My son’s recent experience in early morning seminary caused me to look a little more closely at the church’s stance (or perhaps lack thereof) on evolution. While teaching about the book of Genesis, his teacher made a few claims:
- that she is not descended from monkeys
- that the earth is literally 6,000 years old
- that evolution contradicts the church’s views
I can’t really speak to the first claim without viewing her pedigree chart, although to clarify, evolutionary science groups humans closer to apes than monkeys. As to the second two assertions, her position was over-reaching at best.
In a similar vein, I had an argument a while back with a friend who suggested schools should give equal time to both creationism and evolution. My argument was that schools teach science, not religion (a fact I’m grateful for as a Mormon!) and what text would be used? The Bible? Who would teach it? A science teacher? Based on what scientific evidence would creationism be presented?
For a really good run-down on the church’s actual stance on evolution, check out Mormon Organon or the Mormon Matters Podcast with SteveP who runs Mormon Organon and is a BYU biology professor. As SteveP put it: “literalist creationism, where it exists in Mormonism, is a leak from sources other than the Restoration that misunderstands the scriptures’ purpose.”
Looks like some of those non-restorationist sources are leaking into lds.org! Surprisingly, I found a few statements on lds.org to be surprisingly Michelle Bachmann-esque, while a few demonstrated a clearer understanding of the issues. Here are just a couple examples of statement from articles linked on lds.org:
- Name withheld said: “My biology teacher, who had a reputation for being stubborn and persistent, turned his head momentarily from his papers and said: “Now, let’s be logical here. Look at the facts. Where does the evidence point?” I was tongue-tied. I have known the Church is true since I was very young. I felt it was true . . . Thinking of no arguments to counter their position, I silently said a quick prayer . . . I began to share my testimony with my friends. I said, “I know there is a God, and He has a Son who created the world and saved us all. Whether or not we have all the answers now doesn’t discredit the fact that there is a God. God works line upon line and precept upon precept. Until we prove our faith, God will not reveal more to us.” I finished by confirming my testimony of the Church and its leaders, forgetting to even address the original questions posed. . . I turned, anticipating a rebuttal and, to my shock, found a sincere face staring back at me. “Thank you,” he said. My simple testimony had conveyed more convincing truth than any logical debate could have. I know that I did not dissolve their accusations and criticisms that day, but the Holy Spirit did.
- Elder George R. Hill (previously of the seventy, also a dean at U of U in one of the science departments): “Competent scientists recognize that theories are not laws but serve the function of testing ideas and pursuing new relationships. . . The theory of evolution as presently taught posits that higher forms of life arose gradually from lower stages of living matter. Inheritable genetic changes in offspring are assumed to be spontaneous rather than the result of arranged or directed forces external to the system. This theory conflicts with a basic law of chemistry, the second law of thermodynamics, which states in part that it is not possible for a spontaneous process to produce a system of higher order than the system possessed at the beginning of the change. . . One of the current explanations of the improvement in plant and animal species over time is that cosmic radiation caused genetic changes resulting in a higher order of offspring survivability than the parent possessed. . . A number of years ago, a renowned biologist and geneticist told of an experiment he had directed in which grasshoppers in their various stages of growth had been subjected to radiation levels greater than that insect family had received during its existence. He said the experiment caused many genetic changes, including the loss of a foreleg, an antenna, or some other inheritable change. However, not one of those changes gave the offspring a greater viability or survivability than that of the parent. Many Latter-day Saints recognize that the processes involved in evolution are valid. We see improved strains and varieties of plants and animals developed through judicious selection of their parents. But we would have to agree with those who understand the limitation defined in the second law of thermodynamics limitation that such changes can only occur if guided or if outside energy is available to improve the system. We are in the very fortunate position of understanding that the Lord is in charge of the universe and that positive genetic changes can in fact occur under his direction. On the other hand, spontaneous improvements of the type hypothesized by devotees of current evolutionary theory remain an unsupported supposition.”
- Ezra Taft Benson (in his Fourteen Fundamentals talk): “Some would-be authorities on evolution want the prophet to keep still on evolution.” Count me among them.
- Boyd K. Packer: “Surely no one with reverence for God could believe that His children evolved from slime or from reptiles. (Although one can easily imagine that those who accept the theory of evolution don’t show much enthusiasm for genealogical research!) The theory of evolution, and it is a theory, will have an entirely different dimension when the workings of God in creation are fully revealed. Since every living thing follows the pattern of its parentage, are we to suppose that God had some other strange pattern in mind for His offspring? Surely we, His children, are not, in the language of science, a different species than He is?”
- a member in Australia (written in 1979): “As an undergraduate university student, I became more and more irritated at being taught evolution as if it were a fact, not a theory. So for my required essay in Zoology II, I decided to attack the accidental creation aspect of the theory of evolution. Thus began a search through many books in the library. . . Time and again, the chemical conditions necessary for the reactions to occur did not exist. I explained these problems in my paper and turned it in. . . The lecturer had typed two full pages in reply to my essay. He disagreed with my conclusions, but praised me for “being brave enough to contradict the topic after reading a number of pertinent references.”
- Jon Huntsman (in a tweet): “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” As Perry famously responded to a kid on the campaign trail who asked why he doesn’t believe in science: “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools. Because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Right. Maybe that kid can figure out the economy while he’s at it. Huntsman FTW, Perry WTF?
- Back to SteveP: “all the LDS members of my Biology Department at BYU believe evolution is the way life on earth emerged, and the way the human body was formed, yet believe in a Creator.”
James E. Talmage wisely remarked: “dogmatic assertions on either side are likely to do harm rather than good.” But dogma certainly seems to be the generous mortar between the bricks in both arguments. A documentary filmed by Ben Stein a few years ago called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed attacked the scientific community for not admitting discussion of intelligence design as a theory for the origin of life. The documentary was in turn vehemently attacked by the scientific community for being anti-science and for masquerading religious myth as scientific theory. One thing the documentary did clearly expose is that neither religion nor science has a clearcut scientific answer to how life begins.
Theory vs. Fact
Where the scientific community is guilty of over-reaching is when we teach all aspects of evolution as fact vs. theory or express too much confidence. Where religion over-reaches is in considering all “theories” to be equal; creationism is not a scientific theory. Scientific theory is based on scientific observation, not on Bible stories. If we want to debunk evolution, it has to be done on the basis of scientific observation.
Evolution: Genetic Adaptation, Natural Selection, Common Descent and Origin of Species
The other issue at play seems to be in lumping all aspects of evolutionary theories into one big group rather than disaggregating each claim and addressing it on its own merits.
- Genetic adaptation: Darwin observed that species over time would genetically adapt to their environments. This is clearly observable. BKP’s talk on the pattern of parentage (quoted above) limits adaptation to within species, which is not supported by science and has been debunked.
- Natural selection: Darwin observed that species that were not suited to their environments became extinct. Again, no argument from anyone on this one that I’m aware of. Species become extinct. Survival of the fittest.
- Common descent: The theory posits that all organisms on earth evolved from a common ancestor. Evidence for this is based on geographical distribution, variety of species not being explained entirely by genetic adaptation, vestigial traits that are common to all, and a hierarchy of species that nest into familial groups. Additionally, biochemical similarities between all terrestrial species point to a common ancestor. This aspect of evolutionary theory relates to the teacher’s claim that she did not descend from a monkey, an oversimplification of the theory. This is one that has no official stance in the church. BYU teaches it; they would doubtless be unable to become accredited if they did not. This theory is itself still evolving through experimentation and observation, but it is a well-supported hypothesis.
- Origin of life: This was a subsequent off-shoot to Darwin’s burgeoning theory of common descent, that life originated in a “primordial ooze” from whence the first single-celled organism emerged, then evolved over millions of years into the couch potatoes we now are. Darwin himself didn’t rule out the role of a “creator,” as he said in Origin of Species: “Life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.” Again, the church doesn’t have a specific scientific theory on how life began. Even the existence of a creator only pushes the question back a generation, for who created the Creator? Both science and religion fail to definitively answer this one: science because there has been no successful experiment to recreate the spark of life, and religion because Mormons are not ex nihilists.
“The Creation Story” vs. Creationism
The young earth theory (that the earth has only been in existence for 6,000 years) has been sufficiently discredited by science to not merit further discussion, and the church doesn’t officially espouse that. Talmage (the great conciliator) posited that post-Adamic human life may have only existed for that length of time, but that death certainly existed before that time. It’s a question that is only brought up by creationists in conjunction with evolution, not scientists, as it pertains to two different scientific disciplines: geology (age of the earth) and biology (evolution).
In looking at the seminary manual, teachers are instructed to teach about “The Creation,” not creationism. This is an important distinction, and I wonder how many seminary teachers understand the difference. Perhaps if our manuals said “The Creation Story” it would be more clear. Creationism is an attempt to put a religious story on par with scientific theory but without the rigors of science. There’s nothing wrong with teaching the creation story as religious teaching, although it’s a complex story subject to multiple interpretations (and multiple misinterpretations). Teaching it in competition with observable science is highly problematic, however, especially when we then send our students off to class armed with a self-righteous false dichotomy (as in the stories on lds.org quoted above). Perhaps Joseph F. Smith had it right:
“In reaching the conclusion that evolution would be best left out of discussions in our Church schools we are deciding a question of propriety and are not undertaking to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false. The Church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world.”