A Mormon friend asked me to comment on a recent BBC series called Andrew Marr’s History of the World. He was a little put out by the first programme’s depiction of prehistory, with its account of the homo sapiens migrations from Africa c. 70,000 BP, Neanderthals, and the origins of civilisation, given its deviance from typical Mormon beliefs regarding the same. Given that British Mormonism’s chattering classes are currently scandalised by a high profile falling away over the issue of “no death before the fall,” I hastily bodged together the following reply:
I work from three premises regarding all of this and then come to a conclusion:
1. There is good reason to believe that science is right: archaeology, the fossil record, DNA evidence, and common sense point to a long history of our species, our biological origins and population diffusion across the world.
2. As seekers of truth — wherever it is found — there is no good reason for Mormons to reject science if it can reasonably be proven to be true.
3. Mormonism is not wedded to young earth creationism, anti-evolutionary thinking, or literal “no death before the fall” doctrines. For every prophet who has been suspicious of science (e.g. Fielding Smith) there is another who wasn’t (Talmage). Thus it is clear to me that the church is agnostic about these things, which means we should be free to hold to premise #1 given that we believe in premise #2.
Conclusion: Andrew Marr’s series is of good report!
You are probably going to wonder about Adam and Eve in all of this, but what place they have in human history is beyond me, I’m afraid. Mostly, I am happy to follow the temple’s advice and see myself as “an Adam,” a fallen man who needs redemption.
One thing that might help is that I think we expect too much from ancient histories. History as a genre is a modern idea. Nowadays we expect history to be factual to be of any use. Ancient writers (and some modern ones) interweave myth, ethics, theology, and polemics into their stories, not always intending for us to take them as literally true. There are other kinds of truth. I believe that Animal Farm is a true representation of the abuses of Soviet Russia and totalitarianism in general, but I do not believe that farmyard animals can talk. Some truth is literal, some is not.
A final thought about science: I sometimes hear Mormons express hostility to science, forgetting that the same science that underpins things like population genetics is also part of modern medicine. It’s not really fair to reject science when it challenges us but accept it when it’s useful.
The best thing, I think, is to keep an open mind about these things whilst going about our Christian duty. This seems to be the safest and happiest path available to Mormons in these sceptical times.