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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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  1. 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.