US which can block, and which is almost as undemocratic as the House of Lords. The House of Lords has got far too big, it is far too much a retirement home for unwanted politicians or a gift for rich people who give money to political parties. I think that it is coming to an end, but I don’t know what will celom to replace it

Should religious groups have a voice in Parliament, should there be bishops in the House of Lords?

The bishops, no I don’t lose any sleep over them, it is no more absurd that they should be there than millionaires. But I do think that they have abused their powers recently, in debates about pregnancy termination and so on. I think that like members of the legal profession they should recuse themselves when they have a vested interest, they should be honest with themselves. The bishops are an anomaly but not a huge anomaly. There is a small role for the Church of England in British life, a historical role, I don’t mind having bishops in the House of Lords, but they should not be able to bring forward their own ideological beliefs against the power of the majority.

Do public authorities try to respect the will of Parliament/legislation?

There is a lot of legislation which is a dead-letter and is ignored. Public bodies do ignore homelessness rules, they do all kinds of things, but you would expect that. I can’t think of many important cases where public bodies simply thumb their noses at Parliament. There have been attempts by Liverpool City Council to defy the government in the 1980s but in the end they had to fail and they did fail. It is clear with various levels of government you are going to get quarrels between them.

Is it good or bad that some decisions affecting the UK are made by the devolved assemblies?

I regard both the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly with a certain cynicism, because they are both extra levels of administration, if you look at eco-systems almost all food chains have a maximum of 4 or 5 steps, because you lose efficiency with every step. In Scotland you have not gone beyond that, I don’t think that somewhere as small as Scotland or Wales needs or wants these bodies, Wales only got it by a tiny minority and it does very

What are the best mechanisms for people with power in society to be held accountable?

It depends, a free press is essential, but the courts in terms of major infractions ought to be involved. It is clearly the case that you can get away with more if you are rich than if you are poor and weak, there are few societies where that isn’t true. In the end it has to be the law and Parliament which has to be all powerful.

Are atheists proportionately represented in Parliament and public life?

There is always Richard Dawkins. I think they are implicitly voiced, most MPs especially Tories will claim to be Christian, but in reality they are probably atheists a lot of the time. Because there isn’t really a penetrating religious voice in society any more, you don’t really need a penetration atheist voice.

Do you think that there is enough distance between politicians and the judiciary?

The separation strikes me as not unreasonable.

How do you think the exercise of power by Parliament and the government should be regulated?

The big mistake would be to write it down, if you have a constitution which written checks and balances it tends to freeze up. You have to be pragmatic. The ultimate check comes from the mob. When you saw the Poll Tax riots, it is clear that the streets won the Poll Tax debates.

Have you personally ever been involved in any campaigns to change the law?

Yes, I was quite active in the anti-Vietnam and anti-Iraq war moments. I have spoken out about creationism in schools, abortion control. I wouldn’t say I am an activist, I am often on the media, when it comes to my own science which is genetics, there is often an almost delicate attempt by the public, parliament and the judiciary about what genetics can or can’t do. There was a recent fiasco with Gove and his advisor Cummings who misunderstood the nature of the heritability of IQ and therefore said ridiculous things…….65% of variation in IQ is inherited therefore teachers are not important, that is just completely absurd. I appeared on air several times talking about that and I wrote about that. A scientist has no more input into general legislation than anybody else, but when legislation depends upon science it is every scientist’s job to ensure that it is good…..but very often it is not. I recently wrote a long report for the BBC trust. The BBC is the biggest science broadcaster in the world, and in many ways it is the best, but there is a complete schism between scientific reporting and news reporting of science. But BBC news, especially BBC radio news was I felt unutterably perverse in a fundamentally anti-democratic way. Because if you had a scientific voice, they felt that they had to have another voice supposedly for balance. I call this false balance, it led to an ongoing row which is still going on. The example I took, is the man-made climate change, it is absolutely the case that that is now accepted by the vast majority of the world’s scientist. And yet every time you have a scientist talking about this, you have someone else saying that it isn’t true. If every time you had somebody talking about the Holocaust you had to have a Holocaust denier, people would throw up their hands in horror. That is an extreme example. I asked several of the people on BBC news where they got their scientific information and was dumb-struck to discover that they got it from press releases. That is not the way scientists talk to each other. Now if that was a political journalist who said that they got their political information from press releases, people would laugh at them. So I do think there is a democratic issue here about the flow of information, people from my profession should be more active. It is an area where people with particular professional abilities should be listened to more.

Do you think that public bodies treat the needs of atheist with equal respect and dignity to religious people?

Yes, I think so. You can tick a ‘no religion’ box when you go into hospital. I went to a State grammar school and had assembly every morning, and I always regarded that as being a bit like the polo injection, a small dose when you were young to inoculate you for life. But I now think that was over optimistic. Certainly fundamentally Islamic schools which discriminate against non-Islamic students, equally fundamentally Christians discriminate against non-members of their sect. I don’t think that I atheists do the same. I have had quite a lot of trouble from Muslim students hear demanding that they should not have to listen to lectures on evolution, or answer exam questions on it. There have been petitions and complaints to the Provost. I say look, if you don’t believe in evolution it’s like doing physics and not believing in gravity. If that’s how you feel go away and do tap-dancing then! I’m happy to discuss it with them, briefly although talking to creationists is infinitely boring. But having responses in student questionnaires that Professor Jones should not be so disrespectful towards religion. I do sometimes make jokes which I shouldn’t, and I try not to, but they are clearly jokes. There was a bizarre episode a few years ago when I got to work and the phone went into meltdown, there were posters everywhere saying that the medical students Islamic society had booked the Darwin lecture theatre (on the site of Darwin’s house) to announce the final defeat of evolution. We decided that we couldn’t stop it happening, but we moved it to a different lecture theatre. And they wanted me to go and talk but I wouldn’t, because what happens is that you say something, they reply that it isn’t true and then put all over their website that they have defeated out.

You have referred to assemblies, what about religious education?

Oh well, I think that is a different matter. Religion has been is part of the web of life, RE is perfectly fine, particularly as in my case when the teacher is clearly an atheist. I have just written a book ‘The Serpent’s Promise’ which is an effort to update the Bible as though it was a scientific textbook, which I knew would annoy religious people. What quite amazed me, was the response in Britain was not the same as the States, the response in the States was fundamentally stupid……everyone knows that the world was created on 4th October 4004 BC and took 6 days…..well if you’re going to say that I’m not even interested in listening! But the British religious establishment were also very annoyed and I found their response totally surprising, which was you shouldn’t have done it, because the Bible is not about facts, it is about myths, metaphors and parables. So I said, what about the Great Flood? If you look at the records from the ancient Middle East there were a lot of great floods. But I was debating with a guy on air who said that the flood and water was quite irrelevant, he was not interested in the ark, it is all about one man’s relationship with God, Noah. And I said, well what about the facts? And he said, the facts don’t matter! Now that is an interesting thing for me to talk about in a religious studies class. I think that kids whatever their religion would find it interesting.

Is it important to you always to act within the law?

There are always occasions when it is morally imperative to break the law. In old days everybody in London, bourgeois to peasant used to jam parking meters with bottle tops and things. That was a stupid thing to do and I’m old enough now not to do it. But beyond that, I’m not sure I break the law very often, but I am an elderly person with a considerable income and a nice house, I have no reason to break the law.

Do you think that it is important to speak for the vulnerable?

Yes of course I do. One of the strongest and most powerful arguments you could make is to say that I am vulnerable because that makes you invulnerable. That is what religious minorities often do, saying that we are vulnerable you are bullying us, disregarding the fact that they often bully other people far more. So I think that it can be abused but there are people who are vulnerable who need protection, but I think again pragmatism is all.

Is the rule of law applied equally to everyone in Great Britain?

Certainly not! There are people who went to prison for six months for stealing bottles of water and people who embezzle millions and nothing happened to them. It clearly is not. I’ve been on demonstrations where the police have been rather bullying, that is nothing to what happens at a football match every week. Generally speaking the middle classes get better treatment, it is a matter of straightforward observation. There is an interesting biological spin on this, with a theological angle……original sin. Now original sin is genetics, if you read my Bible book you will see this is clearly true. You are born imperfect, with bad genes, do you forgive them, the Pelagian heresy, say you are damned John Knox or the Catholic thing and say that if you follow our rules you will be okay. Now that’s a theological issue and you see that with rights and crime, if you kill someone and admit that you have done it, you will be treated differently if you say that you heard the voice of the devil telling you to do it than if you say that you wanted his watch. Now hearing the voice is a biological phenomenon, but if in the States you try this……I was involved in a murder case there, rather distantly. There was a guy called Stephen Moberly, he was a complete jerk, he used to rob Domino’s pizza stores and killed five people doing it, was arrested and found guilty. But then he used a defence…..a gene which predisposed a person to violent behaviour. He tried to argue that he should have a test for this gene. In the end he was murdered by the State of Texas, but the State of Texas changed its rules so that anybody who is seen as a continuing threat to society shall be liable to the death penalty. If you say that I am dangerous because of my genes, you will go to the chair. Now that is logical, it is just as logical to say no, like Pelagius that it wasn’t your fault therefore we will let you offer. These are issues where it is very difficult to get equal rights and treatment.

There was a Home Office study looking at sentencing where men and women committed the same crimes, which is hard to do because women generally don’t commit crime and where they do they are usually victimless ones, but in general the database from Magistrates courts indicated that men are more harshly punished. Now that is a biological phenomenon, men are men because of a gene. So that is a case of the rules not being equally applied, achieving equal treatment is harder than it appears.

To what extent should the police and public authorities be allowed to suspend the rule of law?

Well you can’t have a situation where the policing authorities are subject to the same constraints as the public. The police have to limit people’s rights at times.

Are there any legal rules which have a negative impact on your personal freedoms?

There are problems on the abortion issue, on both sides. Again, I’m not directly involved but they have been problems with these mitochondrial stories, about ridiculously described babies with three parents. But you have to make haste slowly with these things. Embryonic stem cells turned out to be unimportant in the end, but that was blocked for a while. But the law does have to be cautious and on the whole it has acted quite well.

Is there anything which you would like to add?

Contemporary Britain is riddled with anomalies, and I would rather live in a state like that than somewhere like Sweden where everything which isn’t forbidden is compulsory. I think that something needs to happen to reform the electoral system.

Steve Jones is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London, where he has worked for more than forty years. After his first degree and PhD from the University of Edinburgh in the 1960s he worked for several years at the University of Chicago, University of California at Davis, Harvard, and other American universities, with other periods in Botswana, Sierra Leone and Australia. His main interest is in population genetics, the processes that generate and control patterns of genetic diversity in natural populations of a variety of creatures, and he has spent several years in the field in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Australia doing research on such questions. As a result he has become one of the top six snail geneticists in the world, and the other five agree.

In recent years he has become much involved in the public presentation of science. He gave the BBC Reith Lectures on “The Language of the Genes” and has received as variety of awards for this work, including the Royal Society Faraday Medal, the Royal Society Science Book Prize, the Linnean Society Tercentenary Medal (jointly awarded to David Attenborough and E O Wilson), and a dozen or so honorary degrees. Steve Jones is a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Society of Literature. He appears frequently on radio and television and has had a regular science column in the Daily Telegraph for more than twenty years.

His recent books include “Y, the Descent of Men”, “Coral, a Pessimist in Paradise”, “Darwin’s Island” “The Serpent’s Promise” (an attempt to interpret the Bible through the eyes of a scientist) and “No Need for Geniuses”, a history of science in the French Revolution.


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