The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has posted a transcript of a recent interview it conducted with Elder Nelson and Elder Wickham. One of the questions discussed concerned evolution. Here is the relevant section:
Forum: The church has said it neither promotes nor opposes capital punishment. It says it “opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience.” It does not oppose removing a medical patient from “artificial means of life support.” Different denominations deal differently with questions about life’s origins and development. Conservative denominations tend to have more trouble with Darwinian evolution. Does the church have an official position on this topic?
Nelson: We believe that God is our creator and that he has created other forms of life. It’s interesting to me, drawing on my 40 years experience as a medical doctor, how similar those species are. We developed open-heart surgery, for example, experimenting on lower animals simply because the same creator made the human being. We owe a lot to those lower species. But to think that man evolved from one species to another is, to me, incomprehensible.
Forum: Why is that?
Nelson: Man has always been man. Dogs have always been dogs. Monkeys have always been monkeys. It’s just the way genetics works.
Wickman: The Scripture describing the Lord as the creator of all of these things says very little about how it was done. I don’t know of anybody in the ranks of the First Presidency and the Twelve [Apostles] who has ever spent much time worrying about this matter of evolution.
Nelson: We have this doctrine, recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 101: “When the Lord shall come again, he shall reveal all things, things which have passed, hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth by which it was made and the purpose and the end thereof, things most precious, things that are above, things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, upon the earth, and in heaven.” So as I close that quotation, I realize that there are just some things that we won’t know until that day.
So Elder Nelson doesn’t believe in evolution. At least not in man evolving from lower forms of life. Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether this surprises me or not. It does surprise me a bit that he’s set forth this viewpoint so forthrightly. For some reason, I imagined an Apostle would choose to evade a question like this. Not that LDS authorities haven’t spoken out on this issue in the past, at times quite disparagingly. But I thought (OK, hoped) that the LDS Church was moving in a conciliatory direction toward belief in the evolution of man (even if it was going to take eons to really get there).
1. Whatever your views are on evolution generally, or on the evolution of man specifically, I’m interested in what you imagine the Brethren really think about this issue, individually or collectively. Do you imagine a group of serious evolution skeptics, choosing to avoid outright condemnation of evolution so as to not court controversy, and with an eye toward maintaining a “big LDS tent” of divergent LDS opinions on a “non-essential” issue? Do you imagine a diverse set of views among the hierarchy, resulting in an understanding in the highest quorums that the subject shouldn’t be publicly addressed since there’s no widespread agreement? Do you imagine a group of semi-closeted evolutionists who refuse to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole (until now), since they know that many (most?) LDS are unsympathetic to evolution, they know this lack of sympathy is due to historical condemnation of evolution by certain LDS leaders, and they don’t want to precipitate faith crises in folks like Gary?
Personally, I’ve held each of these views (and others) at various times over the years. I’m not sure what my current view is anymore (except I think I now understand where Elder Nelson stands). What do you think?
2. For those LDS who believe in, or are at least generally sympathetic to, the evolution of man, how does Elder Nelson’s statement affect your views on the subject, if at all? He presumably was not trying to set forth an official LDS position on the question, but he is a current, high-ranking Church leader. Would your views on evolution change if President Hinckley had made this comment in an interview, instead of Elder Nelson? What if the gist of Nelson’s comments appeared in a First Presidency letter? In other words, to what extent is your belief in evolution (particularly the evolution of man) a product of what current LDS leaders say about it?
(Some might argue that my hypothetical questions need not be posed hypothetically, because of the content of the 1909 First Presidency Statement on the Origin of Man, for example. But that document (a) was written almost 100 years ago, so is not “current”; and (b) has implications for the evolution of man that are less than clear, in light of the 1925 re-Statement that basically gutted its anti-evolutionary content, in addition to other reasons).
I ask this question because I don’t think the answer is necessarily obvious, and I suspect many of us who otherwise maintain similar views on the basic scientific questions may differ in our answers here. With all the debate about the LDS Church’s “position” (or lack thereof) on evolution and related questions, and with the endless parsing of various statements and commentaries made by LDS Church leaders over the years, an observer might be forgiven for thinking that debates about evolution among Mormons are waged by two sides equally wedded to the notion that the Brethren’s views are paramount, but disagreeing about the content of those views. But my own sense is that LDS proponents of evolution believe in it simply because they find the scientific evidence for it overwhelmingly compelling, rather than because they think the Church has “given them permission” to accept what the scientists say. Not that the pronouncements of the Brethren carry no weight, of course. But I sense LDS evolutionts have a “testimony” of evolution that is born entirely of scientific study, rather than of a favorite General Authority quote, and as long as the Church doesn’t condemn evolution in the most certain, definitive and authoritative of terms, they are happy to ignore the skeptical comments of this or that Church leader.
In posing these questions, I’m not inviting everyone to bag on Elder Nelson. Really. He has put forth a view about the evolution of mankind that most LDS Churchmembers probably hold (whatever their views on the evolution of other species may be), and so it’s not a shocker in any sense. But I am interested in understanding how LDS believers in evolution grapple with his statement, if at all. Does the statement give you pause, or prompt a serious reconsideration of your views? Or is it just a curiosity that has no real impact on your beliefs, given what you see as the strength of the science?