When the Mormons met Darwin’s Origin of the Species

brighamyoungdarwin

A copy of Darwin’s Descent of Man from Brigham Young’s collection. Courtesy of Ardis Parshall.

Are science and religion mutually combative foes? The question’s not a new one, nor is it necessarily more pressing today than it’s been in the past. The turn of the twentieth century marked another period of intense cultural shifts, not least of all regarding widespread views about the relationship between the natural sciences and religion.

Consider John William Draper’s massively influential History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). The book was one of the chief preachers of “the greatest myth in the history of science and religion,” namely, “[T]hat they have been in a state of constant conflict.”1 True, Enlightenment-inspired confidence in human reason and technological advances did challenge religious beliefs as the nineteenth century closed. Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) contributed to widespread concern about humanity’s place in an apparently indifferent universe. The Bible lost credibility due to developments in geology, biology, and textual criticism. Philosopher Charles Taylor, who traces pre-histories of modern skepticism, naturalism and humanism, identifies the nineteenth century as the period in which “unbelief comes of age.” As people become enlightened, their false beliefs are “subtracted.” So the story goes, and yes, there has undoubtedly been conflict and loss of religious belief. But Taylor and other scholars argue that science and religion have had a much more interesting relationship than simple “subtraction stories” suggest.2

Take the Mormon case, for example. 

The earliest Latter-day Saints constructed a restorationist self-identity largely at odds with their surrounding culture while simultaneously drawing from and appealing to its views. (IOW, they sometimes dissed Darwin while actually borrowing from him and adapting his thought.) Joseph Smith exemplified this process, and encouraged Mormons to follow suit. He proclaimed his was the “only true and living church,” but also encouraged church members to gather up all the truths they could find in the world because they all belonged to “pure” Mormonism.3 Leading Mormon thinkers freely mingled their theological visions with emerging scientific proposals, as when Parley P. Pratt systematized Joseph Smith’s revelations about God’s innumerable inhabited planets.4

Mormons in Britain had to reckon with Darwin’s Origin of the Species when the book first appeared in 1859, and they had a number of uniquely Mormon cosmological ideas to draw upon. The first editorial response largely dismissed Darwin by describing earth’s “pre-Adamite ages” when a “‘Royal Planter’ sows the primordial seeds” that evolved into plants fit to host other species. As opposed to emerging from some primordial soup, reptiles and mammals were “transferred from another sphere…each kind being reproductive of itself”—but nevertheless evolving: “Progression marked every age of this planet’s existence—eternal progression which has stamped in indelible characters its future destiny.”5 Within a year Brigham Young seemed to obliquely critique Darwin from the pulpit in Salt Lake City when he noted that human and ape babies are quite dissimilar.6

Other LDS editorials followed as more prestigious leaders like Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow decried Darwinism from the pulpit while simultaneously cashing in on the theory’s cultural prestige by asserting a Mormon variant: Humans were God’s offspring, evolving into gods themselves.7 In this way, Mormon leaders weren’t entirely dismissive of Darwin. Charles W. Penrose said evolution was “true in some respects,” though he maintained individualized speciation.8 James E. Talmage—the faith’s first PhD recipient and eventual apostle—discussed evolution with cautious optimism.9 There was no settled Mormon doctrine with regard to the theory, but critics and sympathizers alike affirmed that Mormonism’s religious tenets offered something truer.

Rather than framing Darwinism as a paradigmatic example of how science threatens religious faith, Mormon leaders confidently affirmed that true science and true religion were one and the same (while reserving first right of refusal to any given theory in the form of revelation). Mormonism, wrote one enthusiastic elder, “comprehends UNIVERSAL TRUTH!—all truth, of every kind and degree” whether in Mormonism or out of it. Distinctions like “religious and secular,” “theological and scientific,” “spiritual and natural,” were meaningless because “Truth is one,” including astronomy, geology, chemistry, natural philosophy, physiology, mathematics, geometry, and the gospel. As for Mormonism’s motto? The poet had it right: “Seize upon truth where’er ‘tis found, / On Christian or on heathen ground; / The flower’s divine, where’er it grows.”10 Rather than being a religious tradition fading in the face of Enlightenment’s bright dawn, Mormonism enthusiastically imbibed the spirit of progress as part of its divine mission decades before the progressive era really got underway.

At the same time, Mormons tempered their optimism with warnings that the theories of men should be carefully adapted to the imperatives of their faith. A month after Darwin’s death in 1882, Orson F. Whitney lamented that “even Christian churchmen are beginning to regard [Darwin’s] once flagrant heresy with lenience.” He either didn’t know or glossed over the fact that Mormons like Talmage regarded the “heresy” with the sort of “cautious ambiguity” he opposed.11 Whitney was one of the strongest proponents of Mormonism’s growing “Home Literature” movement, which encouraged authors to convey the spirit of Mormonism to youth via home-grown fiction. He might have been alarmed had he known that Nephi Anderson, Mormonism’s most successful home literature author, was quite positive about Darwin. Anderson’s first and last novels were published during a liminal period in Mormonism before Darwinism was banished from orthodox consideration. They offer a glimpse of the tensions still present in Mormonism between optimism about human progress and science on one hand, and the threat of religious disenchantment on the other…

…but to find out more about how one of the most popular LDS authors of the early twentieth century sought to improve Darwin’s image, you’ll need to wait until Peculiar Pages releases a new edition of Anderson’s last novel Dorian. The new edition includes analytical essays and notes on Anderson’s text. I contributed an essay on Mormonism’s relationship to science, from which this blog post was adapted in order to tease you into buying a copy. It should be available in the next few months.

Happy Darwin Day!

 

NOTES

1. Ronald L. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 1–3. Mormons who bought into Draper’s thesis attributed the warfare to apostasy, arguing that Mormonism provides the key to true religion and science. See B.H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, and the Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. Stan Larson (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994), xxxviii.

2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 22, 374.

3. See D&C 1:30; Scott H. Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 399.

4. See Moses 1:35; 7:30; Doctrine and Covenants 76:24. See Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology (1855). Erich Robert Paul describes Pratt’s cosmological and eschatological fusion in the massively underrated book Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 110-112.

5. n.a., “Creation,” Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 8, vol. 22 (February 25, 1860), 113-15.

6. Erastus Snow, “There is a God, Etc.,” (March 3, 1878) Journal of Discourses 19:266-79; Orson Pratt, “The Book of Mormon, Etc.” (August 25, 1878) Journal of Discourses 20:62-77. Other editorials include George Q. Cannon, ed., “Origin of Man,” Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 23, no. 41 (October 12, 1861): 651-54.

7. Charles W. Penrose, “The Personality of God, Etc.,” (November 16, 1884) Journal of Discourses 26:18-29.

8. See Brigham Young, “Death—Resurrection, &c,” (1860) Journal of Discourses 8:30.

9. James E. Talmage, The Theory of Evolution (Provo, UT: Utah County Teachers’ Association, 1890); Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012), 161.

10. Henry Whittall, “What is ‘Mormonism’?,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 23, no. 17 (April 27, 1861): 257-59; an unattributed and truncated stanza often attributed to Isaac Watts.

11. Orson F. Whitney, “Man’s Origin and Destiny,” Contributor 3, no. 9 (June 1882): 268-70. Ambivalence about Darwin’s work was not unusual at this point. Real scientific uncertainties still existed; the mechanism for inheritance not understood until Thomas Morgan combined Mendelian genetics with his chromosomal theory of inheritance in 1915 (See Robin Marantz Henig, The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics [Boston: Mariner Books, 2001]). The unsettled state of the theories help explain why Mormons who embraced aspects of evolution, including John A. Widtsoe and James E. Talmage, were careful in their acceptance.

Comments

  1. PS- Ardis told me the signature in the photo is one of Young’s clerks, not Young’s, and there isn’t any interesting marginalia in the book.

  2. Excellent post. I just got a hold of Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology myself.

    Darwin is only tertiary in my book research , but it’s been fascinating reading. It seems much of the Christian negative response was not not due to (as we might assume) either the age of the earth or, strictly speaking, descent from a shared ancestor, but the fact that it made humankind an animal instead of a special creation. People worried about the social/behavioral ramifications if humans were not created in God’s image.

    Another thing that surprised me was that so much religion was friendly to Darwin’s conclusions, and that Young Earth Creationism largely post-dates him by at least 50 years.

  3. I enjoyed this post, Blair. Also, my dad is Erich Robert Paul, and I appreciated your nod to him in your notes. He passed away 2 years (at age 51) after Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology was published, and I know he would be so pleased with how Mormon studies have blossomed in the past 20 years.

  4. Corrina, thank you so much for commenting! It feels great to connect with one of Dr. Paul’s loved ones. While I was reading the book a few years ago I kept thinking “why haven’t I seen more from this person? This is so outstanding.” When I found out he’d passed away I felt a real sense of loss for the Mormon academic community.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    It’s interesting that by the early 20th century some GAs have nearly adopted scientism albeit often with some caveats. I sometimes wonder if the more fundamentalist like opposition was more a backlash to that.

  6. Your comment is very touching, Blair, thank you. Yes, indeed, he had a brilliant mind. As well, he was down-to-earth and had the ability to teach very difficult concepts to anyone. I feel so fortunate to have been raised with an expansive view of Mormonism (its theology and culture), b/c it has made weathering the storms of examining my own faith much easier. I can outright affirm to you that he would have given BCC a huge thumbs-up. BTW, my first name is Juliet, but I use Corrina when commenting.

  7. Anyone read Henry Eyring’s books on religion and science? He is a truly charming man (and a very famous scientist for anyone who’s taken an intro to chemistry class). He has a few chapters on the age of the earth, the big bang theory, and evolution. Highly recommended.

  8. Need science and religion oppose each other or exclude each other as to the theory of human evolution (or anything else)? Absolutely not. Even Noah knew that:

  9. Nice post–thank you! Now I need to find a great way to celebrate Darwin Day with my kids. Just one picky note from a small-minded reader: there’s no “the” in Darwin’s title (lots of species, not just ours).

  10. As a teenager, I was taught as gospel truth, based on 2 Nephi 2:22-23, that there was no death or reproduction before the fall. (I remember being a little confused as to why there was fruit on any tree in the garden, absent pollination.) Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie had died by then, but I expect they were still the predominant theological giants in my teachers’ minds — it was a while before I learned that Talmage was a great deal more practical about the fossil record. So, I’ve always imagined that the principal Mormon objection to evolution was the impossibility of natural selection in a world without death or sex. Is this a 20th century fundamentalist development, or do you suppose that sort of thinking also might have been behind the views of people like Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow?

    (Also, the caption of the picture doesn’t seem to match the title page there — wasn’t “Descent of Man” a later work?)

  11. “Rather than framing Darwinism as a paradigmatic example of how science threatens religious faith, Mormon leaders confidently affirmed that true science and true religion were one and the same (while reserving first right of refusal to any given theory in the form of revelation).”

    This last part is most important in understanding what this unity really amounts to. After all, Dawkins and Dennett also agree to the premise that true religion and true science are fully compatible. In other words, the proclaimed unity of science and religion is a term of *exclusion* – a shared premise whereby each side is able to argue against and exclude the other. If this statement was really as inclusive as we want it to be, it would simply say that Mormonism and science are compatible without the wishy-washy qualifiers “true” doing all the important work.

    That said, I see no important or insuperable conflict between Mormonism and Darwin.

  12. Left Field teaches Evolution every T/R at 8:00 a.m. Today he took in a king cake to celebrate.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff In other words, the proclaimed unity of science and religion is a term of *exclusion* – a shared premise whereby each side is able to argue against and exclude the other.

    I’m not sure that’s true. Certainly Dawkins will claim religion should be excluded. However I think he simply has bad arguments in this regard. (Even most atheists familiar with the issues I encounter think Dawkins makes bad arguments in this regard) What I do think it means is that religious claims and scientific claims can be in conflict and that one can’t escape this conflict by saying they’re really talking about different things. (i.e. reducing religion to just ethics, for instance) I don’t think this means one is excluded. Quite the contrary, it means neither is excluded and each claim must be evaluated independently.

  14. “Is this a 20th century fundamentalist development, or do you suppose that sort of thinking also might have been behind the views of people like Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow?”

    My sense is that this was, indeed, a twentieth-century fundamentalist development.

  15. “Anyone read Henry Eyring’s books on religion and science? ”

    Rachel, I was in BYU’s library last week for a few hours (I don’t live near Utah), and pulled some of his books off the shelf looking particularly for material on creation, evolution, and how he read Genesis. I did not find much specific treatment, although lots of general statements. Is there one of his books in particular you’re thinking of? I would very much like to read it, if so.

  16. Of course Dawkins will say that all of the false parts of religion (almost all of it) should be rejected while the true parts (I think he would agree with a lot of the morality and some of the history) should be kept. (I think we all agree that Dawkins makes bad arguments, but that’s beside the point.)

    “What I do think it means is that religious claims and scientific claims can be in conflict and that one can’t escape this conflict by saying they’re really talking about different things.”

    Exactly. This is a key premise – not the whole argument, mind you – by which each side attempts to qualify the other while reserving adjudication on the issue to themselves. Each side seeks to retain truth while halfheartedly granting the other side “truth” in some watered down, metaphorical, instrumental or “so-called” sense. I think each side is basically saying the same as Jacob in 2 Nephi: To accept the other side is good so long as it does not interfere with or compromise your commitment to our side. Inasmuch as the other side does so compromise you commitment, it is bad and ought to be avoided.

  17. Throughout the church’s history, there have been those in the hierarchy that have been hostile to science, to wit:
    • In the early 20th Century, several faculty members at BYU were driven from the university because of their teachings on evolution (though, today, courses on this subject are taught at the university.
    • B.H. Roberts was roundly criticized by his peers for suggesting that there was life on earth, including pre-Adamites, before the Garden of Eden.
    • David O. McKay and Ezra Taft Benson urged parents to expose “the deceptions of men like Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, John Dewey, Karl Marx, John Keynes, and others.”
    • And Elder Nelson recently suggested that the “big bang theory” of the creation of the universe is not compatible with Mormonism.
    • Further, it was only recently that CES finally abandoned the notion that Genesis provides a literal description of the manner in which the universe was created.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff, while some might do that, in general I think there’s just a dispute about what is true not granting a watered down sense to some opposing side. That’s not to deny there may be some who do that. Who’d say, well X is true so far as they believe what I believe. I’m not sure everyone is doing that though. I don’t think I am and I use those words.

    FarSide, there definitely have been people hostile in various ways to science. Of course opposing Freud and company probably was a good thing since he never really was science in my book. Dewey was a philosopher and while he wanted to make education more scientific I think most of his claims weren’t scientific. (I like Dewey quite a bit mind you) Ditto with Marx. Darwin I think had some errors but by and large was correct. It doesn’t bother me if someone from a long time ago disagreed with him.

    I definitely agree CES has often done a poor job on these issues. Don’t get me started on some of the institute manuals from the 90’s. It wasn’t just science they did a lousy job on but often just dealing with their own scriptures. I think we have a ways to go still.

    As for Nelson, I suspect it depends upon what one means by the big bang theory. If we’ve lived through an infinite past then an absolute big bang is obviously a problem. I think the multiverse now espoused by a lot if not most physicists provides a potential way around this. But I think Nelson was right, if a bit incomplete.

    In any case being wrong on some scientific issues seems pretty minor compared to other flaws people had, such as racism. So it’s not that big a deal to me. People are human.

  19. Clark: “Who’d say, well X is true so far as they believe what I believe.”

    I better version would be “X might be true so far as they don’t believe anything that contradicts what I believe.” And isn’t that exactly what Jacob’s advice amounts to?

    Of course, it should also be acknowledged that each side fully concedes that they themselves are not perfect and that they themselves might be wrong on any given issue. What each side is are not willing to concede, however, is that the other side is in any position whatsoever to decide or judge when this side is wrong.

    In other words, the statement in question gives the illusion of harmony by focusing on fallible content when the real struggle is between imperialistic authority figures from conflicting worldviews and cultures who have no intention whatsoever of bowing to the other. I’m not necessarily for or against imperialism of this sort, but I do think it’s important that we see it for what it is.

  20. Mike:

    So, I’ve always imagined that the principal Mormon objection to evolution was the impossibility of natural selection in a world without death or sex. Is this a 20th century fundamentalist development, or do you suppose that sort of thinking also might have been behind the views of people like Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow?

    “No death before the fall” has obviously floated around in Christian thought for a long long time. But it became a much more important slogan after Darwin. George McCready Price was one of the influential fundamentalist-minded writers on this matter. IIRC he formulated the formula: no Adam, no fall; no fall, no atonement; no atonement, no savior.” Elders Fielding Smith and McConkie adopted this extra-scriptural interpretation and a lot of Mormons, though not all, followed suit as the older generation of Talmage, Roberts, Widtsoe passed away. I think Erastus Snow and Orson Pratt were more concerned about keeping God in the story of creation as they understood it, and seeing the story of evolution as a “bottom-up” process rather than a God-directed “top-down” process. But even they were concerned with proper sexual reproduction as they understood it, and discussions of procreation played a role, yes.

    FarSide: No question various church leaders have taken critical stances against a variety of scientific developments. Most people who read about Mormons and evolution hear the simplistic story of anti-scientific church authorities denying scientific principles and punishing science-minded church members. What I’m suggesting is the story is more complex and more interesting than that.

  21. Blair there is so much I want to say, but I’m at the LTUE science fiction writer’s conference talking about evolution! But I must say this, This is this is wonderful! Thank you for honoring the day so magnificently!

  22. Blair: “Elders Fielding Smith and McConkie adopted this extra-scriptural interpretation and a lot of Mormons, though not all, followed suit”

    Did they merely “adopt” it or did they “endorse” it? There seems to be a world of difference between these two in that the latter endorses it with some degree of prophetic authority while the former does not.

    Steve, you’re the only other person in the ‘nacle that I’ve seen use Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to unpack evolution. Given that my undergrad thesis was on the book, I often fantasize that you will one day do a series of posts on the book so that we can have an all out slug fest regarding the philosophical implications that Dennett draws from Darwin. :)

  23. Oh yes, brings back memories of BYU and Duane Jeffery’s cakes for “Chucky Wucky Abey Baby Day.” Forgot it this year…

  24. “Is there a conflict between science and religion? The answer to this basic query depends entirely upon what is meant by and accepted as science and as religion. It is common to say there is no such conflict, meaning between true science and true religion – for one truth never conflicts with another, no matter what fields or categories the truths are put in for purposes of study. But there most certainly is a conflict between science and religion, if by science is meant ( for instance ) the theoretical guesses and postulates of some organic evolutionists, or if by religion is meant the false creeds and dogmas of the sectarian and pagan worlds.

    Oppositions of science falsely so called were caused people to err concerning the faith even in the days of Paul (1. Tim 6:20-21.)

    There is, of course, no conflict between revolted religion as it has been restored in our day and those scientific realities which has been established as ultimate truth. The mental quagmires in which many students struggle result from the acceptance of unproven scientific theories as ultimate facts, which bring the student to the necessity of rejecting conflicting truths of revealed religion. If, for example, a student accepts the untrue theory that death has been present on the earth for scores of thousands of years of missions of years, he must reject the revealed truth that there was no death either for man or animals or plants of any form of life until 6000 years ago when Adam fell.

    As a matter of fact, from the eternal perspective, true science is a part of the gospel itself int he broadest signification the gospel embraces all truth. When the full blessings of the millennium are poured out upon the earth and its inhabitants, pseudo-science, and pseudo-religion will be swept aside al=nd all supposed conflicts between science and religion will vanish.”

    -B.R. McConkie Mormon Doctrine Science and Religion entry

  25. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff (12:16) I don’t think that’s right. It’s not what we believe since if we’re fallible we may believe false things about religion. Certainly my knowledge of our religion has changed with time and things that I once believed I no longer believe due to evidence. There are things I’m much more sure of that have remained beliefs through continued inquiry. So if we’re fallible about our religious beliefs and scientific beliefs we should expect both to change and the truth to most likely (although not always) persist through inquiry. (After all sometimes one stops believing a truth because of conflicting evidence and then later realize that ones original belief was correct)

  26. Fair point, Blair. And I did enjoy your post. Quite a bit. Having said that, I personally take with a grain of salt—a heaping tablespoon full, actually—virtually all pronouncements from the pulpit regarding science, economics, politics, etc.

    When Elder Nelson instructs me on how to live a more righteous life and better serve my fellowman, I pay really close attention. When, however, he suggests I should reject the big bang theory because “an explosion in a printing shop [couldn’t] produce a dictionary,” it’s time for a bathroom break.

    Yes, I do raise my hand and sustain Elder Nelson as a prophet, seer and revelator, but at the same time I whisper to myself: Eppur si muove.

  27. Clark,

    I think our different positions here follow from our differing views of truth. I can see how a Peircian view of convergent and (roughly) empirical truth would lead to your position. (While he invented the pragmatic theory of meaning, I do not see him endorsing a pragmatic theory of truth. Does that sound right?) My view of divergent, pragmatic and thus inter-subjective truth, by contrast, is unable to accept these claims of unity at face value. Of course, this seems to place a burden on me to explain how a divergent view of truth is compatible with Mormon teachings about its unity…. But that’ll have to wait for some other time.

  28. Jeff G: “Did they merely “adopt” it or did they “endorse” it? There seems to be a world of difference between these two in that the latter endorses it with some degree of prophetic authority while the former does not.”

    I see adopt v. endorse as a distinction without a difference. More to the point, you seem to be suggesting that because a particular thing was stated by a General Authority, it thereby must be taken to represent God’s infallible truth. Am I reading you correctly? If so, to that I’d say: I believe truth isn’t forged by declarative fiat through prophets, scientists, or anyone else, though all truths are filtered through the understanding and limitations of such people. Is Mormonism after adherence to authority or is it after truth? I guess that question is most problematic for those who equate the former with the latter, but I don’t think that is necessary.

  29. PS- Jeff G: as for the harmonization of science and religion, the chapter I wrote for the forthcoming edition of Dorian goes into much more detail that you’d probably find of interest.

  30. Blaire: “More to the point, you seem to be suggesting that because a particular thing was stated by a General Authority, it thereby must be taken to represent God’s infallible truth. Am I reading you correctly?”

    Not quite. I would say that adopting a position is simply saying “What so and so said is how I approach the issue, and it might work for you too.” If other words, this is a way that JFS and BRM offered help to their readers. Endorsing, by contrast, would wntail more than mere help, but a sort of obligation as well – even though there are obviously degrees of obligation. It would be equivalent to saying “What so and so said is right and we/you ought to believe it – or at least not deny it – even it is doesn’t work that well for us/you.”

    ” Is Mormonism after adherence to authority or is it after truth?”

    I don’t equate them, but I do reject the idea that they are fully independent of one another, in religion or science. This is why I see science vs religion in terms of a clash between the legitimacy of the the two communities along with their respective authorities and values. Thus, if JFS and BRM simply adopted those views, I wouldn’t see them as legitimating the views and thus exposing themselves to de-legitimation. If, however, they endorsed and therefore sought to legitimize those views, for a church member to reject them (at least within that particular context) would be to delegitimize their authority to some extent.

    We all reject the idea that the church has any full blown, official and canonical view on evolution which is binding on all members in good standing. But, as Gary loves to point out, official endorsement and authoritative legitimization is not an all or nothing issue. Thus, I reject the idea that since JFS and BRM’s views on evolution were not official, they necessary must have merely adopted views that were completely and totally non-binding on members. I see this as a completely false dichotomy.

    Thus, as person such as myself is forced to confront two questions: 1) Did JFS and BRM endorse and thus legitimize those views of evolution? 2) Do our priesthood leaders today endorse and thus legitimize those same views, (JFS and BRM are not, after all, our priesthood leaders anymore)? A very important third, but utterly private, question would be 3) “Does God endorse and thus legitimize those views of evolution to me through personal revelation?”

    In other words, even if JFS and BRM did endorse rather than merely adopt those views, this does not in and of itself end the debate at hand. It is for this reason that I see no reason why a faithful member cannot be a committed Darwinian. I do, however, think that a fully Darwinian way of framing this debate and truth in general (this is absolutely what I see myself as doing in all of my posts) transforms the debate in very interesting ways.

  31. Clark Goble says:

    Jeff, I don’t think anything I said really hinges on a particular theory of truth. That said Peirce’s concept of truth was what people would believe given enough inquiry. But of course we can believe in that truth prior to then. It’s typically taken as a more regulative notion to get at what we mean by truth.

    FarSide, Elder Nelson has definitely said things that are skeptical about complex emergence I disagree with.

    BHodges, I probably shouldn’t speak for an other but I think Jeff’s more at whether the person in question gave it a stamp of authority. That doesn’t entail infallibility but it is a difference with a difference. (In the same way a traffic ticket endorsed by a police office carries weight regarding your speed that an unendorsed ticket does not — it doesn’t mean the officer was correct regarding your speed of course)

  32. Jeff G: I confess I still am not really sure what you’re getting at.

    “Thus, I reject the idea that since JFS and BRM’s views on evolution were not official, they necessary must have merely adopted views that were completely and totally non-binding on members. I see this as a completely false dichotomy.”

    I’m having a hard time parsing your comments. Regardless, the official/unofficial distinction isn’t really that useful at all to me. Discussions about official versus unofficial are usually not helpful because the definitions and contours are circular. Such and such is official because so and so said it was and vice versa. This post isn’t about what is or isn’t official. It’s about the fact that different LDS leaders have had different views on these matters. What people make of that as Mormons is more a theological matter, in my view. (IOW, it pertains to matters of belief about the nature of revelation, authority, etc.)

    1) Did JFS and BRM endorse and thus legitimize those views of evolution?

    Absolutely and unequivocally and repeatedly.

    2) Do our priesthood leaders today endorse and thus legitimize those same views, (JFS and BRM are not, after all, our priesthood leaders anymore)?

    Odds are some do and some don’t. It’s not as pressing an issue anymore. It rarely comes up. The fact that BYU has a biology department that unapologetically teaches evolution, and that BYU is overseen by a Board of Trustees that includes members of the highest church quorums, suggests that church leaders see room for evolutionary belief within the LDS framework.

    A very important third, but utterly private, question would be 3) “Does God endorse and thus legitimize those views of evolution to me through personal revelation?”

    Hence my saying it becomes more a theological question at this point.

    So again, I’m very unclear about whether you’re even trying to disagree with me about something or not. Sorry about that.

  33. Part of the gray area is in how members respond to the leaders’ statements. If you have a teacher who kicks out a teenager from a SS class because said student kept insisting a Darwinian view was not incompatible with membership in the church, then we have a problem. If you have a BYU religion professor actively proclaiming professors who teach theories of evolution are apostates leading students onto paths of secularism, then we have a problem. Members often fail to see distinctions between a GA saying, “This is how I view said issue and you may find this view helpful” versus “This is how all members should view said issue, and those who disagree are on the path to apostasy.”

  34. Mary Ann, how often have you heard a GA say: “This is how I view said issue and you may find this view helpful”? I must have missed all those conference talks including that particular qualifier.

  35. LOL FarSide, I seem to have missed most of those conference talks as well. I was referring to Jeff G’s characterizations of GA’s opinions. I guess you could say any publication not officially endorsed by the church carries the caveat.

  36. No worries. I’m sure the fault is all mine since you’re anything but stupid. Since you seem clear with regard to my three questions, I’ll try to frame my concerns in those terms.

    1) It seemed like you were suggesting that JFS and BRM didn’t throw any authoritative weight behind their position… and I was surprised to hear that. I was genuinely asking if they were less dogmatic on the issue than I had previously thought.

    2) I think that since JFS and BRM do not have any authority over us except to the extent that our priesthood leader retroactively endorse them and their teachings, then we are completely free to admit that they were wrong on this issue. (I think this contradicts Gary’s position.) This stands in tension, however, with the belief that they did throw their authoritative weight behind those statements and that faithful members were indeed under some obligation not to publicly dissent from them – even if they were always free to privately dissent. (I think this contradicts your position.)

    The way things stand for us today, is that while we can faithfully argue against those positions on evolution, we cannot faithfully argue against or undermine JFS and BRM. Thus, we are obligated to either a) simply stop talking about the position and let it disappear into the past, b) disassociate JFS/BRM from the position or c) walk a very fine line in which we sustain JFS and BRM and their authority while at the same rejecting something that we acknowledge that they authoritatively endorsed.

    I see you as choosing a point midway between b and c by downplaying the authority that JFS and BRM brought to the issue in order to avoid questions or discussion regarding the legitimacy of that authority. I just have mixed feelings about that strategy.

    3) I think the utter privacy of personal revelation is almost the antithesis of theology as I understand the term. But this is beside the point.

  37. it's a series of tubes says:

    Mary Ann, how often have you heard a GA say: “This is how I view said issue and you may find this view helpful”? I must have missed all those conference talks including that particular qualifier.

    That being said, a cursory search of conference talks at LDS.org reveals many, many talks where the GA’s concepts are presented as “suggestions”. For example:

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/10/fathers-and-sons-a-remarkable-relationship

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1987/04/keeping-lifes-demands-in-balance

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/04/be-your-best-self

  38. Farside, “how often have you heard a GA say: “This is how I view said issue and you may find this view helpful”? I must have missed all those conference talks including that particular qualifier.”

    That’s the whole point! General Authorities do not include such statement in GC talks because they’re endorsing rather than merely adopting views. Once we start mining private correspondences or unofficial publications (which is where 95% of the evolution debate occurs), however, the distinction becomes a bit more relevant. In those source we see all sorts of personal and non-binding views and opinions that are offered as helpful suggestions.

  39. But Jeff G that’s the problem. Unofficial publications to many members carry the same authority as conference talks and other official publications. When you get a priesthood leader that has confused the distinction then any personal disagreement with a theory becomes tantamount to heresy.

  40. Statements made by a GA (whether in an official setting or unofficial publication) effectively become associated with the highest priesthood office that individual held. All publications made by JFS are to be treated in many people’s eyes as if they were uttered by a sitting president of the church in an official capacity. Similarly, all statements by BRM are to be treated as if they were uttered by a sitting apostle in an official capacity. Speaking against theories espoused by those individuals then become viewed by many as rejecting the authority of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.

    Confusing the issue is that the church tacitly supports this line of thinking by quoting unofficial statements by GAs in church publications, essentially declaring them officially endorsed. Also, all GAs are labelled as pertaining to the highest office they held, even when quoting statements they made while serving in other positions. The full authority of that individual’s highest position is then effectively applied to the statement.

  41. Blair –

    I am of the opinion that what is implied by the statement that science and religion are compatible with each other is that the insights one gleans from science can be incorporated into a usually preexisting religious framework hopefully without too much cognitive dissonance. I think that what is perhaps forgotten is that science is first a foremost a process or an algorithm that one uses to formulate a well posed question, test a working guess and hopefully interpret the results. That method is completely different than the religious model which seems to rely quite heavily upon presumed authorities, and emotional feelings one experiences in response to prayer. In that sense I would argue science and religion are indeed incompatible simply because they’re completely different methods.

    Mormons are well versed in the story of a pious and scripturally well versed young man who experienced a series of visions which led him to conclude that all truth can be circumscribed into one whole and that there was indeed a rigorous way in which to do such a thing. Less appreciated is the fact that this person was Descartes and that his method was and is indeed at odds with the religious method of finding truth.

    http://physics.weber.edu/carroll/honors/descarte.htm

    The recent post about Galileo also illustrates this tension with how religious people view the work of scientists versus how working scientists view Galileo’s legacy. From Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time: “Galileo remained a faithful Catholic, but his belief in the independence of science had not been crushed. Four years before his death in 1642, while he was still under house arrest the manuscript of his second major book was smuggled to a publisher in Holland. It was this work, referred to as Two New Sciences, even more than his support for Copernicus that was to be the genesis of modern physics”.

    There is indeed a raging controversy today between cosmologists of different stripes with debates about whether or not the multiverse qualifies as falsifiable science or is unmitigated nonsense or something in between. But this process relies upon a huge amount of doubt, skepticism, public debate, criticism, and yes, open defiance of current orthodoxy or authority which sometimes leads to the gathering a public following. I was you could take time to explain to me how in your mind these methods are compatible.

  42. Mary Ann – A thousand gold stars for your comment! I might add that in my opinion, the way it works is that we members are generally held accountable for practically anything an apostle/prophet says, in whatever setting. The minute the Church finds it expedient to disavow the statement, we find out that it wasn’t actually “doctrine” – that “doctrine” only is established by a unanimous First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. And so the wheel goes round…individual GAs making statements that then get cited in lessons and talks, thereby becoming culturally sanctioned and unofficial doctrine – until they get quietly retired or disavowed as merely one man’s opinion.

  43. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide: Mary Ann, how often have you heard a GA say: “This is how I view said issue and you may find this view helpful”? I must have missed all those conference talks including that particular qualifier.

    For the record most GAs I hear outside of conference say that. They then typically follow up with a, “now I don’t want to read about this on the internet tomorrow.”

  44. Allen,

    I largely agree with you. The process of science and the process of religion are different. It is much easier to be critical in science. But not always! You could fill volumes with stories of scientists who felt like they were punished by the leaders in their field for not towing the line. The blog “Not Even Wrong” has often discussed how young high energy physicists feel unable to criticize the elders in string theory. I’ve also heard the same thing regarding biologists who publicly questioned Darwinism (who pointed out in popular articles that recent evolutionary theory actually overturns many of Darwin’s ideas). So it’s not totally clean cut, and it would take sociologists to explain why criticizing leaders works ok in some areas but not others.

    As an aside, I also think that many people forget how tentative the conclusions of science and religion are. When I was younger, I was had an almost absolute belief in science. Now that I’m older, I’ve become more attuned to its limits, just as with the limits of religious understanding. Frankly, there’s just so much in both fields that we don’t know. People in both science and religion could do well with much more humility about what they know.

  45. MaryAnn,

    I fully agree with what you’re saying, but I worry that you stop too soon. Like I said above, JFS and BRM no longer have any office at all, as far as I’m concerned. HOWEVER, the GA’s who continue to endorse and quote them do have authoritative offices, and it is by virtue of their priesthood office that some of JFS/BRM teachings still binding today. In other words, yes, some misguided people err in the way you state. On the other hand, some people in the bloggernacle go the opposite extreme by 1) suggesting that any statement that is less than fully official (or even canonized) is totally optional, or 2) suggesting that we are equally bound (or unbound) to dead prophets as we are to living ones. If you also agree with these 2 further dangers, then I think we are on the same page.

  46. FGH –

    Thanks for the reply. I should have made clear that the clashing of ideas and personalities within science can be more infantile than the silliest middle school playground taunts. As you said there are plenty of examples of this, and certainly the exchange between the upstart Chandrasekhar and the elder statesman Eddington is a prime example. In my mind though, science has a self correcting mechanism that is completely independent of established authorities and is missing in the religious framework. Ultimately, Chandrasekhar’s predictions were finally observed and verified. Another example is Einstein’s dismissal of Lemaitre’s cosmological models as abysmal physics, but again, observations ultimately prevailed.

    And there definitely exists plenty of established scientists who can’t be persuaded by any evidence at all (Hoyle, Burbidge, Narlikar in regards to the steady state model). Certainly there are limits to science, plenty of results are tenuous at best, and some questions can’t even be addressed within a scientific framework. But for whatever reason, and both because of and in spite of thorny personalities, the process seems to work.

  47. Clark Goble says:

    Allen, there’s a famous quote by Max Planck about scientific progress:

    A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

    I don’t think that’s true, mind you. It’s funny but I think what was surprising about Quantum Mechanics and Relativity is that despite being hugely controversial they became accepted surprisingly quickly. I think scientists are convinced quite well by predictions. It’s when you don’t have tested empirical predictions that you tend to lose scientists. (Thus the backlash against String theory for instance)

  48. Clark Goble says:

    FGH (6:59) while Woit is right, it’s also the case that physicists and more importantly departments are in practice not terribly sympathetic to these figures. Funding is drying up. Although to be fair science funding across the board has been awful under Obama and the recession probably hasn’t helped. Further there’s been quite a backlash against String theory the past few years. Not just Woit but also leading luminaries in physics like Lee Smolin. Of course there was always an anti-string faction within physics going back to Feynman. It seems like of late they are the mainstream.

    It’s tricky to figure a lot of this out though since the real issue in science is always funding and finding permanent positions. That biases the issues much more. For one it often means brown nosing department heads to get a job and then tenure. But also trying to figure out what the judges at the NSF or related grant funders like at the time or what you can publish in a way to get tenure. There’s a lot of distorting effects in science, especially since the recession started. That said if you can criticize a major point and more importantly prove your criticism your career is made. So there are incentives going the other direction as well.

    All that said I do think a bit more humility is usually in order. Physicists don’t get accused of having Jehovah Complexes for nothing. (Of course the physicist’s response is to look down with disdain at a mere psychologist making such a claim let alone a claim that goes back to Freud of all people — LOL)

  49. Jeff G, I think we’re mostly on the same page. I’m not sure that the Church hierarchy would dismiss older apostles and prophets quite as easily as you. Although they may not be around, the older generations were the mentors and guides for the current leadership and their influence will be felt for awhile (for example the Presidents of the Church manuals in Priesthood/RS). I agree with your other two dangers, though.

  50. MaryAnn, Of course that’s a bit of a knot, isn’t it? In the very act of not dismissing and continuing to endorse past prophets, church leader’s thereby legitimize those very past prophets. Thus, we are justified, it would seem, in ignoring those teachings of the past prophets that our living prophets ignore for the simple reason that they ignore them! I thus reject any accumulative conception of continuing revelation…. and I find this very Darwinian. (There! I made the comment relevant to the OP.)

  51. Jeff G:

    1) It seemed like you were suggesting that JFS and BRM didn’t throw any authoritative weight behind their position… and I was surprised to hear that. I was genuinely asking if they were less dogmatic on the issue than I had previously thought.

    Ah I see. I didn’t intend to give that impression. I think the idea here is that although these leaders put their full authoritative weight behind their views on these subjects, they were not necessarily receiving pristine revelation on such matters. Speaking to the question of a church member’s obligation to their authority is more a confessional or theological faith-based issue. How I deal with disagreeing with any particular leader on an issue like this while still sustaining leadership as Mormons are obligated to do gets beyond the purpose of the academic article this excerpt comes from.

  52. Tempting.

  53. DORIAN with Annotations and Scholarship (the one Blair’s most excellent essay is in) will be on sale March 31, 2015, on Peculiar Pages’s website and at the usual bookselling suspects. http://www.peculiarpages.com/books/dorian/