Big Question: Is there conflict between Mormon theology and evolution?
Dr. Ogden teaches evolutionary biology at Utah Valley University and resides in Orem, Utah where he serves as Bishop of the Vineyard 3rd Ward.
In this Church, you only have to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is! – Dr. Henry Eyring
Many think that the restored gospel and evolutionary biology cannot coexist. I’m convinced that not only can they coexist, but that they can mutually enrich each other in profound ways.
The restored gospel “embraces every principle of truth and intelligence. . . We are open to truth of every kind, no matter whence it comes, where it originates, or who believes in it.”1
Apostle James E Talmage’s grave monument echoes his core belief:
Within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known.2
Truth, no matter where it originates, should be accepted and embraced by the Latter-day Saints. God has revealed, is revealing, and will yet reveal many great and important truths, including “things of the earth, by which it was made” (D&C 101:32-33).
How does God reveal these truths?
In matters regarding the stewardship and the direction of His church and its members, He works through prophets. Church leaders possess the keys to receive this kind of direction, and it is their primary responsibility and focus.
But God is not silent on a whole range of other realms of knowledge—far from it. He can enlighten scientists, artists, musicians, poets, writers, philosophers, historians, etc. Our opportunity is to see how all truth “is circumscribed into one great whole,” no matter the source.
My concern here is how God has chosen to reveal how life evolved on the earth, including human life. It’s a fascinating story.
The highly-respected LDS scientist and chemist Dr. Henry Eyring wrote:
Some have asked me: ‘Is there any conflict between science and religion?’ There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men . . . A young man asked: ‘In high school we are taught such things as pre-Adamic men, and that kind of thing, but we hear another thing in Church. What should I do about it?’ . . . I think I gave the right answer. I said, ‘In this Church, you only have to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is!’3
Does the Church Have a Position on Evolution?
The closest thing to an official position is probably the packet of information called “Evolution and the Origin of Man”4, which was approved by the First Presidency and the BYU Board of Trustees to guide teaching on the subject at BYU.5
The 1910 statement from the BYU evolution packet indicates that “Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy.” If evolution has been demonstrated (scientific consensus), then should it be accepted with joy? If the Church’s current position of evolution is that there is no official position6, then we can assume that on this, as on other issues, the Church is leaving space for science to reveal how the diversity of life was created on this planet, including the origin of the physical body of man or Homo sapiens.
A Mountain of Evidence
So has science revealed anything truly compelling regarding the how live on earth has developed? Yes, very compelling, actually. Evolutionary theory is supported by a mountain of evidence. Let me give just one example of the many I could give. Hang with me here. This is going to require a little careful thought, but I promise it will be worth it.
First, a bit of background. Genes determine everything about the bodies of living things—how they develop, how they look and how they function. Here are some fun facts: DNA analysis shows that we humans share at least 99% of our genes with our closest relatives the chimpanzees and bonobos (yes, that 1% we don’t share makes quite a difference in the family photos); we share 92% of our genes with mice (OK, that’s surprising), 44% with fruit flies (yikes), and 26% with… wait for it… yeast. We seem to be related, to one degree or another, with all kinds of other life.7
But here’s where it gets interesting. Although our DNA is 98% identical to that of chimps, there is an intriguing difference. We humans have 23 chromosome pairs in each cell in the body, while the other great apes all have 24 chromosome pairs. Why do humans have one less pair of chromosomes than chimps, gorillas and orangutans if we have common ancient ancestors, as evolution indicates?8
Losing a pair of chromosomes, and all of the associated genes, is generally lethal to a species because the lost genes are essential for life. Could the human species have “lost” a chromosome pair and survived? Evolutionary scientists said no, and they had a really plausible explanation. At some point in evolutionary history, two great-ape chromosome pairs must have fused end to end to form one human chromosome pair. But scientist had no way to definitively test this hypothesis—until the early part of this century.
Using microscopy and sequencing technologies, we can now clearly see exactly what scientists had predicted. We see a longer chromosome in humans that matches up precisely with two smaller chromosomes in the other great apes. (Illustrated below in this fascinating little video)
This is just one powerful example demonstrating that our physical bodies share common ancestry with the other great apes. The evidence for evolution is simply overwhelming. (If you want to investigate more of this evidence, I would recommend the NY Times Bestseller The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by world-renowned geneticist Francis Collins. He lays out evidence in a very compelling, highly readable way. Check out chapter 5 in particular.)
To deny the abundant evidence for evolution, we would have to hypothesize that God is some kind of trickster, going about planting false evidence everywhere in nature, including in every cell in our bodies, making it look like DNA evolved when it didn’t. I don’t know about you, but it would be tough for me to imagine God going to all that trouble to create such an elaborate deception.
So What About Adam and Eve?
If all life arose from previous generations of simpler forms, as it apparently did, how are we to understand the story of Adam and Eve? Our species, Homo sapiens, seems to have first evolved in Africa around 200 thousand years ago. The Church has no official position on how, when or where Adam and Eve may have come onto the scene. Again, in the 1910 statement, The First Presidency interpreted “formed from the dust” to include the possibility that “mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes.”
If, as seems very likely, other homo sapiens (Adam and Eve’s biological relatives) were living before and/or contemporary to “the first man of all men” (Moses 1:34), what made Adam and Eve different? It seems possible to redefine “first man” as having three main characteristics: 1) inhabits a Homo sapiens physical body; 2) possesses a spirit body that is a spiritual offspring of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father; and 3) was taught the gospel and made covenants with God.
With this definition of “first man,” Adam and Eve could have lived at any time during the last 200 thousand years; the important thing, it seems to me, is that they were the first humans who, as spiritual offspring of God, made covenants with God. The timing or geographical range of Adam and Eve’s existence is not nearly as important as the fact that they began a covenant-making process (exemplified in the current temple ceremony) that will eventually enable spiritual offspring of God, independent of when or where they occupied their physical bodies, to come into true relationship with God and be exalted. Is it possible that our covenant theology and Christ’s atonement are more encompassing than we had imagined?9
There are, of course, other ways to try to reconcile what we know from both faith and science. Some adopt more symbolic interpretations of scripture, including the notion that in the biblical story, Adam and Eve are simply symbolic representations of man and woman. Their story is our story. In any case, it seems that covenant making and covenant keeping is at the heart of the story
For me, evolution does not decrease the value of faith and belief in God or in Christ. Rather, it brings me joy and it enriches my worldview of the greatness of a God who operates patiently in deep time and in perfect harmony with the laws of this universe. After all, isn’t evolution “simply the scientific study of the underlying mechanics of the creative process”? In my experience as a college professor, I have learned and shown that an increase in evolutionary knowledge (along side a believing scientist role model) leads to reduced conflict between religion and science. So let’s just accept that which has been demonstrated with joy!10
One thing seems clear. It does not help the cause of truth to defend unsupported ideas with bad arguments. Dr. Henry Eyring wrote: “There are few ways in which good people do more harm to those who take them seriously than to defend the gospel with arguments that won’t hold water. Many of the difficulties… would be avoided if parents and teachers were more careful to distinguish between what they know to be true and what they think may be true.”10
If you liked this article, be sure to watch this two-part conversation that was held between Dr. Heath Ogden and Terryl Givens where they responded to the following questions: “Can Our Faith Embrace Evolution?” and “Does Evolution Enrich Our Theology?”
- G. Homer Durham, ed., The Gospel Kingdom: Selections from Writings and Discourses of John Taylor (Deseret Book Company, 1943), 131.
James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” in The Essential James E. Talmage, ed. James P. Harris (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 248.
Henry Eyring, Reflections of a scientist. (Deseret Book Company, 1983), 2.
Brigham Young University, “Evolution and the Origin of Man,” http://biology.byu.edu/DepartmentInfo/EvolutionandtheOriginofMan.aspx (accessed February 17, 2015).
Since, as the cover letter explains, “there has never been a formal declaration from the First Presidency addressing the general matter of organic evolution as a process for development of biological species” and “formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions,” the BYU evolution packet represents the most official position from the Church on these matters. Is it then reasonable to conclude that other sources such as talks and statements by individual General Authorities, Church publications and manuals, and other similar communications are not official doctrine nor official positions of the Church?
The method of determining this percentage is not as straightforward as some might infer. But under one common definition, humans and chimps have about 99.9% of their genes in common. My 99% number looks at base-pair composition. If we are looking instead at comparisons of DNA (rather than genes), the number is in the 98% range. See this review for more info: https://evolutionnews.org/2018/07/geneticist-on-human-chimp-genome-similarity-there-are-predictions-not-established-fact/
Chromosomal G-banding patterns – a visual representation of the underlying genetic makeup – demonstrate that chimpanzees (and gorillas and orangutans) have two small chromosomes – now referred to as 2p and 2q – that match up, meaning they have the same sets of genes in the same sequential order, with the long chromosome number 2 in humans.
Here, I can’t help but speculate a little. What about other humans who may have existed alongside Adam and Eve and their posterity? (Even the Bible in Genesis 6 references the existence of people who were not descendants of Adam and Eve—the mysterious Nephilim, who also show up in the Book of Numbers). These other humans were also in the image of God and were His creation. Can we imagine God would have wished to make them covenant children as well, even if through some form of adoption into the family of Adam (akin to adoption in the family of Moses, Aaron, and Abraham; D&C 84:34, Romans 9:4).
Might Christ’s eternal atonement be sufficiently perfect to retroactively apply to humans that might have lived before Adam and Eve, just as it applies to the billions of people who have lived and died without any knowledge of Christ? Likewise, if vicarious work for the dead can be performed for those living during the Apostasy, can’t vicarious work also be performed for all of our our genetic brothers and sisters? Could the infinite atonement apply also to them, and bring them into our covenant fellowship?
Holt, Emily A., T. Heath Ogden, and Susan L. Durham. 2018. “The Positive Effect of Role Models in Evolution Instruction.” Evolution: Education and Outreach, no. 1: 1. doi:10.1186/s12052-018-0086-6
Henry Eyring, Reflections of a scientist (Deseret Book Company, 1983), 2