Human Evolution: Problems and Possibilities

March 17, 2014 | 35 comments
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2014-03-17 Sun Over Earth

I agree with Jonathan Green’s description of how most Mormons tend to think about evolution vs. creation. To recap, we tend to:

  1. Affirm an active role for God in the creation of human beings
  2. Accept basic science as it relates to genetics, natural selection, geology, etc.
  3. Reject attempts to force an either/or choice between points 1 and 2.

As a general rule, Mormons are happy to embrace science and religion, and do not see a necessary conflict between the two. When it comes to the usual hullaballoo over religion vs. science, this is certainly correct. There just isn’t any particular reason to care very much whether God created Adam and Eve using natural selection or some other means.

However, there is a more subtle conflict. It exists between the continuity of the evolution narrative and the way we talk about humanity as a discrete category. Here is one example of the problem from a typical statement of Brigham Young’s:

The ordinance of sealing must be performed here man to man, and woman to man, and children to parents, etc., until the chain of generation is made perfect in the sealing ordinances back to Father Adam. There must be this chain in the holy Priesthood; it must be welded together from the latest generation that lives on the earth back to Father Adam. [J.D. 18:213 emphasis added]

Clearly Brother Brigham had in mind a sense of completeness that can only exist if there is an individual starting point: an Adam and Eve. Here’s another example:

37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
38 And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
39 For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

In this case, the implication seems to be that “humanity” is a kind of discrete category. Both of these statements seem to imply a binary category: you are human or you are not. But, based strictly on biology, there can be no such binary categorization. We tend to talk about human evolution in terms of discrete species—first came Homo habilis, then came Homo erectus, etc—but in reality the process of evolution is continuous. The idea of discrete categories is one part deliberate simplification, and one part accidental consequence of having few fossils over a very long time frame. If you were to actually go back in time and sort of fast-forward however, looking at each generation individually, there would be no possible way to say “this child is Homo erectus, but its parents were Homo habilis.” Ergo, there is no line of purely biological demarcation that would allow us to know who or what the Lord has in mind for his work and his glory. It’s just one long, unbroken continuum from modern Homo sapiens all the way back to the proverbial primordial soup. If it is God’s work and glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man but not single-celled organisms, one has to ask where the line gets drawn. Even if we suppose a continuous scale of immortality and eternal life (so that every creature fulfills the measure of its creation) there is still the problem that humans are treated as a unique category, and that can’t be supported biologically.

My point is not at all to argue that, because of this theological conundrum, we have to adopt a literalist view of Adam and Eve after all. I simply want to point out that there’s a tension here that isn’t trivial.

While we’re on the topic of defining humanity, however, it might be interesting to try going the other way as well. I have an amateur interest in cognitive evolution, and it’s something I’ve been looking into recently. One of the central questions in that field is simply: what makes humans so smart? Most attempts to find a solution in brain physiology come up short because our brains are simply not that drastically different from other primates. What gets more interesting, however, is an investigation of the kinds of subtle differences that do exist. There seem to be basically two: human brains are innately good at handling complex social situations and they are also highly plastic (good at adapting and learning).

2014-03-17 Hominids

Think of it this way: genes can store a truly vast amount of information, but only a finite amount. When you consider the amount of information that has to be dedicated to building and regulating a complex organism, there’s only but so much left for storing complex behavior. In addition, information learned by an organism during its life cannot be passed genetically to the next generation. In both senses, genes are a kind of intergenerational information bottleneck. Strictly genetic information is limited in both overall content and also in speed of learning.

The changes to the human brain are a hack around this bottleneck. Instead of loading in a bunch of complex behaviors, the human mind is instead tuned to learn from other organisms. This is not at all to say that humns are a blank slate. Instead, human brains are crowded with learning behaviors (as opposed to survival behaviors). For example, the amazing ability of infants to learn language appears to be genetic but an actual language (say French or German or Mandarin) obviously is not. We give up the ability to develop rapidly (most other animals are self-sufficient much, much faster than humans) in exchange for the ability to learn deeply from our environment and especially from our community.

This means that the information that defines a human being is not located explicitly within the genetic code. It is, instead, stored in society. You can think of it this way: DNA is like a local hard drive. A community is like the cloud. You can store vastly more information if you fill your local hard drive with just whatever is required to be able to assimilate and integrate information from the cloud. The relatively small physiological changes in a human’s brain (relative to a chimpanzees) lead to a dramatic difference in cognitive ability because those small changes unlock an entire new vista of intergenerational information transmission that dramatically increase both the amount of information available to any individual at any time and also the speed with which new information can be incorporated into future generations. Instead of waiting for natural selection to encode new behaviors in DNA, humans can just go read about the most recent discoveries in physics in a book, creating a positive feedback loop of learning that has fueled our rapid development for at least the last several millenia.

2014-03-17 De-ExtinctionOne way to conceptualize all of this is to think about “de-extinction.” That’s the idea that, using DNA, we can resurrect extinct species. Think: Jurassic Park. Now, we can’t bring velociraptors back any time soon because DNA breaks down too rapidly, but we can potentially clone a woolly mammoth. Critics of de-extinction point out, however, that bringing back the organism is only part of bringing back the species. Say you clone a woolly mammoth and implant the embryo in an elephant and all goes well. Now you got one woolly mammoth… sort of. Who is around to teach the little critter the behaviors that would have defined being a woolly mammoth? After all, even though humans depend much more on social learning and animals much more on instinct, even some behaviors are taught by parents to their offspring in the wild. At the end of the day, do you really have a woolly mammoth, or would you have just created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, like a duck that has imprinted on a human and doesn’t know how to be a duck anymore? Maybe instead of a woolly mammoth you’d just end up with something more like a very shaggy elephant.

What this thought-experiment highlights is the extent to which information (rather than mere physicality) plays in defining what a creature is.

In that sense, humans are a social animal in a way that is much more profound than we usually think of when we hear the term. The crucial information that makes us who we are is not stored within our DNA. It is stored in the relationships between the individual members of the community. If, millions of years hence, aliens discovered that we had gone extinct and tried de-extinction out on us we know already that the effort would fail. They might get some human organisms and, if they were clever and similar to us they might successfully get a kind of alien/human hybrid that successfully live and function, but it wouldn’t truly be a human being. For example, they could revive a German with DNA from a long-dead German, but they couldn’t bring back the German language or any of the culture and history and habits and assumptions that a German today ha learned from his or her family and culture. Without our society and culture, we don’t fully exist. As isolated individuals, we are not human beings.

This is why I think there is a real conflict between our theology and evolution, but also that there’s probably nothing we can or should do about it right now. It suggests to me that, whatever God has in mind as the object of his work and glory, we’re not in a position to understand what it is. It almost certainly, however, doesn’t refer just to the biological organisms we know as Homo sapiens. Perhaps, for example, part of being “in the image of God” refers not just to our bodies, but also to our existence in society with one another. After all, the plural pronoun is used in the Creation account.

35 Responses to Human Evolution: Problems and Possibilities

  1. JP on March 17, 2014 at 8:42 am

    I’ve been ruminating for quite some time about this problem, and wonder if we can’t have and eat the cake when it comes to evolution/natural selection/creation. Suppose the system were kickstarted–organized, set going–and then left for a while. As humanoids reached a point where they were capable of the kinds of thinking necessary to host the sort of agency God guarantees, they are imbued with souls, as are their offspring, and their offspring, etc. What you have–and this seems to fit–is higher functioning, religion-making people living alongside lower-functioning people, until the latter are bred out. In this view, Adam and Eve would be a first covenant couple, separated out, educated, sworn in, and then released back out into wild. Of course, an equally (theologically) plausible model is that Adam and Eve were immediately created beings–an advanced model–similarly released into the wild, etc.

    Is this a workaround? Maybe. Does it smack of fantasy? Sure. But then, religion tends to.

  2. Nathaniel Givens on March 17, 2014 at 8:56 am

    JP-

    I think it depends on exactly what you mean by “souls.” In the evolutionary model, the difference between humans and other primates is that our brains are tuned for social learning. You could use natural selection (of supernatural selection) to get this kind of organism, and then (for example) kidnap Adam and Even from their parents, raise them in an advanced society (to learn language), and then release back into the wild. That’s a perfectly valid uplift scenario, but it doesn’t resolve the difficulty for me. If Adam and Eve were already biologically human and were simply kickstarted with learning, what about their grandparents or great-grandparents who would have been more or less equally biologically human but just missed out on being young enough (or still alive) to benefit from the new learning? We still have the same continuity problem.

    There’s also a kind of odd fairness notion. If we’re talking about advanced primates who are ready for a soul, it seems a bit unfair to pick Adam and Eve and not Bob and Jane.

    And, of course, the real question is in what sense does a “soul” function as the kind of discrete break that says Now you have humans, but before you just had human bodies.

    So, I’m not at all saying it can’t work, but I’m not quite sure how it would, yet.

  3. Nathaniel Givens on March 17, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Also, I may as well point out that the conversation is at this point basically discussing uplift, which is a sci-fi concept about an advanced species sort of boosting a less-advanced species into sentience. David Brin wrote a lot of books about it (some won awards, but I’ve only read one and I didn’t like it), so it’s sort of a common concept in sci-fi.

    The concept is enjoying something of a renaissance, but this time with an interest on transhumanism. Recent examples include work by John C. Wright (Count to a Trillion) and, to a lesser degree, Robert Charles Wilson (Spin).

    It’s also related directly to the idea of a shaggy god story, which is a sci-fi story that retells Biblical stories using a sci-fi setting/explanation, as Orson Scott Card and many others have done. (Adam and Eve stories are the most common.)

    Anyway, I didn’t have any of that directly in mind when I wrote the post, but sci-fi and theology are my two favorite interests, and the fact that I an so easily link the two explains why I like each as much as I do.

  4. JP on March 17, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Oops. I meant “imbued with spirits.”

    And I don’t claim to know how it would all work either, but I’ll offer this:

    1) Maybe Adam and Eve were Bob and Jane. What matters in LDS theology is that Michael plus Bob = Adam and (Eve) plus Jane = Eve. Actually, what matters more is that Adam plus Eve are us.

    2) Before (and during and after) humans you had primates.

  5. JP on March 17, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Nathaniel:

    re: uplift and sci-fi–sure. But that’s coincidental. I’m not lifting the notion. It’s just a way of making sense of both the mythology and the science, and it is consistent, in my view, with temple theology on the matter. I’m not convinced of it, but it strikes me as a more palatable possibility than most.

  6. Jared vdH on March 17, 2014 at 9:11 am

    You’ve sparked all kinds of interesting thoughts in my head: What if Adam and Eve weren’t the first “humans” created in a genetic sense, but the just the first humans capable/given the sealing covenants or even the first to receive the priesthood. In essence, they weren’t the first people, just the first covenant people.

    Another thought what if Adam and Eve were instead the first to invent writing, and it was actually taught to them by God. There’s this interesting bit from Wikipedia’s entry on the history of writing: “It is generally agreed that true writing of language (not only numbers) was invented independently in at least two places: Mesopotamia (specifically, ancient Sumer) around 3200 BCE and Mesoamerica around 600 BCE.” These dates coincidentally enough could align to either the creation or shortly after the flood and the Lehites arriving in the Americas. Pure coincidence? Probably, but interesting nonetheless.

    These thoughts also jive well with the idea that the whole point of the gospel is to create Zion type communities, not just holy individuals. Thus the “creation” as we know it may have just been the founding of the first Zion community with the family of Adam and Eve.

    A more social/cognitive view of the Creation could also have some interesting implications as to what the Fall really was, though that would require some more speculative thinking.

    Which is what this is mind you, speculative thinking. You’ve really gotten my wheels turning.

  7. Howard on March 17, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Yes our bodies evolved, I think the discrete human category is software related. The spirit is poured out on all of humankind inspiring who ever is listening. Via. discussion the new information comes to be held in community but it’s application is more effectively accomplished through parenting than rule of law. This is secular enlightenment. Ideally prophets enhance this process. But interestingly this argues against some fixed status quo, it is by definition progressive in nature,

  8. Nathaniel Givens on March 17, 2014 at 9:20 am

    JP-

    re: uplift and sci-fi–sure. But that’s coincidental. I’m not lifting the notion.

    No problem. I was just providing the info in general, since I thought folks might be interested to know sci-fi addresses similar themes from time to time.

  9. Dave K on March 17, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Thanks for this Nathaniel. I’m an odd duck in that I enjoy conflict. I find it is the primary way in which growth occurs, both for biological entities as well as theology. I’m not sure there is a natural tension between our theology and evolution (I actually hope there is), but I am quite sure that the tension you, I, and others perceive is nothing new.

    As just one example, consider WW Phelps’ If You Could Hie to Kolob: (i) verse 1 teaches that faster-than-light-speed travel + infinite time = you still can’t approach the origin of Gods, i.e., there is no beginning, (ii) verse 2 teaches that there is also no end, space is infinite, and space is never empty, (iii) verse 3 teaches that progression is directional and eternal. These ideas seem to fit very well with Neil deGrass Tyson’s Cosmos series currently airing on Fox. I watched last night’s episodes with my kids and we had a nice discussion about how our family tree includes not only grandparents, but squid. Oddly enough, that teaching did not surprise them as much as the idea that bears have eggs.

    At the risk of hijacking this discussion, may I propose that the underlying conflict you sense is the question of whether any other form of life, apart from mankind, will be granted immortality (much less eternal life). Will cats be resurrected? How about voles? Bacteria? Trilobites? For these questions, we don’t need to go back more than 6,000 years to see a conflict. Either we draw a line and exclude some life from immortality (but why?), or we recognize that there is not enough space on this earth to hold all resurrected life. Just the grasses, plankton, locusts, and other “small” forms of life that have lived and died over the last 100 years would overcrowd our world if they were all resurrected together. Currently, all I can offer is wild speculation to answer the cunundrum. Multi-verses and reincarnation strike me as the most reasonable solutions.

  10. Josh Smith on March 17, 2014 at 9:50 am

    Nathaniel,

    Thank you for the thoughtful post and the time and effort it took.

    What about the feral child? My daughter and I just finished the Graveyard Book (based on the Jungle Book).

    Seriously though, for as long as mankind has lived in society we’ve told stories of the child who is raised outside of society. … and, there are some compelling examples of “wild children.” Just as a hypothetical, I suspect we’d still recognize “humanness” in the child raised completely outside of human culture.

    Again, thank you for the thoughtful post. It’s given me something to think about today.

  11. Nathaniel Givens on March 17, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Josh-

    What about the feral child?

    In a sea of mostly speculative questions, this is a really important practical one. Someone raise in deprivation of human contact is not any less of a human being in terms of value or moral significance. Being deprived of socialization doesn’t make a person sub-human. Instead, it makes them a human being who has been cut off from some of his or her essential nature. As with, say, an amputee or someone suffering from Down syndrome the loss is real but they deserve full inclusion within our society and consideration as a human being.

    Just wanted to be clear on that, since the history of segmenting certain humans as being “less than” contains most of the darkest chapters of our history. That’s not the way I think this speculation must lead.

  12. Jim Cobabe on March 17, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Much of our contemporary science inquiry into issues relating to evolution and human potential are narrowly constricted to genetics. But the current level of resolution of genetics at the molecular level offers nothing to explain the differences between humans and other so-called “primates”. The fact that human genetics seem to share a great deal in common with redwood trees and undersea sponges is more instructive for what it does NOT tell us. The intriguing question is not about genotypes and cytochemistry. It is about understanding WHY humans are so very different and unique.

  13. Dave K on March 17, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Jim, that’s an interesting point (#12). But why do you think humans are “so very different and unique” from other species? Wouldn’t it be just as accurate to say that undersea sponges are very different and unique from primates and redwood trees, even though their genomes are largely the same? Or that blue whales, or wooly mamoths, or peregrin falcons are very different and unique from other species, even though their geneomes too are largely the same?

    The more I look at the world, the more I realize that humans are not that special or unique. The gap between our society and abilities, as compared with other primates, is much smaller than the gap between those primates and, say, tubefish or fleas. And the society and abilities of our species is quite often inferior to those of other living things. Other animals have better eyes, ears, and even senses we don’t. Killer whales seem to have, on average, a much better family structure than average humans.

    The real question (at least for this type of blog space), is why would God view our species as unique and different such that we merit salvation and immortality, while other species (historical and current) do not. I have a very hard time drawing a line such that humans have a divine nature, but no other life form qualifies.

  14. Lorin on March 17, 2014 at 11:45 am

    My thinking is evolving (excuse the pun) on this topic. For now, the way the science/theology works in my mind is thus:

    1. Adam and Eve were not the first homo sapiens; however, they were the first homo sapiens who were spirit children of God.

    2. While Adam and Eve may have been real people, the understanding of The Fall does not require an understanding of those two individuals nearly as much as an understanding that every human being is, today, effectively Adam and Eve.

  15. Lorin on March 17, 2014 at 11:46 am

    “… Adam OR Eve.”

  16. Jared vdH on March 17, 2014 at 11:51 am

    Dave K,

    I seem to remember the scriptures saying that everything will be resurrected and receive immortality. I can’t find the scripture reference at the moment, but I remember also being taught that as a youth.

    As for salvation as you mention it, I suppose it depends on your definition of salvation. I find it very possible that the only reason we view other species as not capable of receiving the gospel is simply because we struggle to communicate with them. If the “image of God” is more of a social/cognitive image rather than a literal physical image, when/if other species become capable of full language, especially writing, who’s to say that they will not also be considered made in the “image of God”?

  17. Bob on March 17, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    A thought that came to my mind while I was out for a walk one day was that Adam and Eve were truly created by God in the Garden of Eden. While Adam and Eve tarried there for an unknown amount of time, outside the Garden evolution was progressing as science now declares. Once Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, they had children that intermingled with evolutionary man.

    Genesis 6:2
    • Old Testament
    That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

  18. Old Man on March 17, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Dave K (#13) and Jared vdH (#16):

    D&C 77: 1-4 suggests that animal life does enjoy some form of salvation/exaltation. But I believe we are overreaching if we imply that God’s image is reflected in animal form. My take is that the spirits of human beings are significantly and eternally different than those of animals. But exactly how? I do not know. Even then, the implications of these verses are enormous.

    Here is a related quote from Joseph Fielding Smith (Conference Report, October 1928): “So we see that the Lord intends to save, not only the earth and the heavens, not only man who dwells upon the earth, but all things which he has created. The animals, the fishes of the sea, the fowls of the air, as well as man, are to be recreated, or renewed, through the resurrection, for they too are living souls.”

    Lorin (#14): I appreciate your thoughts. I believe they summarize one possible hypothesis. God essentially sets natural law into motion via creation, intervening to assist the development of a “likeness” which resembles our premortal spirit forms, and when the time is right to instruct/establish covenents with an emerging homo sapiens population, making the first covenant-makers “Adam and Eve.” But it does beg a lot of questions. Why do it that way? It is very messy. And I suppose that one could even claim pre-Adamic peoples did not have a spirit which was a premortal “child of God.”

  19. Old Man on March 17, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    Bob (#17):

    It is probably just me, but your idea made me flinch. It bears too much resemblance to some early 20th century race theory. And it could be used to explain the effects of the Fall as a product of something other than the choices of Adam and Eve.

  20. Jared vdH on March 17, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    D&C 77: 3-4 “3 Q. Are the four beasts limited to individual beasts, or do they represent classes or orders?

    A. They are limited to four individual beasts, which were shown to John, to represent the glory of the classes of beings in their destined border or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity.

    4 Q. What are we to understand by the eyes and wings, which the beasts had?

    A. Their eyes are a representation of light and knowledge, that is, they are full of knowledge; and their wings are a representation of power, to move, to act, etc.”

    I don’t know, Old Man (#18), those scriptures seem to suggest that animals may have as much of a capacity for light and knowledge as humankind, they may just not currently posses it. Also in the section of Revelation these verses are referencing, the beasts are speaking.

    Also I’m not stating that this is the Truth or anything like it. I’m just speculating. In other words, I’m not saying that Christ suffered the sins of dolphins so that they could achieve exaltation. However I do believe that He could have if it was feasible.

  21. 0t on March 17, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Some of what you describe in terms of intelligence, sounds like a societal interpretation of Tononi’s Phi. He (and others, like Christoph Koch) argue that consciousness arises from the interconnectedness of the brain (the small world network connection separate sensory and processing centers). They go much deeper than that, but it’s about what arises. It can be computed numerically. I think this is a great way to explain consciousness, but I’m still pondering its correctness.

    I’m not sure of your aliens creating humans from DNA hypothesis. If they could get a creature than was 100% human DNA, then it would have the same capacities that we do now. It would learn language, if in an environment where it could hear aural communication. Its ability to develop would be limited by the aliens ability to interact with it. It would be human but not culturally, but it would be consciously human.

    But to your original argument: I have a fundamental concern with how we as Latter-day Saints accept science. We do so with the premise that there are certain areas of miraculousness that are out of bounds to science. But in truth, there are no such areas. Science attempts to explain everything in non-miraculous terms. Lets be clear, there’s zero scientific evidence of nearly every single doctrine of Diety and His powers, except personal experiences, or the records of those who’ve had personal experiences. Science has done a remarkably good job at completely construction a human evolutionary, genetic, and migratory history that is well grounded in data and completely devoid of the miraculous events described in the scriptures. So when we accept some science and some miracles, you get into a real “where do you draw the line?” argument. I think we would do well to quit speculating about it–or rather, to try to avoid clutching at scientific straws to speculate. I don’t mind speculating–I mind people pushing it as proof or evidence. I have a suspicion that John 14:6 is the Savior trying to say that all paths or “proofs” to God are explicitly blocked, except via the doctrine of Christ. If that’s true, then science is seeing something, but anything that would lead to proof of God observationally is actively denied.

  22. Erik on March 17, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    The idea just doesn’t jive with me that God would choose to put human souls into Adam and Eve, while their parents and grandparents had no such souls. I refuse that kind of Cartesian dualistic thinking.

    I personally work under the assumption that Adam and Eve are our first parents in terms of the Priesthood – just like Abraham is the father of everyone who receives the Priesthood as well. While I’m open to reconsideration, I don’t think the whole Garden of Eden episode is historical – I take it as metaphorical, as representing our journeys from Eden (the pre-existence) and the Fall (to mortality).

    I would suggest that one reason we can’t seem to square our concept of spirit children of God with evolution *might* be that we do not understand spiritual creation. Perhaps we just don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to be spiritual children of God, what intelligences are, etc. … and we might not even know enough to be able to even ask the question right.

    I do think reincarnation presents an interesting solution to the problem, in that we don’t have to find some arbitrary divisionary line to account for spirit children versus non-spirit children if reincarnation takes place and is part of eternal progression (‘lower’ forms won’t need resurrection as ‘lower’ forms if their spirits enter into ‘higher’ forms). Except, Joseph Smith already told us that this one isn’t true, and it doesn’t fit with scripture.

    Sometimes I wish Joseph Smith would’ve lived into the time of Darwin. Perhaps he would have received revelations reconciling truths of natural science with scripture in ways that could only come through a Seer like him.

    Or perhaps we’re just not ready to understand all things yet, seeing we do have prophets, seers and revelators who could receive such revelation if it was sought AND we were ready. Meanwhile, it’s our challenge to update Mormonism to the 21st century rather than remaining in the 18th century. Which is why it’s good to be asking these questions.

  23. Tim on March 17, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Erik–

    I’ve had the same thoughts regarding reincarnation. Not that that’s what I believe, but it would make the issue we’re discussing here a lot easier to understand.

    I don’t particularly like the “and poof, God suddenly placed full-grown spirits into man, and Adam was the first man…” Who knows, though. That might be how it worked.

    I like to think I have a decent understanding of the gospel, and I have an undergraduate degree in biology (with an unofficial emphasis on evolution). But as to how evolution fits together with the gospel, and especially this issue? No idea whatsoever. I do think that there are big parts of religious truth that we aren’t just ready to hear yet, and that some of those truths–as upsetting as they might be–may help us to reconcile issues like this one.

  24. sj on March 17, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    “and that some of those truths–as upsetting as they might be–may help us to reconcile issues like this one.”

    Yes…like reincarnation. Reincarnations solves the whole problem…or we could call it multiple mortal probations, or eternal lives, or being born again.

  25. JP on March 17, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    I dunno, kids. Can someone explain to me how reincarnations solves anything? It certainly doesn’t gel theologically, as far as I can see. Do you mean reincarnation of pre-covenant spirits? Or several at-bats for everybody?

    And one of the problems in Erik’s resistance to the idea of Adam and Eve as first “souls” might be that we think of human society then in our own terms now. That takes a lot of things for granted that most anthropologists I know wouldn’t. Factor out theology, and evolution still requires an evolving intelligence/consciousness. At some point human beings began to resemble what we are not only in form but in intelligence and sociality. And a convergence of all the necessaries makes sense to me under the covenant model.

    But “breathing” and “intelligence” are for us theological concepts, literal or not, and suggest a point of inception/introduction. I think introduction is a notion worth considering, since the endowment at any rate suggests that Adam and Eve were taken from the creative space and brought into the garden after they had been, well, introduced to each other. That ought to tell us something about the manner of human development and human rapprochement to God, whether we take it as literal or symbolic.

    I favour the latter myself, but I’m open to the former in some way that fits with or radically interrupts what we have come to understand about the evolution of the species.

    All that said, it seems to me that the best speculations on this subject are the simplest: those that neither discount the science or the theology, but harmonize the two at the point of least resistance. Inception/establishment of covenant/first apocalypse models all seem to do that. . . .

    J

  26. sj on March 18, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Reincarnation allows for the gradual development of a spirit body in relation to the development of a physical body. It allows a disembodied and formless “intelligence” to undergo many, many embodiments until it reaches a stage of self awareness, but even then the work of perfecting the body as a “temple” in which the spirit “intelligence” can dwell continues. There is no need in this model for an exact point when being human begins and being an animal ends. We are still animals in so many ways that this point should be obvious.

    Reincarnation also solves the problem of spiritual evolution. If all I get is one mortal probation, how is it fair that one person is born a Roman slave an another is born into a privileged, middle class LDS home? It makes sense if we admit that maybe the LDS person actually was a Roman slave once. Otherwise you are left with awkward explanations of earning merit in premortal wars in heaven, or that the Roman slave will get baptized for the dead one day. Not saying I actually believe in reincarnation, it just solves a bunch of theological problems for me and so I find it quite compelling.

    The biggest obstacle in developing a theology of evolution is that we have no clear idea what an “intelligence” is, what a spirit child of God is, or where either came from. Thus when we talk about God putting spirits into cavemen, we simply do not know what we are talking about.

  27. JP on March 18, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Thanks, sj. I think Grace does a better job of addressing those issues. Grace neutralizes discussions of merit altogether. Under a theology of grace, actions are contingent and dispositional.

    You’re right that we don’t know enough to say for certain what intelligence and spirit are, which is why I treat them theologically and hermeneutically. I think they are nodes of discovery about the rest of it, though, even as mere concepts: they productively, perhaps even metaphorically, illuminate what it is to be human in a way that plain biology can’t account for.

  28. Nathaniel Givens on March 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

    You can’t have reincarnation and eternal families.

  29. sj on March 18, 2014 at 10:09 am

    You can if you expand the definition of family as souls who’ve achieved self awareness and entered into a covenant relationship with God and one another. It doesn’t work if eternal families are conceived as a earthly relatives living together in the same celestial neighborhood. I’m not trying to threadjack here. I just think when considering how to think about God and evolution, its worth while looking that those traditions for whom evolution is not only not a problem, but a sensible fit with their theology.

  30. Josh Smith on March 18, 2014 at 11:02 am

    So, it’s a couple days after the original post, and I’m still reading the follow-up comments and thinking about the original post. Particularly this line:


    Perhaps, for example, part of being “in the image of God” refers not just to our bodies, but also to our existence in society with one another.

    Admittedly, I have no impulse to reconcile “Adam” and “Eve” with evolution. At one point in my life I probably did, but as I sit here today I’m not particularly concerned about reconciling the Garden of Eden and natural selection. I guess more clearly stated, I’m very interested in the natural sciences (particularly biology), but I’m not sure what to do with “Adam.” I love the natural world, and I have experiences learning about it that I consider “spiritual” or “revelatory.” Frankly, I have no such feelings about “Adam.” The idea of a literal original man created by the hand of God just doesn’t inspire me. (I’m not sure if this is an appropriate forum for such a statement. If not, someone please let me know, and I’ll move on.)

    So what does a guy like me do with “Adam” and “Eve”? The above quote from Nathaniel’s post gives me something to think about. Could “Adam” be thought of as “culture”? Could “Adam” be thought of as the point in time when a hominid woke up in the morning and realized that his or her existence was inextricably tied to the existence of his fellows? Maybe “Adam” was born when a member of the tribe died and was buried by those who survived? When someone first felt something and thought to paint it for another to see? Adornment? Music? Written word?

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to post Nathaniel.

  31. Henry on March 19, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Evolution, DNA, etc. seem directly at odds with D&C 77 where Deity supposedly told J.S. that the earth only has a 7,000 year existence. Maybe J.S. was merely speaking as a man at that point?

  32. Jared vdH on March 19, 2014 at 10:59 am

    The full quote from D&C 77 is

    6 Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals?A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.

    7 Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed?A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.

    One does not have to interpret this in a Young Earth manner, such that God is saying that the planet that we call Earth has existed for seven thousand years. For example in other scriptures (for example Alma 11:42, 1 Nephi 15:31, and D&C 29) “temporal” has also had a meaning akin to “mortal”, so another reading of verse 6 in D&C 77 could be “the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its mortal existence.”

    With this interpretation in mind I think that verse 6 may really be referring to essentially the existence of God’s church, or the history of His priesthood being present on the Earth. In my mind this jives pretty well with both the spirit of the Book of Revelation which D&C 77 is addressing, and Nathaniel’s OP.

  33. Lisa B on March 19, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    I’ve also long thought of Adam and Eve as representing the first covenant couple, rather than the first human couple, and also as representing each of us choosing to come out of Eden (pre-earth life) and into mortality.

  34. Tom Wheeler on March 20, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Not that I want to hi-jack this thread, but I just happened upon this site and thought I might post my own essay /speculations on the subject which I wrote not too long ago. It touches on a number of ideas you’re speaking about, but with perhaps a few new ones. For any that are interested:
    http://wheelercreek.com/blog/mormonism-adam-and-eve-and-human-evolution

  35. Dan on April 2, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Dan C:

    To me, it’s likely God created man separately and individually … perhaps in his heavenly sphere of abode … before placing him here on the earth. It makes sense to me that if he could produce 1/2 the physical body of Jesus, he certainly is capable of producing physical offspring “without number” and populating worlds “without number” with bodies possessing the physical attributes he himself has in a glorified state.

    In Moses 3, we read:

    5 … And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and THERE WAS NOT YET FLESH UPON THE EARTH neither in the water, neither in the air; …

    7 And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, THE FIRST FLESH UPON THE EARTH, THE FIRST MAN ALSO; nevertheless, all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word.

    8 And I, the Lord God, planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there I put the man whom I had formed.

    (all caps added by commenter)

    It is entirely possible that evolution could have had a hand in the eventual creation of Adam and Eve’s bodies. However, It is more likely God produced them in heaven (his abode) by natural means much as we create offspring on this earth. And likely, also, that the other creatures on earth were created as “parallel” beings to co-exist with MAN — “…the first flesh .. the first man also.”

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