The recent public debate about Senator Chris Buttars’ failed anti-evolution bill has been very instructive. It has caused many members of the LDS Church to take sides and to question their personal beliefs on the issue. Senator Buttars bitterly remarked (here), “A number of Mormon legislators believe we evolved. I don't. I believe I'm a child of God.”
The Foundation for Apologetics In Research has posted a fascinating transcript (here) from its 2004 conference of a discussion on evolution and LDS theology. The speaker is Trent D. Stephens, a professor of biology at Idaho State University. He has some specialty in DNA analysis.
Stephens is very active in the LDS Church and is a staunch evolutionist. He holds that LDS scripture and official doctrine in no way contradict the theory of evolution. He notes that the church officially says that the Lord has not yet revealed how humans came to be, only that they did and are children of God. He addresses the common LDS anti-evolution arguments, taking them apart and showing that they are not based on firm doctrine or science. Stephens cannot comprehend why evolution would preclude humans being children of God.
Stephens challenges Mormons to review all scriptures about the creation with a fresh approach, cleansing their minds of any preconceived notions and reading only what is actually written. He says that they will soon discover that most of the creationist positions are based on a fallible interpretation of scripture rather than on actual scripture.
Stephens’ position is that most of the anti-evolution fervor among Mormons hearkens back to Christian tradition. He seems to be asking why Mormons would be beholden to creationist interpretations by 12th Century clerics in light of new information. The LDS Church has a deep history of tossing to the wind Christian traditions believed to be incorrect. In fact, this is the basis for much of the animosity between the LDS Church and many other Christian churches.
The LDS Church has made many overtures toward other churches and religions in recent decades, but there is no move toward ecumenism. Indeed, President Gordon B. Hinckley has repeatedly restated the church’s position that while the church reaches out to and works with other faiths and respects their beliefs, it will be absolutely unwavering in maintaining its unique doctrine.
When anti-Mormon Christians claim that Mormons aren’t Christian, they base this on the fact that Mormons refuse to define deity according to the First Council of Nicaea. Mormons are proud of their unique doctrine on deity, but see the definition of Christian as merely a semantic twist (see here and here). Similarly, Stephens questions where in LDS doctrine it states that Mormons must hew to old Christian dogmas about the creation.
At the close of his lecture Stephens takes a few questions from audience members. The topic of anti-evolution statements by LDS general authorities (including prophets) is brought up. (I thought of this 1984 general conference talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer). Stephens replies that none of these comments are considered official doctrine and that everyone, including prophets, are free to express their opinions on the matter. He says, “If the Lord speaks to the prophet that becomes scripture, we are held accountable to the scripture. We're not held accountable for people's opinions.”
One member of the audience is troubled by the fossil record showing that H. Sapiens lived on earth tens or hundreds of thousands of years before Adam and Eve. Stephens offers his opinion that just as the Savior’s Atonement affects all people before, during and after his mortal life, the Fall of Adam and Eve likewise affects all people before and after them. He does not go into how this squares with the scripture that calls Eve “the mother of all living.”
In addition to doctrinal points, Stephens discusses the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution, particularly the expanding fossil record and DNA analyses. While not ignoring data gaps that have been highlighted by promoters of Intelligent Design, he basically calls ID creationism with new makeup. (I have posted about this here and here).
Stephens departs from pure Darwinism. He argues that there is much evidence that a force of determinism constantly works counter to the law of entropy. He says that his research leads him to understand that there are so many developmental constraints that the ultimate form of any biological system is highly predictable. He argues that biologists have largely ignored these constraints because they have been looking exclusively for the randomness so strongly relied on by Darwin.
Some Mormons have felt that it has been their duty to stoically defend creationism to be loyal to their faith. Stephenson makes it clear that it is possible to be completely open to truth from scientific sources without denying one’s faith.