For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth… And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul. (Moses 3:5, 9)
I have written a couple articles in recent weeks about some of my first impressions on subjects that are sometimes seen as dividing points between Church “doctrine” and scientific discovery. These subjects were the age of the Earth, which I thought could reasonably be found to be billions of years old and therefore agree with the findings of science while not contradicting the doctrines of the gospel or the teachings of the Church. The other subject was death before the Fall, which I also thought could reasonably be found that there has been life and death on the Earth for billions of years and therefore concur with the findings of science while not contradicting the doctrines of the gospel or the teachings of the Church. In both cases, the subjects can be in harmony both with science and our religion. Those posts were only the beginning of some of my first thoughts on these matters, are not comprehensive or exhaustive. Likewise here I will try to give some first thoughts on evolution, perhaps the most hotly debated subject with regards to science and the Church, and religion in general.
First I want to recognize that there are good people on both sides of the issue who have strong beliefs and opinions. I will simply try to present some of my current thoughts on the matter which may be able to reasonably reconcile the ever-advancing and exponentially expanding discoveries of science and technology with the doctrines and statements of the Church. The reason for doing so is because these subjects can be a cause of severe cognitive dissonance for many members in the Church, which can weaken faith, and even cause some to leave the Church. It is my opinion that this should not be! The findings of science can be reconciled with the truths of the gospel. Truth wherever its source can be found to be in harmony.
We will ask more questions than we answer, as in previous posts. Nothing is absolutely certain here. Nothing definitive has been revealed by God, either through his authoritative priesthood channels, or through inspired scientific learning. We are all still learning, and more is yet to be revealed (Articles of Faith 9). Yet there has been a lot that we’ve learned already, and I think we need to recognize that portion we have today.
What is our Doctrine?
Before I launch into this discussion we should first recognize that these things are not a part or portion of the doctrine of Christ or his Church. The doctrine of the gospel was stated quite clearly by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and is repeated endlessly throughout the scriptures, and is that which focuses on our Savior Jesus Christ:
The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.1
This is the fundamental core of our religion, the testimony of Jesus Christ, what he came into the world to do, which is effectuate the Atonement on behalf of all of God’s children. This is the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those who would make something else more important, more far-reaching, or more all-encompassing than this are forgetting this point. So any thoughts on evolution should be viewed in that light. In 1931 the First Presidency, in addressing some of these same issues, wrote to the General Authorities:
Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored Gospel to the people of the world. 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.2
The studies and findings of science do not bear upon the salvation of the souls of mankind. We continue to do our duty in the church no matter what the findings of science bear out, and we know that we are doing the work of God. More often than not, we will find that the truths revealed by science are in perfect harmony with the teachings of the gospel, because all truth comes from the same source, which is God.
Henry Eyring, the LDS scientist, chemist, member of the Sunday School General Board, and father to President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency, once wrote in addressing these divisive subjects:
Such a topic becomes controversial partly because it is interesting to us, but it seems to be sufficiently nonessential to our salvation that the Creator has only briefly treated it in the scriptures. If you think about it, it makes almost no difference at all to the way we should live our lives and treat one another. Still, there are those who line up on both sides as if everything depended on the outcome of this year’s “monkey trial.”3
We should keep this issue in that perspective as we discuss it. The question of the details of creation, of how it all came together, whether by evolution or otherwise, is not expounded upon in the scriptures, not at length nor in repetition, therefore it must be that God found it not to be a central issue to the gospel of salvation. We may find some hints in the scriptures, which point one way or the other, but nothing conclusive is revealed. In fact, all of the acts of creation are only briefly mentioned, and then only figuratively, and in them we are not told how they happened, but only why they happened, and the purpose of our existence. The “how” of creation is not the hinge upon which rests the whole of the gospel, as many might want to make it. That hinge is Christ, and him alone (Mosiah 3:17).
The Church’s official position (or lack thereof)
As recently as 2007, leaders of the Church, namely Elder Russel M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Lance B. Wickman formerly a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, answered direct questions about evolution in an interview by the Pew Forum:
Conservative denominations tend to have more trouble with Darwinian evolution. Does the church have an official position on this topic?
Nelson: We believe that God is our creator and that he has created other forms of life. It’s interesting to me, drawing on my 40 years experience as a medical doctor, how similar those species are. We developed open-heart surgery, for example, experimenting on lower animals simply because the same creator made the human being. We owe a lot to those lower species. But to think that man evolved from one species to another is, to me, incomprehensible.
Why is that?
Nelson: Man has always been man. Dogs have always been dogs. Monkeys have always been monkeys. It’s just the way genetics works.
Wickman: The Scripture describing the Lord as the creator of all of these things says very little about how it was done. I don’t know of anybody in the ranks of the First Presidency and the Twelve [Apostles] who has ever spent much time worrying about this matter of evolution.
Nelson: We have this doctrine, recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 101: “When the Lord shall come again, he shall reveal all things, things which have passed, hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth by which it was made and the purpose and the end thereof, things most precious, things that are above, things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, upon the earth, and in heaven.” So as I close that quotation, I realize that there are just some things that we won’t know until that day.4
What might we glean from this? Elder Nelson said plainly that we believe God is our creator. He shared his view that we are remarkably similar to all the other forms of life on our planet. Indeed, we can even experiment on animals for human purposes because of that similarity. The reason he gives for this similarity is because we have the same creator. But he believes that evolving from one species to another is incomprehensible. Why? Because in everything that we can casually observe in our lifetimes and in recorded history, species simply do not change. We have never seen one species of animal change to another species. He says that this is how genetics works, at least his understanding of it.
On the other hand, the field of genetics is inseparably connected to and relies upon evolutionary theory. As we will see later, there is actually a lot more going on in genetics and many other fields of science, much more that we’ve learned even in the last two decades in these fields of study, that shows that a species doesn’t simply giving rise to the exactly the same species, ad infinitum. Six thousand years of recorded history is but a single drop in the bucket, nay, the swimming pool, in the history of the earth (0.000132% of earth’s history), and it is relatively true that we have not witnessed animals changing from one species to an entirely different species, particularly in our own comparably infinitesimally short lifetimes. Dogs remain dogs for the most part. We have not been around long enough to observe otherwise, or record it in writing. However, we do have the geologic record in the Earth which gives witness to many things, and there are some excellent living examples illustrating that genes can change quite a bit given enough generations.
A simple example for the present is that new varieties of the common cold and flu viruses appear every year, as well as bacterial infections, which is why we can’t simply get the flu shot once in our lifetime and be done with it. These viruses and bacteria replicate and reproduce exceptionally fast, and only since the invention of the most powerful microscopes and genetic tools have we discovered that these microorganisms are actually changing into different forms, with significantly different genetic structures, such that they are classified by different names, and such that the inoculations, vaccines, and antibiotics of last year don’t work today. You need a new flu shot every year. These new organisms didn’t exist last year. Their “creation” was this year. They are brand new types of microorganisms that haven’t lived before, similar but different from the ones which preceded them, and they came from changes in the ones we dealt with last year, changes which are significant enough, over enough generations of reproduction, that we need to develop new defenses every year to protect humanity against them. The reason we can witness the creation of these new organisms, with their significant DNA changes, is because of the speed of their reproduction, which can be as little as a few minutes. Consequently, there are millions of varieties of viruses,5, with new ones emerging each year, but only 5,000 have ever been described in detail6. We will return to more examples later.
What about Elder Wickman’s comments? He simply said that the Lord has revealed very little about “how” the creation was done, and that no one among the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve has spent much time thinking about it, or said much about it. If there had been a revelation on the subject, some new knowledge given by God through the priesthood on this topic, you can be sure that they would have spoken much more on the matter. As it is, Elder Nelson concludes that we believe God has simply not revealed, through priesthood channels, many of the mechanisms of the creation of the earth, or its lifeforms. The Lord tells us in D&C 101 that at the time when he will come again that these things will be revealed. It is my opinion that we are living near the time of the Lord’s coming, and such knowledge is being revealed from God to man, but via many different channels and means, only one of which is the priesthood.
Note what Elders Nelson and Wickman did not do; they did not report an official Church position on the issue of evolution, which was explicitly part of the original question, other than noting that we believe God is the creator of life. What that means, they did not elaborate. The “how” of creation is something we know very little about through the revelations. Their answer was vague as it applies to the findings of science and evolution, simply stating that God has not revealed specifics on the questions of creation through his Church. We will return to this later.
The Church and Science
The Church has experienced a long and comfortable relationship with science since its restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Indeed, we believe science to be one of the methods that God uses to reveal knowledge to mankind. So we shouldn’t be troubled when we learn new things through scientific means. God is the originator of those truths, inspiring mankind to new heights and depths. Whether new knowledge is revealed and comes through priesthood channels or through inspired study, it is all from God, and he is the ultimate source of truth, and the one that gives it to us. We are told that it is by study (using our mind with logic and reason) and also by faith (using our spirit and priesthood channels) that we learn and grow (D&C 88:118; D&C 109:7, 14). There is no conflict between true science and true religion, but they do reveal knowledge of different types. Usually religion reveals the why of things, the purpose of them, whereas science reveals the how, and the details of the operations of our physical reality.
Consider the following quotes:
Joseph Smith – “I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.”7
“One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism, is to accept truth, let it come from whence it may.”8
Brigham Young – “We are not at all under the necessity of falling into the mistake that [others] fall into. They think, when they are handling or dealing in the things of this world, that those things have nothing to do with their religion. Our religion takes within its wide embrace not only things of heaven, but also things of earth. It circumscribes all art, science, and literature pertaining to heaven, earth, and hell.”9
“When the elements melt with fervent heat, the Lord Almighty will send forth his angels, who are well instructed in chemistry, and they will separate the elements and make new combinations thereof.”10
“In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular… whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant.”11
Orson Pratt – “The study of science is the study of something eternal. If we study astronomy, we study the works of God. If we study chemistry, geology, optics, or any other branch of science, every new truth we come to the understanding of is eternal; it is a part of the great system of universal truth. It is truth that exists throughout universal nature; and God is the dispenser of all truth—scientific, religious, and political.”12
James E. Talmage – “In proportion as any one of these [scientists] may learn of the ways of God he becomes wise. To be able to think as God thinks, to comprehend in any degree His purposes and methods, is to become in that measure like unto Him, and to that extent to be prepared for eventual companionship in His presence.”13
“Within the Gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known. The Gospel is not behind the times, on the contrary it is up-to-date and ever shall be… Believe not those who assert that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in any way opposed to progress or inconsistent with advancement.” ((James E. Talmage, ”The Earth and Man”))
First Presidency 1910 – “Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us no matter where it may be found.”14
There are many more quotes where these came from. One of my favorite quotes on science in general was given by Elder James E. Talmage in his monumental book Jesus the Christ, still considered one of the best studies of the life and teachings of the Savior, where he is discussing the miracle of Christ changing water into wine.
Miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized. Gravitation is everywhere operative, but the local and special application of other agencies may appear to nullify it—as by muscular effort or mechanical impulse a stone is lifted from the ground, poised aloft, or sent hurtling through space. At every stage of the process, however, gravity is in full play, though its effect is modified by that of other and locally superior energy. The human sense of the miraculous wanes as comprehension of the operative process increases. Achievements made possible by modern invention of telegraph and telephone with or without wires, the transmutation of mechanical power into electricity with its manifold present applications and yet future possibilities, the development of the gasoline motor, the present accomplishments in aerial navigation—these are no longer miracles in man’s estimation, because they are all in some degree understood, are controlled by human agency, and, moreover, are continuous in their operation and not phenomenal. We arbitrarily classify as miracles only such phenomena as are unusual, special, transitory, and wrought by an agency beyond the power of man’s control.
In a broader sense, all nature is miracle. Man has learned that by planting the seed of the grape in suitable soil, and by due cultivation, he may conduce to the growth of what shall be a mature and fruitful vine; but is there no miracle, even in the sense of inscrutable processes, in that development? Is there less of real miracle in the so-called natural course of plant development—the growth of root, stem, leaves, and fruit, with the final elaboration of the rich nectar of the vine—than there was in what appears supernatural in the transmutation of water into wine at Cana?
In the contemplation of the miracles wrought by Christ, we must of necessity recognize the operation of a power transcending our present human understanding. In this field, science has not yet advanced far enough to analyze and explain. To deny the actuality of miracles on the ground that, because we cannot comprehend the means, the reported results are fictitious, is to arrogate to the human mind the attribute of omniscience, by implying that what man cannot comprehend cannot be, and that therefore he is able to comprehend all that is. The miracles of record in the Gospels are as fully supported by evidence as are many of the historical events which call forth neither protest nor demand for further proof. To the believer in the divinity of Christ, the miracles are sufficiently attested; to the unbeliever they appear but as myths and fables.15
That is a great quote. Miracles are miracles because we can’t understand them. If we understood how it all happened, it would no longer be miraculous, for we would understand how it works. As Brigham Young said above, “If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant.” In this sense, evolution may seem miraculous, or even unbelievable, because of our personal inability to understand it. It was not too long ago that science had not yet advanced far enough to analyze or explain such phenomena as the adaptation and emergence of new viruses, why the geologic record in the earth is the way it is, or the similarities and relationships between traits and DNA among all living things. Our science has progressed in recent times at exponential speed.
What do we know about evolution today? Is it still a “theory” in the minds of men? Are there other reasonable options for the development of life besides evolution? What have we learned even in the last decade? Is there a possibility that evolution could be wrong, be a myth? What impact and application has evolution made in other scientific fields and in scientific innovations? What about evolution and man? What about what the Church has said about evolution? Church leaders? What do the scriptures teach? How can we reconcile it all? These are some of the questions I’ll try to comment on here.
What do we know about evolution today?
The answer is, a lot. The National Academy of Sciences stated recently that “Evolutionary biology has been and continues to be a cornerstone of modern science”16 Furthermore,
The theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and experiments that the overwhelming majority of scientists no longer question whether evolution has occurred and continues to occur and instead investigate the processes of evolution. Scientists are confident that the basic components of evolution will continue to be supported by new evidence, as they have been for the past 150 years.17
Evolutionary theory has been a fundamental part of not only biology, but many other fields of science including the domestication of plants and animals, genetic engineering, genetic disorders, computer science, ecology, life history theory, evolutionary developmental biology, molecular biology, medicine, antibiotics, virology, anthropology, psychology, paleontology, archaeology, astrophysics, chemistry, bioinformatics, epidemiology, geology, physics, mathematics, behavioral sciences, social sciences, and many others. I don’t think we realize just how deep and vast the implications of evolution reach. It is the backbone of much of modern science. Without evolution, we would not have much of science as it stands today. It has affected almost every discipline of science known to man, not only theoretically, but effectively. Much of the innovation that we’ve been able to make in the past century has been a direct or indirect result of advancing studies of evolutionary theory about life on earth.
We cannot simply wipe evolution from the map of our understandings in science, and move forward, as some are wont to do. Evolution is thoroughly established in nearly every field of science today, and has contributed to the advancement of our knowledge in countless areas. The evidences of evolution are not growing weaker, but quite the opposite; the evidences have been so numerous, and the studies so vast, that the majority of scientists don’t question whether evolution is accurate, whether it has occurred, or whether it continues to occur. That’s now beside the point of their current studies. Thousands of scientists have conducted thousands upon thousands of studies into the assumptions and predictions of evolutionary theory for over 150 years, and the evidence and observations they make support it from countless angles, far too many to ignore. They are not asking still if it’s true, but are now studying the processes of evolution, and the particulars of how it occurs, and the implications for life today and in the future. Of course, studying the particulars continues to mount evidence in support of the broader foundations of the theory too. Again, evolution provides the basis for most of modern science. Without it, the world would be a very different place today. We’ll examine some examples later.
Henry Eyring, father to President Henry B. Eyring as introduced above, once had these comments about the work of scientists:
What, then, is to prevent us from seeking to understand God’s methods of creation by any and all means available to us? Many avoid seeking understanding from science because they believe that any theory in conflict with the Lord’s revelations will finally be proven false. Of course, given those assumptions, the position is clearly correct, since I don’t believe that God intentionally misleads his children.
We have a dilemma, however, because God has left messages all over in the physical world that scientists have learned to read. These messages are quite clear, well-understood, and accepted in science. That is, the theories that the earth is about four-and-one-half billion years old and that life evolved over the last billion years or so are as well established scientifically as many theories ever are. So, if the word of God found in the scriptures and the word of God found in the rocks are contradictory, must we choose between them, or is there some way they can be reconciled?…
I think it is perfectly appropriate for us to study and learn as much as we can about this wonderful place God has prepared for us.
We should keep in mind that scientists are as diligent and truthful as anyone else. Organic evolution is the honest result of capable people trying to explain the evidence to the best of their ability. From my limited study of the subject I would say that the physical evidence supporting the theory is considerable from a scientific viewpoint.
In my opinion it would be a very sad mistake if a parent or teacher were to belittle scientists as being wicked charlatans or else fools having been duped by half-baked ideas that gloss over inconsistencies. That isn’t an accurate assessment of the situation, and our children or students will be able to see that when they begin their scientific studies…
The only important thing is that God did it. I might say in that regard that in my mind the theory of evolution has to include a notion that the dice have been loaded from the beginning in favor of more complex life forms. That is, without intelligent design of the natural laws in such a way as to favor evolution from lower forms to higher forms of life, I don’t think the theory holds water. I can’t see randomly generated natural laws producing these remarkable results. So, in my mind, God is behind it all whether we evolved or not.18
In the Church we are taught that by the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established (D&C 6:28; D&C 128:3; Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; Deut. 17:6). Indeed, such witnesses attest to the truth of the Book of Mormon, and are printed directly in the introduction of the book for all to read. Witnesses are involved and even required in many of the ordinances we perform in the Church. The law of witnesses is as central and important a law as any in the Church. But when it comes to evolution, for some reason the Mount Everest of witnesses in support of it, including many witnesses which are a part of our everyday experience, does not apply the same way for many people. It does not seem to matter what scientists study, say, or produce in this regard, or how much evidence mounts, the witnesses are ignored by many of us.
A recent research study by the Pew Forum in 2007 shows that Mormons are one of the least likely religious groups to believe evolution is a good explanation for life on earth, specifically human life, being outnumbered in disbelief only by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This seems incomprehensible to me. We have 150 years of evidences supporting evolution, yet we still want to deny it. How many more years, how many more scientists, how many more studies, how many more evidences do we need in order to believe what God seems to have revealed to mankind through his own creation? We might ask ourselves, “what greater witness can [we] have than from God?” (D&C 6:23). As Professor Eyring noted, the Earth that God has given us is littered from top to bottom with messages, evidences, of the truth of the history of earth and life upon it. The tremendous speed of the developments in our technology and learning has allowed us to read these messages at ever more fine resolution and accuracy every day. As Eyring noted, these messages are “quite clear, well-understood, and accepted in science.” These too are the word of God. God left them for us to discover and decipher, and our understandings are mounting and are fundamentally changing our world. It is not disputed among Mormons that God inspires man to learn more about the world that surrounds us, and that technological innovations and advancements in our civilization have had the divine hand in them. So it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that all the evidence that has been mounting for some time in support of evolution is somehow false, inaccurate, incomplete, misleading, misunderstood, wrong, deceitful, or even evil. I tend to agree with Dr. Eyring: I don’t believe that God intentionally misleads his children. Why would He do that? Does He want to distract us or divert us to a wrong path? Does He not want us to know the truth? This seems incomprehensible to me.
I am reminded of another case in which such fantastic, overabundant, and undeniable witnesses is met by such staunch and resolute disbelief, denial, and incredulity. It is the son of perdition. The Prophet Joseph Smith once taught what a son of perdition is:
All sins shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; for Jesus will save all except the sons of perdition. What must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin? He must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him. He has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it.19
Having so many evidences that witness to the truth, and yet so strongly denying them, seems to me to be very dangerous territory. Remember again that the physical environment we find ourselves in, with its abundant resources that we have learned so much more about, are all given of God, and God inspires man to search out and learn more about them, and to uncover more truths about them. The scripture in D&C 101 that Elder Nelson noted is interesting, as it states that God will reveal such things that are in the heaven above and in the earth beneath. In D&C 88:77–80 the Lord notes that we can, even now, seek out and teach ourselves and each other some of these same things:
And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom.
Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms— (D&C 88:77–79)
And so we go forth and dig into the earth, finding a treasure trove of artifacts, in the earth and under it, that teach us of the beginnings of our world, its history, things which have been, and things that are, and then we tend to flatly deny what they speak so plainly to us. Nephi, the son of Helaman, testified to the people in the city of Zarahemla of the many witnesses which God had given unto the convincing of men, and yet they denied them to great consequence:
And now, seeing ye know these things and cannot deny them except ye shall lie, therefore in this ye have sinned, for ye have rejected all these things, notwithstanding so many evidences which ye have received; yea, even ye have received all things, both things in heaven, and all things which are in the earth, as a witness that they are true. But behold, ye have rejected the truth… (Helaman 8:24)
We have received all these things, both in heaven, and which are in the earth, as a witness of the truth, yet we still reject them, and deny them. Many scientists, even LDS scientists, cannot deny them except they should lie. Why should they? They are, as of now, staring directly into the spectacular brilliance of the shining sun, and they cannot say otherwise. They might join with Joseph, and he with Paul, in saying,
I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation. (JS-H 1:25)
Isn’t evolution still a theory?
Yes, it is still called the “theory of evolution” or “evolutionary theory.” But what is termed a theory in the scientific community has a very different meaning than the way we use it in colloquial quotidian speech. The theory of evolution is as much a theory as the theory of gravity, the theory of continental drift, the theory of plate tectonics, the theory of relativity, the theory of cells, the theory of atoms, the theory of heliocentrism (the Earth revolves around the Sun), and a host of other theories that we take for granted today as facts of life. The definition of a scientific theory is,
a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.20
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has further explained,
The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence. However, like all scientific theories, the theory of evolution is subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously.
One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed… ((National Academy of Sciences (2008), Science, Evolution, and Creationism.))
Furthermore, it has been noted in regards to evolution,
A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than “just a theory.” It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.21
So why don’t scientists call evolution a “fact” if they are so sure of it? In fact, they do:
In science, a “fact” typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term “fact” to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. In that respect, the past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions. ((National Academy of Sciences (2008), Science, Evolution, and Creationism.))
So we need not assume that since evolution is still commonly referred to as a “theory” that it is still quite vague, unsure, that there are gaping holes or significant problems with it. There are not. Evolution has been demonstrated by scientists again, and again, and again, both in the lab and in nature, so many times that the truthfulness of its existence is not in question. Indeed, as we will see, not only has the theory been tested so thoroughly as to not necessitate further testing of its fundamentals, but what we understand about it can and does make incredibly precise predictions about the natural world and how life behaves. It explains much of what we observe on Earth today, in the labs of scientists, and in the future, which has a profound effect on every other area of modern science and innovation. As the First Presidency noted in 1925, “That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy.” So why haven’t we accepted this?
Are there other options?
There will always be other options besides evolution, unless God himself tells us otherwise, which he has not done. Scientists admit that we do not know absolutely everything about evolution. That is the whole purpose of scientific inquiry, to unceasingly learn more about the world in which we live. For example, they cannot explain where the first life came from, or how it was first formed, although they are studying this intensely. They will never arrive at a full explanation for everything, but they strive to advance our knowledge as far as possible every day. Science is not about arriving at a full knowledge, but in pursuing truth inasmuch as is possible, through observation and experimentation.
Even in religious inquiry and faith we arrive at knowledge through similar processes of observation and experimentation, not unlike the scientific method. Alma 32 is perhaps the best treatise we have on the relationship between giving place for a seed of belief, and then testing it thoroughly to know if it is right, good, true, and correct. If it is a good seed, it will grow and flourish, and give us knowledge and insight unknown before, such that we know our faith in that thing is right because it enlarges our soul. If it is a bad seed, then it will wilt and die, and not produce fruit, such that we know our faith in that thing is likely wrong, and mistaken. Science has and is presenting a seed of something that has been tested over a century and a half by good and intelligent people around the globe, and they have only seen it grow into a large tree (in some very figurative and literal ways as we’ll see later), and provide knowledge and insight which is having an unmistakable impact in every corner of our lives. Yes, science is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have science ye seek for things which are not known, which are true (cf. Alma 32:21). Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than science is a perfect knowledge (cf. Alma 32:26). Indeed, the entire chapter could be written from a scientific point of view, simply replacing the term faith with science. They are two ways of coming to a knowledge of the truth, through similar means, but often different types of knowledge.
Creationism and intelligent design are other options which have been offered as explanations for the diversity of life on earth. These take into account a Creator, even a God, who is at the helm, and is in control of things at some level. These theories state that a divine being either wholly created all life on Earth as it now stands abruptly a short time ago (creationism), or that life shows complexities that only could have been developed by an intelligent thinker and designer (intelligent design). As I noted in previous posts, I believe the Earth has been around for quite some time, and that life has existed on Earth for quite some time, so I am not of the opinion that it was all created abruptly a short time ago as the creationists claim. Whether life shows a divine intelligence at work at fundamental levels is a fascinating question to me that I am still learning about (even quantum mechanics seems to exhibit a consciousness). But I don’t believe intelligent design movement is the right way to go about it, since it is largely a socio-political movement to get it taught in the public classroom as science. While trying to discover evidence of God’s hand in the workings of life at fundamental levels is interesting, I do not think it will yield substantial results scientifically because of the veil (see my post on alethiology). You cannot simply pull back the veil and uncover God scientifically. Either of these theories must, if to be regarded as science, explain the findings of evolutionary theory over the past 150 years, as well as all of its implications and uses today. So there is a real paradox here, I think, for the creationists and intelligent design.
Along with many others, I do not believe evolution and a Creator are mutually exclusive. Evolution doesn’t bar God from being at the helm, and being involved in creation in some manner. Evolution doesn’t prove or deny anything about God. On the contrary, it makes us ask more questions. As any quantum physicist will tell you, there are many more questions that we need to ask about the very real possibility of a divine being than we’ve asked in the past, even from a scientific point of view! This is quite mind-boggling to scientists. And neither does believing in a Creator assume that evolution is wholly inadequate, false, or evil. I am in agreement with Dr. Eyring that God is behind it all whether evolution is true or not.
The problem is that most that propose creationism or intelligent design hold it as the only theory that could be valid. It’s not a combination of God and evolution that might work together, it is either evolution or creationism/intelligent design. There is not a lot of room for many creationists or intelligent design proponents to allow for evolution to be part of their theories, at least not the way science has explained evolution. Creationists simply reject the theory of evolution, and intelligent design proponents don’t believe evolution can explain the complexities of life. Given the entrenched nature of evolution in all modern sciences, doing away with it entirely simply doesn’t work, and can’t happen unless we rewind history a couple centuries.
Another problem is that these theories are not science. As much as many of the proponents of these theories want to make creationism or intelligent design be like science, it is at a very fundamental level a question of faith and religion. If a God, or divine being of some sort, is behind it all, there is no way of testing for it, or observing it, of performing experimentation for it in a publicly visible and socially acceptable manner. God doesn’t work that way. In a manner of speaking, the proponents of these theories that would make them as science are seeking a sign from God, something verifiable to show that life has been touched by Him, but this is an act that we are significantly warned and cautioned about in the scriptures. While science and religion can inform one another in many ways, we believe that every man has a right to worship God “according to the dictates of [their] own conscience… let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith 11). This includes allowing man to not believe in God, if they so choose. No one will be forced, or compelled, to believe in God by revealing incontrovertible truth about him. That is not how faith works, and God will not allow it to happen. God will protect our agency in this regard.
Matters of God, religion and faith should not be taught in the public classroom. This was a core belief of the Founding Fathers in the United States. They thought, and I think were divinely inspired so, that doing so would impose certain beliefs upon people, give preference to some beliefs over others (there are many thousands of faiths), and could eventually lead to a state-run religion. They wanted religion to be free to express itself outside of government run processes, and, in fact, they gave religion the rights to do so.
Additionally, proponents of exclusive creationism or intelligent design have not shown any scientific basis for the theories. They are not observable, predictable, testable, verifiable, repeatable, or have any part or portion with the scientific method. And rightly so. Those theories involve a God. God is not observable, predictable, testable, verifiable, repeatable, or susceptible to the public scrutiny of the scientific method. He is not known through those means. The scientific method to discover God is by faith. It is through individual prayer, fasting, priesthood, doing the work of God, and by the Spirit that we come to know God, at least in a Mormon sense, and many other religions are similar. Thus I don’t believe we can teach creationism or intelligent design as a scientific theory. It is faith, it is religion. It is a different, yet complimentary, mode or means of arriving at truth. I think it is dangerous to make God into “an evidence-based scientific theory” as the creationists or intelligent design proponents wish to do22.
Do I believe in a Creator? Absolutely. Do I believe that He had something to do with life on Earth? Absolutely. But the majority of theories that are presented give no place at all for the rich history of science for the past 150 years. This simply cannot be. Any theory which suggests that evolution is fundamentally flawed or mistaken cannot be right, unless it goes through the same rigorous process that evolution has gone through. Any theory that would supplant or revise evolution must take into account and give reason for the tremendous amounts of scientific work that has been done over the past 150 years, including all its implications, predictions, insight, and value applied to all the other fields of science.
I think the most reasonable option is somewhere in the middle. Man has tested the theory of evolution, and knows it to be true, through countless arguments. How sure are the scientists? Very likely greater than 99% sure. Could there be new evidence discovered which turns evolution on its head? Yes, but it is extremely unlikely. I also believe that there is a God, through countless arguments of a different nature. So, to me, the only reasonable reconciliation is that evolution, at some level, is a means, a tool that God is aware of, and perhaps consciously used and is continuing to use to develop life on Earth. This is sometimes known as theistic evolution, which is not held as a “scientific theory” but simply a view of how the science of evolution relates to religious belief. Interestingly, those that hold this view sound very much like statements from early Church leaders such as Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, and later Elder Talmage, in rejecting the conflict thesis, proclaiming that “religious teachings about creation and scientific theories of evolution need not contradict.”23 I will expand upon this view later.
How this might square with the teachings of the Church I’ll also come to more thoroughly later, but here I’ll give one example of a similar consideration by the Church from the Improvement Era of 1910, which President Joseph F. Smith and Edward H. Anderson were editors of:
Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.24
President Joseph F. Smith it seems, if he wrote or edited this statement, allowed for the possibility that the mortal body of man could have evolved by natural processes to its present state, through the direction and power of God. This is theistic evolution, or evolutionary creation. It was noted, as the Church has noted many times since, even in 2007 as we saw above, that these questions are not fully answered in the revealed word of God, through priesthood channels.
What application has evolutionary theory made in the world?
The advances in many fields of scientific research are quickening at an exponential rate. Our understanding of DNA and genetics have increased significantly, just in the last two decades. The Human Genome Project, which was a project to map the entire DNA sequence of humans, was completed in 2003 and took 13 years to complete at a cost of over $3 billion. Today, less than ten years later in 2012, you can get your genome sequenced in one day at a cost of about $1000. In a few years you’ll be able to sequence your genome in a few minutes, using devices as small as a USB thumb drive, and costing less than $100.
But what does evolution tell us about genetics? All life on planet Earth shares portions of its DNA sequences. DNA sequences, at a very basic level, are the code that makes up what we look like physically, inside and out. Like the code of a computer program makes up what the software is and does, DNA makes up what we are and how our bodies function. Since almost all life has cellular structures with similar components inside, those DNA sequences that control cellular functions match among all living things. What is interesting is that there is a wide range of similarity among the rest of the DNA sequence. Those organisms which look more alike share more of their DNA structure. Those who don’t look alike share less. We have more DNA sequences in common with animals than we do with plants. Perhaps most interesting is we have almost our entire DNA sequence in common with the chimpanzee. Our DNA sequences match the chimpanzee up to 98-99%. There are only a very few DNA base pair sequences in chimpanzees which don’t match ours, hence the difference in our appearances.
The study of evolution explains why more or less DNA matches in different species. Those species which match DNA more closely have a common ancestor in the biological pedigree that was not as long ago as those species in which the DNA differs more. In this way we can tell those species which are more closely related to others by looking at their DNA. Because our DNA is so similar to that of the animals with which we live, we can use that advantage for scientific testing, as Elder Nelson explained. All kinds of drugs, environments, chemicals, treatments, and testing can be done on animals that are so closely related by DNA because their biological systems react very similarly to what we might expect in humans, because we are biologically related. Making alterations to the DNA in animals causes changes and reactions that will be similar in humans. Much of modern medicine has become possible because of this understanding of the evolution of DNA in living things.
Just last month a group of scientists launched a new website called OneZoom.org which catalogs all living things on a fractal-like evolutionary “tree of life,” showing how all living things are interrelated through their most recent common ancestors. The data comes from the Open Tree of Life Project, a project to catalog the relationships of nearly 2 million species of life on Earth. This is an intriguing way of visualizing the relationships that scientists believe all current living animals have with one another, and allows you to explore the tree in a similar way as Google Maps. Here is a short video explaining OneZoom.
Perhaps one of the most easily understood applications of evolutionary theory in our daily life is the domestication of plants and animals. Domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, pigs, turkeys, and dogs are all species of animals that mankind has made for its own purposes. These species did not exist before man decided to breed wild species to create them. Cows are descended from the aurochs. Sheep are descended from the mouflon. Pigs are descended from the wild boar. Turkeys are descended from the South Mexican Wild Turkey. Dogs are descended from the gray wolf. Cats are descended from African wildcats. Chickens are descended from the Red Junglefowl (a member of the Pheasant family). And there are many others. If it weren’t for man, these species of animals would simply not exist. Man bred these animals to fill certain purposes, whether for food, raiment, companionship, or otherwise. The domesticated forms of these animals do not appear in the wild anywhere, because they are not wild animals. They were domesticated over many thousands of years by man, who selectively bred them to change them (in some cases quite significantly), selecting those traits that were most desirable from their wild ancestors. Yes, the Yorkshire Terrier was domesticated from the same common ancestor, the gray wolf, as the Great Dane, as well as the Chihuahua and Pug dogs. And this was done by man in the last several thousand years, using artificial selection (the counterpart to evolution’s natural selection) to breed the animals.
Plants such as corn, broccoli, flowers, tomato, and many other types of vegetables were also domesticated by humans over the last several thousand years. They do not exist in the wild. They were bred for their particular qualities, and to shape the fruit into a particular shape or taste. Some vegetables such as the broccoli, domestic cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and cauliflower are all descended from the same wild cabbage species. Corn is descended from the short bushy grass plant teosinte, which seed looks like a simple grain similar to wheat. Tomatoes are descended from an original fruit that was much smaller, rounder, and yellow; potatoes and eggplants were likely domesticated from the same or closely related species (which were likely poisonous). The modern banana is descended from a wild banana known as Musa acuminata, as well as Musa balbisiana (both considered to be mostly inedible because of the many seeds they contain which man has bred out of them in the modern counterpart). And the list goes on and on.
How ironic and naïve that we may sit around the dinner table, and while eating a smorgasbord of plants and animals which mankind has created through artificially selected evolution, and wearing clothing made from the same species of life, and yet we may deny evolution is a reality. It pervades our daily life.
Such artificial selection has made its way into the laboratory, where it has meshed with genetic engineering. For example, protein engineering uses repeated rounds of evolutionary mutation and selection to evolve proteins or RNA not found in nature through a method known as directed evolution, to create new proteins that may be useful to us in agriculture, medicine, or industry such as enzymes, pigments, antibiotics, flavors, biopolymers, bacterial strains to decompose hazardous materials.
Studying the evolution of different species reveals the causes of genetic disorders, and helps us pinpoint the genes that produce different parts and features of living things.
As was mentioned above, modern disease control and pathogen identification relies upon evolutionary theory. The small microorganisms we know as viruses and bacteria are prime examples of evolution in action. The medicines and antibiotics that we use against them at first kill many of their populations. But over time, those that survive reproduce, and their offspring are likewise resistant to the drugs. As these populations increase, our medicines and antibiotics become vastly weaker, until we have to invent new ways of combating them.
Evolutionary biology has extended its reaches into nearly every field of science.
Evolution and Man
This seems to be the sticking point for many. We simply can’t get past the idea that humans may have evolved from lower lifeforms. This doesn’t seem like such a hold up, however, if we consider what the scriptures say about the creation of man:
I’m not sure you can get much lower than the dust of the ground. Dirt. It is clear then, even in the revelations of God, that we were formed out of simpler, lower forms. If we were originally formed of the dust of the ground, even perhaps from a “primordial soup,” then why not via simpler lifeforms at a later time? Eve is said to have been formed from Adam’s rib (Gen. 2:21–22; Moses 3:21–22; Abr. 5:15–16).
We do not believe in creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. We do not believe that God spoke, and out of nothing stepped a man. God organized man similarly to the way he organized the earth, in steps. Even this is shown in the scriptural account if we look closely (first the dust, then the breath, then the living soul). Of course, the steps noted in scripture are figurative. Could not evolution be one of those steps in God’s creation of man?
Most seem to believe that if evolution is true that it somehow lowers mankind down to the level of the “beasts” (and they always use that term to seemingly condemn all animal life). If God chose to use the means of evolution to create man, then how does a recognition of that have any effect on lowering mankind’s estate now? Animals are what they are, and man is what he is. Animals have clearly been given a different sphere in God’s creation than man. Even so, we have been taught that animal life does have spirit, and will be resurrected. The animals were given commandments in the beginning to be fruitful, and multiply and fill the Earth. Man was given a different sphere in God’s creation. Man also had a spirit put into him, that he became a living soul. He was also given commandments, and many more. As is shown in the revelations, God clearly places man into a higher order of creation than animals, most particularly because we are in His image, and have the potential to become like Him.
In fact, in one of the statements from the First Presidency on the origin of man, given in 1909 and revised in 1925, they noted the potential of man in terms of “evolution”:
Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God.25
Ironically, the full statement was written in terms that seem dismissive of the idea of the evolution of man, and yet in the concluding statement they noted man’s potential in terms of evolution, that man is currently in an undeveloped state and can over extreme lengths of time evolve into a God. This is exactly what the theory of evolution claims has happened to all life on earth over billions of years, developed from lower forms into more complex ones. One might ask, if man today in his undeveloped state can evolve into a God, then why could not man today have evolved from even more undeveloped states into the form he is today? Again, if this is what happened, then it is not unimaginable that God is behind it all, and that it is part of His creation. President Gordon B. Hinckley noted the importance of our future evolution:
I remember when I was a college student there were great discussions on the question of organic evolution. I took classes in geology and biology and heard the whole story of Darwinism as it was then taught. I wondered about it. I thought much about it. But I did not let it throw me, for I read what the scriptures said about our origins and our relationship to God. Since then I have become acquainted with what to me is a far more important and wonderful kind of evolution. It is the evolution of men and women as the sons and daughters of God, and of our marvelous potential for growth as children of our Creator.26
I believe in the evolution of the mind, the heart, and the soul of humanity. I believe in improvement. I believe in growth.27
Again, some claim that if man evolved from lower lifeforms that it makes us somehow immune to moral law, or that moral law cannot have claim on us as merely “animals.” This simply isn’t true, since the scriptures clearly teach us that man is accountable to a moral law. God has given man a moral law today, even if the “dust” from which we were formed did not have such a law when it was in that lower form. Isn’t each part of God’s creation given its own law? (D&C 88:38, 42)
The Church and Evolution
The Church and the theory of evolution have had a rocky history. There have been Church leaders who have had strong opinions on both sides of the issue. As I noted in previous posts, where the Brethren are not in agreement, where there is no consensus, there is no doctrine. Among the many statements by individuals, official statements by the Church are few and far between. Officially, the First Presidency released some statements early in the twentieth century, in 1909 and again in 1925. The 1925 statement was mostly a restatement of the one from 1909, but was much shorter with revision. In both of these statements, the First Presidency reaffirmed the doctrine of the Church that God made man in his own image, but neither describes how God did so. They do not describe a means or method, but describe more importantly a why and purpose, as we’ve seen is usually the territory of religion. (Again, it is interesting to note in these statements that the First Presidency says that these issues are “not vital from a doctrinal standpoint.”)
In 1910, the First Presidency wrote in the Deseret Evening News a commentary on the relationship between science and the Church, as we noted above, “Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy…”
Those are all the official statements that have been given by the Church. Nothing official has been stated by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for 87 years (although there have been reprints of these statements). As Elder Wickman noted in the interview for the Pew Forum in 2007, the Brethren have not thought upon this matter much. There is no consensus. Until they give more thought on the matter, and inquire of the Lord about it, it is not likely that we’ll receive more revelation on it. In most cases that I can think of, revelation is almost always given in response to an inquiry, even intense and sincere inquiry, of God.
All other statements about evolution are by individuals, who were not speaking for the Church as a whole, but were giving their own well-considered opinions on the matter (many have given disclaimers on their words noting as much). Those who thought evolutionary theory had value included Elder James E. Talmage, Elder John A. Widtsoe, and Henry Eyring (President Henry B. Eyring’s father). Those who thought evolution was in conflict with the gospel have included Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, and President Boyd K. Packer. Others seem to be holding out an opinion on the matter until God reveals more, as stated by President Joseph F. Smith, Elder Nelson and Elder Wickman, although they may have personal views one way or the other. So there is quite a range of opinion.
There is no official doctrine in the Church on how God created life or man, the means or methods He used. President Joseph F. Smith once wrote in 1911:
The Church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world. … God has revealed to us a simple and effectual way of serving Him.28
President Spencer W. Kimball said much the same many years later in 1976:
Man became a living soul—mankind, male and female. The Creators breathed into their nostrils the breath of life and man and woman became living souls. We don’t know exactly how their coming into this world happened, and when we’re able to understand it the Lord will tell us.29
What’s written in the scriptures?
What we need to first realize is that much of the creation as noted in the scriptures is written in a figurative, symbolic way. It is not to be interpreted literally. For example, it is not likely that God performed surgery on Adam to remove a rib from his side from which to form Eve. This is a symbol, meant to show that Eve was to be an help meet for Adam, and was to stand by his side as companions. So when we read the creation accounts, we need to read it through that lens.
One of the most interesting accounts with regards to this topic, I believe, is found in Joseph Smith’s revelation/translation of the Book of Abraham. This account uses wording that is quite different than that of Genesis or even the Book of Moses (another of Joseph’s revelations), although there are some interesting things to note in those. It might be key to note that the Book of Abraham is a later revelation than the Book of Moses, and may reflect more of Joseph’s learning on the matter of creation, indeed, even an evolution of his understanding of the subject, as much as it does Abraham’s.
Here is the first verse which notes life upon the Earth:
11 And the Gods said: Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass; the herb yielding seed; the fruit tree yielding fruit, after his kind, whose seed in itself yieldeth its own likeness upon the earth; and it was so, even as they ordered.
12 And the Gods organized the earth to bring forth grass from its own seed, and the herb to bring forth herb from its own seed, yielding seed after his kind; and the earth to bring forth the tree from its own seed, yielding fruit, whose seed could only bring forth the same in itself, after his kind; and the Gods saw that they were obeyed. (Abraham 4:11–12)
What is interesting to note here is that the Gods “prepared” the earth to bring forth grass. In the other creation accounts, God simply commands “Let the earth bring forth grass,” and it brings forth grass. But here, the Gods do not simply speak their commands, they “prepare” the earth to bring forth grass. Later we are told that they “organized the earth to bring forth grass,” etc. Then, and this is perhaps most fascinating, after they were done preparing and organizing the earth, the “Gods saw that they were obeyed.” A few verses later we are told
“And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” (Abr. 4:18)
Both of these verses seem to indicate a waiting period, and a detachment from their preparations and the resulting creation of life. The Gods made their preparations, and then they stepped back and waited, and watched the creation happen. This seems, to me, to be more of a hands-off approach to the creation than the direct speak-obey pattern of the other accounts. It seems that the Gods were setting up the conditions for the creation to occur, but did not directly make it happen. They watched, until they were obeyed.
Again, the preparation pattern continues.
20 And the Gods said: Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life; and the fowl, that they may fly above the earth in the open expanse of heaven.
21 And the Gods prepared the waters that they might bring forth great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters were to bring forth abundantly after their kind; and every winged fowl after their kind. And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good. (Abr. 4:20–21)
The Gods prepared the waters to bring forth the moving creatures that had life. This is an indirect creation, preparing an environment and setting the conditions in which the life could come forth. Indeed, in these accounts, it is not the Gods that are directly “bringing forth” the life, it is the earth that brings forth the grass (after being prepared), and the waters that bring forth the whales (after being prepared), etc. Again, after their preparation, the Gods stepped back and watched until they were obeyed.
22 And the Gods said: We will bless them, and cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas or great waters; and cause the fowl to multiply in the earth. (Abr. 4:22)
This is an interesting difference from the other accounts. In Genesis and the Book of Moses the Gods directly bless them, “saying…” Here, the Gods plan to bless them, “we will bless them,” as in a future tense, which will “cause them to be fruitful and multiply,” and “cause the fowl to multiply.” Again, here it seems that the Gods are setting up the ideal conditions that will result in the proliferation of life, instead of directly commanding life to multiply.
24 And the Gods prepared the earth to bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind; and it was so, as they had said.
25 And the Gods organized the earth to bring forth the beasts after their kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after its kind; and the Gods saw they would obey. (Abr. 4:24–25)
This again shows the preparation-organization-watching pattern of creation. It is the earth that brings forth the living creatures, etc., after it is prepared and organized. The Gods saw this happen after their work was done.
The Book of Abraham account now continues into the creation of man. There is a change in wording here, different from the other accounts.
26 And the Gods took counsel among themselves and said: Let us go down and form man in our image, after our likeness; and we will give them dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So the Gods went down to organize man in their own image, in the image of the Gods to form they him, male and female to form they them. (Abr. 4:26–27)
In the other creation accounts God says “Let us make man in our own image.” Here the Gods say, let us “form man in our image.” Using the word form again connotes the idea of an organization rather than a creation ex nihilo. Indeed, the next verse tells us that the Gods went down to organize man in their own image. The other creation accounts also say that male and female he created them. Here the Gods again form them. I’m an artist, and have done some sculpting and modeling in my day. Forming, to me, sounds like a sculpting, taking materials that exist and remaking them into an image I desire over a length of time, and not without significant effort.
30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, behold, we will give them life, and also we will give to them every green herb for meat, and all these things shall be thus organized.
31 And the Gods said: We will do everything that we have said, and organize them; and behold, they shall be very obedient. (Abr. 4:30–31)
Again, here the Book of Abraham is teaching us that the creation was a step-by-step process, and an organization, after which the life springs forth in obedience, even being “very obedient.”
At this point, we turn for a moment to the Book of Moses, which gives another interesting detail not found in the other creation accounts:
5 And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth…
9 And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul… (Moses 3:5, 9)
At this point in the accounts it begins to talk about the spiritual creation before the physical creation. The spiritual creation was a type of plan, a counsel held by the Gods before the work of creation was actually acted out (Abr. 5:2–4). And here, it seems, that we are taught that the spiritual plan was more of a direct creation than the actual creation was. In verse 5, “For I, the Lord God, created all things… before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” Now, the term naturally could be understood as physically. Or it could be viewed as a plan/organization before a hands-off natural creation, they “were naturally.” Again later in verse 9 we are told that out of the ground the trees grew “naturally.” Indeed, the trees of life and of good and evil were not created as trees, but we are told were “planted.”
And I, the Lord God, planted the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and also the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Moses 3:9)
Returning to the Book of Abraham:
And of the rib which the Gods had taken from man, formed they a woman, and brought her unto the man. (Abr. 4:16)
Again, the woman was “formed” not “made” as in the other accounts. All of these details in the scriptures are interesting, and may indicate more going on in the creation than we typically realize. Some might note how the creation accounts say repeatedly that the life was to multiply “after its kind.” This might not seem congruous with the theory of evolution. However, life does typically reproduce after its own kind, even in evolutionary theory. Life does not change abruptly from one species to another, but minuscule mutations over great spans of time change them very gradually.
I believe, as many Church authorities have stated since the beginning of the Restoration, that the truths of science and the truths of religion can be in complete harmony, and not be contradictory. All truth comes from the same source, which is God. That being said, I think I see a lot of truth in the theory of evolution, which lends itself to a wide range of innovation and productivity today in the fields of science and technology, innovations which we would not have made without our knowledge of evolution. I do not know if all of the particulars are right, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. I believe God is behind it all, whether we evolved or not. If evolution did happen, there can still be a Fall, an Atonement, a Gospel, and a Redeemer. I do not see how the method or means of God’s creation of man has any bearing on these fundamental gospel concepts. Whether God scooped up some dust and added water to form man, snapped his fingers and the elements combined, chiseled out a man from a gelatinous block of flesh, or evolved man from lower to more complex life, I do not see a reason to believe that any method that God may have used rules out the fundamentals of the gospel plan.
Many other religionists, creationists, or otherwise, have a problem with evolution because it is in essence materialism and naturalism, which are at odds with their theology. Consider this:
Nancy Pearcey [a conservative American philosopher and advocate of intelligent design] argues (and many American creationists agree) that all the perceived evils of evolution come from two worldviews that are part of science: naturalism and materialism. Naturalism is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will, and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on that matter. The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism.30
If all the perceived evils of evolution are because of these two things, naturalism and materialism, then Mormons need not be worried that it conflicts with our theology. Mormons are at home with both of these concepts.
As noted above, naturalism states that everything in the universe can be explained, that everything arises through natural processes and causes, and ultimately denies supernaturalism. As Elder Talmage noted in his book Jesus the Christ, “Miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized.” We do not believe in magic, in inexplicable events, in actions that do not take place wholly within the confines of our natural universe and the laws which govern it. There is a reason and an explanation for everything that God does, and through much time and learning we will discover all of his ways, for God will teach them to us as He knows them all. Yes, there may be things which may seem “supernatural” which we cannot understand today, but we will understand their workings at a later time. Ultimately, that which seems supernatural is just nature not understood.
Likewise, we also believe in materialism. ”There is no such thing as immaterial matter,” proclaimed the Prophet Joseph Smith, “All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7–8). There is no such thing as the metaphysical, or that which resides outside our reality. Just last month, BYU professor and philosopher James Faulconer wrote:
…everything is material even if there is material that we presently cannot see or understand. There is only one ontological universe, the material one.
That materialism distinguishes Mormons from other religions significantly, for most religions make a distinction between this material world and a spiritual world that is metaphysically different than this world. For Mormons, however, there is no metaphysical gap between the world in which we live and the world inhabited by God.31
So while many other faiths might have trouble with evolution because of these things, Mormons should not. We are comfortable with the idea that God made the earth via natural processes, in accordance with natural and understandable laws, out of materials that were already existent. It was an organization at the heart of the creation via means that we do not fully understand yet, but are learning more about each day, and are discovering more of the laws by which God works. Evolution may simply be one of them.
I find much to like in the views of theistic evolution or evolutionary creation, views which echo those of some of this dispensation’s prophets, seers, and revelators. Theodosius Dobzhansky was a prominent geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and also Russian Orthodox Christian, who once wrote an essay entitled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”:
I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s, method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way… Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts… the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.32
There are many parts of evolution that I still have questions about, and parts that I do not fully understand. I believe that time will yield more discoveries, and my understanding will increase. There is much still to learn.Notes:
- Repeated in a statement in 2007 from the Church’s Newsroom, “Approaching Mormon Doctrine.” [↩]
- First Presidency, Memorandum to General Authorities, April 1931, 6–7. [↩]
- Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1983), 53-62. [↩]
- “In Focus: Mormonism in Modern America,” Pew Forum interview. [↩]
- Breitbart M, Rohwer F. Here a virus, there a virus, everywhere the same virus?. Trends Microbiol. 2005;13(6):278–84. doi:10.1016/j.tim.2005.04.003.PMID 15936660. [↩]
- Dimmock, N.J; Easton, Andrew J; Leppard, Keith (2007) Introduction to Modern Virology sixth edition, Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 1-4051-3645-6 [↩]
- History of the Church, 5:215 [↩]
- History of the Church, 5:499 [↩]
- Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., reported by G. D. Watt et al. (Liverpool: F.D and S. W. Richards, et al., 1851-1886; reprint, Salt Lake City: n.p., 1974),, 7:271. [↩]
- Journal of Discourses, 15:127. [↩]
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:166, May 14, 1871. [↩]
- Journal of Discourses, 7:157. [↩]
- James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man” [↩]
- http://en.fairmormon.org/Primary_sources/Evolution/First_Presidency_1910 [↩]
- James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 148-49. [↩]
- Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1983), 53-62. [↩]
- Joseph Smith, Jr., 1844-04-07, reprinted as “The King Follett Sermon,”Ensign, May 1971, p. 13. [↩]
- Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1999. [↩]
- AAAS Evolution Resources [↩]
- Meyer, Stephen C. (2005-12-01). “Not by chance”. National Post (CanWest MediaWorks Publications Inc. as sold to Postmedia Network Inc.). Retrieved 2012-03-24.http://www.discovery.org/a/3059 [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theistic_evolution [↩]
- Editorial (unsigned) [Joseph F. Smith as president of the Church and Edward H. Anderson were editors], ”Priesthood Quorums’ Table,” Improvement Era 13 no. 4? (April 1910), 570. [↩]
- First Presidency letter, “The Origin of Man” (November 1909) This was reprinted in 2002 (“The Origin of Man,” Ensign, Feb 2002, 26); First Presidency letter, “‘Mormon’ View of Evolution” (September 1925) [↩]
- President Gordon B. Hinckley, “God Hath Not Given Us the Spirit of Fear,” Ensign,Oct. 1984, 5. [↩]
- Gordon B. Hinckley, Standing for Something , 62. [↩]
- “Philosophy and the Church Schools,” Juvenile Instructor, Apr. 1911, p. 209. [↩]
- “The Blessing and Responsibilities of Womanhood,”Ensign, Mar. 1976, 72 [↩]
- Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution is True. [↩]
- James Faulconer, “Bodies all the way down, and up.” Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/Mormon/Bodies-All-the-Way-James-Faulconer-10-11-2012.html [↩]
- Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution [↩]