Evolution and Mormonism : A Quest for Understanding

Trent D. Stephens, D. Jeffrey Meldrum, Duane E. Jeffery, & Forrest B. Peterson

“It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon the earth, and that the original human was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men.” — official statement from the First Presidency in 1909

“If our Church schools would confine their so-called course of study in biology to that knowledge of the insect world which would help us to eradicate the pests that threaten the destruction of our crops and our fruit, such instruction would answer much better the aims of the Church school, than theories which deal with the origin of life.” — President Joseph F. Smith in 1911

“There are those who say that revealed religion and organic evolution can be harmonized. This is both false and devilish.” — Elder Bruce R. McConkie in 1980

After reading the Foreword by Duane E. Jeffery, BYU professor of zoology and a director of the National Center for Science Education, I had high hopes for this book. Jeffery’s vision is needed both in and out of the LDS Church. All religions need such an attitude if they seek to prosper, rather than become extinct. He quotes from Nels L. Nelson who said in 1904 that “a religion which is not scientific is scarcely worth the credence of our enlightened age.” Jeffery says

religions can do only about three things with science. They can, of course, attack it, and many religious concepts now lie in the dust bin of history from that approach. They can ignore it–in which case they progressively become incapable of addressing modern and future problems. Or they can engage it and incorporate the demonstrated truths found thereby into a more productive view of their overall universe. (page ix)

Unfortunately, many Mormon leaders, especially in the latter half of the 20th Century, took the first two approaches. This has resulted in a modern Mormon neo-orthodoxy which places more weight on obedience, veneration of the president of the church as “prophet”, a literal reading of scripture, and a general distaste for things “worldly” like science (except as it relates to the production of income). Jeffery challenges Mormons to do more, think more, and search for demonstrable truth, wherever it may be found.

We must bring ourselves into a position to deal with this massive outpouring of [scientific] truth. In my opinion, we can no longer afford to ignore it. Active, honest, and rigorous engagement is the only response worthy of those who would uphold the ideals that fired the Restoration. (page xiv)

The rest of Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding was not nearly as impressive to me. But then again, I don’t think I’m the authors’ intended audience. There is as much theology, scripture quotation and interpretation, and apologetics in Evolution and Mormonism as there is science–maybe more. The intended audience are Mormons having a difficult time reconciling their faith with the facts of life. The authors aren’t going to convert any atheists to Mormonism and probably aren’t going to convert many creationists to Darwinism. Those most interested will be those wanting to believe in both Evolution and Mormonism. And wanting is certainly the key. A dispassionate observer will be left frustrated. One first has to assume Mormonism is true before delving into this book.

The writing isn’t particularly well done despite the inclusion of a professional writer (Peterson) in the mix. There are much better introductions to Darwinism and science to be found elsewhere. The authors obviously take their religion more serious than their science (although they cite Wootton in an attempt to make it seem as if Mormonism encourages and produces scientists to a greater degree than the population in general). After the first few chapters I was surprised that the publisher wasn’t Deseret Book instead of Signature. Chapters 1 and 2, especially, sound like something you would find in the Ensign. As mentioned previously, the book is intended to be a faith cushion–not a wholly objective look at the subject (i.e., anti-evolution statements by general authorities are sometimes downplayed and “new” or alternative interpretations of scripture are looked for). But for those looking for a more “thoughtful faith” this is a place to possibly start.

Chapter 4, dealing with the history of church leaders’ views on evolution, is one of the more interesting chapters. It walks the old line of basically saying that anything a person who has been sustained as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” says can also be taken as their own (erroneous) position or opinion. Which merely begs the question of why bother revering or listening to them as prophets if what they say can’t (always) be trusted? How do you know what to believe and what to discard? Believe it or not, I take the side of people like Elder Packer or Elder McConkie in this case. I don’t believe organic evolution can be reconciled with the scriptures, the fall, the atonement or a host of other doctrines which weren’t brought up in this book like death, resurrection, or “God’s plan” in general.

While the authors’ split of things science can speak on and things religions are to speak on is a popular theme with theistic scientists, they do a disservice to science in the process. They set up a straw man in this instance to make their case. On page 61 they state that

Those who embrace science and reject religion are often of the opinion that “if I can’t see it, then it must not exist.”

I have yet to hear an atheist make such an absurd claim yet the reader is led to believe that this is “often” the belief. After a lengthy discourse which destroys their strawman and shows how our senses aren’t perfect (something no real person is questioning anyway) we are told that there are inherent problems with the foundation of science just as there are potential problems with “visions or other spiritual manifestations”. That the differences are both in degree and kind is not pointed out by the authors.

Mormons, more than other religionists it seems, use the word “know” when they really mean “believe”. The authors do the same when it comes to religious matters and they justify it by showing a scripture (Ether 3) of how one can “know” religious truths. It becomes a big circular loop of dubious semantics. “I know the scripture is true because it says I can know it…” Knowledge in science is not the same as belief/”knowledge” in religious matters. Sure, science is not always 100% correct. It doesn’t claim to be. But the key differences in method between the two provide better indicators in science of “what is” and “what is not” and hence can fall under the umbrella of knowing vs. a mere hopeful belief or faith.

The reader is finally treated to some science in the middle of the book. Theology is occasionally woven in which makes for a rather puzzling blend–at least to those of us who can’t understand the logic behind sometimes choosing the methods of science and at other times opting for religious dogma. The irony grows with statements like

There are no scientific data to support any of these supernatural hypotheses [made by Mormons like Brigham Young regarding the origins of Adam]; in fact, the body of accumulated scientific evidence stands against them. (p. 133)

Rather hypocritically, there is no scientific data to support any of the authors’ supernatural hypotheses (of animism, a literal belief in scriptures, resurrection, or a number of other Mormon doctrines) and there is scientific evidence against them in many cases to boot, but that doesn’t stop them from putting them forward in this book. Animism, the belief that people are made up of spirits and bodies, is a key tenant of Mormonism and the authors’ attempt to reconcile Darwin with the church. Bodies were created by natural process in their view, but the spirit is the key that makes a person alive and conscious, existed before life, and will continue to exist after the body dies. These different components, if you will, allow for both Darwinism and Mormon scripture to be correct in their view. The body is a mere shell or coat created by natural selection. That’s all fine and well if you ignore the progress and discoveries of neuroscience of the past few decades. Maybe science is correct and the physical body controls our “spirits”? If so, shouldn’t the authors and Mormonism accept neurology (as well as biology, anthropology, paleontology, etc.) and do away with animism similar to how the authors suggest Mormonism abandon young earth creationism? And what of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham? Science has weighed the evidence surrounding the historicity of them too.

Which brings me to the main point I’d like to make when it comes to “scientific theism”… A book like this which seeks to reconcile Mormonism and Evolution can never be produced without a load of contradictions and arbitrary picking and choosing of what to believe. Where is any sort of consistent use of Occam’s Razor in this book? If such books are going to be attempted in the future they should reconcile Evolution with Deism or Pantheism–not Mormonism or any other religion that believes in a personal god, a more or less literal reading of the Bible and other religious scriptures, and/or is demonstrably untrue to some extent (at least) using scientific methods.

On page 160 we find “God manipulated the conditions of the physical environment to facilitate and promote the process of creation by evolution” and just four pages later we have “natural process[es] by which God carried out his creative design and ultimately prepared suitable physical tabernacles for his spirit offspring”. So which is it? Are natural processes taking place or is God manipulating things? The authors seem to go back and forth between the two without difficulty. Personally, I have difficulty in believing in such an unnatural (and inconsistent) “nature”.

Chapter 11 is entitled “Genesis Revisited”. In it the authors ask some good questions while still trying to spin an interpretation of Genesis, Moses, and Abraham that allows for a more or less literal reading. When will people (including theistic scientists!) learn that the Bible isn’t a science textbook? Some of the good questions are things like “How was light created before the sun?” My jaw drops when I read things from these authors like if “most or even part of Genesis is to be taken literally, there still is no conflict between what we read there and the scientific data supporting the theory of evolution.” (p. 179)

In the final chapter things will become even stranger for any non-Mormon who has made it this far. If social Darwinism is wrong then I’m not sure what to call this.

Natural selection preserves those organisms possessing traits that allow them to survive and reproduce under specific conditions. Those traits are passed on to the next generation permitting them to “fulfill the measure of their creation.” The plan of exaltation preserves those individuals possessing spiritual traits such as faith, hope, and charity. Those who develop the necessary attributes are endowed with eternal lives and can then pass on the ability to develop the same traits to their offspring.

So now we have Mormonism not only accepting Darwinian evolution (essentially for the first time) but Darwinism actually becoming a symbol for Mormonism’s entire plan of salvation. Incredible!

I guess I can see, having reached the end of the book, why the subject matter is too controversial for a publishing house like Deseret Book. Even though I don’t agree with the authors on many things, I do think Mormonism would be a better religion if it lived up to ideals such as those expressed by Brigham Young that “we want every branch of science taught in this place that is taught in the world” and “our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular.” If only that were so. To those who still hold the assumption that it is so, this will be a good book for you. Enjoy!

from the publisher:
Scientists discover more every day about how life developed on Earth. Details that stream in from the new field of molecular biology rival the ongoing findings of paleontologists as they fill in the missing pieces in the fossil record. Professors Stephens and Meldrum, aided by the perspective of a non-scientist, Forrest B. Peterson, review the data for a general Latter-day Saint audience.

Their approach comes from a position of faith. They quote from the Creation account in the Pearl of Great Price: “And the Gods said: Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life. And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed and that their plan was good.” In the authors’ view, the passage’s emphasis on process over end result is consistent with modern science.

According to the LDS church, “Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection,” or were formed by some other means, is “not fully answered in the revealed word of God.” That God may have created the mechanism by which all life was formed�rather than each organism separately�is a concept that the authors find to be a satisfying and awe-inspiring possibility.

Trent D. Stephens (B.S., M.S., Brigham Young University; Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) is Professor of Anatomy and Embryology at Idaho State University (ISU), where he was named Distinguished Teacher in 1992 and Outstanding Researcher in 2000. He is the co-author of ten textbooks. He currently serves as bishop of the Pocatello (Idaho) Century Ward.

D. Jeffrey Meldrum (B.S., M.S., BYU; Ph.D., State University of New York at Stony Brook) is Associate Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at ISU and Affiliate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. He is co-editor of a series of books on paleontology. He serves as a priesthood instructor and scout master in the Pocatello Fourth Ward.

Forrest B. Peterson is an award-winning writer and movie producer. In 1990 his Trouble in Oz won five Crystal Reel prizes from the Florida Film Festival. His church duties have included elders quorum president and gospel doctrine teacher.

Duane E. Jeffery (B.S., M.S., Utah State University; Ph.D., UC Berkeley) is Professor of Zoology at Brigham Young University. He has published in Dialogue, Genetics, the Journal of Heredity, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is a contributor to Science and Religion and The Search for Harmony. He has served in the bishopric of his LDS ward and on the stake high council.