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Flunking Sainthood

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Recently a young mother complained to me that a non-Mormon family member had given her children the They Might Be Giants album Here Comes Science, which contains a song about evolution called “My Brother the Ape” (check out the great cartoon music video). She was uncomfortable with the lyrics because she felt they were incompatible with Mormonism, the Bible, America, and apple pie. Probably baseball too.

I didn’t challenge her views about Mormons and evolution, because the conversation didn’t occur in the right context and I have been trying to listen more and shout out my own opinion less. (I know, I know. Good luck with that, Jana.) However, I did tell Phil about the album and we joyfully went out and bought it that same week. We’re delighted to have fun, clever music to help our daughter learn about evolution.

But this young mother is not alone in believing that evolution is not compatible with her religious views. According to a 2004 Gallup poll, 45% of Americans stated that human beings had been created by God in their current form just 10,000 years ago. In 2009, on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, Gallup found that only 4 in 10 Americans “believe” in evolution (a bizarre terminology that itself suggests doubt about science; I have yet to hear Christians debate whether they “believe” in gravity or the germ theory of disease, for example).

I’m always surprised and disappointed when I encounter such anti-evolution attitudes in my church and in other faiths. So it’s a relief to me to have scientists like BYU’s Steven Peck, who can explain far better than I can why Mormonism is not only compatible with evolution, but why Mormons have unique theological reasons for embracing it. He does this with wit, humor, and style. I am pleased to welcome him as a guest blogger. –JKR

By Steven Peck

I am a Mormon. And an ape. This pairing is not customary, notwithstanding most Mormons, as members of the human race, are. There is nothing terribly exceptional or unusual about my apishness, but I thought it necessary to point out, because I want to talk about this a bit. Like many Mormons, I am big on genealogy. Although, I must admit, my recent ancestry has captured me less thoroughly than my deep heritage. Still, let’s not go too far back, I don’t want to talk about my invertebrate, fishy, or even reptilian past. I want to natter about two of my ape-line grandmothers.

One of my grandmothers was a small thing, with a head about the size of a chimp. But here is the incredible thing–she walked upright. Her hands thus free allowed her to fashion rocks into a slightly more useful form. Take a chip off a stone here. Flake off a bit there. And voila! You have just the thing needed to hack open a bone with a little more panache. My grandmother was a lovely woman, and even if she and I are not in the same species, I owe much of what I am to her.

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My other grandmother, a little more recent, looked a lot like me. I’ve got her eyes and nose. And her braincase. This woman’s ancestors, fully human for about 600,000 years, made remarkable stone tools. A stunningly brilliant act of functional craftwork and tool manufacture compared to my, and her, more distant über-great grandmothers. Even so, sadly, nothing had changed much for a few hundred thousand years. Same old same old stone paraphernalia. Then about 50,000 years ago something astonishing emerged. My grandmother’s folk, living sometime around then, invented art! Her people started decorating things. Gear was made without a practical day-to-day function; fashioned just because it looked elegant. Her people painted cave walls. Established Rituals. Made music and likely danced (dancing has not fossilized well). The dead were honored in new and elaborate ways. Grandmother’s peeps suddenly were wildly inventive! What a woman.

Her tabernacle, I think, was almost ready for something extraordinarily special that God had in mind for his spirit children.

Mormon theology is uniquely positioned to embrace an evolutionarily-based theology. The first reason is that we believe in continuing revelation. We believe in updating our text. God continues to expand our views, deepen our understanding, and reshape and even radically change our current understanding. In an early revelation to Joseph Smith, the Lord revealed: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” D&C 1:24. Therefore, we are open to new thoughts and views, because we believe God varies the manner of his message to our circumstance, understanding, and perspective. In addition, Mormonism has a history of being friendly to science.

In fact, Joseph Smith was called by some of his most thoughtful followers, “a scientist.” Evolution by natural selection is the most important scientific discovery of modern times (I am stoically unapologetic about the lack of equivocation in that statement). The evidences for it are staggeringly abundant, detailed, and scientifically undeniable. Our perspective of an open canon allows us to accept this new revelation from the book of nature without getting stuck in past pre-Darwinian quagmires. Mormons are all about continuing revelation. It’s what we do best.

Some will undoubtedly point out to me that there were apostles who once said that evolution was of the devil and all that. These men were, of course, the children of their culture. Anti-Darwinian fervor swept through America at the time they were living, and Christian fundamentalism waged a war on science that continues today. That they were caught up in this distraction is neither surprising nor disturbing. We are all the victims of our times. Hello! That is why the Lord speaks to us in our language (as broadly construed). I suppose if the apostleship had been, counterfactually, filled with scientists, the business-savvy mavens now would trace out how uninformed they were about modern corporate practices, and the tale would be about how, say, the church was driven into inefficiency, or even bankruptcy. You know scientists. But this needn’t worry us. Things are getting straightened out now. Evolutionary thinking is on the way in, and static old creationism on its way out. Adieu. What about Adam and Eve? The Fall? Yes. We will keep all our essential doctrines. It will take some sorting out. Of course. But we are a patient people.

The second reason Mormonism is evolutionary theory friendly, is that it is deeply materialistic–in the respectable sense. Meaning there is something wonderfully essential about matter. We came to Earth from a preexistent, materialism-lite, to be made of this kind of matter–the kind of matter that we now see shuttling about the universe. There was something wildly vital about our connecting with this proton-neutrony stuff; necessary even to the point that we wanted to be hooked up with it eternally. Like God. We, as material . . . somethings, have the opportunity to change, grow and become something new and astonishing. Like my grandmothers did.

Of course, I’ve just sketched a wildly broad-brush, cartoonish view, and there are a lot of details to be worked out, but in short, Mormons believe in a flavor of eternal evolution. How wonderful that this is paralleled in the history of the Earth. This, also links me physically to all the creatures of the Earth. My physical body, formed in an evolutionary process, is part of the history of this Earth. This Earth that I believe is my final destiny. Mormons believe this will be our final home, along with the creatures that lived here. The very same creatures that evolved and emerged on this planet. Circles within circles. Worlds without end. What a breathtaking thought that I am connected to this Earth’s physical processes in deep time–past and future.

I am a Mormon. And an Ape. On my way to something wondrous.


Steven L. Peck is a high school drop-out from Moab, Utah and Associate Professor of Biology at Brigham Young University where he teaches The History and Philosophy of Biology and Bioethics. His does research in theoretical mathematical ecology, philosophy of biology, and insect stuff. When he grows up he wants to be a novelist or a poet or create sentient robots (all about equally likely). Until then he blogs at bycommonconsent, and runs a Faith/Science blog where he extols the virtues of mixing theology and Darwinian evolution. He lives in Pleasant Grove, Utah with his wife Lori. They have five children and 2.55 grandchildren.

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