Evolution

December 24, 2003 | 23 comments
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As is evident from my participation on this blog, I am not a scientist, but I enjoy reading good, non-technical, science writers. One I really like is Carl Zimmer, who blogs at The Loom. He writes a lot about evolution and genetics. Ady Hahn (our guest blogger who is currently on Christmas break) promised to talk about evolution later, but after reading the latest entry at The Loom, I feel the desire to press the issue.

We should first make one thing clear: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints takes no position on the theory of evolution, except to affirm that man is “the direct and lineal offspring of Deity…. Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with diving attributes.” (First Presidency, 1909 & 1925). Some apostles — Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith come to mind — have publicly proclaimed their opposition to the theory of evolution. But others — James E. Talmadge and John A. Widstoe being the most prominent — seem to embrace the theory.

I do not feel qualified to take a strong view one way or the other, nor do I feel a pressing need to take a position, though I enjoy reading about evolutionary theory. But here is what interests me at the moment: in a training session for local Seminary teachers a few months back, the topic of evolution arose and everyone (except me) assumed that we would dismiss the theory in our teaching of the Old Testament. We even had an hour-long presentation by one of my Seminary colleagues who knows even less about science than I do about why the theory of evolution is a crock!

Where does this attitude come from? I don’t think I was witnessing deviant behavior by Wisconsin Seminary teachers. I think that this negative view towards evolution is fairly widespread among members of the Church. Is this just another unfortunate example of Church members unthinkingly embracing the views of evangelicals? Or does this reflect the influence of McConkie and Smith? (But why would they be so much more influential than other apostles?) Or perhaps there is another explanation?

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23 Responses to Evolution

  1. Nate on December 24, 2003 at 3:36 am

    Gordon: I think that Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie have had a disproportionate impact on the CES. Here is my theory as to why. CES is one area of the church where there is a demand for some kind of systematic theology. For all of the faults of seminary and institute classes, they are a forum that offers the possibility of extended doctrinal discussions, etc. The fact of the matter is that in the last 50 years no one other than McConkie has really tried to write systematic Mormon theology. I think he ends up being influential because there isn’t really anyone else in the field. You have to go back to Widstoe or Talmadge. Before that you have to read the Pratts, Taylor, BY, or Joseph all of whom write in a difficult, 19th century idiom, and in the case of Joseph and BY left no real systematic works. Largely I think because of the precieved deficiencies of McConkie’s work (and an appreciation of the problems it caused) no general authority has tried there hand at theological treatise writing since him, which has the ironic effect of further entrenching his influence. It will be interesting to see if his power in the CES gets ameliorated as the Encyclopedia of Mormonism replaces Mormon Doctrine as the standard reference. We’ll see…

  2. Dave on December 24, 2003 at 9:46 am

    Stephens and Meldrum did an excellent job of covering the topic from an LDS perspective.

    My wife is a convert, and homeschools our kids. I keep having to remind her that the evangelical position on evolution our kids are picking up, from otherwise mostly excellent textbooks, is not necessarily the LDS view.

    Nevertheless, I certainly hear it spouted a lot in LDS circles. Being a life scientist, I usually just ignore evangelical diatribes against evolution, the same way I do other untenable, yet pseudo-quasi-canonized LDS beliefs.

    When my meeting bravo-sierra detector starts to ping, it’s usually from that kind of thing.

  3. A Scientist on December 24, 2003 at 11:07 am

    Gordon,

    A mormon PhD mathematician named David Bailey recently published a good article in Dialogue entitled Mormonism and the New Creationism (see http://mywebpages.comcast.net/baileydh/papers/index.html ). In it he describes how Joseph Fielding Smith was highly influenced by a Seventh-day Adventist writer named George Price who wrote one of the first “creation science” books entitled The New Geology. Smith’s Man: His Origin and Destiny was written in correspondence with Price to outline an LDS case against evolution.

    Now the tensions are so high in the evolution debate that I understand why some Mormons want to believe in “creation science.” Reading a little Richard Dawkins would push nearly anyone over into that camp. But neither classic “creation science” nor the more sophisticated Intelligent Design movement is at all scientifically valid, nor do they square with Mormon theology. If you get a chance, read the Bailey article and let me know what you think.

  4. Original Dave on December 24, 2003 at 12:22 pm

    Overcome by the holiday spirit, I’ll forgive the new Dave for inadvertently taking my name (too many Daves in the world) and adopt a new name to keep us straight. Furthermore, I’ll second his comments and expand a bit.

    There is no problem with evolution. The problem is with the “pseudo-quasi-canonized” LDS beliefs regarding evolution. Where did they come from? The problem is that the vast majority of Mormons embrace some form of “Creation Science” (which is about as scientific as “Christian Science” is scientific). Why do most Mormons embrace a position that has no support from either science or from supposedly “official” Mormon doctrine?

    First, there is no basis for the category “official Mormon doctrine,” so often relied on by Mormon scientists to try and reconcile their own acceptance of evolution with the Church’s failure to do so. Mormonism has no machinery to formulate and establish “official” doctrine. Bruce R. McConkie’s attempt articulate “official” Mormon doctrine does nothing so effectively as demonstrating the impossibility of such a task.

    That, in fact, is one of Mormonism’s strengths, as pointed out 25 years ago by Mark Leone in Roots of Modern Mormonism. We have canonized flexibility, not theology. We can change our history and our doctrine whenever convenient. It preserves deniability–LDS apologists can rely on Mormon Doctrine or the Encyclopedia whenever convenient, but can always criticize any attempt by LDS critics to rely on those sources as stating an “official” Mormon position. Pulling out some letter from the First Presidency dated 1925 and thinking it is “official Mormon doctrine” is just silly. If canonized Mormon scriptures don’t establish Mormon doctrine, some letter from the COB certainly does not. That’s why the 1890 Manifesto created so much confusion. Mormonism has no “official” doctrinal voice that speaks with credibility. People who think so haven’t tried to deal with the details. And we know who lurks in the details.

    Second, I don’t think the real puzzle that needs explaining has anything to do with the relationship between the supposedly “official” Mormon position on evolution, what the scriputres say, what the CES teaches, what Mormon biologists publish, or what 98% of Mormons believe or think the Church endorses. The puzzle that needs explaining is how Mormons feel so free to ignore real-world facts in forming their beliefs about the world. Fundamentalist Christians do this too, but they are quite open about it. Mormons, on the other hand, want to have their science and their religion too, and are happy with any argument that allows them to do so.

    This is no “bah, humbug” dismissal of Mormon efforts to deal with difficult questions concerning evolution or other science/history versus Mormon orthodoxy issues. But truth is the touchstone of the debate, not a knee-jerk defense of this year’s version of Mormon orthodoxy.

    Happy holidays to all.

  5. Gordon on December 24, 2003 at 12:33 pm

    Original Dave, The “Dave” confusion made me laugh. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Prophet started posting to this site using only his first name? I wonder if we would notice a difference in quality on the “Gordon” comments? ;-)

  6. brayden on December 24, 2003 at 1:34 pm

    You ask, “Where does this attitude come from? I don’t think I was witnessing deviant behavior by Wisconsin Seminary teachers. I think that this negative view towards evolution is fairly widespread among members of the Church. Is this just another unfortunate example of Church members unthinkingly embracing the views of evangelicals?”

    Growing up in rural Idaho, which is significantly different from Wisconsin in many ways I’m sure, I was constantly struck by good members inability to deal confluently with ideas from science and theology. I have wondered if members of the Church often use Mormon theology as a defense mechanism for combatting those things from “the world” that they don’t understand. In some wards that I’ve been in there are members who seem to openly oppose intellectual thought, scientific or otherwise. I think this is an unhealthy attitude, and I’m sure one of the main reasons it exists is because some members may feel very insecure in the world of scientific or intellectual thought, and so they demean it by pulling out non-scriptural accounts of why learning of this sort is wrong. Evolutionary theory is just one example of a scientific theory that gets a bad rap.

  7. Clark Goble on December 24, 2003 at 4:44 pm

    I was actually surprised when I came to Utah and found this an issue. Certainly the Dawkins approach to evolution is problematic to Mormonism. And I think that is what they fear. The problem is that evolution frankly isn’t taught well in American schools so what people know of it tends to be the negative (and frequently wrong) connotations.

    When I was first at BYU (’89) there was still a controversy about it. I remember both the biology department and the religion department handing out flyiers on it with very different assertions. However over all I don’t think it really has been a big issue, except for those whose readings of evolution lead them towards a more Dawkins view of the science. i.e. it was a worry that never materialized. Compared to other matters, such as critics attacks on the Book of Mormon, I think it is pretty minor.

    However that gets to the heart of the issue. I think that over the past few decades we’ve developed this worry about form that is unhealthy. It manifests itself in so many ways that I probably don’t need to talk about it much. But the CES tends to be the worst for it. Remember the Rodin art exhibit at BYU a few years back and the controversy when they hid some of the art? There is this idea that anything that might lead someone away will and we ought to stop it in its tracks. I actually think this attitude does the reverse – driving more people away than it “saves.” But I’ll leave that for a different thread. I’ll just say that this approach tends to lead to these possible misinterpretations becoming the main idea.

    No one who really looks at evolution from even a modicum of faith thinks it invalidates the notion of creation for Mormonism. It might cause a few problems for a very narrow (and unsupportable) reading of Genesis. But it isn’t going to lead anyone astray. People think it might or get so caught up in one narrow assumption about what God is like that they don’t realize they’ve become prey for the very gospel hobbyism they often attack…

  8. sid on December 24, 2003 at 11:27 pm

    My experience as a convert in Michigan would lead me to second Brayden’s comments

  9. Clark Goble on December 25, 2003 at 1:27 pm

    Just to add to my previous comments. I think the real problem is a woeful appreciation of science by the general public. Evolution is a controversy because so many people are ignorant of what science is. I’d say this is a Mormon problem, but it really isn’t based upon the statistics I’ve seen. I forget the exact figure but the number of people who believe in a young earth, for instance, was staggeringly large.

    Unfortunately the American population is largely illiterate when it comes to basic science or mathematics.

    If Mormons have these problems, my instinct is to see it as merely the manifestation of the *American* problem and not a uniquely *Mormon* problem. (Especially since many of the beliefs – such as a young earth – are incompatible with basic LDS teachings or at least the teachings of early leaders)

  10. Jim on December 29, 2003 at 2:03 am

    I think that the creation/evolution “problem” is primarily a logical one, a kind of confusion of categories. Those on each side of the debate assume falsely that science and religion are parallel or analogous. In other words, they assume that science and religion operate within the same realm, each telling the same kind of truth about the universe, and either one is false and the other is true, or eventually they will converge. I think that understanding is not only false, but dangerous—to both science and religion.

    Science and religion are incompatible for several reasons, but perhaps the most important is that they are not talking about the same things. They don’t deal with the same things; they don’t answer the same questions. (For example, the creation story is a ritual text; the scientific account of the origins of the world is anything but one.) In fact, they are not only neither talking about the same things nor answering the same questions, they are doing so out of different sets of background assumptions.

    All understanding occurs against a background of concepts, relations, etc. that make any particular understanding coherent. I know how to make crème brulée. But to say that is to say that I know something about what counts as crème brulée—as well as eggs, cream, pots and pans, etc.—the procedures for making it, and the uses to which it is put. Absent such background knowledge it makes no sense even to talk about knowing how to make crème brulée. Different kinds of questions require different kinds of background assumptions. Cooking requires a different background than does chemistry. I can ask chemistry questions about foods, so the two domains are not absolutely distinct. Nevertheless, it would be a failure of good judgement were I to ask chemistry questions in the course of making crème brulée or, conversely, to ask cooking questions in a chemical analysis of crème brulée.

    If, in a particular endeavor, I assume that relevant conceptual schema is the scientific one, then I also assume that the questions and purposes of science are the relevant ones. Having done so, if I compare the claim that God created the heavens and the earth to a scientific claim about the origin of the earth and then ask which is true, I will necessarily and unavoidably conclude that the scientific account is true and the religious account is false. On the other hand, if I assume that the relevant schema is the one assumed in the scriptural story with its questions and purposes, then when I compare the two claims about creation, I will necessarily conclude that the scriptural account is true and the scientific account is false. In both cases, I will have made the same mistake, not by taking up a particular schema, but by assuming that the same schema can be used to judge both accounts and the questions that they answer.

    Each of these ways of proceeding assumes that both science and scripture are offering the same kinds of explanations. That is the mistake. The scientific account doesn’t deal with the questions of the biblical text in a fashion adequate to the project of the narrative in Genesis, assuming that the scientific account deals with them at all. Likewise, the scriptural account doesn’t deal with the questions of science in a way that is adequate to a scientific investigation, assuming that it deals with those questions at all.

    Of course, both accounts claim to tell us how things are. They both make truth claims; I am not arguing for a naive relativism. To the degree that the differing accounts make truth claims about the same things, they are comparable. It makes no sense to speak of a different kind of truth in one than in the other unless by doing so one is covertly denying the truth of one or the other, perhaps by metaphorizing it. However, at least for biblical religions, I think it is true that scripture and science are not making claims about the same things. If not, then we cannot compare the truths of one with those of the other nor choose one over the other.

  11. Gordon on December 29, 2003 at 3:00 am

    Nice comments by Jim. I agree wholeheartedly. Also, Brayden and Clark seem to be in agreement that the source of this problem is simply ignorance, and that argument has some force. But I have pondered this a bit over the holidays, and I took the opportunity to read David Bailey’s excellent paper, which the Scientist links to above. This has led me into sympathy with Nate, who contends, “Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie have had a disproportionate impact on the CES.” Consider the following from Baily’s article:

    “In the 1920s, LDS Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith became enamored with [Seventh-Day Adventist] Price’s writings. He was particularly impressed by Price’s syllogism, ‘No Adam, no fall; no fall, no atonement; no atonement, no savior.’ He corresponded with Price, encouraging him in his efforts to defeat evolution, and then began writing a manuscript laying out what he regarded as the LDS case against evolution.

    “In 1931 a dispute arose between LDS leaders Joseph Fielding Smith, Brigham H. Roberts and James E. Talmage. Smith wanted to publish his anti-evolution manuscript, but Roberts wanted to publish his own manuscript, which acknowledged a conventional old-earth view and the existence of ‘pre-Adamites.’ In the course of these discussions, Smith promoted Price’s book The New Geology. Talmage, as a degreed geologist, recognized the strength of evidence for modern geology and biology. While a student at Johns Hopkins University, he had written in his journal that he could see no reason ‘why the evolution of animal bodies cannot be true.’ As a result, he was highly skeptical of Price’s work, but lacking time to investigate he wrote to his son Sterling Talmage, a professor of geology and mineralogy at the New Mexico School of Mines.

    “Sterling replied that The New Geology [Price's book] was not new, nor did it contain any real geology. He then quipped, ‘With these two corrections, the title remains the best part of the book.’ Sterling added that most of Price’s arguments are ‘absurd.’ Meanwhile the debate over evolution among the LDS leaders was stopped by the First Presidency, who declared in a letter, ‘Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.’

    “In 1954, after Roberts and the senior Talmage had passed away, Joseph Fielding Smith reworked his manuscript on evolution into the book Man: His Origin and Destiny. In this book, Smith argues that not only is the theory of evolution unacceptable for doctrinal reasons, but, citing creationist writers such as Price, it is scientifically invalid as well. David O. McKay, who was President of the Church at the time (and who personally accepted the basics of biological evolution), reassured several persons who wrote to his office that Joseph Fielding Smith’s book contained only the author’s opinion, and that the Church does not have an official view on the subject of evolution. Nevertheless, many of Smith’s views were subsequently incorporated into his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine, which today, nearly 40 years after its original publication, remains the most widely cited LDS doctrinal reference.”

  12. Clark Goble on December 29, 2003 at 3:28 am

    It seems to me that perhaps Jim is right, but only at the expense of speaking in such generalities that we are left wondering what we are speaking of.

    For instance, the key debate over evolution is over the *how* and *what* of creation. To say that science and religion do not both make assertions regarding that which overlap seems somewhat disingenuous. We may indeed disagree with the assertions of religion or science. But to simply say that such debates are category mistakes seems to deny the very nature of the debates themselves.

    Certainly we are free to read Genesis 1 & 2 in many ways. But to assert that those readings which are ontological or natural in scope are not “religious” seems difficult to make. I’m not saying Jim makes this claim, merely that the way he has framed the issue seems designed to avoid this crucial linchpin of the debate itself. Jim wisely avoided expunging religion of physical or metaphysical claims. However it is precisely there where the debate has ranged the most fierce.

    Precisely, what is the nature of consciousness and can the scientific claims be reconciled to claims about spirit? Was Adam the first man, and if so what does that mean? Was man (in general) formed by reproduction from a single person who was cast out of the garden? There are numerous other such debates.

    The danger in simply brushing such debates under the rug is that our populace is becoming more and more scientifically literate. By brushing such matters under the rug one simply makes the problems greater and not lesser, since eventually faithful saints will encounter these issues. If all they encounter are a certain approach to scriptural hermeneutics which is allowed to divorce itself from an engagement with scientific narrative I fear they will simply discount the scriptures in order to accept the science which has abundant evidence. This is not fair to the saints (nor to the scriptures)

  13. clark on December 29, 2003 at 2:38 pm

    Rereading the above, it came off far more pointed than I’d intended. My only real point is that there are some serious points of intersection between religious *claims* and scientific *claims* and that we can’t brush them aside.

  14. Grasshopper on December 29, 2003 at 6:39 pm

    It also seems to me that human evolution causes some questions to arise regarding the Mormon doctrine that God is an exalted man and woman. Why would an exalted couple choose to create human bodies by the long and messy process of evolution rather than by procreation? One answer might be that exalted couples are incapable of physical procreation. However, this, in turn, seems to weaken the importance of receiving mortal and resurrected bodies.

  15. Clark Goble on December 29, 2003 at 6:54 pm

    I believe that the key is in terms of having a *fallen* body. In which case there are some huge differences between a terrestrial body, such as Adam had in the garden, a telestial body, and a celestial body. Put more simply, I think the Mormon doctrine of the fall resolves those concerns.

    The bigger issue, for those with a naturalistic bent, are dealing with pre-Adamites.

  16. Grasshopper on December 30, 2003 at 10:41 am

    Clark, I’m not following you. How does the Mormon doctrine of the fall resolve the questions I asked about evolution and the nature of God’s body? Some who do not accept human evolution have postulated that God procreated Adam and Eve’s terrestrial bodies, and that one of the reasons a fall was necessary was to change those terrestrial bodies into telestial bodies for probationary purposes. But I’m not aware of anyone dealing with the differences between telestial, terrestrial, and celestial bodies from a position of accepting human evolution. How do you see the Mormon doctrine of the fall resolving the questions of why an exalted couple would choose an evolutionary process rather than procreation?

  17. Ady Hahn on December 30, 2003 at 4:43 pm

    Sorry, Gordon. I’m still working on my evolution essay. Since this is an important issue for me, I want to be thorough. But I just want to say that there are some serious problems with parts of the modern theory of evolution. One huge problem is that evolutionary biology is primarily a historic science rather than an experimental science. We can’t go back and run an experiment on how life evolved. Most of the work is classification of fossils and analysis of genomes. Theories are based on someone’s best explanation of the unobserved processes that produced the fossils or genomic sequences.

  18. clark on December 30, 2003 at 4:59 pm

    “Grasshopper,” all I implied was that the fall from a terrestrial world to a telestial world may have resulted in a body *mimicking* what was already in this world. (A world created by evolution) I know some (Joseph F. Smith?) have argued that events in the garden referred to the whole world. However that seems rather difficult to reconcile to the narrative where an angel guards the entrance to the garden. Clearly the fall is Adam being cast out of the garden and not the entire planet. Further given LDS notions of the spirit world and the idea that the celestial world can be *here* now but unseen, I find many readings of the fall of Adam to be difficult to accept.

    If the fall is a fairly divine (terrestrial) being coming to be telestial then where is the problem? The only remaining problem is the existence of pre-adamites, as I said. (And I admit that for theological reasons such concepts are problematic for many Mormons, although they were apparently discussed in Nauvoo)

    Regarding evolution, while evolution is primarily historical it isn’t completely untestable. The mechanisms of evolution can be tested empirically (and have been fairly extensively) Likewise models predicting evolutionary patterns are confirmed by the fossil record.

    The theory of evolution isn’t complete, for sure. However corrections are likely to be minor and not throwing the entire theory out. The technique of some is to find some small error and then throw the baby out with the bathwater. But the fact is that we are genetically and physiologically very similar to apes. Further we have remnants of organs and the like which make no sense if there wasn’t something like evolution at work. If God were making things from scratch this body simply doesn’t make much sense…

  19. Gordon Smith on December 30, 2003 at 5:24 pm

    Hi Ady. Welcome back! I hope you post the evolution essay soon, before I forget everything I learned over the break! Hope you had a good trip to Utah.

  20. Grasshopper on December 30, 2003 at 5:48 pm

    Clark,

    If I understand you, correctly, you are suggesting the idea that humans did not evolve, but that the fall from terrestrial to telestial produced a human body that just *appears* to have evolved (because it needed to “match” the existing telestial world?). Did you intend to deny human evolution?

  21. clarkgoble on December 30, 2003 at 6:21 pm

    I think my point was that Adam didn’t evolve but his body did. But I didn’t really go that far because I recognize many would strongly disagree with that. Put simply, Adam when cast from the garden came to take a body like those in the telestial world. (How is unclear) That would seem to imply that there were bodies like Adam’s fallen body already in the world. That can be taken to make a claim for pre-adamites. While, as I said, that was discussed in Nauvoo, it is more of a verbotum topic at church.

  22. Grasshopper on December 30, 2003 at 6:38 pm

    Thanks for the clarification.

  23. Max on January 7, 2004 at 10:25 am

    Take a look at “Exploring Mormon Thought: The Attributes of God” by Blake Ostler. You don’t get much more systematic Mormon theology than this. The book received great reviews from both BYU Alumni magazine and Dialogue.