Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Evolution: Anathema to Mormons?

When Randy and his wife visited this past week, he reminded me that I promised an evolution post a while back. I had actually already written one, a long one, about a month ago, but I didn't like how it ended up, so I never posted it. Here's my second attempt.

With this post, I will not attempt a thorough scientific explanation of evolution, but rather reasons on why you can accept evolution as fact (all of it), and still believe the core doctrines of the church. I'll just state here that the question of whether the theory of organic evolution is true or not is about as silly as the question of whether Newton's theory of gravity is correct. Things fall. Species evolve. Done and done. If you don't accept it you haven't studied it enough. You might say about Newton's theory: "But didn't Eintein prove him wrong with the theory of relativity?" No, he did not- all Einstein did to Newton's theory was to show that it indeed WAS correct in situations where objects are traveling far slower than the speed of light. In fact, Einstein's theory reduces exactly to Newton's theory in the low velocity limit. Einstein expanded upon Newton, and in the future there will be experiments that expand upon evolution, but never prove it wrong- we're past that point already. The likelihood of evolution being proven wrong is about as likely as someone proving that mass actually repels other mass rather than attract it.

As I said, I don't want to get into all the whys and hows of how evolution works, but to talk about how you can accept it and still believe that God created the universe and the earth, and that Christ is still the Savior of it (ie, the important parts of the gospel)

Before we get into what the scriptures say, the first major obstacles to accepting evolution for any Latter-Day Saint are past and current statements by church leaders. We currently have several apostles that openly reject organic evolution, Elders Packer and Nelson probably chief among them (at least they have been the most vocal about it). I've read other, more oblique hints of objection from others such as the whole first presidency, and a few other apostles. Prominent former leaders who ardently objected to it include just about every church president from Joseph F. Smith onward, as well as Elder McConkie, who perhaps has had the most dramatic effect on current opinion in the church about it due to his Mormon Doctrine and The Seven Deadly Heresies, a BYU devotional talk. While I disagree with many of the points Elder McConkie makes in that talk, it is a valuable resource that coherently lays out the reasoning behind "orthodox" Mormon opposition to evolution. Here is part of what he says:

These are questions to which all of us should find answers. Every person must choose for himself what he will believe. I recommend that all of you study and ponder and pray and seek light and knowledge in these and in all fields.

I believe that the atonement of Christ is the great and eternal foundation upon which revealed religion rests. I believe that no man can be saved unless he believes that our Lord's atoning sacrifice brings immortality to all and eternal life to those who believe and obey, and no man can believe in the atonement unless he accepts both the divine sonship of Christ and the fall of Adam.

My reasoning causes me to conclude that if death has always prevailed in the world, then there was no fall of Adam that brought death to all forms of life; that if Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement; that if there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, and no eternal life; and that if there was no atonement, there is nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. I believe that the Fall affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself, and that the Atonement affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself.

I like how he emphasizes that belief in this particular area of doctrine is completely up to the individual (just like any doctrine, really), but what I disagree with is the false dichotomy he sets up between belief in the atonement, and acceptance of evolution. His rhetorical strategy is to suggest that since evolution teaches that death existed before the fall (ie, 4000 B.C.), then the fall could not have happened (at 4000 B.C.), and therefore there was no need for an atonement. All I would say to this is that the biblical and even the temple descriptions of the garden of Eden and the fall are highly symbolic. Did they really eat a piece of fruit that caused their bodies (and the bodies of every other species) to degenerate? Was Eve's body really created from Adam's rib? We need to be very careful not to treat a religious document thousands of years old and having passed through the shaky hands of many scribes as a science textbook.

What is important in the story of the fall is that we are cut off from God because of our sins, and that we need a Savior to intercede for us. Physical death comes on all automatically so Christ will resurrect all automatically. Spiritual death comes on us because of our sins, so Christ will cover those sins that are repented of and save those who follow him. None of these truths require the odd belief that death came into the world around 4000 B.C. If no death existed before the fall, could Adam and Eve eat anything? You might say they were vegetarians, but plant life, alive, and can die, so did the fall only affect animal life? Too many mental gymnastics are required to make that rather (with apologies to Elder McConkie) archaic view of the fall work even on its own internal logic, and nearly impossible when viewed with even rudimentary knowledge of science.

A better way is to follow the injunction of Jesus: "Render to Caeser the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". Lets leave science to the scientists, and the doctrines of salvation to the prophets. This might mean that when a prophet comes along and makes a statement about something in the physical world, we can smile and nod and then go about what we were doing since they were not called as prophets to expound upon science, but to call us to repentence. Often, they are flat out wrong, but this does not undermine their "prophethood". Even prophets are entitled to incorrect opinions. When a prophet speaks about Christ and salvation, I listen. When they talk about science, I tune out. In fact, there is danger in supposing that everything that falls from the lips of a prophet is inspired. There is also danger in thinking that if they are wrong on issues of science, then they might also be wrong on issues of salvation. The Brethren have realized this more and more, and now make far fewer statements about things not really pertaining to our salvation so as to not distract from the "important things".

So what happened at the fall? Modern scripture is quite clear that God created all things spiritually before he created them physically (see Moses 3-4), so I see no reason why the whole garden experience couldn't have been entirely spiritual. Adam and Eve were given choices. They chose knowledge of good and evil, and mortality. God then sent them down to the physical Earth where he had been in the process of creating their bodies from the dust of the earth (literally) for millions of years. Thus Adam fell physically from the presence of God, bringing physical death to us all. Does this mean they had human-like ape parents? Maybe. Does it really matter? I know creationists huff and puff and get all blue in the face talking about how ridiculous the idea is that we came from apes, but I really don't see how it belittles us to say that God used natural tools and processes to create our physical bodies.

Anyway, I'll pause there and see if there are differing or concurring opinions. To summarize my point, I say that the idea that evolution is in direct opposition to the concept of the fall is false (what I perceive as most members' main beef with evolution), even if many church leaders disagree. To justify going against a church leader, I say that we need to listen to them when they talk about the Savior and how to follow him and get back to heaven, but when they start opining on natural phenomenon like the origins of the human body, that is when we can smile and nod and move on (and not publicly denounce them- thats bad). Does that show too much chutzpah on my end?


Nick said...

Bonus points if you use "perfect storm", "panacea", or "blasts" in your comment.

Cabeza said...

I agree with the following statement whole-heartedly: "Things fall. Species evolve." Beyond that, I don't know for sure what I believe.

To say that we came from apes doesn't necessarily shake my faith, but it does give me pause. It seems to throw an extra step into being created in God's image. It feels funny to me to say that God looks like an evolved ape. I also have problems with this evolution and adaptation based on what I understand to be what Darwin posited on evolution, but this could be my own lack of understanding.

Darwin's theory, as I understand it, is based on the idea of "survival of the fittest;" i.e. if you've got what it takes, you live. If you don't, you die. Those that have what it takes pass their genetic code on to their offspring, who have more of a chance of having what made their parents strong manifest in them, thus enabling them to survive and pass it on to their offspring, et cetera, et cetera.

Darwin observed specialized traits in different species that lived on different islands in the Galapogos. These could be traced to their unique food sources and conditions on their individual islands. Birds had evolved and gained certain beaks, et cetera.

Now apply this to the ape-human model. Apes lived without shelter, so those that had hair all over their bodies died off and those that had less hair survived and passed that trait on to us. Wait, what? It doesn't seem to work to me. The same confusion strikes when you consider comparative strength and other traits that make apes superior for survival. Where humans shine is in intelligence, but why does the trait of superior intelligence necessarily rule out more basic physical survival traits? Where in the theory of evolution does it say we lose things we don't need? I thought we gained things or kept those that we did need.

Another question (again, maybe my lack of understanding)--if it's survival of the fittest and we come from apes, why are there still apes? I don't understand it.

Beyond that, I agree with Nick about the difficulty of trying marry science to doctrine. Not to blast Nick, but I think he demonstrates the point rather well in the attempt to explain the Fall as taking place during spiritual creation. The scenario offered is too full of conjecture and raises many questions. Where did this "garden" experience take place? Why was Satan there? What do we take as symbol and what do we take as actual? I think, like Nick says, we do well to try and keep the two separate when there is no obvious correlation or divinely revealed connection.

And as a final opinion in this bloated opinion piece, I wouldn't necessarily turn away from any scientific opinion given by an apostle. I would listen to Elder Talmage's ideas on geology, for example, or Elder Eyring's opinions as they relate to chemistry. Sometimes apostles do have backgrounds in science.

Nick said...

As a partial response:

In my attempt to offer an alternate garden story, when I suggested that it was all spiritual, I was trying to take it out of the physical, testable realm of science. I wasn't trying to marry science with theology, but rather divorce them. There is much conjecture in it (as all discussions of this type entail), but no more (and I think less outrageous) than conjectures in traditional views about the biblical creation story like 4000 b.c., or pangea existing up until Peleg, or God "planting evidence"- placing fossilized dinosaur bones or bones of human ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago, just to throw us off. The point was to try to come up with a purely spiritual account of the fall so we don't have to make stuff up and all it science.

Nick said...

(that last sentence should be "CALL it science.." if that wasn't obvious by context)

Cabeza said...

Thank you for clarifying. I took it as marrying because I saw it as an attempt to use a spiritual scenario to justify a scientific explanation. What you say in your rebutal makes sense, though. I now await the rest of your rebutt...

morgan said...

I'm not sure I've entirely formed my own opinion as to religion and evolution, but I echo cabeza's first paragraph. [echo]

A few things that I thought about while reading your post Nick...

It’s always dangerous to take a ‘we’ve figured it all out’ approach to anything in science. I believe that it was Lord Kelvin that in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s stated that physics had figured everything out and all that was left to do was to solve the physical constants to a few more decimal places. And then our whole understanding of the world was turned upside down. We never know when our understanding of the world will change. You allude to this in your post, but then state that it doesn’t apply to evolution basically taking (what seems to me) a ‘we’ve figure it all out’ attitude. The fact of the matter is they don’t know everything about evolution. It is possible that it turns out to be just like Newton’s Laws, applicable in some cases but not in others. In what cases would evolution not be applicable? I don’t’ know; ask Lord Kelvin for cases where Newton’s Laws don’t apply.

You mention that it’s dangerous to base our views in texts that are thousands of years old and that have passed through many hands. That’s true. But remember that unlike other Christians, much of our doctrine of the fall comes from modern day scripture and revelation not just the Bible. It doesn’t seem like you can brush that aside saying that it’s probably just a mistranslation.

I liked your statement about when the prophets are speaking about physical worlds. They are called to be our spiritual guides. But does this mean that the Lord can’t reveal physical truths to his prophets? Of course not, he can tell them whatever he wants to . Think of D&C 131; ‘all spirit is matter but is more refined’. Surely that’s a statement about physical truths. Does that have any basis in scientific truth? No. Well, unless you want to consider dark matter, which who knows what that will turn out to be. But it for sure had no scientific basis in the 1800’s. What would an 1800’s scientist, or even a 1900’s scientist have said about that? Probably that it’s ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean we should just tune it out. I realize there is a difference between canonized scripture and general authorities speaking but all I’m saying is that it doesn’t seem like a good idea to tune out just because a prophet or apostle is speaking about things of the physical world. Maybe they’ll turn out to be right.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know the whole truth of the matter. We know species evolve. Is it possible that we evolved from a lower life form and that Adam’s body was created by organic evolution? Absolutely. But is it possible that humankind was not created by evolution and that God did in fact place Adam upon the earth? Absolutely. Since we know, as you said, that some things in the scriptures are symbolic I guess it just depends on what we want to consider to be symbolic or not.

As an ending note: this is the longest comment I’ve ever written. Panacea.

Nick said...

initial rebutt to Morgan on listening to what prophets have to say about the physical world:

Even a prophet turns out to be right on a subject in the domain of science, that doesn't make it wrong to doubt his opinions on science. At the last day, if the Lord reveals to me that he placed dinosaur bones on earth just to mess with us, I'll say "d'oh! my bad", and then proceed to inherit whatever reward I have earned by following the prophets' other, more important counsel.

Just to be extra clear, my whole point in writing this was to defend the acceptance of evolution by a faithful Mormon, and not necessarily to attack traditional creationism (even though I blatantly take a few cheap shots at it, and will likely take a few more).

Nick said...

With regards to Morgan's very well stated point that we can't say "we've figured it all out already", I suppose I should acknowledge my blatant hyperbole

No, every detail of evolutionary theory has NOT been worked out, just like we continue to discover things in physics, medicine, etc. I just hear all the time from my co-religionists that evolution is "just a theory", as if that makes it more suspect than say, the theory of gravity, or the theory that the heart is what pumps blood throughout the body and not some other mechanism that we haven't discovered yet (I sure like hyperbole). Evolution is not like global warming where the scientists involved are 90% sure that humans are responsible for it. It really is more like gravity where we are pretty sure that the mass of the earth is what causes it, until Einstein comes along and shows that, no, its caused by the curvature of space, which is warped by mass, so the Earth still causes gravity, only now we have a different way to think about it.

Concerning ancient texts- I only mean that since we are already so cautious about determining our doctrine from *just* the Bible and say it is true only as it is translated directly, how much more silly would it be to base our views of science on it? True, we have more modern texts that clarify certain doctrines, and while I'm not saying that there are translation issues with them, there are definitely issues of interpretation. We should usually defer to the prophets on scriptural interpretation (like, 99.999% of the time), but when issues of science come up, I still maintain that a prophet's opinion is still as good as any man's, and not quite as good as a specialist in the field.

Nick said...

To finish my rebutt to Cabeza (or, to rerebutt):

1.) I'm not sure that evolution puts an extra step in our creation. I kind of see it as THE step of creation.

2.)As to your specific concerns about certain details of evolution, I'm sorry to say I don't know (me not being a biologist), but I'm sure any decent biologist could answer all of the points you bring up. But just because we don't understand all the details of a theory doesn't make it wrong or suspect (I know you're not claiming its wrong, but just that you don't understand it all yet).

3.)Concerning symbolism in the book of Genesis (and Moses and Abraham), yes it can be tricky deciding what is metaphor and what literally happened. Was the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil really a fruit? I think that question is answered by the name of the tree itself. Of course its a symbol- just like Nephi's tree of life fruit representing the love of God. What about the creation? Was it really 7 days? Joseph Smith clarifies that one for us: its really 7 creative periods. What about the "waters of the firmament" mentioned in the creation story? Real water? From the context, probably not- water didn't appear until a little later in the narrative. Some people think that Adam himself was not a real person, but represents the human race (which partly makes sense given the temple ceremony), but we can pretty much toss that one out thanks to Joseph Smith again.

So to answer the question about when something is a symbol, I would say that if a literal interpretation is invalidating something that science tells us to be true, then its probably a metaphor (like the Earth not being created in 7 days).

St. Augustine in the early church had some great things to say about interpreting Genesis too literally. Go to this website and scroll down to Augustine. Here is what summarizes my view of scripture:
"In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation"

His point, and mine, is that God doesn't really care what we believe about his creative process, as long as we believe in and follow His Son.

Perfect Storm.

Warren said...

Cabaza asked:
Another question (again, maybe my lack of understanding)--if it's survival of the fittest and we come from apes, why are there still apes? I don't understand it.

There are many species of apes, and millions of years ago we could have evolved from a certain species that is no longer extant. Furthermore species can evolve differently if placed in two different environments. Humans living in high altitudes (like Bolivia) have larger hearts than those of us from lower altitudes. A group of apes could have been separated eons ago and evolved differently in their separate locales.

I don’t necessarily believe this, but that’s the counter-argument, which I feel is much much stronger than saying there are still apes today so no ape to human evolution yesterday.

Henry Eyring (who Neal A. Maxwell called “the most distinguished Mormon scientist of this dispensation”) discussed evolution in “Reflections of a Scientist.” After watching an ape at a zoo, he said “Animals seem pretty wonderful to me. I’d be content to discover that I share a common heritage with them, so long as God is at the controls.”

He continued “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 if 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.”

He then stated that the theory that natural laws has life becoming increasing more complex “doesn’t hold water” and he “can’t see randomly generated natural laws producing these remarkable results.”

Here’s the chapter (which I found after I wrote all this).

JonnyF said...

Wow. Really interesting stuff. I really like Elder Eyering's take on it.
I took "The Pearl of Great Price" from Stephen Robinson. We had a discussion on this topic. Brother Robinson's main point was basically the same as Elder Eyering's - that we know very little about the relationship between Adam & Eve and the apparent natural history of the earth based on empirical evidence. In some senses we know quite a bit about each subject individually but we don't know how to mesh them, and that knowledge hasn't been revealed.

To expand on what Warren said in response to Jared's question: First of all, I think you're getting tripped up by a simplification of an explanation of human evolution. I don't know of any biologist who actually claims that humans decended from apes directly. The theory is, rather, that we both evolved from a common ancestor species.
The same principle happened with Darwin's finches. There was an ancestor species which evolved into several distict species - some of which were more similar to the parent species than others. The ancestor species may or may not have died out.
As far as losing hairy skin and muscle mass, there are many theories.
Anyway, if you are interested in what an evolutionary biologist has to say about those types of questions, you might want to read "The Naked Ape" (dang it, how do you do italics?) by Desmond Morris. It is somewhat out of date, and his logic isn't always valid, but it was interesting to read his perspective. I will warn you that he tries to explain every detail about the differences between human and primate physiology and behavior in evolutionary terms - including the differences in sexual physiology and behavior. I don't remember it being too bad - not a whole lot different than a human biology class - but it is possible that I skipped most of that chapter.

Cabeza said...

I appreciate the responses to my points. Like I said, a lot of my doubts and hesitancies arise from my lack of understanding. While I still don't fully understand things, Nick's, Warren's, and Jon's explanations provide me with some kind of consolation (or whatever) that there are attempts to answer my (I believe valid) questions. I didn't mean to appear as if I were rejecting on the basis of my own questions. My university training taught me to be skeptical and curious when confronted with theories and thoughts, so I exercised my skepticism and stepped into the fray.

All-in-all, I've got to agree with what everyone in general is saying: we don't know much enough about the relationship between the two subjects we're semi-attempting to reconcile to come up with any kind of satisfactory answer.

I will conclude in agreement with Nick that evolution should not be anathema to Mormons. Creationism's perfect storm, while a soothing panacea to many simple-faithed believers, is ultimately blasted by hard scientific evidence that tells us there is more to be considered.

Nick said...

You sure tout your vocabulary there in that last paragraph

randy said...

So this post is mostly to follow up on an early post that I did on Nick's evolution story in April. Since then I read a lot of "church" stuff on the matter. It jolted me a bit to learn that there was quite a heated disagreement between members of the Quorum of the Twelve on this issue long ago. I realized that if such disagreement could exist there, then it probably isn't all that important (though no less interesting) for us to know the truth. And, like Nick said, it does seem that there are fewer church publications on these types of topics.

I just wanted to add one thing that I didn't see mentioned that I picked up in my reading. While it is hard to accept that we were the result of "random" mutations, it is much more feasible to accept the possibility that God was at the controls of these mutations, slowly directing them to form us into His image (where did His image come from? look along the lines of If You Could Hie to Kolob).

Cabeza said...

Uh, there is no end to race?

Nick said...

Lets hope Bro. Phelps was referring to the human race.

It was also surprising to me to see that some members of the 12 leaned towards evolution (or at least weren't quick to condemn it), and that therefore, as Randy says, is not very important (in terms of salvation). Which is another reason I don't buy McConkie's (and others') argument against evolution- they make it an issue of salvation when it is clearly not.

JKC said...

One way to approach the whole "no death before the fall" doctrine is to ask how long before the fall?

Steve Robinson once explained to me his way of making sense of the undeniable fossil record and the idea that there was no death before the fall is that there was no death in Eden when the Earth was in a Celestial state, but that there could very well have been death and rebirth going on throughout the entire long period of creation.

I like the symmetry of this model when you compare it with the world that follows. Six eons of creation followed by an Edenic sabbath (I'm considering Eden a continuation of the seventh day), then a fall, then six (depending on how you count them) dispensations followed by a renewed Eden state in which there will be no death (the millenium). There's a cyclical grace to it, echoing even our mundane weekly lives.

To say there was no death before the fall could mean that for that Edenic celestial period before the fall, there was no death. It does not have to mean that there was absolutely never any death at any time before the fall. In fact it cannot mean the latter for all the reasons Nick already cited, but also for another that I'll mention. Jesus, speaking of his own death, says that he does nothing save that which he has seen the Father do already. The Father sure hasn't died since the fall, so there's only one other option.

To Cabeza's pause about an extra step, I don't really see it as a problem because creation is a process and, I imagine, involves many steps. It might feel funny to say that God looks like an evolved ape, but what if instead we said that an evolved ape looks like God? To me, the phrase "from the dust of the Earth" is a perfect way to poetically capture the scientific idea of being raised up from more rudimentary forms of life.

I'm sure I'm probably preaching to the choir, but to me the creationist literalism makes about as much sense as trying to read Boewulf as if it were written in modern english instead of middle english. You might pick up a few phrases in isolation, but they won't make any coherent sense, and but you'll miss the whole story. Similarly, if you read poetic religion as if it were science you might match a few data points, but the science won't make any sense, and what's worse, you'll miss out on the beauty and power of the text.

JKC said...

P.S. Don't let this guy read this post.