A Faithful Shift Toward Evolution

Petrified forest NP

Robert Lawrence was once a free-range kid in Utah. He spent a couple years learning from wonderful people in Guatemala and later moved to Arizona where he spent a lot of time in the lab with viruses. He is now a science writer and research developer living in Binghamton, New York, with his wife and toddler. You can connect with him and find more of his work at: www.robertlawrencephd.com

BYU students are more accepting of Darwin’s ideas than they used to be, according to a new study.

“Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, and there a little.” According to prophets of old, this is how the process of spiritual development is administered by God’s careful hand.  But does this divine formula also extend to the physical realm of creation over a period of, say, the last 4.6 billion years?

The answer to that question remains in doubt among the faithful. According to 2014 Pew data, 16% of Jews, 29% of Catholics, 30% of mainline Protestants, 52% of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and 74% of Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the concept of evolution on some level.

Although the bulk of Latter-day Saints are not overly fond of Mr. Darwin’s ideas, it appears that their attitudes may be shifting toward acceptance. This is according to a November 2018 peer-reviewed study published by researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU).  [1]

This study was based on survey data from the predominantly Latter-day Saint student population at BYU. Over the past few decades, introductory biology students at the institution were asked several questions designed to gauge their views on evolution. The students were non-biology majors, and the majority were freshmen. The study reported on survey data gathered from thousands of these students over a 10-year period (from 1987 to 1996) and compared it to data gathered from a smaller set of more recent students (from 2014 to 2016).

I’ve graphed the results from one portion of the study that surveyed students at the end of their semester in the biology course, which covered evolution in its curriculum.

Graph 1 - evolution acceptance rev

The students were also surveyed on their views regarding the age of the earth. As one might expect, the scientific consensus of billions of years is gaining favor over shorter time frames that tend to be based on literal interpretations of scripture.

Graph 2 - age of earth

In conclusion, the study authors stated, “The data shown here reveal a shift toward acceptance by LDS youth of evolutionary theory as a valid explanation for current life on earth.”

They attributed this shift mostly to three things:

  1. Improved K-12 science education
  2. The teaching of evolution in BYU’s religious-friendly environment
  3. Fewer negative messages regarding evolution from Church leaders

The third point here is most interesting, and it calls for some historic reflection.

In 1930 — five years after the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee cast evolution into the public spotlight — Latter-day Saint church authorities B.H. Roberts and James Talmage argued their support for Darwin’s theories to the Church’s twelve apostles. Among those twelve was Joseph Fielding Smith, who was particularly vocal in his opposition. This led to some vigorous back-and-forth discussions on the matter that were eventually dropped. Smith had an extensive tenure in church leadership and went on to strongly denounce evolution a couple decades later in his book Man, His Origin and Destiny. Accordingly, most church leaders have not been too keen on evolution.

A case in point was the lengthy 1988 address given by church apostle Boyd K. Packer at BYU that was mostly focused on this issue. Regarding the concept of evolution as far as it relates to man, Packer declared “It is false!” adding, “the so-called theistic evolution, the theory that God used an evolutionary process to prepare a physical body for the spirit of man, is equally false.”

Accordingly, BYU student survey data from the semester when Packer’s talk was given showed a sharp decrease in acceptance of evolution – thus illustrating the effect of such messages.

But this effect has worn off over time as such rebukes of Darwin and his ideas have subsided. While evolution was once the target of fiery sermons given from the pulpit of General Conference a century ago, in last few decades it has become scarcely mentioned. And in 2016, the church clarified its stance as officially having no official position on the matter.

Graph 3 - evolution at conference

While the Church as an institution may be neutral on evolution, church members and church leaders alike will continue to have their own, differing, personal views.  In contrast to the views of Latter-day Saints who share Packer’s sentiment, study author and BYU biology professor Steven Peck has openly embraced evolution.  (Steven Peck is also a BCC blogger and BCC Press author.)

Peck spoke broadly about how science and theology work together for him in an interview he gave on the podcast A Thoughtful Faith.

fish fossil“In my own life, I find that they are meshed. I think they are the two ways I learn things.” Peck explained. “For me, evolution fits so perfectly in Mormonism. I think that we have doctrines and theology in place that make evolution make sense more than any other religious system that I know.”

In his books Evolving Faith and Science the Key to Theology, Peck has further articulated his message that pure religion and pure science need not be defiled by conflict, and can even support one another.

This is a refreshing reminder for Latter-day Saints that accepting natural selection as a mode of creation does not equate with a path to damnation for the natural man. For some, learning about the elegant and intricate processes that touch every twig and branch on the tree of life may even prompt wonder and awaken a more profound desire to commune with the Creator of it all.

* * *

[1] The BYU study is titled, “A longitudinal study of attitudes toward evolution among undergraduates who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and it was published in the highly regarded science journal PLoS One. The study included survey data on several other questions, including attitudes toward environmental conservatism. Check it out in full here, it’s worth a read.


  1. BYU’s make-up has changed quite a bit since the first study. Average ACT score in 1990 was 25; now it’s 30. That’s a shockingly big change. Is it possible views on evolution at BYU have changed because BYU students today are significantly smarter than in 1990? I’d love to think that views of evolution have improved throughout the church, but I’m guessing that the standard conservative, non-academic ward has the same views as they did decades ago.

  2. There was the letter from the First Presidency in the early 1900’s stating that the church wasn’t going to take a position on the matter. As a consequence those who understood evolution never talked about it at church, but those who didn’t like it would make negative comments about it in sermons. It became a sadly one sided issue.

  3. Anyone have more details on the chart showing Conference references to evolution?

  4. Trevor, hi. What would you like to know about the chart? (sorry it shows up kind of small due to the margin size – some details are hard to see.)

  5. Little Sister says:

    Interesting post! But that first graphic is wildly misleading, especially the coloring. The second category is colored darkish green – so it looks like those kids are generally accepting of evolution.

    In fact, that category reads: “Evolution might apply to some limited circumstances, but cannot be a general principle…. It may apply to lower forms, but not to man.”

    Yikes!!! That’s hardly accepting of evolution at all! A much more fair representation would be to shade every category except the last (“Accepting”) as red. That would demonstrate the pretty distressing fact that over a third of BYU students don’t seem to accept the basics of evolution today, in 2019.

  6. The attitudes of CES teachers toward evolution have also had a big impact on young members’ opinions. I had an Institute teacher who was adamantly opposed to any possibility of evolution, and he freely shared those ideas as gospel truths in his class. Perhaps since the CES teachers who were around for the Joseph Fielding Smith and Boyd K Packer talks are now mostly gone, we are getting more open minds with young seminary graduates.

  7. I agree with Little Sister. The “Uncertain” description actually sounds more evolution-accepting to me than the “Limitations” description, so the color gradation feels backwards on those two.

  8. Joseph Fielding McConkie was very actively teaching anti-evolution at BYU in the early 2000’s. A friend showed me a large packet of creationist nonsense she’d gotten in her McConkie class. I’m sure several others of the old guard were also teaching that, although perhaps not as extensively as McConkie. I wonder how much things changed when they all retired.

  9. Little Sister, Cynthia – thanks for your feedback. The coloring on the graph will be updated shortly…

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I was a science geek as a kid, but my main focus was astronomy, and I don’t recall anything about evolution at all in high school. Towards the end of my mission we were teaching a family and they asked what we thought of evolution. I’m embarrassed to recall I confidently said we didn’t accept it. Fortunately my companion corrected me. A few years later our student ward at the University of Illinois had a fireside on the subject given py a premed student that articulated the pro position, and that is basically how I have looked at it since. For me just a little education went a long way.

  11. Ryan Mullen says:

    Tim, I remember that packet. It dominated my thinking regarding evolution for 10 years or so. It’s authoritarian tone meshed perfectly with the authoritarian tone of so many lessons and talks I’d heard over the years, it took me a long time to realize it drastically overreached the realm of revelation.

  12. Nice post.

    Tim, Ryan, and anyone else reading, my dissertation topic is post-1970 creationism and evolution at BYU. I’m interested in whatever materials (like a JFMcConkie packet) or first-person reminiscences people have from their time there, so please drop me a note! evolution.at.byu.phd@gmail.com

  13. [UPDATE]: In response to the well-placed criticism above, we have updated the first graph to have a better color-scheme.

  14. Something that may surprise people is that evolutionary acceptance among BYU students is not a straight upward line, but more of a parabola. Acceptance of evolution among BYU students was relatively high in the early 1900s (though the university itself was very different then), dropped off significantly through mid/late century, and is now on a solid upwards trend again.

  15. DoubtingTom says:

    As an amateur science nerd, it’s fascinating to me that this is even a topic up for debate today. The evidence in support of evolution by natural selection as the best explanation for ALL life on earth is simply overwhelming. When the data is understood at even the most basic level, having a debate about evolution seems to me as silly as debating a round earth or a heliocentric model of the universe.

    The only reason someone would not accept evolution as fact is because of religious based emotional reasoning where some aspect of religous belief is seen as conflicting with evolution. But in the 21st century we can no longer shrug off evolution as “just a theory” anymore than we can shrug off gravity as such. If evolution seems to conflict with religious dogma, then it’s the dogma that must change to accomodate what should be seen as absolutely proven and confirmed science.

  16. Landon C. says:

    My opinion will not be liked but here goes.

    As a computer scientist (29 years as a software engineer), I marvel at the intricate biological programming found in every living thing. I’ve never seen a computer system envision/design/build/test/maintain itself without intelligent input from a preexistent mind. People who believe that biological systems – far more complicated than any man-made system – have come into being “by accident”… I feel are simply ignorant of the processes and concepts involved.

    Only Pokemon evolve. Darwin himself said the most obvious and damaging argument against his theory is the lack of transitional fossils, if evolution happened transitional fossils WOULD outnumber fully formed fossils. If it took lets say a million years for a lizard to change into a bird it would have a million years to form a fossil while it was changing, while it had partly developed wings or growing feathers or a beak….If animals were evolving for millions of years that would mean that most of the animals that were on earth were transitional. If the theory was correct then 99% of our fossils would be partly formed animals but they aren’t.. (Not to mention the fact that there would be people with wings, gills, tails, etc.)

    “To suppose that the eye could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.” -Charles Darwin.

    Research what it would take to have an eye develop or a uterus for that matter. Remember, we are created in the image of God.

  17. DoubtingTom, that’s part of the problem; what better way to display your faith than to use a simple understanding of some scriptures override all of the undeniable evidence. Only the most faithful of belivers could do that.
    Landon C., just because Darwin didn’t deduce how eyes were formed doesn’t mean that we don’t know today how they happened? Have you seen the Cosmos that Neil Degrasse Tyson hosted? They explain it pretty well.

  18. DoubtingTom says:

    Landon C., I agree with you that the complexity of life is incredible, but a complexity that is explained beautifully by evolutionary processes. The human eye is a great example of a clunky design produced through evolution rather than creation from scratch. We have a great understanding of the gradual evolution of the eye over time and how it developed.

    As far as transitional fossils, we have these in abundance and they are some of the greatest evidence for evolution. As one example, take tiktaalik which I believe is shown in the image above. This is a transitional form between fish and amphibian, precisely when we predicted it to show up in the fossil record. Up until 390 million years ago, the only vertebrates were fish. But by 360 million years ago we find fossils of vertebrates that walked on land. If a transitional fossil were to be found, it should be found in the layers that date between these times. Tiktaalik was discovered in 2004 and found to date exactly as predicted at 375 million years ago. Similar transitional fossils have been found for reptiles evolving into birds and land mammals that went back to the water to evolve into whales. All found to date to precisely when evolution predicts they should date to.

    The verdict is in on evolution and it is a fact now accepted by the scientific community as truth. But don’t take my word for it. Go out and do the research. Jerry Coyne wrote a great summary of the evidence in genetics, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, and anatomy that all overwhelmingly support evolution called “Why Evolution is True.” It’s a great place to start. There is no reason that faith cannot be compatible with evolution. There are many many believing scientists, both in the Church and in other faiths that fully accept evolution and maintain their faith and belief in their religious traditions.

  19. Left Field says:

    News flash: Lizards didn’t turn into birds.
    Also, woodpeckers didn’t turn into goats. In case anyone was wondering.

    In the sense that animals [and other organisms] have been evolving for millions of years, every single animal [or other organism] absolutely IS transitional. Every organism that is alive today is transitional between the organisms of the past and the organisms of the future.

  20. Are you saying that something that was not a spirit son of God turned into a spirit son of God? At what point does the change take place? Or are you saying some other creature besides a human being was/is a son of God? Really…help me out here.

  21. Amy, there’s a a lot of literature on this, as it’s not a problem unique to LDS. In our context, it’s related to various ideas about “spirit birth” which Sam Brunson addresses in a BYU Studies article here. https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/believing-adoption

    One of the common takes in Protestantism and Catholicism is that at some point in evolutionary history, God designated/adopted a couple that had progressed far enough as his covenant children, and this couple became “Human” and “Life” (or Adam and Eve, in translation.) James E. Talmage liked that solution at one point, and it was also among the possibilities presented in a Church magazine editorial in 1910.

    “Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.”

    David O. McKay also implied general support for that idea in General Conference, although it’s largely been overlooked. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/2016/08/david-o-mckay-genesis-and-evolution-part-2/

    I’ve got a lot of research on this topic (some of which has been presented at various conferences, like the Mormon History Association) at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/category/evolution/

  22. Michael Austin says:

    Landon C.

    Please quote responsibly. Darwin did NOT say that the complexity of the eye was an insurmountable difficulty. He said that it was NOT an insurmountable difficulty. The full quote from Chapter 6 of Origin of Species goes like this:

    “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself originated; but I may remark that, as some of the lowest organisms, in which nerves cannot be detected, are capable of perceiving light, it does not seem impossible that certain sensitive elements in their sarcode should become aggregated and developed into nerves, endowed with this special sensibility.”

    For what its worth, scientists know a whole lot more about how light-sensitive nerves develop into eyes than they did when Darwin wrote the Origin–just as he predicted they would. Yet, somehow, the first part of this paragraph keeps coming up as a proof text that Darwin himself didn’t really believe in evolution or some such thing. The whole “transitional forms” argument was a fairly compelling difficulty to evolution until about 1920. But it doesn’t even make sense under the current understanding of species development.

  23. “The Book of Mormon can’t be historical because we haven’t found evidence of X …”
    “Darwinian evolution can’t be right because we haven’t found examples of Y …”
    “The Documentary Hypothesis can’t be true because we haven’t found the existence of Z …”

    This kind of claim always supposes that we know today all that there is to know, and that there isn’t anything we can possibly discover tomorrow. I can be sympathetic to those who want to hold complete acceptance in abeyance because some detail that feels important to them has not yet been confirmed to their satisfaction — but actively to disbelieve something because you think the dots over those last few i’s aren’t dark enough despite all the confirmation of so much else is … peculiar …

  24. Left Field says:

    The 1909 First Presidency statement also has phrasing suggesting that the spirits of Adam and Eve were placed into a physical body, which at that point became spiritually “human,” a soul, and sons and daughters of God.

    “Adam, our first progenitor, “the first man,” was, like Christ, a preexistent spirit, and like Christ he took upon him an appropriate body, the body of a man, and so became a “living soul.””

  25. About 5 years after I joined the BYU faculty I was sitting in priesthood meeting listening to another faculty member (from computer science as it happened). He spent quite a long time observing that Darwin was a servant of Satan and that LDS scriptures proved the earth was but 4,000 years old as a mortal sphere. At the time he was a BYU bishop. ca. 1990-ish I think. It was very important to him.

  26. Ben, thank you. I’ve got a lot to read!

  27. wreddyornot says:

    The educated members were on the right track back in the early 1900s, as noted above, with BYU even hiring qualified scholars like the Petersons and the Chamberlins. Then the “spiritual leaders” took action to shut it all down and those scholars eventually all left. The irony is that there is adaptation and competition in the realm. Things are adapting and changing. So am I.

  28. I was excited to read what a tax dude had to say about spirit birth, but it turned out to be Sam Brown. Either way, it was a great read.

  29. Oops. Sorry Sam, and Sam. You guys aren’t interchangeable.

  30. Thanks for the post. These are positive trends. When I took freshman biology at BYU in the early 80s evolution was not discussed much as part of the curriculum, other than the professor stated, hey, whether it’s “true” or not, it’s way outside of what’s essential for salvation. But because of CES education of the day that was mentioned in some of the comments, and the prevalence of authoritative teachings by the McKonkies and Packers of the day I would’ve been on the side of rejecting evolution. For me, it was very much a post-BYU self-education from Dawkins, Coyne, Peck aond others that brought me to totally accept the science of evolution, without losing faith. Ironically, it is the most atheistic evolution authors that are most convincing to me, as I find myself wanting to tell them how unnecessary it is to reject God while accepting evolution. Yes there are anwers we don’t have but as Dr. Peck says, there is so much in our faith that fits with evolution by natural selection: eternal progression, no creation ex-nihilo, opposition in all things, overcoming the natural man, the primacy of survival and reproduction, working in families and communities.

  31. Ben S., the BYU studies article is Sam Brown, not Sam Brunson.

  32. I know, but can’t correct.
    Also, FWIW, I’ve got a multi-part interview (3 of 8 posted so far) with Gospel Tangents about scripture, history, and evolution. It was spontaneous, so I’ve got some verbal typos, but still worth listening to, I hope.


  33. your food allergy is fake says:

    It is helpful to define what we mean by “evolution” in a forum such as this with people of different backgrounds. As a scientist and a Christian, to me the term says nothing about God’s existence, whether events in geologic (or much shorter spans of) time happen by “accident,” whether Adam was a real person, a spirit child of God, etc. No need to feel those beliefs are threatened. Evolution to me is simply a mechanism to explain the diversity of life forms on this planet. It is not complete, it is not perfect, as a theory it is itself evolving, and it is the best paradigm for understanding the most incredible thing in the universe which is life on earth.

  34. Diane Hennessey says:

    Yeah, what a bonus you mean I can receive the “Dialogue” subscription free in the internet. And at some later date possibly become a sustainer, and receive a hard copy of Dialogue?

  35. The issue I find is that the sample of the student body in the more recent survey is smaller than the first. Obviously if the same number of students in the second survey said the accept evolution, it will appear to be a larger percentage than the previous survey because the sample was smaller. I’d need to see the numbers on both survey samples before I could say with certainty that more students actually accept evolution.

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