Book Review: Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist by Steven Peck

The cover is intelligently designed.

I’ve previously bemoaned the difficulty in reviewing a book by Steve Peck. Thus far I’ve mostly read (and thoroughly enjoyed) his fiction, however, and so I was curious to hear that he was going to publish a collection of his non-fiction essays through the Neal A. Maxwell Institute (part of their Living Faith series). The result is Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist, a work of about 200 pages in a dozen essays. It is a shocking relief to read something of Steve’s which I can criticize. Unfortunately, these criticisms are largely ineffectual; Steve’s short book is a great addition to the already-stellar Living Faith series. Evolving Faith is a worthy whirlwind tour of the intersections of evolutionary biology, consciousness, Mormonism and environmentalism.

Let me deal first with two of the main critiques I have of the book, both of which stem from the very nature of the thing as a collection of essays. The first critique is that this is not a book for beginners. By this I mean that it is a challenging book in terms of its intellectual content, but it is also a challenging book in terms of its perspectives. If you are completely unfamiliar with evolutionary biology, you will encounter foreign vocabularies and new logic systems. You will google terms like “genetic drift” and “teleology”; you will wonder whether Henri Bergson was a crackpot (he most definitely was, but Peck goes a long way towards rehabilitating the man). Further, you will wonder whether your faith requires you to be a vegetarian, whether we are good stewards of the Earth, and whether the Mormon view of Spirit as matter really makes any sense at all. These are all good things to learn and to wonder, but it requires a certain level of scientific and spiritual literacy that makes this book not easily accessible for all. Again, this is a collection of essays: was the author supposed to dumb himself down for the purposes of this collection? My suspicion is that these essays are already fairly dumbed-down as scientific essays go. As for the spiritual explorations of the book, it’s nice to get your assumptions challenged from time to time. But still, it’s inevitable that some readers will get mired in Part I and give up. This is a mistake.

The second critique is structural, although again I am not sure there is much to be done. The book is split into two parts, the first being a series of peer-reviewed pieces that hit the science and philosophy of existence and consciousness. The second part is a group of essays, blog posts and other published pieces on personal faith that takes into account the fundamental questions from the first part. The progression goes like this: you learn the science, you dive into the big, underlying questions of the world, and then you have a framework to talk about your faith and explain your worldview. However, the organizational divide in the book is not quite as neat and clean as one would like. If Part I is science and Part II is faith, there’s a little peanut butter in the chocolate (and there’s a little chocolate in the peanut butter). That’s perfectly understandable, as one informs the other in Peck’s mind. However, Steve never quite takes us from the Point A (the current science of consciousness, the possibilities of evolution and Bergsonian Élan vital) to Point B (Mormon environmentalism, the nature of souls and the role of God in the universe). He seems to have connected these dots within himself, but teases us somewhat as to how this is done. The result is a fairly prominent tonal gap from Part I to Part II, as we go from neural networks and Dawkins’ Mount Improbable to networks of saints and Mount Peale in the La Sals. Peck is revealing much about what makes him tick, but we don’t quite get to see the connections between all the gears.

Do these sound like major objections? I hope not. The net effect is a moving and challenging look at our faith and ourselves in a broader and more complex universe. Evolving Faith has much to offer. Those interested in raw intellectualism will sink their teeth into explorations of, say, whether subjective truth is a viable notion; those interested in wanderings of the Spirit will be fascinated as Peck describes a delirious episode brought on by a parasitic infection. If you’ve read Steve Peck’s work before you know that there is a certain duality to his writing. He has deep capacity for the natural and poignant (read the Two-Dog Dose” story, found in his Wandering Realities collection — also note that the author apparently likes to wander a lot). But Peck also has a taste for complexity, for taxonomy and science. It is fascinating to see these traits of his in a non-fiction environment. Perhaps this is the closest to the ‘real’ author we’ve gotten so far.

I apologize for the brevity of the review, but I don’t dare write much more about the book. This isn’t because there isn’t more to say — there is a LOT more to say. The questions raised in my mind from Peck’s book have no easy answers; raising them in this review will simply take too long. Questions like, how does Christ answer the ecological fact of the necessity of violence in the world? What, concretely, is the difference between spiritualism and Bergsonianism? Does Mormonism require a God that is the creator of this Universe? I can do no justice to mighty questions such as these. And if Peck does not quite wrestle them out, he has at least brought these and other significant inquiries to our mind. The capacity of this book to engender curiosity is perhaps its greatest value, and for this the author is to be applauded.

Comments

  1. Spot on review. I love (like unabashed LURVE) Peck’s fiction. It grabs me and won’t let me stop reading. Compared to fiction, Part 1 is by nature a challenging, dense, intellectual read. But if your appreciation of his fiction leads you to want to understand the source, if you want to see the genius behind the curtain, I feel like this is the place to go.

  2. I’m in his bioethics class currently, so I can definitely agree with the last part of your review. His ability to engender thought provoking questions is unparalleled among the professors I’ve had these last four years.

  3. Brian Dillman says:

    Excellent review! I think this bit is the most revealing of Sir Peck:

    “He seems to have connected these dots within himself, but teases us somewhat as to how this is done.”

    Because he is a big ol’ tease.

  4. A Happy Hubby says:

    Makes me (almost) wish I was back in college and could take a course from Prof. Peck.

  5. I was lucky enough to take an ecology course from him while he was still recovering from his parasite, 12 years ago or so. Definitely looking forward to reading this.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    Steve, I’m not sure the critique that this book is for a more limited audience is really a critique. Not all books have to be popularizing books on science and religion. To push forward the debate the debate has to be conducted among those familiar with the ideas as well as explained to those not as involved.

    I’ve not read the book but your second point sounds far more of an issue. If these aren’t in the book hopefully he’ll make a more sustained argument in future works. (I’m sad I missed his presentation at the SMPT conference last week)

  7. I want to thank Steve for this review. It really means a lot when people take my work seriously and engage with the work at this level. I recognize the first part of the book requires some work. That’s intentional, as some of these were academic, peer-reviewed paper.  Nevertheless, I feel like too often we assume less of the average reader than they deserve and lighten things up to the lowest common denominator. I’m in the Jim Faulconer school of thought: Make things Harder (And if you haven’t seen his ‘Making the Scriptures Harder’series (e.g. here) you are missing some delightful books).  I think there is something to be gained by stretching a bit and requiring people to work a little. I think of James Talmage’s ‘Jesus the Christ’ which while on my mission was the standard of a difficult but worthwhile read (Not that I’m comparing myself with him, Heaven forbid). So yes. You’ll have some work to do, but as you point out, Steve, It’s worth the effort (hopefully). Or maybe you’ll be sorry you touched the book. I sort of want you to rethink all your assumptions. Never an easy task.  I should add that if you really put in the work though my fiction becomes even better! So while you are reading this book, check out Wandering Realities. So you have the complete ‘wandering’ collection. In the fiction book I also explore evolution, consciousness, time, and reality. Except in funner ways. And as I away argue there is more truth in fiction than in non-fiction. Or there can be.

  8. Steve, I agree – your book does inspire to raise the bar in that respect. As Clark said as well, the work involved doesn’t diminish the value of the book in my eyes, not really.

  9. Excited to read. Our copy is on the way right now. Thanks for the review.

  10. Mike from Georgia says:

    Great article. As a biology major many years ago I am excited to read this book. My ax to grind is what can we do to start to get this level of thought more widely disseminated out here in the spiritually dreary provinces?

    Recently my bishop asked me to attend a fireside in his home billed to be on the topic of Science and Religion. As one of probably 5-6 people in the ward who has ever published a peer-reviewed paper in a scientific field and having a reputation as a free-thinker, I might add something to the discussion, he hoped. We had best-of-the-year attendance with perhaps a dozen youth from 2 wards.

    The featured speaker travels around the area giving this presentation. He is undoubtedly a sincere, good person, a brother in the gospel and he tried. But frankly this was a disaster. He claimed to be fluent in 6 languages, all places where he lived for a couple years while serving in the military and to be widely read in various fields of antiquity and modern science. He offered a 50 page hand-out of rubbish which contained nothing even as broad or updated as the work on this topic of Joseph Fielding Smith. His presentation was disjointed and illogical. He started with a couple of predictable citations from the DC and it went downhill from there. He had a power point presentation on automatic with a variety of colorful pictures of scientific discoveries that seemed to have a mind of its own coupled with but not correlated with trendy music from about the 1970’s drowning out discussion periodically. All hat and no cattle.

    His main point seemed to be that science is generally wrong and he offered several weak examples. His second point was that our revealed religion has never been wrong. He didn’t seem to get what happened to Galileo and claimed that episode in history showed the pre-restoration church was in apostasy but had nothing else to say to Mormons. One youth, a ~16 year old convert from a poor diverse government housing community explored the question of the age of the earth; pointing out that his biology class affirms it is billions of years old and the Bible indicates it is about 6000 years old. Our speaker claimed the Bible does not indicate the age of the earth (asking for a specific chapter and verse if it did), only fallible non-Mormon Bible scholars claim it to be that age. And science doesn’t know either, bad carbon dating and so forth. I quietly mentioned only the words, “DC 77” and he got a scowl on his face and quickly moved on.

    I asked him a loaded question: Does rational argument ever convince anyone? He claimed he had undergone a personality test that identified him as one of only about 2% of the human population that is convinced by rational arguments but that in general the rest of us are not. So there is really no reason to make them. At one point he claimed we could believe anything we wanted and so we might as well believe what the prophets teach.

    He had a stuffed monkey which we were supposed to toss to each other to insure that only one person holding the monkey spoke at once and treats were given for good comments. The monkey was thrown around but the person catching it seldom said anything. He said it was an open discussion but his rambling dominated it. I was so tempted to take the stinking monkey, look at it carefully and exclaim: Grandfather! You look just like my grandfather. This must be a fireside on my family history.

    The youth paid near zero attention and looked as bored as usual. They didn’t engage at all. Three girls who seldom attend (and were dressed in rather short shorts and low cut shirts with a lot of belly skin displayed – nobody called them out on modesty) played with their phones then called their friends and left early.

    To cap a crappy evening off, the other bishop had a gift for us adults. He has a PhD in a medical field where it is often said he published about 100 papers and then he went into clinical practice many years ago. He is by far the most published scientist in the room and perhaps the most intelligent. He had a bag of Himalayan rock salt. He claimed it emitted positive energy and rubbing it on an afflicted body part would cure/prevent a variety of ailments ranging from asthma to arthritis, even my coronary disease.( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himalayan_salt ). The two round pieces he gave my wife and I are about two inches in each dimension. I think they might work better as seer stones, but no luck so far.

    We could have read the article out-loud, paragraph by paragraph, on wiki about LDS views on Evolution ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_views_on_evolution ) . Since that is the most controversial scientific topic our church leaders have selected to discuss in the last century, I think it is a useful introduction to the topic. Ironically the first thing they said at the fireside was: please turn off your digital devices. Every youth in the room could have been at that website in 5 seconds if they knew about it. I say turn your digital devices on, youth.

    An extremely fascinating article in the latest National Geographic describes yet another “pre-Adamite.” One of the points was that these bones have not been accurately dated and so they could be a wide range of ages old. Every possibility brings up new & fascinating insights; none of them supportive of a traditional literal Biblical interpretation. I don’t know how anyone can read that article and not come away with some sense of wonder and awe. I think it would make a stupendous fireside topic.

    The abyss between what is in our lesson manuals coupled with the extemporaneous mush we routinely dish up in contrast to the material reviewed in this blog is staggering. How are we ever going to get this level of material to be more widely read and discussed?

  11. A Happy Hubby says:

    Mike from Georgia,

    Sounds like you need to offer a follow-up fireside and give another perspective. Of course being careful to say that you respect the opinions and beliefs of the other gentleman and both are allowed within Mormonism.

  12. Mike, reason without empiricism is not worth a whole lot. (grin) That’s why its so important for science to be social in nature. Otherwise we get stuck with people with their pet ideas but never focusing enough on discerning where they might be wrong. Of course that’s part of the problem I suspect people have in Church with the border of science and religion. Science says that truth is what resists this skepticism. Many religious people see questioning as in opposition to faith. Clearly I don’t. But that’s a whole complicated subject. I think there’s a good reason for why people see questioning as problematic. They might be wrong in the big picture but I think they are getting at a real issue.

  13. Mike in Georgia,

    Thanks for this detailed account of what many members of the church face, not only in outlying areas, but here in the heart of Utah County as well. It’s a shame, but hopefully people are starting to see that such uninformed talks actually drive people away and will start to turn to genuine science (of which there is no reason to fear). Such people remind me of the people who followed the Apostle Paul around telling his new converts that they had to obey the law of Moses to be members of Christ’s church. They go to old unofficial LDS views, 1910 science, and try to turn people away from the light and knowledge we’ve been given. Hopefully if we keep talking about it, they’ll come around.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    Thats a really good analogy Steve. I’ll have to remember that.

  15. Mike in Georgia says:

    Thank you for your comments. I would love to do a follow-up fireside. I will offer but I am not hopeful. I apologize that I do not seem to be able to express my thoughts more succinctly and tend to ramble.

    As to the issue of questioning but not in opposition to faith: For several years I taught an alternate Gospel Doctrine class. I described the other standard class as “Answers to Gospel Questions” or ”Comfort the Afflicted.” I suggested that most members of the ward attend it. Many of our lives are challenging and we need church to be an anchor and a comfort. (I am moving in that direction as I get older). My class was called “Questions to Gospel Answers” or “Afflict the Comfortable.” This is the gospel of repentance or change. If you don’t like it you should probably leave.

    This class grew out of foyer discussions between bored and marginal members and the desire of the ward leadership to not have too many people out in the foyer having the best discussions and perhaps a need to have some control over the dialogue. Specifically, one time the stake president interrupted our foyer discussion, and ordered us all into the regular class. I told him he was disrupting my class and I asked him to offer the opening prayer. He was not amused and the call to teach came the following week.

    The bishop at that time, a convert of about 20 years and deep in service but very shallow in doctrine hated teaching any gospel class and I gathered from his comments (”Haven’t you had enough yet?”) that he saw my calling to teach this class as a form of punishment. I tangled with the temple president, and a retired CES dignitary and a few other people of substance who drifted through the ward and learned much from them. The bishop claimed I was the most effective teacher in the stake but often reported I was disturbing some members enough that they had felt the need to demand that he rebuke me and asked me to be more careful. I pointed out that the scriptures are clear on this point, if you are offended you are to go to the person who offended you, not a busy bishop for rebukings and visa versa. I asked for their names and he would not give them to me.

    But I had a handful of people who loved my class.They made it all worth while. When my then 11 year old son was kicked out of primary permanently he became one of my most attentive students; never commenting in class but providing amazingly original insights as we prepared my lessons. Another example was a Jewish convert who was once a Hebrew scholar. He was suffering from the complications of diabetes and going to church was not worth it anymore, except he dragged himself to my class at the risk of dying and said that hour was the highlight of his week. He gave me amazing books and set me straight on many points. I got the impression from him that discussing the Torah vigorously and creatively and in ways that disturbed people was considered a high form of worship in the Jewish faith.

    A new wind began to blow in another direction and a new bishop told me he was putting me on a “No Teaching Calling” list. I was disturbing too many people. Back to the foyer for me. I loved him because he asked his wife to teach early morning seminary and she was the best thing that ever happened to my children.She cooked breakfast! And apparently her classes resembled my Sunday school classes more than anyone would admit at the time. (What did they expect with my darling children in there, who genetically only need about 4 hours of sleep daily?) That was about 8-9 years ago and I have had no calling extended since then. My children grew up to be highly successful exceeding all of my expectations and stopped causing problems at church and my wife attends another church. I work half the Sundays and do other volunteer work so that I might show up to LDS meetings once a month. I am endlessly amused that the 9 new essays on controversial topics on LDS.org pretty much affirm some of what I was rebuked for teaching and would disturb the same people (probably even worse) if they ever find out about them.

    I think my invitation to this fireside was intended more as an effort to reactive me. Perhaps my bishop thinks I have problems with science and religion that might have been resolved (sure) and I do but not the way he assumes. This will not work since the real underlying reasons for inactivity were not addressed (employment entrapment, perception that my other volunteer activity is of greater value, etc.) I have no problem sleeping through the typical boring sacrament meetings and engaging in invigorating discussions in the foyer or else helping out in the nursery, when I don’t have anything better to do. But I usually do. A HPGL visited me recently and after a detailed discussion about my position and journey in life he inquired what it would take for me and my wife to fully come back to church. I replied that the church would have to move forward, in several key areas and I enumerated them. But in the end I would have to lose my job permanently and then probably have to move back to Utah to mooch off my relatives.

    ***

    On the outside chance that I am given an opportunity to do another fireside, what sources do all y’all recommend (aside from using my new seer stones)? Is the wiki article on Mormon Views on Evolution a good choice for youth? (I just thoughtlessly pulled that one from the seat of my pants). I expect that the bishop is going to want to fully review and approve of whatever I teach before turning me loose on the youth. I expect that the girls in shorts will not listen and leave early anyway if they show up. As a gospel teacher I am so rusty from years of lack of opportunity to teach that I would not be disappointed if it was another huge flop. I am thinking of doing it outside around a fire (a real fireside) in my wooded back 40 where my children often bring their college friends for parties; with Dutch ovens bubbling and the sweet smells of cobblers drifting through the discussion.

    In my heart I do not think much progress is going to be made by merely letting back row ramblers like me have a greater voice. I have fought for this kind of improvement all of my life and I won a few local temporary conflicts when I had strong influential teenage children as powerful allies but I seem to have had little lasting effect outside of my family and mixed success within. I find attending church pretty generally useless as it is currently constituted. My bishop knows this.

    Mormonism is an authority driven community. It is going to have to come from the top, from the highest leaders themselves. How to make that happen? They are going to have to internalize the ideas in books like this one and they are going to have to own the problem of creating the dreary wastelands we inhabit. Then we will be in a place where progress can be made.

  16. Good review. I’m looking forward to reading this book. Steve I agree with you on leaving the physical to the domain of science and the spiritual to the domain of faith, but I wonder if you would share my views on how the science of organic evolution can inform faith:

    I read “The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease” by Daniel E. Lieberman, chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. While he brings no faith into the story at all, I saw two main themes that seem to mesh will with Mormon doctrine: 1) Evolution by natural selection is all about traits that favor maximum reproduction (“multiply and replenish the earth,” bring the spirits to earthly bodies}. 2) Evolution also favored family groups and then broader communities in survival and fitness. The limited group size of the Neanderthals may have been a big reason for their “dead end” on the evolutionary train. Edward O. Wilson, in “The Meaning of Human Existence” describes a host of “social evolutionary” traits that apply here–even our emotions, love of story-telling and love of music that would tend towards spirituality. (He draws very different conclusions than I would but even so, I agree with his science. He admits the utter inability for science to explain “consciousness”–he leaves that to the domain of the humanities, just as I would leave it to the domain of faith,) 3) The development of “instinct”, such as a baby automatically grasping your pinky llike a primate grasps a tree limb, or the reflex of a baby that falls backward automatically throwing its arms forward to grasp something just as newborn primates learned to hang onto mom’s back as she climbed around the forest trees. Or any of a dozen other “instincts” that we seem to be born with that serve in self-preservation and “prolong the days of our probation” on earth. Seems all these inborn traits that may have resulted from eons of evolution would serve as a great jump start for a spirit to learn how to control the body and preserve and even enrich its life.