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Mormons and Evolution

Please note that this is an essay that covers the current state of evidence for evolution in a summary fashion.  It is written by a man, David H. Bailey, who has published a good deal of research in this area, and who is a faithful Latter-day Saint.

David H. Bailey

I must confess that I find the continuing debates about what some LDS general authorities have said about evolution and the age of the earth, or what the "official" LDS position is on these issues, to be rather tiresome at this point in time.  Such debates just don't matter any more, except perhaps to historians, because the scientific facts supporting the basic notions of these theories are now just too well established.  Past writings by General Authorities or other religious leaders criticizing these theories only prove that they are human.  I think it's time we accepted this and moved on.

Please indulge me while I discuss this matter in some detail.

I. Overview of Current Scientific Evidence

Once one could argue that there were uncertainties in geological dating, or that there are too many "missing links" in the fossil record, or that the fundamental mechanisms of heredity and evolution were not known.  But in the last few decades, things have changed.

That the earth is many millions of years old is now well established.  Measured dates of individual geological layers, even when taken from samples on opposite sides of the earth, agree.  Many thousands of these measurements have been made, using a number of different techniques.  Can they all simultaneously be in error?  One modern dating technique is known as "fission track" dating.  This is based on the spontaneous fission of uranium atoms, which occurs at a well-established rate not influenced by temperature, pressure, or chemical combination.  Such fissions leave a distinctive track in specimens of a certain type of crystal.  Thus by counting the number of tracks in a given specimen, and by measuring its uranium content, a very reliable date can be determined.

With regards to evolution, every year or so it seems we hear of some new discovery of early hominid fossils -- not just isolated teeth or bones, but nearly complete skeletons in some cases.  A number of other convincing "missing link" fossils have recently been discovered.  Natural evolution has been exhibited in ways obvious to anyone, including changes observed in the resistance of certain diseases to medicines, and in changes in the AIDS virus since it was first discovered.

The recent advancements in molecular biology, including the discovery of the structure of DNA and the role of mutations, has provided a clear mechanism for heredity and evolution.  Computer simulations of these processes not only verify the theory of evolution but have also been applied to completely different fields.  The resulting schemes, which are known as "genetic algorithms", are for some computational problems the most efficient solution schemes known.

Further, countless comparisons of DNA sequences between species have now been published.  Hemoglobin molecule sequences have also been catalogued for many species.  These results provide virtually incontestable evidence of evolution, since scientists no longer have to rely on vague similarities in appearance between different species -- the evolutionary distance between species can now be objectively and quantitatively measured.  For example, the 141-long alpha chain of the hemoglobin molecule is identical in chimpanzees, differs in only one location in gorillas, yet differs in 25 locations in rabbits and in over 100 locations in fish.

Even more dramatic are the recent announcements of recovering DNA from ancient organisms.  Ironically, one of the most dramatic of these discoveries, namely dinosaur DNA, was made by an LDS scientist (Scott Woodward at BYU).  These developments herald the advent of what Charles Darwin, in his wildest fantasies, might not have imagined possible: the direct analysis of the course of evolution, including human evolution, at the DNA level, through the eons.

All of these results are supported by reams of meticulous research, and there is more than enough dissent in the field to insure that any weakly supported or imprecisely argued claims are ripped apart.  Too bad the religious world doesn't subject itself to such rigorous analysis!

II. Creationist Counter-Arguments

A small group of "creation scientists", funded by a coalition of fundamentalist Christian sects, has generated literature criticizing the conventional scientific theories, and proposing its own alternate theories.  Many religious-minded people, including many LDS people, have found these arguments convincing, since they reinforce a straightforward literal interpretation of Biblical scriptures. However, they fall far short of having sufficient substance to be taken seriously by knowledgeable scientists (and not just because of their Biblical slant).

The most sophisticated and convincing of the creationist arguments are based on probability.  I myself studied probability theory while a graduate student Stanford, and as far as I can see these arguments are all fallacious.  The usual flaw is that they ignore the trillions of possible alternate biological systems that could have arisen on earth but didn't.  All one can really conclude from these lines of reasoning is that our particular DNA sequence and biochemistry are unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere.

The creationist literature pretty well goes downhill from here.  For example, they like to argue that evolution is impossible because it is contrary to the second law of thermodynamics.  Sadly, the LDS authority Elder George R. Hill used this line of reasoning in his article in the June 1993 Ensign.  But the SLOT only applies to closed systems, not to the earth's biosphere, which is continually receiving prodigious amounts of energy from the sun.  Using the creationists' SLOT argument, one could just as well conclude that snowflakes, convection currents in pots of hot water, as well as all other spontaneously organizing phenomena, are fundamentally impossible.

Another creationist argument is that if conventional geologic dating were correct, then the Apollo astronauts would have been engulfed in 100 feet of moon dust.  This claim is based on some early, flawed estimates of the rate of flow of space dust.  These estimates were corrected many years ago with more accurate measurements, made by spacecraft.  Needless to say, these newer measurements are completely consistent with the small amount of dust found by the astronauts.

One other creationist favorite is the famous "human" footprint found in an ancient dinosaur fossil bed near the Paluxy River in Texas.  But this has been exposed as a fraud.  It is also completely inconsistent with other fossils in the area, which represent thousands of species, yet not a single specimen of any mammal larger than a mouse.

Some of the creationist theories are so ludicrous that I don't know how any intelligent person can present them and hold a straight face.  One of these is the notion that all of the worldwide geological layers were deposited during Noah's flood, and that the reason more advanced animal fossils are found near the top is that they could swim better.  Why then indeed are the geological layers so well defined?  What about infants, the sick or the aged -- why didn't they sink to the bottom?

III. Geology and Evolution at BYU

Those of you who have attended BYU are probably aware that the conventional scientific theories of geology, paleontology, botany and zoology are taught at the school, with the approval of the administration.  These departments have successfully beaten back several attempts to impose creationism at the university.  BYU has a number of very well respected scientists in this area, including Scott Woodward (mentioned above) in DNA, Duane Jeffery in genetics, and Jim Jensen (now retired) in geology, who assembled what is currently the largest collection of dinosaur fossils.  It is stored under the BYU football stadium.

It is important to note that not one of the numerous LDS scientists at BYU currently espouses the creationist viewpoint, according to a recent surveys of the faculty.  Thus those Mormons who insist on a literal reading of Genesis not only place themselves outside the mainstream of worldly scientific thought, but they also place themselves outside the mainstream of LDS scientific thought as well.

IV. Religious Implications

None of this means that one has to abandon belief in God, the Plan of Salvation, the Atonement of Christ, or any other basic doctrine.  One can even believe that God oversaw the process of creation and evolution and be consistent with known scientific facts.  But, in my opinion, thinking latter-day saints (or thinking Christians of any denomination, for that matter) cannot continue to cling onto the classical notion that God created the earth and universe a few thousand years ago, or that there were no living or dying beings on earth before Adam.  We have to at least accept the basic outline, that the earth is many millions of years old, and that there has been a steady progression of living organisms, culminating in beings much like modern humans, through the ages.

The only other choice, as far as I can see, is to posit that God created the earth out of thin air about 6000 years ago, complete with an intricate system of fossil-laden, radiometrically dated rocks, plus a hundred other very convincing indications of a old evolutionary origin.  Further, depending on how one reads Genesis, one may have to posit (as creationist Duane Gish has actually suggested) that God created the entire universe at this time, complete with light rays already streaming on a path to the earth as if they had originated from stars that are millions of light years away.  Why?  As a "test of faith"?

I submit that such a creator, guilty as he/she presumably is of executing a deliberate fraud of an inconceivably wide-ranging scope, is utterly unworthy of our worship or obedience.  My God is a god of truth, reason and rationality, who rewards diligent, honest seekers of truth with ever grander rewards of knowledge. 

Furthermore, if Mormons continue to deny very well established scientific facts, then the LDS Church will find itself in a camp with only most extreme wing of the literal fundamentalists.  This in general is the same group which produces most of the anti-Mormon propaganda that is distributed.  Would this have been the wishes of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and other founders of our faith?  Is this your wish?

Joseph Smith shocked his contemporaries by teaching that the Bible is incomplete, incorrectly translated and not necessarily 100% inspired.  He also taught, contrary to orthodox Catholic and Protestant doctrines, that God's miracles are not contraventions of natural law, but that instead God works within the realm of natural laws, and that we can discover these laws by diligent study and faith.  Joseph specifically denied the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Brigham Young was particularly explicit in rejecting a highly literal

reading of the creation scriptures:    As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and 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.”  [Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 14, pg. 116 (May 14, 1871).]

Growing up in Utah Valley, with its ring of mountains exposing intricate, convoluted geological layers, and with amazing fossils (esp. dinosaurs) at numerous locations around the state, it seemed clear to me that the Lord led the Saints to this region so that they would not be seduced by creationism.  Why then do Mormons cling to Biblical literalism even today?  It beats me!

V. Conclusion

A quote from Elder B. H. Roberts sums up this discussion quite well:  “On the other hand, to limit and insist upon the whole of life and death to this side of Adam's advent to the earth, some six or eight thousand years ago, as proposed by some, is to fly in the face of the facts so indisputably brought to light by the researcher of science in modern times, and this as set forth by men of the highest type in the intellectual and moral world; not inferior men, or men of sensual and devilish temperament, but men who must be accounted as among the noblest and most self-sacrificing of the sons of men -- of the type whence must come the noblest sons of God, since ‘the glory of God is intelligence’ (D&C 93:36); and that too the glory of man.”

  These searchers after truth are of that class.  To pay attention to and give reasonable credence to their research and findings is to link the church of God with the highest increase of human thought and  effort.  On that side lies development, on the other lies contraction.  It is on the former side that research work is going on and will continue to go on, future investigation and discoveries will continue   on that side, nothing will retard them, and nothing will develop on the other side.  One leads to narrow sectarianism, the other keeps the   open spirit of a world movement with which our New Dispensation began.   As between them which is to be our choice?

[Brigham H. Roberts, "The Truth, the Way, the Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology", 1930 (republished by SRA in 1994), pg. 363-364.]

Note that the above passage was written by B. H. Roberts in 1930. Consider for a moment how much more compelling this conclusion is today!

Personal Letter about evolution

Brief History of Evolution as Taught by the LDS church 

Official Positions of the LDS church
   Current First Presidency Position on Evolution
   Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on Evolution
   1931 Statement of the First Presidency
   1925 First Presidency Statement on Evolution

1910 First Presidency Statement on Evolution
   1909 First Presidency Statement on Evolution

GA statements
   Earth is 2.55 Billion years old ( WW Phelps, Joseph Smith? )
Apostle Stephen L. Richards - An Open Letter to College Students
President McKay disses Man His Origin and Destiny
   Selected Quotes

Death Before Adam by BYU Professor Steven Jones

Evolutionary Biology - a primer

Mormons and Evolution by David H. Bailey  

More Material:  http://eyring.hplx.net/Eyring/faq/evolution/

And even more material:  More and more

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Last modified: March 19, 2006