Reviews – Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding

Evolution and MormonismBYU Magazine, Richard H. Cracroft
In Evolution and Mormonism, BYU alumni Trent Stephens and Jeffrey Meldrum, with Forrest Peterson, approach the sensitive subject of evolution from the standpoint of faith. The authors, all committed Latter-day Saints, building upon the fundamental truths that God created the earth and that human beings are His spirit children, examine the traditional concerns of believers and the history of LDS views about evolution; then, examining Holy Scripture, they suggest that the processes of creation attest the hand and bespeak the patterns of God. This is a very helpful, timely, and faithful study.

Midwest Book Review, Carl Cox
Trent Stephens and Jeffrey Meldrum have done an excellent job refuting creationists arguments, in my opinion. They give the official position of the LDS church on evolution, then review the statements that various apostles have made. They have some general comments on what evidence means. And they give good synopses of the chapters of The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin.

DNA evidence is invoked to show that we are all related by common descent, and additional fossil evidence to show how close we are to chimps. I like the quote from Henry Eyring, a scientist and a leader of the LDS church: “I’d be content to discover that I share a common heritage with [animals], so long as God is at the controls.”

The authors analyze the creation story to show that the perceived problems between scripture and evolution may be due to faulty interpretation of scripture. In chapter twelve they present their own favored view of how macroevolution might have come about. They insist that God must control the process in some way and quote Richard Strohman of the University of California, Berkeley, about non-random changes to the fetus during development. They indicate that DNA might have less importance than development in how the organism turns out.

There are a couple of goofs where they should have used Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, but they are minor. Nor am I enthused by their concept of non-random changes. I see too many problems, and few answers. I do think, however, that their presentation of the evidence for common descent is well done. If followers of Man, His Origin and Destiny by LDS church president Joseph Fielding Smith read their book, they should have a better understanding of science. The authors quote a study of Mormons showing that 100 percent of biologists and about 85 percent of other scientist agree with evolution, while over 60 percent of LDS Seminary teachers disagree.

Journal of American Scientific Affiliation, Melvin N. Westwood
The book’s thirteen chapters have an eleven-page bibliography and a few illustrations relating to biological evolution. Here is the main point from each chapter: (1) the universe is billions of years old, follows natural laws, and was created by God for mortal existence; (2) Mormon leaders say leave the theology to theologians and science to scientists; (3) many Mormons think biological evolution false but science and Mormon theology cannot conflict; (4) Mormon leaders’ 1909 statement did not reject evolution; (5) science is based on facts; religion on faith; (6) fossil evidence and DNA data support evolution and Neo-Darwinism but some evolution is directed by God; (7) DNA evidence links all life forms, but God created humans’ physical and spiritual natures on different time lines; (8) Joseph Smith said God created humanity’s spirituality before physicality; (9) organic evolution is the honest result of scientists explaining the evidence; (10) oldest fossil bacteria in rocks are 3.5 million years old; (11) Genesis is compatible with evolution; (12) evolution may be partly random and partly non-random; (13) biological evolution is one step in the process of eternal progression from humans to gods.

The book’s main point is to present modern biological evolution as established fact and to make Mormon theology compatible with it. In the past, Mormons opposed evolution. The book weaves evolution with Mormon belief that God was once a man and that he evolved into God. (But if God created the universe, where did he live as a man before creation?)

The book’s main strength is its excellent portrayal of biological evolution. Its main weakness is not clarifying the numerous contradictions between Mormon theology and science. For instance, DNA analysis is used to show physical man’s relationship to other primates, but the authors are silent on the use of DNA to show that North American Indians are descended from East Asians and not from Hebrews as Mormon theology demands. Also, modern dating methods show that American Indians came here 12,000 or more years ago, not 600 BC as stated in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon states that honey bees, various animals, and seeds of crop plants were brought to the new world by the Hebrews in 600 BC from Jerusalem. Yet none of these were found here until post-Columbian times.

The book’s three authors have ties with the Mormon tradition. Stephens, professor of anatomy and embryology at Idaho State University, has co-authored ten books and is a Mormon bishop. Meldrum, associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, is co-editor of a series of books on paleontology and a Mormon priesthood instructor. Peterson, a writer and movie producer, is an elder and teacher of Mormon doctrine. Although the book is written primarily for Mormons, ASA members may find it useful to study the unbiblical, polytheistic theology of the Mormon Church.

BYU Studies, William E. Evenson
The unifying biological concept of evolution, and particularly its implications for human origins, is of widespread interest among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because questions of human biology and origins make contact with our sense of who we are and our relationships to one another, to other species, and to God. These two books [Edward J. Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory; Stephens and Meldrum, Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding] provide a valuable foundation for exploring evolution: What is this scientific framework, within which all of modern biology is now viewed? How did it develop, and what are its relationships to other or supporting bodies of scientific knowledge and facts? What of unofficial views of LDS leaders? Can evolution be reconciled with faith in a satisfying way?

Larson’s book, Evolution, written by a prize-winning scholar with extensive publications in evolution-related intellectual and social history, gives valuable historical perspective for addressing these questions….

If Larson’s book supplies the necessary historical background for investigating the meaning and philosophical impact of the unifying biological concept of evolution, Evolution and Mormonism by Stephens and Meldrum is the best source known to me that is currently available to begin the study of the relationship of LDS doctrine to this important concept. It provides a strong foundation of both religion and science to approach these issues. There are several reasons why I say this is the best current source: First, it is not insignificant that Stephens and Meldrum are both faithful and committed Latter-day Saints as well as respected scientists (biology professors at Idaho State University). The authors move in this work toward a synthesis of science and religion that is consistent with both LDS doctrine and recent science, and thereby construct a more productive synthesis than heretofore. Second, it is designed for LDS readers seeking an introduction that reviews relevant LDS doctrine as well as the basic science. Such an introduction is otherwise only available in bits and pieces, primarily in articles. Starting with this book, LDS readers can prepare themselves to pursue particular issues in more depth in other works. Third, this book is more ambitious than other currently available treatments of this subject; it goes beyond what anyone else has done, especially in remaining faithful to the scientific data. There are other, perhaps better, introductions to evolutionary science, but none better that also expounds and takes seriously the LDS doctrinal issues.

The authors find no conflict between their faith and science, and they attempt in this book to show why other Mormons need find no such conflict. They do this by considering interpretations of the scriptures and of scientific data and concepts that are consistent with one another. Of course, theirs is not the only possible way to view either the scriptures or the science. And such a path necessarily involves speculation. Nevertheless, in my view their effort is reasonably successful, particularly in forthrightly addressing the two major questions that are commonly seen as separating LDS beliefs from an evolutionary worldview:

(1) If evolution is an entirely random process, as many evolutionary biologists say, how then can there be order in the universe? How could God have been in control of the process if the outcome was unpredictable? How could we have been created in God’s image as the result of a random evolutionary process? (2) If Adam and Eve came into being as the result of evolutionary processes, how then could they have been immortal? If they were not immortal, how do we explain the Fall? If there was no Fall, what was the mission of Jesus? If there was no Fall and Atonement, is there then no Christianity? (xvii)

The thoughtful foreword by BYU professor Duane E. Jeffery nicely puts this work into perspective with the intellectual currents in the Church in the twentieth century. An appendix provides two important First Presidency statements on evolution and the origin of man (1909 and 1925) and an unsigned “Priesthood Quorums’ Table” editorial instruction on the origin of man from the official Church magazine (1910).

The authors requested “an official declaration of doctrine” (7) from the First Presidency prior to writing this book. The response consisted essentially of the 1909 First Presidency statement “The Origin of Man” as reprinted in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. I have personally seen ample evidence that Church leaders at various levels have not yet reached consensus on the means and methods employed in the creation of life on earth, although there is no lack of agreement concerning God’s overall plan and purpose. Thus, Church practice since these authors’ inquiry has been to respond to similar questions about evolution with brief, rather noncommittal statements, emphasizing by implication that the Church has no official position on organic evolution as a process for the development of life on earth.

Further insight is obtained by comparing the 1909 and 1925 First Presidency statements. Stephens and Meldrum point out that the 1925 statement “removed what had been construed by some as implicit anti-evolution sentiments in the 1909 statement” (44). Additional context is interesting: the 1925 statement was requested of the First Presidency by a major U.S. news organization that was collecting the positions of churches in America on organic evolution due to the interest in the Scopes trial. President Heber J. Grant and his counselors provided an edited version of the 1909 statement rather than sending the full statement itself as the official Church position.

Large sections of the book explore statements by LDS leaders, both official and unofficial. The authors approach the widely varying views generously. As the BYU Board of Trustees, consisting of General Authorities and officers of the Church, said in their 1992 cover letter to the BYU Evolution Packet, “Formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions.” The official statements on evolution are those contained in that packet: 1909 First Presidency statement, 1910 First Presidency Christmas Message affirming the consistency of LDS doctrine with “true science,” 1925 First Presidency statement, and 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on “Evolution” containing a 1931 First Presidency instruction to General Authorities. With the exception of the 1910 Christmas Message, these official statements are reviewed in chapter 4. In addition, numerous unofficial views are reproduced. It becomes clear in this chapter that no single view of evolution has been held by Church leaders.

As the authors consider the scientific status of evolution, they point out that “over 90 percent of the evidence that we have available to test the theory of evolution today did not exist in 1960” (17). Furthermore, at this state of scientific knowledge, “the data overwhelmingly indicate that humans are not unique but are related to other animals. In fact, this similarity is so close that, at the cellular level and below, humans are largely indistinguishable from other mammals. There is no scientific evidence supporting the notion that humans are physically unique” (30). In dealing with the science of evolution, they explore such questions as the following: What are the central claims of Darwin’s theory? What is the theory as it stands now, with our knowledge of DNA, for example? What is the evidence for evolution from molecular and cell biology? from fossils? What is the place of man in the natural world?

Stephens and Meldrum give in chapter 11 their personal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, providing a point-by-point, verse-by-verse analysis. This chapter would have benefited from reference to B. H. Roberts’s analysis of these same issues in his book, The Truth, the Way, the Life, which was not published until 1994. Unfortunately, it does not become clear until the last paragraph of the chapter why the authors judge this detailed argument/exegesis to be so important: there they clarify how their interpretation of Genesis allows a reconciliation of the scientific evidence with the role that Adam and Eve play in the scriptural account. Theirs is an interesting attempt to reach a consistent understanding of science and the Genesis story because of their carefully detailed comparison of the scientific evidence and the scriptural text.

How can man be made “in God’s image” if evolution proceeds by random events? This question has been troublesome for religious persons seeking to deal seriously with evolution, and it is the subject of chapter 12. The basic answer given in this book is that natural laws provide constraints on evolutionary processes; only certain pathways are possible. The weakest part of this book from a scientific point of view is the impression given in this chapter that such constraints are already significantly understood and that the work of Stephens and his students on this topic is widely accepted. This is indeed an interesting line of work, but it is still not widely viewed as a major determinant of evolutionary development. Stephens may be correct, and he has not shied from vigorous defense of these ideas (nor should he), but it is unfortunate that a book of this kind for a general audience neglects to distinguish what is established and accepted in the scientific community from what is in its infancy and subject to varying interpretations. It would be unfortunate if readers are caught out should the science finally go in a different direction.

My major criticisms of this book are twofold: (1) the speculative science discussed in the previous paragraph, and (2) the idiosyncratic and speculative interpretation of scripture to which the authors sometimes resort (see chapter 11, for example). Neither of these concerns is particularly damning since both issues can be understood in context, and judgment can be reserved. I would also love to see a book from this faithful point of view that deals with recent discoveries in neuroscience and the implications (if any) for the relationship of body and spirit. But that is clearly beyond the scope of the present treatise.

What has occurred in the nearly four years since Evolution and Mormonism was published that might change how we view these issues? The scientific evidence has only strengthened. Progress has been made with some of the challenges, such as the evolutionary history of whales and evolutionary pathways to bacterial flagella. Fossils of a remarkable new small species of human have been discovered (Homo floresiencis), leading to interesting reassessments of the branches of human evolution, but changing nothing fundamental in the relationships outlined in this book. The LDS doctrinal position remains undefined. In my opinion, this is wise. Humans cannot predict the course of science or where future insights will lead. Only clear revelation to the Church leadership would give direction that does not run the risk of requiring future major reinterpretation with accompanying embarrassment. Apparently, such revelation has not yet been received.

So what is the current state of evolutionary science? What of purported “holes” in the theory? In considering evolution as a unifying biological concept, I do not believe there are any major gaps in the data or in our understanding of it that might suggest the theory is inadequate or in crisis. The overarching concept accommodates both the well-understood data of science and the not-so-well-understood; there are no strong contradictions. So where is research being done? Are all questions already answered? Of course not. There are many issues still being explored: how particular organs may have evolved, under what environmental or competitive pressures, and on what evolutionary time scale, for example. On the evolutionary pathways for the development of particular groups of species, I commend readers to the book by Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, in which a committed, believing Catholic and cell biologist examines the compatibility of evolution with his religious faith. Of course, there are gaps in our current knowledge (for example, what is the origin of Alzheimer’s disease, and how do we understand its evolution?), but the history of science is a history of filling such gaps. If we hope to find the place for God’s action in the world in such gaps, we play a dangerous game: where is God, then, when science finally explains the gap? What have we chosen to rest our faith on?

LDS students of this profoundly significant subject would do well to read both of these books. I suggest that the Larson book is the place to start. Then Evolution and Mormonism will help put the unifying concept into perspective within our religious teachings. The thoughtful LDS learner will subsequently be able to approach additional questions in this area with well-informed views.

New Utah, Brett Bezzant
In my last column I promised a more complete report on my reading of a new book, Evolution and Mormonism, by Trent Stephens and Jeffrey Meldrum. Many members of the LDS church have very negative opinions about any attempt to reconcile human evolution and their perception of doctrines relating to the creation, fall, and atonement, and I have been one. These opinions are supported by many strong statements by individual members of the leading brethren of the LDS church.

However, perhaps due to the natural learning curve of my life, I believe I also have to respect the opinions of the authors of this book and hundreds of their colleagues laboring daily on the frontiers of science. Their faith-promoting perspective, as diligent members of the church, is courageous and necessary—especially as it goes against the current of generations of what many members would label as doctrine rather than traditions.

And herein lies one of their critical arguments. The definition of LDS church doctrine is really very precise and narrowly limited to official interpretation of scripture and authoritative declarations of the president of the church or someone specifically designated to speak for the church. That’s why virtually every book written by church leaders bears the disclaimer that the author alone is responsible for its content and that the book does not represent any official church doctrine or position.

The authors have done their homework. They sought the official position of the church through proper channels—their bishop, stake president, area president, etc. The response was the 1909 statement by the First Presidency on the origin of man, along with a letter from the secretary to the First Presidency, which said, “Any attempt to interpret or elaborate upon the 1909 statement must be considered personal opinion and not the position of the church.”

Among many other things, the book includes the full text of that statement. Needless to say, their perception of how it relates to scientific discovery may be quite different than what many members of the LDS church are traditionally taught.

Having opened that door, I would like to know what readers think of the following statements. Are they official doctrine, tradition, or individual opinion? Of course, it’s possible they may be one, two, or all three. What do you think?

1. The theory of human evolution is irreconcilable with the doctrines of the gospel.
2. There was no death on the earth before the Fall of Adam.
3. Adam and Eve began life as immortal beings.
4. The physical bodies of human beings are the result of special creation, unrelated to the animal kingdom.
5. Fossils are fragments of other worlds, used in the organization of this one.
6. If a majority of the LDS apostles agree on something, it must be church doctrine.
7. The theory of human evolution throws out the necessity of the Fall of Adam and, in turn, destroys the need for the Atonement.
8. Man’s physical body, as well as his spirit, is the direct offspring of deity.
9. The earth is young, measured in thousands of years, rather than in millions and billions, as determined by scientific means.
10. The birth of Adam differs from the birth of Jesus Christ (as the only begotten son in the flesh) because Adam was born into immortality rather than “in the flesh,” which means in mortality or with a mortal mother.
11. Adam and Eve were transplanted from another sphere.
12. An understanding of the sealing authority with its binding of the generations into eternal families cannot admit to ancestral bloodlines to beasts.

If you’re looking for my answers, you won’t find them here. I want to know what readers think. Some may say all of this has no bearing on our eternal salvation. Maybe. Maybe not. As the authors point out, if a student of science comes to questions what he has traditionally been taught about evolution, what other religious teachings might be doubted?

Idaho State Journal, Trent Stephens
Mr. Dougherty is poorly informed about both the Church of Jesus Christ of Lattery-day Saints and the theory of evolution (ISJ, Appril 24, 2008). I continue to be amazed that people are willing to publicly critique a book they have never read.

Mr. Dougherty admits at the outset that he has never read the book, Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding, by Stephens, Meldrum, and Peterson. It is not possible to present the entire book in this letter, but a few points will be made.

The church accepts the 1909 statement of the First Presidency on The Origin of Man (quoted in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1,665-1,669, and in the appendix of Evolution and Mormonism, pp. 209-215). That statement says, in part, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation … proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity …” The Encyclopedia of Mormonsim goes on to quote an additional statement by the First Presidency in 1931: “Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology … to scientific research …”

Mr. Dougherty is correct in stating that the church accepts the Bible’s account of creation. I also accept that account. He is incorrect in stating that “evolution denies that creation ever occurred … [and] that God was the creator.” “Evolution” denies no such thing. If Mr. Dougherty is confused by that statement, I suggest he read our book. I also suggest he might want to read The Origin, which also I doubt he has read.

I have two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s from Brigham Young University, which is supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1971, I attended the first course in evolution taught at that institution since 1911. BYU has continued to include a course in evolution as part of its core biology curriculum since that date.

I have served twice as a bishop in the church, under the direction of three different stake presidents, all of whom were well aware of my teaching and writing about evolution. The church is not at odds with the theory of evolution, neither is Evolution at odds with the church or the Bible.

Mr. Dougherty is greatly mistaken that “evolution” is in conflict with science and nature. I’m not sure where he has been for the past 150 years, but he certainly has not kept abreast of the progress in science. The DNA nucleotide sequence, to which Mr. Dougherty awkwardly alludes in his letter, is one of the strongest modern bodies of evidence in support of the theory of evolution. Thousands of modern scientists, including me, refer to such strong evidence on a daily basis (see Evolution and Mormonism, pp. 104, 113-114). The universal nature of intercellular communication, which Mr. Dougherty cites in his letter, is, in fact, another very powerful body of evidence for evolution. Yes, Mr. Dougherty, “evolution” is alive and well.

Mr. Dougherty stated that, “You have to be … brain dead to accept evolution …” “Brain dead” is a serious terminal medical condition. Family members who have gone through the pain of seeing a love one enter this state, I’m sure, resent flippant reference to such a serious issue.

One last point: I have not been a “Mr.” since 1977. I spent nine years after high school in intense biology courses of study and research, earning a Ph.D. I have spent the subsequent 31 years expanding on that study and research. I strongly recommend that Mr. Dougherty spend more time in study himself, perhaps beginning by reading books which he ignorantly critiques, and less time writing idiotic letters.