The Darwin Seminar at BYU

This semester over thirty faculty members gathered for a reading group sponsored by the BYU Faculty Center. I led the group in its reading of Conor Cunningham’s book Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong. Cunningham is a Catholic theologian at the University of Nottingham. The thesis of the book is that both the evangelical atheists (e.g., Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) are wrong in their attacks on faith and that their arguments are based on a caricature of religion that are largely incoherent. Conversely, he argues the Christian Fundamentalist creationists, including the cleverly-named, but silly, pseudoscience, Intelligent Design movement, is a religious and spiritual disaster. Cunningham argues that we can have a faithful religious embrace of evolutionary biology. In short, we can do both good science and good religion. BCC’s own BHodges gives a wonderful review of the book here so I won’t go too much more into the book, but instead focus on the seminar itself. I think it marks a historic moment at BYU and deserves a little attention.

First thing of note was the wide diversity of disciplines represented. Faculty members from English, Humanities, Linguistics, Psychology, Physics, Philosophy, Geology, Anthropology, Biology (of course), Religious Studies, as well as current and former members of the Administration are a few of the departments there. No discipline dominated and the group was split fairly evenly between the humanities and the sciences. There were names that many of you would recognize among the faculty—and some that would surprise you I’ll be bound.

Next, the reason most of them were there was the perception that we are losing youth over the issue of evolution and that an evolution-friendly LDS response is in order. The literalistic readings of scripture borrowed from Christian fundamentalism in the 1950’s and which has come to dominate much of the way people think bout evolution within the church is becoming untenable vis-à-vis discoveries in modern biology. Most felt that it is time to think, and think hard, about discovering just how we can go about refining our discourse to allow views that permit students to embrace both our faith and science fully—without compromising either. Related to this was the idea that we need to communicate to religious educators that the war between Darwin and our Faith was unnecessary and its continuance destructive to the faith of some of the saints.

The discussions were some of the most profound I’ve experienced in a group setting in my life. They were open, honest, faithful, and friendly. There were strong differences of opinion, which were fully expressed and explored. This was no Sunday School discussion with the answers all provided at the end of the chapter and injunctions to stay away from certain topics. We opened many cans of worms and dissected them as best we could (Darwin would be so proud. His later years were devoted to the study of earthworms).

We looked at the evidence for evolution. We explored at the history of evolutionary thought and the rise of fundamentalism. We read the scriptures. We challenged each other to think in new ways.

We came to few firm conclusions. But by the end everyone that I was aware off, came to see that evolution was no threat to our faith. We also came to the conclusion that we understand very little about things like the Creation and the Fall and that new interpretations must be entertained some that fundamentalisms and literalisms that became popular in the 50s disavow. We also realized that Mormonism and evolution are compatible in surprising ways—perhaps more so than any other religion. That we do not believe in an ex nihilo creation, that we believe that this earth and its inhabitants will be saved and indeed this is our place of final destiny, all speak to a hope that the two are complementary. There are sticking points of course. There are problems that will have to be sorted out by further revelation, closer and more open readings of scripture, and a humility that any interpretation of our scriptures is tentative and subject to further revelation from prophets or the book of nature.

What was most encouraging to me was the optimism present that these problems could be sorted out. That we can communicate the need for the saints to not embrace the anti-intellectualism and in appropriate suspicions of science that drive some collage students away from the Church.

It’s an exciting time to be a Mormon evolutionist.


  1. “[T]he reason most of them were there was the perception that we are losing youth over the issue of evolution and that an evolution-friendly LDS response is in order.” Well, it’s about time. Nice work.

  2. Is that a picture of Andy Serkis?

  3. “It’s an exiting time to be a Mormon evolutionist.” Indeed. And we have great Mormon evolutionists like you to thank.

    Thanks for this post, Steve.

  4. “we are losing youth over the issue of evolution and that an evolution-friendly LDS response is in order” As one who sees the emails and issues people write in to FAIR, this is certainly true. I’m glad to hear of this seminar, and hope it ripples outward.

  5. Evolution! At last BCC has a noncontroversial topic today!

    Seriously, thanks for this. Are there any definite plans for addressing these points in a practical way? Any book or seminar or plans to develop a course, or anything like that?

  6. Erm, the Viennese delegation might want you to fix ex[c]iting in that last line.

  7. That sound like an profoundly interesting discussion. I’ve long felt the same way but have a tough time discussing it in most settings without creating inter-personal conflict (or being the target of conflict) either in the Church or out of it.

  8. Yay, Steve. I’m glad to hear that progress like this is being made.

  9. KerBearRN says:

    Proud Mormon Evolutionist here– with much thanks to the forward-thinking and intellectuospiritual teaching of one Dr. Duane Jeffery of BYU — 25 years ago!! Some of my fondest memories of the Y were the Tuesday afternoons spent in our small Evolution discussion group with Dr. J, debating whether you could eat a carrot without killing it (a la the Garden of Eden). It was there that I learned the true beauty and perfection of The Lord’s creation, and of the Earth’s own scriptural account (i.e. the Fossil Record) of the hand of God. My 5 kids (ages 20-7) therefore have always been taught that ALL truth is eternal (including scientific truths, whether or not we can completely understand them) and speaks the praises of God. And that this knowledge is NOT a threat to their testimonies — that our Heavenly Father knows these laws and understands them perfectly. It’s a beautiful thing. “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). THRILLED to hear so many at BYU are getting on board!

    Dr. Jeffery had many pro-evolution clippings, cartoons, jokes, poems, and the like posted all around his office. One of my favorites was a poem (that I have unfortunately since lost track of) that ended something like, in creating the Earth, “If God had simply waved a magic wand, would He have needed a day of rest?”

  10. Well I know one thing. You’re not getting into the testing center like that, Steve.

  11. KerBearRN says:

    @#10–LOL — yeah, well, all he needs is a trench coat and a pair of heels.

  12. Delighted to hear that this was such a wonderful success, Steve.

  13. Its a pretty good representation of my bro-in-law in a refletive mood…This wasn’t supposed to be a thread about dress & grooming standards was it?

  14. Ardis, we haven’t worked up anything yet, but there is lots of buzz about doing so and something will come from this I’m certain. And hopeful.

    KerBearRN, you’ll be interested to know the Jeffery presented on the last day of the seminar (he wasn’t there for the others sadly) the story of human evolution. He passed around skulls of the Hominids and showed the differences between them. He showed us the DNA and chromosomal evidence. It was a blast. Like you he was one of my personal heros. I took “Evolution” from him as well, and enjoyed the great conversations held in his office.

  15. Excellent!

    (Makes me wonder what other seminars we might see in the future in response to young people leaving the Church…)

  16. I guess I’m curious as to whether we are going to get to the point to where evolution is not just passively tolerated by the more conservative faculty, but is universally incorporated into the generalized sunday-to-sunday gospel framework. I might be reading my own perceptions into this, but it seems like you’re implying that some faculty in that meeting were still in the don’t-talk-about-it mode, and I wonder if we’re always going to have some holdouts.

  17. Awesome; wish I could have been there!

  18. Wes Brown says:

    Hmmm. While this sounds like a great move in the right direction, I still think there is a huge chasm separating science and current, common Mormon views. People are constantly told that the two most reliable sources of Truth are the scriptures and the temple. Within both are fictional stories that could be used to form an ethical worldview. Slippery definition.
    The nice thing about Dawkins and the like is that they have sped up the process of parsing fiction from fact for many people. Perhaps they do create caricatures, but in doing so they make the conversation more efficient. It is much easier to say, “There was no Adam and Eve.” than “Well what exactly do YOU feel Adam and Eve represent?”.
    I think most people compartmentalize and manage different beliefs, such as evolution and the Fall of Man, very well. Perhaps it is even necessary to do so. But Stephen Jay Gould’s dream of “nonoverlapping magisteria” is flawed as we see that science is proving to be a superior tool in finding answers to human questions.

    also- Darwinist is a horrible word.

  19. Great writeup, Steve. I wish you could take that show on the road.

  20. “science is proving to be a superior tool in finding answers to human questions.” Depends on the questions. Science only makes claims about the causal effects of the natural world. The values of science (truth, consistency, rationality) themselves, subjective experience, ethics, literature, art, it makes no claim to (e.g., there are no “Science of Literature” Departments). Those like Dawkins who claim all of existence under the umbrella misunderstand science (and he does).

    Kant66, yes there is a ways to go, but I think there is a new emphasis to move it forward. There will be inertia I agree, but let’s keep our figures crossed and maybe someday it will show up in a Sunday School manual.

  21. Steve, I agree. It was one of the highlights of my years at BYU to have participated in those discussions. Thank you so much for spearheading it. There was something thrilling about the give and take between philosophers and physicists, literary critics and biologists, engineers and social scientists. You couldn’t ask for a better way to read such a book. The more we know about the workings of the natural world and the more we learn about how theology and science have learned to come together, it is more and more clear just how valuable the insights of the restored account of the creation become. The doctrines will not let us down. We have to rise up to what they demand of us.

  22. @SteveP– yes! I remember that hominid lecture and all those lovely skulls. When Dr. J presented it in class, I seem to remember him starting with the lesser apes even, and going from there. As he discussed each group, he placed a skull in the long lab table in the front of the classroom. By the end of class, this was this beautiful line of skulls side by side, ending with the human skull. I remember it sent chills down my spine and put tears in my eyes– to me it just SCREAMED “God is a god of order” in a way few things ever have before or since. And again, it was no threat at all to my testimony or beliefs. If anything, it spoke volumes about how humankind is our Father in Heaven’s penultimate creation, the pinnacle of the things He created. To me it spoke volumes about our relationship to God. It was and still is one of the most elegant lectures I’ve ever had the privilege of attending.

    I was blessed to take Evolution from the “triumvirate” of the Biology Dept– Dr. Jeffery, Dr. Jack Sykes, and Dr. Paul Cox. Along with Dr. Bill Bradshaw and Dr. Kent Van De Graaff, I git to mingle with many profs that I still consider rock stars, both intellectually and spiritually. And Dr. Sykes (a non-Mormon who was just a blast and yet so respectful of our faith) started out the semester with the following — “I’m from the South. For us in the South, a 7-course meal is a possum an’ a six-pack!”. And the semester just rocked from there.

  23. One final thought, courtesy of another great, Bill Watterston:

  24. “It’s an exciting time to be a Mormon evolutionist.”


    I think it’s an exciting time to be a Mormon.

  25. These comments bring back great memories of Evo with Professor Jeff. and his skulls, Eco with SteveP, Herpetology with Prof. Jack Sites (jumping out of a moving vehicle to chase down a snake he’d spotted, or cooking us up bullfrog legs in the Southern style that we’d caught and killed ourselves), going to a visiting lecture of Paul Cox, who I greatly admired but who had moved on before I got the chance to take classes from him–I made the lecture part of a first date that turned into a relationship and then heartbreak (I really liked the girl, but I also really really wanted to go to Cox’s Friday evening lecture; she was a fellow science major, so I combined the two and since it resulted in many more dates, science lecture as a first date with ice cream afterwords apparently worked). Fantastic experiences. The Integrative Biology Dept. at BYU is something special.

    I remember Matthew Richardson, my religion professor at the time of Paul Cox’s lecture, urging his class to go. Now Richardson’s in the church’s Sunday School Presidency. Things like that, plus SteveP’s experience here, make me hopeful for the future of the biology department at BYU.

  26. I’d recommend reading Let the Earth Bring Forth: Evolution and Scripture by Howard C Stutz. The author has done a great job of connecting science and religion, using evolutionary biology and LDS scripture as his exemplars. While I am neither Mormon nor an evolutionary biologist, I learned a lot about both these topics, and how they relate to each other, from this great little book. You can read a review by BHodges at this link:

  27. Hate to be a killjoy here (especially considering that I’m personally pleased to see these developments), but jeez….is proofreading dead?

  28. #27 Seriously. Second the killjoy motion.

  29. We leave the mistakes on purpose, to give smug folks with nothing to say reason to feel superior.

  30. In the same vein as J Brew’s comment, I would reccommend a book you’ve all probably already read: Fairbank’s “Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA.” He’s LDS (Avard Fairbanks grandson) but doesn’t get into LDS doctrine in the book. However, in the last 2 chapters he points out how religion and science should not be antagonists. Fascinating, fairly easy to follow explanation of the evolution of human DNA.

  31. Can we get names of those who participated?

  32. …so we can BURN them!

  33. “We leave the mistakes on purpose, to give smug folks with nothing to say reason to feel superior.”

    Kristine, don’t you mean “smug folks with nothing to say have reason to feel superior”?? Good grief.

    Oh, wait…

  34. That sounds like a fascinating discussion.

  35. @27 & @28 Those who mock my editing skillz are obviously new to the blog and picking very low fruit.

  36. Thanks Tim, such memories mean the world to me! What year were you in my class?

  37. Winter 2003. It was a large class, so the professor/student interactions were a bit limited. I loved the subject, and the class inspired me to take a graduate-level ecology course, and helped inspire me to apply to graduate school in EEB. Thanks to your course and my evo course, I did extremely well on the EEB portion of the Biology GRE (but quite poorly on most of the rest of the exam). I ended up getting a teaching degree instead, and taught high school biology for a while (including quite a bit of eco and evo). I then chose an entirely different career path more suited to my strengths. Despite the career change, I certainly don’t regret majoring in Biology–BYU’s biology department, and especially the Integrative Biology section, really is fantastic.

  38. I feel so much better about myself. I sweat about my inability to catch mistakes in my writing. It’s pretty clear that I have some kind of mental hiccup.

    Anyway, grammar flames have been an internet joke since 1993.

  39. I guess I’m just surprised that we lose youth over this still. I haven’t gotten any questions on this.

  40. KerBearRN, The way I learned about evolution, from a school not too far from BYU, was that natural selection does not have an end goal in mind. Humankind therefore cannot be the pinnacle of God’s creation, nor can evolution even have a pinnacle of creation. Every species alive today continues to evolve and adapt to their environments. Just because the environmental pressures helped our species evolve into big brained, bipedal apes in no way qualifies us to be the pinnacle of evolution. Modern chimpanzees with powerful arms and legs suited to swing from tree to tree and giraffes with long legs and necks have both benefited from natural selection to better adapt to their environments. As long as time goes on, evolution and natural selection will continue to create and adapt life to better suite their environments.

  41. Neal Kramer says:

    I freely admit to having attended. It’s a coversation begun but hopefully not yet concluded. We have much to learn. And we have to think hard about how to communicate effectively about evolution with each other–especially to students.

    Steve did a fantastic job of guiding us through a very interesting and demanding book.

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