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The Official Mormon Position On Evolution

Surprise! There isn’t one.

“What the church requires is only belief that Adam was the first man of what we would call the human race,” said LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in a comment cited in the book Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America. He then went on to say that “scientists can speculate on the rest” and that, with regard to his own studies in both geology and anthropology, “Studied all about it. Didn’t worry me then. Doesn’t worry me now.”

That’s exactly where I am on the issue. I find it somewhat interesting, but I don’t attach any theological import to it. Whether the earth was zapped into existence in 24 hours on October 15, 3004 BC, or if it’s been around for the four quadrillion years L. Ron Hubbard thinks it has, neither scenario poses any intellectual or spiritual obstacle to my faith. The same is true with regard to humanity – if we popped up like daisies a few thousand years ago, great. If generations upon generations of ancestral apes were involved, great.

Of course, not all my fellow Mormons feel that way.

“Is the theory of evolution compatible with the doctrine of the Fall?  No,” wrote Joseph Fielding McConkie, an emeritus professor at BYU, a very bright and personable man, and my mission president when I served as a full-time missionary in Scotland a couple of decades ago. (I know the guy; I like him a lot.) He continues: “We can tug, twist, contort, and sell our birthright, but we cannot overcome the irreconcilable differences between the theory of organic evolution and the doctrine of the Fall.”

His position is consistent with the writings of his prolific father, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who served as an apostle in the church. In Mormon Doctrine, his encylopaedic approach to the faith, he stated unequivocally that “There is no harmony between the truths of revealed religion and the theories of organic evolution.” He labeled Latter-Day Saints who accepted scientific evolutionary theories as having minds that were “weak and puerile.”

Both men can trace their intellectual pedigree on this issue to the writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, the elder McConkie’s father-in-law and the younger McConkie’s grandfather who, like Gordon B. Hinckley, also served as President of the Church.

“This idea that everything commenced from a small beginning, from the scum upon the surface of the sea, and has gradually developed until all forms of life, the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, the fishes of the sea, and the plants upon the face of the earth, have all sprung from that one source, is a falsehood absolutely,” he wrote in his seminal work Man: His Origin and Destiny.  “There is no truth in it, for God has given us his word by which we may know.”

Well, that’s authoritative, no?

No.

In a letter to Dr. A. Kent Christensen,  Department of Medical Anatomy, Cornell University Medical College, then-church president David O. McKay, who happens to be my great-grandfather, wrote the following:

_____

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
47 E. South Temple Street
Salt Lake City, Utah
David O. McKay, President

February 3, 1959

Dr. A. Kent Christensen
Department of Anatomy
Cornell University Medical College
1300 York Avenue
New York 21, New York

Dear Brother Christensen:

I have your letter of January 23, 1959 in which you ask for a statement of the Church’s position on the subject of evolution.

The Church has issued no official statement on the subject of the theory of evolution.

Neither ‘Man, His Origin and Destiny’ by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, nor ‘Mormon Doctrine’ by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, is an official publication of the Church. . . .

Sincerely yours,

[signed]

David O. McKay
(President)

______

President McKay was a firm believer in organic evolution as well as the principles of geological time. Other prominent church leaders on the pro-evolution side of the ledger include apostles James E. Talmage, who penned the official church publications The Articles of Faith and Jesus the Christ, as well as B.H. Roberts, one of the finest theologians the church has ever known. The fact of the matter is that the Lord has not yet seen fit to reveal the specific process by which either the earth or humanity was created, and anyone taking a hard line one way or the other is doing so on their own initiative, regardless of the church office they may hold.

All this, however, is prelude to my attempt to clarify and record my own personal and ill-informed theories on the subject, which probably won’t make either side happy at all.

I’ve wanted to write this up since a friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to a site called “Conservapedia,” which posits that a penchant for limited government also goes hand in hand with Adam and Eve riding on the backs of dinosaurs six thousand years ago. 

hamdinoI don’t understand why one goes with the other, but to each his own, I guess.

Frequently, I claim that I don’t care, or that it doesn’t matter, or that everyone is free to believe what they want. Well, that’s all well and good, but what is it that I actually believe?

Keep in mind that I have absolutely no background in biology, so what I believe is colored by a hefty dose of good old fashioned ignorance. That said, I think there is much in my faith that is uniquely consistent with evolution and at odds with an orthodox Christian worldview.

The first and most significant difference is in the rejection of “Ex Nihilo,” or “out of nothing” creation.

I wrote about this extensively before, but, in a nutshell, most Christians believe that for a long time there was Nothing, and then, at some point God decided there should be Something, so then the universe popped in to existence. Mormons, on the other hand, have scriptures that teach that “[i]ntelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be,” (D&C 93:29) and that “[t]he elements are eternal.” (D&C 93:33) So the act of creation wasn’t about wiggling the divine nose a la Samantha from Bewitched; it was about fashioning things out of stuff that was already there, and, indeed, had always been there.

This is the way it works in our own experience. When we talk about people who make cars, we don’t assume Ford pickups are created ex nihilo. We understand that the creators actually fashioned steel and rubber and whatever else to make what they make. So when God created the world, He fashioned pre-existing raw materials into what we have now.

Given that premise, it’s very hard for me to understand how any Mormon can get behind the idea of a “young earth.” Whatever it is this earth is made out of, it’s been around for pretty much forever, and we ought to embrace the idea that the raw materials are very, very old indeed. I think I’m on solid-and-uncreated ground in assuming that a lengthy geological history is intellectually consistent with the Doctrine and Covenants. So let me leave solid ground for a moment and speculate a bit.

This is one of my weird little theories that may sound slightly Scientological, but bear with me. Since the elements are eternal, why isn’t it possible that parts of this earth are recycled from something that may have gone before? Chunks of this planet could have been cobbled together from previous planets, and some of those previous planets could have had dinosaurs on them billions of years ago. Wouldn’t that be an explanation that could be consistent with any theory of life or death this time around?

Of course, my wife, the lovely Mrs. Cornell, thinks this supposition is the height of ridiculousness, and she refers to it as my “Dinosaurs-fell-from-the-sky” theory, as if God littered the earth with old bones to confuse us, much in the same way the Flying Spaghetti Monster claims to have done. Pastafarians who worship the Noodly Appendaged One claim that “[t]he Flying Spaghetti Monster buried dinosaur bones under earth’s crust to give the appearance that these creatures really existed long ago, when in fact he’s just hiding the fact that dinosaurs walked along the side of men. He does this all for ‘His Divine Amusement.'”

fsm
I think both are misrepresentation of my own crackpot theory, of which I, myself, am not fully convinced. I entertain the possibility that, yes, dinosaurs walked the earth, but it was the previous earth to this earth, and some of them were left over from the earth that was.

OK, actually typing that out for the first time actually made me realize how goofy that sounds. That’s not to say I don’t believe it, sort of, only that I have no factual basis for it and no stomach to defend it. Moving on…

It’s noteworthy that the Judeo-Christian creation story is already suggestive of some sort of evolutionary process. If God created Something out of Nothing in an instant, why did he bother to create the earth in phases, with lower forms of life being created prior to higher forms of life? How did that happen? How much of the story is figurative, and how much is literal? It’s interesting to note that the McConkies, who insist that evolutionary theory should be given no leeway, also believe that the story of the Fall and the eating of the apple is, itself, figurative and not literal. How do they know that? They don’t. And neither do I. But it doesn’t seem too difficult to extrapolate some kind of evolution inherent in the creation story, even if it’s one that doesn’t line up note-for-note with Darwinian theory.

The McConkies, who, again, I like and respect immensely, would reject these arguments and play what they consider to be a scriptural trump card, namely Doctrine and Covenants section 77:6, which contains the following Socratic exchange about the Book of Revelation:
_____

Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals?

A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.

_____

Well, there it is. Silly me; the earth is only 7,000 years old. Sorry I wasted your time. The end.

But, hey, howsabout all that stuff about eternal elements and intelligence that I cited earlier? Surely the dirt of which the earth is made is older than 7,000 years – it’s so old, in fact, that it can’t really be measured. Is that what D&C 77 is saying – the physical planet has only existed for 7,000 years? Because that’s not just inconsistent with science; it’s inconsistent with scripture.

7,000 years isn’t the chronological age of dirt; it’s the length of earth’s “continuance” or “temporal existence.” So what does that mean?

I think of it in these terms. How old is the city of London?

According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, the city was founded in 43 AD and first referred to as “Londinium” a little less than a century later. Did London exist prior to 43 AD? Well, physically, yes, of course it did. The Thames was flowing, but it wasn’t called the Thames. All the dirt was presumably there, too, but it wasn’t called London, because there was no one there to call it London. So it really wasn’t quite London yet, despite its geographical relationship to the town and then city that would later occupy that spot of ground.

History is concerned with chronology and where there is no chronology, there isn’t really any history to speak of, either. Anthropologists refer to the era prior to man’s arrival as “pre-history,” as in “prehistoric times.” So when does history begin?

Specifically, if the chunks of matter that make up the earth have always existed, at what point did they participate in earth’s “continuance” or “temporal,” i.e. time-based, “existence?” I submit that the criteria is the same as that of when London began.

History began when people showed up who were capable of recording time, which would require mathematics, writing, and philosophy – in a word, civilization. It’s not scientifically ludicrous to say that, regardless of biological origins, functional human civilization is somewhere around 7,000 years old, give or take. In any case, I don’t think the idea of earth’s 7,000 year-old temporal existence mentioned in Latter-Day Saint scripture ought to be viewed through an ex nihilo filter, nor do I think it presents a significant intellectual roadblock to credible theories about the origins of both the earth and the life upon it.

So there you have it. My biological manifesto riddled with ignorance, just as I warned you it would be. You are not required to agree or disagree with any of it in order to consider yourself a faithful Latter-Day Saint, nor should anyone of faith fear additional light and knowledge on this subject, whether it comes from a biology class or a Sunday School class, and regardless of how weak or puerile your intellect may be.

Maybe there are dinosaurs living in the center of the earth, like mole people.

Boy Scout Issues
Up Yours, GOP!

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19 Comments

  1. Your “Dinosaurs-fell-from-the-sky” theory is only ridiculous because it is a new thought or idea. You see, when it comes to religious ideas, we humans tend to mock ridiculous ideas that are new to us … while embracing as logical and rational those ridiculous ideas that we’ve heard repeated over and over and over again through generations.

    So, give it some time and your “Dinosaurs-fell-from-the-sky” theory may start to catch on. :-)

  2. Joseph Smith, in his book “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” discusses this very topic at some length. He refers to and prefers the German language bible as being more clear on “creation” specifically that it is NOT “ex nihilo.”

    But even the King James is clear once you cast off preconception. The earth was HERE, but “void”, at the beginning. The beginning is the beginning of the narrative, not the beginning of *existence*. A story needs a place to start.

    Next we see that God commands the EARTH to bring forth various kinds of living thing, and we read that the earth brought forth various kinds of living things. God’s actual participation in all this is rather limited. He observes that “it is good”.

    At some point when the earth had brought forth life of sufficient variety and capability to receive an endowment of knowledge, perhaps the gift of language, THEN God intervened in some way. The Sumerians, after all, appear on the scene rather abruptly complete with writing, money and astronomy.

    As to “days”, Suds Macklem explains that they aren’t “days” in modern English usage, but rather separations between epochs. This is hinted even in KJV, “the evening and the morning were the first day” or something like that — the span of the day is not measured and apparently no word exists for it. Furthermore the sun was not created until the third “day” so they are unpredictably long in duration.

    • The Sumerians, after all, appear on the scene rather abruptly complete with writing, money and astronomy.

      So, one way we can tell people were created by God is if they have money?

          • Your observations are argumentative and unnecessarily confrontational. They’re also straw men. Nobody claimed money indicates creation by God or that God is a prankster.

          • “So I prayed to God that he would strike the sense of humor from my enemies so that I would know them by their frowns.”

            I made a joke on the phrasing. Read the sentence again.

            Sheesh!

          • I read it again, but I still didn’t…

            (Oh, wait.)

            Oho! NOW I…

            (Oops. No.)

            Well, I think, anyway, that…

            Nope. Nothing.

  3. If chunks of another planet were cobbled together into this earth, and that’s where dinosaur bones come from, wouldn’t we expect to see seems in the geologic record where the chunks come together? Instead all we see are sequential layers, with older layers beneath newer layers (except where there is extreme upheaval, but we can trace that in the layers), and a more or less steady progression in complexity as we move toward newer layers. If we can’t trust that this stuff was real, how can we trust anything? God would have to be so devilishly deceitful as to not merit our worship.

    • “Cobbled together” isn’t really reflective of my point here. It’s more like London prior to being London – this wasn’t really our earth until we showed up. The dinosaurs may have occupied the same space, but they were an earlier project rather than part of ours.

      In any case, it’s all just my fantastical imagining, with no hard basis in either science or theology.

  4. Here’s a response for a few of your ideas from a biology teacher and a Latter-day Saint. I can’t resolve every piece of missing information, but neither the church or science claim to do that at *this moment* either.

    1. Dinosaurs and geology: The “Dinosaurs-fell-from-the-sky” theory is not new. This idea pops up regularly, especially among the LDS because of the understanding that the matter of the earth existed before. The likelihood of dinosaur fossils appearing in the earth in this way is practically impossible, according to the evidence found today. I do realize that I could be wrong, because I wasn’t there, but the simpler answer is that the dinosaurs belong to this world. We see how rivers and streams, or the wind can carry layers of sand and earth. Those layers can form new strata of rocks and soil. The layers that form today follow patterns that we see in the geology that surround the dinosaur fossils. If the dinosaurs were from previous planets, then the chunks of planets containing the fossils would have to be enormous and would have almost certainly formed under the hypothesized conditions consistent with evolution, but on those other planets.

    We can use the order of layers and the amount of decay and fossilization to estimate age. The vertical depth of particular fossils (i.e. their age) is consistent across the continents where those layers were originally formed. In other words, the vertical order of layers on each continent follow similar patterns, and the types of fossils found or not found in each layer is consistent across continents and even around the globe. Looking at only a few fossils, you can see patterns where certain fossils existed and where they did not. http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/geophys/platevid.html.
    One possibility is that God meticulously placed the fossils in defined layers far below contemporary layers of earth, but somehow prevented new materials from sliding between these new blocks. Another possibility is that the dinosaurs existed in their time on this earth and some of them turned into fossils along the way. Something created the pattern.

    As long as you’re willing that life can exist and pass away on other planets, why not let life exist and pass away on this planet before it became home for God’s children? This proposal follows the same reasoning that you used as you discussed the existence of London which I may have to use in the future. I will try and cite appropriately.

    2. Scripture does not answer everything (i.e. the Bible is a poor text book for biology): You would be concerned if your auto mechanic only used the Bible to decide how to fix your car. The same could be said for dozens if not hundreds of other professions. Everyone can find insight and inspiration through scripture, but we can’t expect every useful piece of information within a finite number of pages. Scriptures were revealed and written for spiritual guidance. I’m not surprised that we don’t find a lot of information on biology and geology.

    For example, in Leviticus 11 there are lists of clean and unclean animals that can be eaten. In verse 19 the bat is on the list of unclean birds. Elsewhere whales are often listed as fish. Other examples probably exist.

    If you teach that bats are birds in a biology course, you are missing out on all kinds of insights into how bats make their living. They don’t lay eggs, they nurse their young, and their method of flight is different than a bird’s, because their wings are made of skin stretched between elongated fingers, while a bird has fused fingers and feathers. Spiritually there was no need to distinguish between bats and birds. Biologically there is.

    Secondly, we should not forget that scripture has been recorded by men with limited understanding, and that scripture often contains metaphorical or figurative language. The books, seals, and trumpets of the book of Revelation are an easy example of scripture with a figurative aspect, so why not the 7,000 years? I’m not sure what else God did to Adam’s rib to get Eve, but I know there are figurative and spiritual lessons to be learned as well as possible physical lessons. I’m guessing that the physical lessons are less important. Within the LDS church, we also know that sometimes malicious intent to rewrite scripture has caused a loss in the simplicity of the language and sometimes a loss of whole blocks of material. There is an additional chance that a scribe or two has modified language within the scriptures with respect to their personal views on how God works (or cannot work according to the scribe’s limited insight).

    3. For me there is room for evolution: I can see why some would fear evolution with respect to the gospel. There can be a denial of God if we don’t give him room, but I’m just not sure how much room is necessary. I haven’t heard objections from religious individuals to describing the orbit of the moon around the earth by following the laws of nature, or the earth and other planets orbiting the sun rather than God literally pushing each of these through the cycle of their orbits. Why can’t biological objects follow laws of nature as well?

    When I read and hear the creation story, I feel that the description of man coming from the dust of the earth allows for evolution. Our physical matter isn’t special. Is our dust any more special than the dust from which God made the remaining of his creations? For me, what makes man’s creation special is not the physical body, but the spiritual body. God has created many spirits, and many bodies. Only some of those spirits are his literal offspring, and those spirits are only placed in a limited selection of God’s physical creations.

    There are volumes of evidence that the physical structures of all living organisms are related. There is shared DNA from worms to flies to humans. There are similar cell structures in moss on a rock, to algae in an ocean, to a mushroom in the forest, and to your pet dog. Penicillin works as an antibiotic in humans because the mold from which it came from has a physiology that is closer to human physiology than the physiology of the bacteria that penicillin kills. More evidence is collected each day. I can accept that God used laws of nature to create living organisms until there were bodies suited for His spirit children. >>That last sentence is how I personally reconcile what is in scripture and what has been discovered by science.<< Both the fields of science and religion may find further insight that may change this view.

    Evolution helps those who study it ask the right questions to understand the physical world: we can fight diseases, conserve populations, explore new materials, and appreciate relationships within living communities. Scripture helps those who study it to understand the spiritual world, and hopefully stay within the grace of the atonement. I don’t see these as conflicting interests.

    • Thank you for this. I agree with all of it without qualification. In defense of my “fell from the sky” theory, which isn’t really intellectually solid enough to be a bonafide “theory” per se, I lean to my answer to the last comment: i.e. dinosaurs have always been a part of this geography, but not necessarily this world. I use the word “world” in a narrow sense here to describe the conditions under which we enter mortality.

      Just as London wasn’t really London prior to humanity’s arrival and labeling of it as such, so dinosaurs and other prehistoric elements weren’t really part of the current program – they’re relics from a previous one which took place on the same site as the current one.

    • One possibility is that God meticulously placed the fossils in defined layers far below contemporary layers of earth, but somehow prevented new materials from sliding between these new blocks.

      So God is closer to Loki, and is a joker? Or God is deceptive, creating an Earth that tells a false story?

      More likely that the dinosaurs and other earlier life roamed the earth, died, and a pitiful few were fossilized when buried under mud, rock, lava, or whatever.

      God has a sense of humor, but isn’t really much of a practical joker in most theology.

  5. “I’m not sure what else God did to Adam’s rib to get Eve”

    An interesting bit of biological trivia is that in theory you can actually do this. Male DNA has both X and Y chromosomes, female two X’s. You start with stem cells that can differentiate into anything. Bone marrow contains stem cells. Can you spare a bone? Well, yes, a rib would do nicely. Anyway, extract two stem cells, remove the Y from one and replace it with an X from the other. Viola, it will grow into a female clone of the male, although the process of actually doing that is probably a lot more complicated and will almost certainly entail a surrogate mammal. It seems to me some creation stories feature mammals, cow in particular.

    I am comfortable recognizing that religion and science overlap incompletely and error exists in either. I know with certainty that God exists. I believe we will be judged based on what we do with what we have been given (parable of the talents). If we do well, despite error, then we do well indeed.

    Brigham Young in his Discourses explained his own take on the question; he says he doesn’t care whether the Earth is 6 thousand, 6 million or 6 billion years old. That part of it is irrelevant to the gospel, which is simply the revelation of a way to return to God if you wish to do so. Many persons obviously do not wish to do so. Others that seem not to care probably would care if they knew more about it; conversely a few that think they want it probably would not, if they knew more about it. God rested on the 7th “day” but until then he was obviously very busy. Given that “days” are probably rather long periods of time that represents a lot of work and not-resting. The lesser kingdoms are doubtless considerably better suited to the lazy person.

  6. “So, one way we can tell people were created by God is if they have money?”

    Exactly! By jove, I think you’ve got it. Obviously some people were not created by God since they have no money. Others were created by minor gods, including mine obviously, since they/me have not much or just barely enough for our needs. But a few people were obviously created by powerful Gods: George Soros, Bill Gates, the Kennedys and so on. In fact, the latter helped create the Income Tax, they are very powerful indeed.

    The most powerful God of all created the heavens and the earth; not even Bill Gates can do THAT.

    • Actually, the first income tax was imposed during the Civil War; and the amendment to make it constitutional again was approved in the Wilson administration — Joe Kennedy wasn’t even bootlegging yet, let along making laws.

      But at least you got the point, Michael. Thanks.

  7. You stated: “Since the elements are eternal, why isn’t it possible that parts of this earth are recycled from something that may have gone before? Chunks of this planet could have been cobbled together from previous planets, and some of those previous planets could have had dinosaurs on them billions of years ago. Wouldn’t that be an explanation that could be consistent with any theory of life or death this time around?” That’s the “theory” that I was taught before you were born. However it doesn’t work. One of the problems with it is the iridium layer around the entire earth at about the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs. This is the remnant of the asteroid strike that precipitated the extinction of the dinosaurs. It shows that the earth was already in one piece at that time. If the earth was made from parts of other earths, it was done, at the earliest, tens of millions of years ago.