Thursday, March 09, 2006

Does Mormon Doctrine Contradict Evolution?

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.


Bradley said...

I love the point about not trying to be like other Christian faiths. That is one that I hadn't thought about in terms of the evolution debate. We don't have to be "creationists" just because they are.

You also point out some of the sticky areas for Latter-day Saints in accepting evolution. I don't think proponents of evolution are being fair when they just brush off some of the most serious challenges. Along with many LDS scientists I know, I anxiously await further light on this subject. Too bad we have to wait!

Thanks, as always, for your exceptionally well written and well thought out posts. You are bound to remain a staple in my blog roll for a long time!

Raymond Takashi Swenson said...

I think modern LDS scholars have identified how Mormon opinons leaders (Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce McConkie, and James E. Talmage) borrowed heavily from certain Protestant sources when addressing certain topics, including interpretation of the New Testament, the apostacy as embodied by the Catholic Church and the virtue of the Reformation, and views on science. Talmage clearly found congenial an existing Protestant tradition that accepted all aspects of science as presented by authoritative scientists (including geology on the age of the earth and the theory of evolution), and asserted that the scriptural record was also true, and would be reconciled in the fulness of time. McConkie and JFS chose to follow a more fundamentalist Protestant tradition that insisted that the understanding that one can obtain from reading Genesis in the King James Version was authoritative instead of the scientific theories of the day, even though they rejected (in obedience to Joseph Smith's teachings) that creation was from preexisting matter and was not "out of nothing".

A few LDS scientists in the mid-20th Century joined the Creationist camp, making arguments that geology is mistaken about the age of the earth and asserting that processes like fossilization can occur rapidly and that the role of catatrophes like Noah's flood are responsible for the apparent long history in the geological record.

It is remarkable that the Church has never issued an official statement regarding Darwinism that either endorses it or rejects it. The Church statements instead quote the promise of the Lord that we will be shown how he performed the creation of the earth when he returns during the Millenium. They then reaffirm the scriptural statements that we are literally God's spirit children and that, regardless of the ultimate origin of our earthly ancestors, we can be adopted fully into God's family, and become like him.

Most scientists who are religious believers as well as supporters of Darwinian evolution do not accept 100% of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, the modern theory modified with DNA genetics. Specifically, they see room for God to influence the development of species and their features, either at the beginning of creation by promulgating laws or creating the universe in a way that planned design emerges from the developmental process. Others see the "random" generation of diversity as being controlled ultimately by God, as he controls all chance events of significance.

However, the leading position among advocates for Darwinism is that the process of evolution is wholly unguided and accidental, and has not need for, nor does it offer evidence of, a deity. It is probably this materialistic naturalism, this logical positivism which McConkie and JFS were reacting against with their own Creationist stands on evolution. The most outspoken Darwinists are, indeed, militant atheists, who assert that Darwinism is the natural consequence of believing in atheism. They reject all of the ways that various religious scientists sand off the rough atheistic edges off Darwinism. Even Kenneth Miller, author of a popular textbook on biology that was at the center of one of the lawsuits over evolution teaching in public schools, is a practicing Catholic who believes evolution proceeded randomly, but within constraints dictated by God at the beginning. He was featured in a four hour PBS series on evolution. Yet militant Darwinist Richard Dawkins called him stupid at a recent conference on evolution, when they were sitting on the same panel.

Trent Stephens does not engage Intelligent Design seriously in his talk or his book on evolution and Mormonism. It is one thing to say that you can derive a way of reconciling the gospel with neo-Darwinism, which is certainly important if that is your field of study. However, that is different from saying that neo-Darwinism is in fact the truth as God would tell it, and therefore it MUST be accepted to be equally true and descriptive of reality as the temple. Based on my reading of several books and many articles discussing the position of Darwinism and intelligent design, I believe the ID advocates have made very strong arguments for their view that at least SOME of the features we observe in living things appear logically to be much more likely due to intervention by an intelligent action than to come about through a succession of random mutations, winnowed out by the higher death rates among aniimals or plants lacking in the mutation.

The most salient point where intelligent design is evident, and where Darwinism's case is so weak that most biology books ignore it completely, is the origin of the first living cell. Living cells require (a) a membrane separating the cell's structures and materials form its environment, (b) a complex group of mechanisms that can incorporate materials and energy sources from the outer environment to build and maintain the cell, and (c) a computer that not only contains the complete design of (a) and (b), but also can create the mechanisms that fabricate both. No one has been able to explain how something could be alive without all three. The efforts to do so are pure speculation. Since Darwin's theory only works for a living entity that already has DNA that can be mutated, it BY DEFINITION cannot say anything about where the FIRST cell came from. The fact that the National Academy of Sciences calls the creation of the first cell "chemical evolution" just shows how they think the cachet of the word "evolution" can make their utter ignorance appear to be scientific. Ultimately, the NAS' belief that there was a wholly random process that brought the first cell into existence is nothing more than a faith that unguided Nature can acomplish miracles! It is religious and philosophical faith rather than any actual scientifically tested knowledge or even theory.

LDS scientists like Stephens certainly get more mileage among their fellow scientists by advancing their ideas as modifications or elaborations on evolution, rather than as challenges to evolution. He avoids fighting over aspects of evolution that are not of consequence to his own work. I don't mind his modus vivendi, but I don't think the rest of the Saints have to accept evolution in that way. In fact, I think there are strong logical reasons to accept much of the Intelligent Design critique, which points to many instances of complex

Reach Upward said...

Bradley, I write mostly for my own benefit, but it's nice to think that I might be of service to someone else.

Raymond, thanks for taking time to explore this issue with your thoughtful analysis. There is a lot of room for additional understanding on the topic of the creation.