Mormon evolution


Mormonism had its origins in the 19th century equivalent of science-fiction fandom — there was a real craze for dressing up religion in the lab coat of science even then — so it’s not surprising that Mormons love to mingle evolution, dinosaurs and faith (it helps to be living on a giant fossil bed, too). That ol’ charlatan Joseph Smith loved to squeeze his self-serving dogma into a package draped with the latest (and entirely erroneous) theories about Indian origins, for instance, to give it an aura of authority.

This article in the Deseret News explains how they teach evolution at BYU…and it’s the usual superficial phenomenological approach that annoys me so much. It’s not just Mormons that do this, but every well-meaning Christian who wants to make the data fit his or her preconceptions.

As Whiting’s lab lets out, the model skulls on every desk are lined up chronologically. Whiting said that although some students have trouble accepting human evolution, the students in his lab typically do not have any problems. He said many of his students come to see evolution not as a theory that threatens their beliefs, but as a tool God uses to "accomplish his design."

"They leave the class thinking, ‘Isn’t this cool? Isn’t the creator so clever?’" he said.

Blech. Whiting leaves out the most important parts of evolutionary biology. Sure, you can line up a bunch of skulls and make up a story about how they came to be, and that can include gods, elves, or aliens, but evolutionary biology is also about the mechanism: the changes in gene frequency brought about by selection, drift, etc.

Nowhere in evolutionary theory is there any mention of a creator. We have no need of that hypothesis. A chronological array of bones is not evidence of magic.

But the Mormons have more. They have Church Authority, so their version must be true.

The controversy died down in 1992, when the university released a packet with comments from the LDS Church’s First Presidency and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

"The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again," William Evenson said in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, a statement reprinted in the packet for BYU professors and students.

Oh, yes, that old fallback. Science says how, religion says why. The problem with that, though, is that while spokespeople for religion can say any damn fool reason they want, there’s no reason to think they’re right. They also don’t consider the possibility that there is no “why”: we are the product of happenstance and necessity, not planning, and human populations have simply been buffeted by the exigencies of local events that did not occur with people in mind: climate, shifts in game, competition from other species, disasters, warfare, all these sorts of things and many others happened to us, and biology responded, but none of it was with intent of any kind to cause an evolutionary response. There was no “why”.

The LDS church, an organization with no scientific credibility at all, loves to make statements about science. These should be treated with all the respect they deserve.

Whiting said the packet and statements have helped reduce the stigma that evolution is something that contradicts religion. Today, he said, many students view evolution as a logical explanation for biological diversity and that it’s compatible with their faith.

Scott Trotter, spokesman for the LDS Church, offered further clarification:

“Science and religion are not at odds in our faith. We accept truth wherever it is found and take the pragmatic view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is simply because there is insufficient data to reconcile the two.”

You know what really reduces the stigma? Recognizing that religion has no special authority in the first place, so contradicting it is a fine thing to do.

That last statement is so typical, though. Their religion is true by definition, so the default assumption is that science is in error, and further data will support the faith. Their belief is untestable, then: they will cheerfully accept the evidence that supports their preconceptions, and any evidence that falsifies the goofy myths of Mormonism will be ignored as “insufficient data”.

Comments

  1. jimmauch says

    We will probably have a better chance of convincing the faithful that evolution is a real process that needs to be accepted and embraced if I don’t do an obvious frontal assault on religion. Then again do PZ and the rest us really want to get rid of religion? If we didn’t have religion and it fundamentalist extreme we would not be able to go to creation museums and ride the dinosaur.

  2. mnb0 says

    Alas you omit the funniest part. According to LDS Father and Son are material; only the Holy Spirit is bodiless. Wouldn’t you love to drag the LDS god to your lab?

  3. consciousness razor says

    We will probably have a better chance of convincing the faithful that evolution is a real process that needs to be accepted and embraced if I don’t do an obvious frontal assault on religion.

    In whatever sense evolution ought to be “accepted and embraced,” who the hell says that, of all the fucking things we ought to care about, ought to be anywhere near the top of the list?

    Then again do PZ and the rest us really want to get rid of religion? If we didn’t have religion and it fundamentalist extreme we would not be able to go to creation museums and ride the dinosaur.

    Wow. I want to say this is the point where condescension jumps the shark, but maybe saying it rides the dinosaur is even better at evoking the absurdity of it all.

  4. Dick the Damned says

    If they believe their god created us, shouldn’t they be asking why the Bible Bogey, qua Engineer, made such a cock-up when designing us? Or are we just a work in progress? And if the latter is the case, where does that leave their theology. (I know nothing of their theology, other than that it’s sure, in practical terms, to be unsubstantiated nonsense.)

  5. waldteufel says

    I Think it was Jerry Coyne who said: “Science does’t know everything; religion doesn’t know anything.”

    If my attribution of that quote is wrong, I stand corrected and apologize in advance.

  6. Thumper; Atheist mate says

    If they believe their god created us, shouldn’t they be asking why the Bible Bogey, qua Engineer, made such a cock-up when designing us? Or are we just a work in progress? And if the latter is the case, where does that leave their theology.

    The Mormon Ideology, with it’s many gods and many worlds, could simply say this was Jehova’s (Or is it Yaweh? I forget which one’s the creator and which one’sthe creator’s dad) first go and he has other worlds.

  7. Sastra says

    “They leave the class thinking, ‘Isn’t this cool? Isn’t the creator so clever?’” he said.

    Oh, come on. What would it take for the students to leave the classroom and think “oh, the Creator isn’t that clever?” The only thing they learned was how to make ‘theological virtue out of scientific necessity’ — and prevent themselves from descending into the moral pit of nihilism, despair, and hell that is atheism. They’ve been using that technique their whole lives.

    Religious faith is a commitment to spin the evidence so that it either supports the existence of God … or it supports the existence of God even more! Skeptical doubts are called “struggles” and you’re supposed to get major credit for not changing your mind no matter what. Because that is what it is to be humble.

    jimmauch #1 wrote:

    We will probably have a better chance of convincing the faithful that evolution is a real process that needs to be accepted and embraced if I don’t do an obvious frontal assault on religion.

    That “better chance” may be a short-term solution — and it has pitfalls. Religion is grounded in supernatural falsehoods and bad thinking. Accepting and then promoting the idea that faith is good and reflects a person’s deepest values and identity is, as PZ points out, undermining the process of rational, scientific, humanist thinking. The existence of God is a hypothesis; it ought to be treated that way or they’re going to run it into every category but the right one.

    Religious accomodationism (“we can reconcile both science and religion!”) is like deciding to get more people to vaccinate by convincing alternative medicine advocates that vaccination is really just a form of homeopathy and completely compatible with a fundamental belief in vitalism, nature as Healer, and other ways of knowing. Or perhaps we can get more people on board with accepting evolution if we tell them it was foretold in the stars. As long as they tick that box.

    Don’t feed the monster.

  8. tbp1 says

    The title of the post also makes me think of the way the Mormon Church has evolved—indeed before I looked further I thought that’s what the article was going to be about. Countless times sacred, unquestionable doctrine has been reversed overnight by a new “revelation.” Interestingly it always seems to come at politically expedient moments.

  9. ChasCPeterson says

    This article in the Deseret News explains how they teach evolution at BYU

    FFS, PZ, it does nothing of the kind. It provides a reporter’s account of about 5 minutes of a single lab exercise. Yeah, it’s primarily phenomenological, on account of it’s a lab exercise. As it happens, I’ve taught a similar lab elsewhere: students directly examine chimp and human skulls and identify differing phenotypic traits, then score some replica fossil skulls for the same traits, and it’s a perfectly good and effective way to teach about homology, synapomorphy, etc. We used to plug the (entirely student-derived) character matrix into PAUP and compare trees, teaching basic cladistics and parsimony, etc. It’s actualy a damn good lab, or can be.

    Whiting leaves out the most important parts of evolutionary biology.

    Jump to conclusions much? You think you can suss out the entire course content from that article that mentions a single lab? Bullshit. I will bet money that Whiting’s lecture course covers all the mechanisms you (& I) would like.
    Because the fact is that BYU has a pretty good Biology Dept.–better than, say, UMM, I’d judge–and whatever their private religious views, they are clearly dedicated to modern biological science, evolution and all.

    You have merely communicated your own preconceptions here.

  10. says

    #9: Do your students leave that lab with an understanding that the Creator is pretty cool? I’m not objecting to comparative anatomy at all — we have a similar lab here at UMM — but that it’s used to promote a nonsensical belief that purpose can be discerned in it.

    I know that BYU has a good biology program; I also know that BYU also promotes some weirdness alongside it. I’ve been there several times, and knew quite a few graduates from their program. You can learn quite a bit from them if you’re willing to ignore the Mormon boosterism that’s the center of the article.

  11. Nepenthe says

    Science and religion are not at odds in our faith. We accept truth wherever it is found and take the pragmatic view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is simply because there is insufficient data to reconcile the two.

    Aren’t these the folks that think that indigenous Americans are all descendants of the “bad” son* of a Israelite guy who came to North America about 2700 years ago, DNA and archaeological evidence be damned?

    *And this is why they are not “white and delightsome”?

  12. Thumper; Atheist mate says

    @Tom Foss

    The only thing Mormonism has over Scientology is age.

    The same is true of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Greek, Roman and Norse pantheons, Shintoism… etc. Season to taste.

  13. says

    Ex-mormon Steve Benson (Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist) discusses official LDS doctrine, and his attempts to get the church’s take on evolution.

    Excerpts:

    The observation has been made on this board (quite accurately) that trying to nail the LDS Church down on what represents its official doctrines is like, well, nailing Mormon green Jell-O to a wall …

    When I was a student at BYU in the 1970s, I decided to do a research paper on the official LDS position on organic evolution. Much of my effort to write an accurate account on the subject involved repeated, and often frustrating, attempts to solicit answers from the Mormon Church hierachy….

    In his sermon, McConkie listed as “Heresy Two” the “false and devilish” notion advanced by “those who say that revealed religion and organic evolution can be harmonized.”

    Such claims, McConkie told his student audience, did not represent “true science” but, rather, “the false religions of the dark ages . . . some of which have crept in among us.”

    Moreover, while McConkie noted that “true religion and true science bear the same witness,” he declared that the theory of organic evolution could “in no way” be harmonized “with the truths of science as they have now been discovered.”

    To believe otherwise, McConkie said, ran completely counter to “the saving doctrine” of revealed religion. That doctrine, he said, included “that Adam stood next to Christ in power and might and intelligence before the foundations of the world were laid; that Adam was placed on this earth as an immortal being; that there was no death in the world for him or for any form of life until after the fall; that the fall of Adam brought temporal and spiritual death into the world; … Christ came to ransom man and all forms of life from the effects of the temporal death brought into the world through the fall and, in the case of man, from the spiritual death also … Try as you may, you cannot harmonize these things with the evolutionary postulate that death existed and that the various forms of life have evolved from preceding forms over astronomically long periods of time.”

    According to McConkie, belief in organic evolution rendered the doctrine of the atonement ineffectual for the following reasons:

    “If death has always prevailed in the world, there was no fall of Adam which brought death to all forms of life. If Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement. If there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, no eternal life, nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. If there is no salvation, there is no God. The fall affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself. The atonement affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself.”

    I asked my grandfather [Ezra Taft Benson, Prophet/Seer/Revelator/President of the LDS church] if McConkie’s address represented the official position of the Mormon Church on the theory of organic evolution. … [ETB sets up a meeting between Steve and Mcconkie]

    McConkie did not rely on his view of scientific evidence to debunk organic evolution. He told me, “I don’t attempt to harmonize the theory of organic evolution with revealed truth. I’m not going to talk about the truth or falsity of organic evolution. I’ll leave that up to biologists. I accept revealed religion. If science and religion don’t harmonize, then I reject and discard science.”

    Lot’s more at the link.

  14. says

    And now it’s Martha Bie to present your Unnecessary Association of the Day.

    The LDS/Christian/religious acceptance of evolution as the mechanism by which God made the world is like my phone’s custom build of Android stuffed to the gills with unremovable Verizon bloatware— it’s certainly functional, but all the extra crap they stuck in is useless under the best of circumstances.

  15. skaduskitai says

    What I was teached about mormon doctrine, after 1992 it is important to add, is that there was no death nor procreation on earth until the fall of Adam about 6000 years ago. I cannot imagine what kind of evolutionary theory they are teaching that doesn’t include death and reproduction. How is it possible that students, atleast in the 90ies, didn’t notice this HUGE contradiction? How are animals supposed to evolve in a paradisical state where everything is immortal and sex is unknown?

  16. Rich Woods says

    @Martha #18:

    If I may extend your Association of the Day a little, my phone’s custom build of Android was originally stuffed to the gills with Orange bloatware. Thankfully a number of thoughtful and experienced people had come together to discuss those shortcomings, and publicised a convincing and practical way by which less able people (such as myself) could fairly painlessly remove all that unnecessary crap from their phones.

  17. says

    Slightly OT, but indicative of mormon/religious doublethink:

    Mormon ‘Be Good’ rubber bracelet worn by firefighter who died in Arizona wildfire survives inferno and widow says ‘it’s a sign from the Heavenly Father’ … ‘I just see it as a tender mercy from Heavenly Father. Andrew made me a promise, and he kept it. And God wanted us to know that he kept it.’ [said Juliann Ashcraft, wife of Andrew Ashcraft]

    ‘If this day on the line, I should answer death’s call, Lord, bless my hotshot crew': Sole survivor of Arizona tragedy pays tribute to 19 friends with firefighters’ prayer …

    Andrew Ashcraft was one of 19 elite firefighters who died as they battled a ferocious blaze in Yarnell Hill on June 30. They were overcome by flames after winds suddenly shifted the direction of the fire.
    The loss of life was the greatest for firefighters since 9/11.

    Ashcraft, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was honored to be a member of the Hotshot crew, and ‘he just had a really sweet spirit about him,’ friend Elise Smith said. …

    Daily Mail link.

    From the comments below the Daily Mail story:

    For those who aren’t Latter-day Saints, let me explain something that may help you undrstand where the wife is coming from. We see earthly life as a time of testing and personal growth. We expect it to include death, disease, pain, etc. We certainly don’t love that part of it, but understand that the challenges of life allow for us to overcome and become better people. To us, it is proof that God has an actual purpose to us being here, beyond merely existing. Her husband died doing what he loved, in a profession based on selfless service, protecting people and property of others. He was a fine man who died a selfless death. I am sure that bracelet will serve as a reminder of that to his children for years to come,

  18. says

    @19

    …there was no death nor procreation on earth until the fall of Adam about 6000 years ago. I cannot imagine what kind of evolutionary theory they are teaching that doesn’t include death and reproduction….

    That’s exactly what Steve Benson pointed out when he quoted Bruce McConkie:

    … that Adam was placed on this earth as an immortal being; that there was no death in the world for him or for any form of life until after the fall; that the fall of Adam brought temporal and spiritual death into the world; … Christ came to ransom man and all forms of life from the effects of the temporal death brought into the world through the fall and, in the case of man, from the spiritual death also … Try as you may, you cannot harmonize these things with the evolutionary postulate that death existed and that the various forms of life have evolved from preceding forms over astronomically long periods of time….

    McConkie then went on to unintentionally give a very explanation of why religious dogma, especially mormon dogma, is built on a crumbling foundation:

    … If death has always prevailed in the world, there was no fall of Adam which brought death to all forms of life. If Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement. If there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, no eternal life, nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. If there is no salvation, there is no God.

    Yes, apostle McConkie, that is correct.

  19. says

    If they believe their god created us, shouldn’t they be asking why the Bible Bogey, qua Engineer, made such a cock-up when designing us?

    No, that’s what we should be asking them, and at every opportunity. My favourite is asking the FGM/circumcision crowd what exactly it is that makes them think they have to hack away at god’s creation the clitoris, vulva or male prepuce. Did the old man get it wrong there?

  20. skaduskitai says

    @Lynna

    Interesting! McConkie pretty much admits it’s nonsense. I especially liked how he implicated the so called “atonement” in it. Hadn’t thought of that. Atleast he’s logical and honest, you don’t see much of either in mormonism.

  21. jakc says

    A Mormon relative went to BYU because it was cheap. He said that professors there taught things like evolution carefully so as to not offend the kids who really believed. It’s the same as Catholic professors at schools like Notre Dame or Creighton who call themseves Catholics but who reject much of Catholic theology and teach around it discretely. Would it be better for them to be honest? Sure, but I compare it to my fundamentalist relatives who went to schools like Biola or ORU because they believed and their evolution curriculum seems to be little more than the same stupid objections that all creationists make.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Jehova’s (Or is it Yaweh? I forget which one’s the creator and which one’sthe creator’s dad)

    Those are the same*, his dad is Elohim. See the 2nd link in comment 16.

    * Jehovah = YHWH with the vowels of eloha, meaning “god”. And the final H is just there to indicate that the word ends in a vowel.

  23. Craig Reges says

    So at the top of the article when I looked at it was a nice banner telling me that Allen West is fighting against the Radical Left! I don’t know whether to click a million times and hope he has to pay five cents a hit or ignore it completely. Ideas?

  24. dickspringer says

    Scientists talk about the “Utah effect.” Scientists in Utah report results that can’t be reproduced elsewhere, such as cold nuclear fusion.

  25. sbuh says

    his dad is Elohim

    I thought Elohim was just a fancy word for a patron deity, a leftover from when Yahweh was just one of a clutch of polytheistic tribal gods.

  26. moarscienceplz says

    sbuh, #29:

    According to wikipedia, you are correct. David Marjanovic is confusing Elohim with El.

  27. Ermine says

    David is not in any way confused. In LDS theology, (which is what we’re discussing here, last I checked), ‘Elohim’ is God the Father, while ‘Jehova’ is his son, also known as Jesus.

  28. sugarfrosted says

    @27 That same site has petitions for liberal politicians as well, I’m pretty sure it’s a scam to get your email address and sell it to spammers.

  29. paul says

    Does anyone know how the anthropology and archaeology courses at BYU deal with the Native American origins? Do they teach the Book of Mormon version, with North America being colonized (twice!) from the middle east, complete with horses, wheels, etc.? And if so, are these departments accredited?

  30. Nick Gotts says

    paul@34,

    I don’t know, but here’s my guess: they try to avoid the issue, but if forced to adopt a position, they accept that the Americas were first populated from Asia, and the conventional timescale for that, but say there might have been an influx or two from the Middle East later.

    I’ll take a look at BYU’s website, to test my guess.

  31. Thumper; Atheist mate says

    @David Marjanovic

    Those are the same*, his dad is Elohim. See the 2nd link in comment 16.

    * Jehovah = YHWH with the vowels of eloha, meaning “god”. And the final H is just there to indicate that the word ends in a vowel.

    I know, I just thought Mormons distinguished between them. OK, Elohim’s the Dad? Elohim is Hebrew for gods right (Eloha presumably being the singular?)? Sometimes used to referr to the God, but the Torah normally uses his name? So have Mormons just arbitrarily decided that Elohim is a name as well?

  32. says

    Nick Gotts @35, I think you are correct in assuming that mormon professors at BYU would try to ignore issues related to anthropology and archaeology in real life as opposed to the fake stories in the Book of Mormon. DNA is a particular bugaboo.

    As ex-mormon “rationalguy” put it:

    TSCC [The So-Called Church] continually plays a game. It’s different than fundie Christians.. Those guys flat-out refute science and want to pick a fight. Mormons play the passive-aggressive shell game of “we don’t know yet, science isn’t certain.” A certain Orwellian rat-holing of things is also practiced. Reading McConkie is discouraged. Reading the Journal of Discourses is also discouraged, the excuse often given “Deep doctrine is best read by advanced scholars,” or “We go by current prophets, those things are obsolete because they were for that time, not now.” This whole fuzzy, equivocative approach always bothered me. It’s so obvious now that this construct is being utilized to cover the fact that the whole thing is a fantasy.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Elohim is Hebrew for gods right (Eloha presumably being the singular?)?

    In short, yes.

    Sometimes used to referr to the God, but the Torah normally uses his name? So have Mormons just arbitrarily decided that Elohim is a name as well?

    Nope, all the E and P parts of the Torah use Elohim as a name (up to different points) and make it go with singular verbs most of the time. See this article for the whole depth of the confusion.

  34. says

    An example of how the mormon squishy approach to evolution sort of works for students in a biology course, (quote from ex-mormon “outofmormonism”):

    “McConkie also confessed that he would answer final exam questions the way he thought his professors expected, in order to pass the courses.”

    Sister Parker gave similar advice to us Finnish members in one talk years ago when her husband served as the Mission President in Finland. She said that she has told her children to answer “as expected” but at the same time told them not to believe the “theory” of evolution.

    Oh that’s good, you mormons, use missionaries to spread anti-education in Finland. Being evil in Finland, blah. We see you even in your far-flung “missions”.

  35. says

    David M. @38: Thanks for the link. The connection of El, “Father of all Gods” or “Ancient of Gods,” with a bull prompted an amused connection with an episode of “True Blood.”

    http://trueblood.wikia.com/wiki/Maryann%27s_helmet

    The character with the bull’s head later mistook a real bull for her husband, and was gored to death. Kinda funny in a very black comedy way.

  36. Nick Gotts says

    Further to my #35, BYU appears to teach the scientific consensus on e.g. Mayan prehistory, as far as one can judge from a curriculum outline, but there’s nothing about the first settlement of the Americas visible.

  37. ianken says

    I overheard an individual who’s Mormon recount how he spent his vacation with his family touring Latin America and ancient sites “connected to the Book or Mormon.” Totally sincere.

    I just don’t get it.

  38. says

    I overheard an individual who’s Mormon recount how he spent his vacation with his family touring Latin America and ancient sites “connected to the Book or Mormon.” Totally sincere.

    I just don’t get it.

    The mormon you overheard was referring to Limited Geography Theory. LGT was developed after it became clear that the geography and events described in the Book of Mormon did not, for the most part, take place in what is now the USA.

    Basically, LGT proponents are claiming that most major events and geographical locations described in the BoM took place in some as yet undiscovered Central American area. Some LGT nutcakes take this further and force some round pegs of real evidence in South and Central American into the square holes of the BoM.

    Ex-mormons discuss this particular flavor of Moments of Mormon Madness here:
    http://exmormon.org/phorum/read.php?2,704360,704496

    More here: http://exmormon.org/phorum/read.php?2,710197,793943

    You can find more info if you peruse Simon Southerton’s blog:
    http://simonsoutherton.blogspot.com