Jared* was born and raised in the Church, served a mission in the U.S., and graduated from BYU. Having subsequently completed a Ph.D. in microbiology, he is now a postdoctoral researcher. He is married with children, and wastes more time than he ought to blogging at LDS Science Review.
One hundred years ago this month, Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund published “The Origin of Man” in the Church’s magazine, Improvement Era. It was drafted by Elder Orson F. Whitney and the final paragraphs relied heavily on his previous writing. For a century this statement has been the touchstone of the Church’s position on evolution, yet the statement has little to say about evolution directly. The vast majority of text is an argument in support of the doctrine that God the Father has a body of human form, and that “Man began life as a human being, in the likeness of our heavenly Father.”
“The Origin of Man” has an authoritative tone and it is sometimes invoked as a definitive answer on questions of humans and evolution. Yet almost immediately after being issued, the statement was left out of discussions where it would seem most applicable. A mere five months after “The Origin of Man” was published, a column in the Improvement Era dealt with the question of how Adam and Eve’s mortal bodies were created. The answer:
Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.
Although it was given as a reference for further study, the then-recent First Presidency statement was not quoted and was apparently not considered definitive enough to rule out evolution. Over the next year a controversy developed at Brigham Young University (BYU)–in part–over the teaching of evolution, and several professors were ultimately forced to resign. In April 1911, President Joseph F. Smith published two editorials explaining the decisions of Church and school authorities. One editorial was published in the Improvement Era, the other in the Juvenile Instructor. Taken together, President Smith asserted the supremacy of revelation and Church doctrine, yet considered the issue one of propriety rather than a judgment of the truth or falsity of evolution. Neither editorial made reference to “The Origin of Man.” A few years later at the 1917 October General Conference, Elders Anthony W. Ivins and Joseph Fielding Smith both gave talks that contained extended criticism of evolution, and a similar but more extensive talk given by Joseph Fielding Smith was published in the March 1920 Improvement Era. Again, none of these talks made reference to “The Origin of Man.”
In 1925, the First Presidency under President Heber J. Grant issued “Mormon View of Evolution.” This statement consists exclusively of quotations from the earlier 1909 statement; however, the more anti-evolutionary passages from “The Origin of Man” are missing. Ironically, “Mormon View of Evolution” says nothing about evolution.
As far as I can determine, Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1954 book, Man, His Origin and Destiny, contained the first full reproduction of “The Origin of Man” since its original publication over forty years before. Since then it has eclipsed the 1925 statement and has gained wider distribution as it has appeared in part (especially in Mormon Doctrine) or in full in a variety of publications, and has become available on the internet. More recently it was published in the Feb 2002 issue of the Ensign.
During this time science has not stood still. Almost all of what one would learn in a biology course or any of its sub-disciplines has been discovered since 1909. The evidence for human evolution is substantial. In addition to the many fossils and skeletal remains that have been discovered, we now know that we share odd genetic features like broken genes and the remnants of ancient viruses with other animals, especially other primates. Most of this was unknown and could not even have been imagined when “The Origin of Man” was issued. Further, our understanding about how evolution works has progressed as well. I have previously suggested that some portions of the statement that appear to directly counter evolutionary claims are misleading to modern readers because the inferred evolutionary claims are outdated.
Has modern science rendered the statement superfluous, or is the statement, by virtue of having been approved by the First Presidency, the standard by which science is judged? Is the statement primarily an institutional guide that reflects the limits of what the Church can officially endorse absent further revelation, or is it incumbent upon members to “conform their opinions” to it? Answers to these questions are likely to turn on a person’s view of prophetic authority as well as the definition of key terms contained in the statement. For example, if the word “man” includes the spirit, rather than just the physical body, then the question of the origin of man takes on additional religious meaning.
Perhaps a faithful approach to both science and “The Origin of Man” is represented in a talk given by Elder Marion D. Hanks at BYU that was printed in the July 1981 issue of the Ensign. Speaking of God’s method of creation, Elder Hanks said:
I know that man is co-eternal with God, and that he clothed us in spirit form and then made it possible for us to have eternal life, through his gift, through his love. I know that, with his Son, he is our Creator and that his children are his special and crowning creation. But I take great comfort in personal conversations I had with President David O. McKay some years ago when I was concerned with these matters. His answer was about what I have given you. He said, ìIt would do no violence to my faith to learn that God had formed man in one way or another.î