Sunday, May 16, 2010

Merging LDS Theology and Organic Evolution

"I see no reason why Mormons cannot, fully and without apology, embrace Darwinian evolution." - Steven Peck

"What sort of God could, would, and did create the world through evolution?" - Wesley J. Wildman

When I was a freshman in High School, I wrote a bitter anti-evolution paper as a response to learning about organic evolution in Earth Science.  I was dead-set against the theory of organic evolution.

In college, I approached the subject with a renewed open mind.  I fasted, studied, prayed, and, not insignificantly, earned a degree in biology.  I extensively reviewed First Presidency statements relevant to organic evolution, heard BYU professors (notably Bill Bradshaw and Duane Jeffrey) lecture on the subject, and read some apostolic statements on the constellation of related matters.  I also read Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God, which is in the top five list of books I recommend to others. Dawkin's The Selfish Gene also proved influential. 

There are likely four value-adding results of merging organic evolution and LDS theology:
1) Explains why embodiment and physical access to the universe is so important
2) Answers the question of why such a cruel and wasteful process was chosen for creation
3) Contributes to solving the problem of evil
4)  Shows the grandeur, glory, and creativity of God

Below, using Steven Peck's Spring 2010 Dialogue article, A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution, and insights from my quest for understanding this constellation of religioscientific issues, I illustrate some problems and resolutions for merging LDS theology and contemporary Darwinian thought. 

First, I clarify my use of the term "evolution."  I teacher assisted for a couple years for Bill Hess, a plant doctor who taught Biodiversity at BYU.  His definition of evolution: "genetic change through time."  I believe Darwin's was: "descent with modification."  Some define evolution as the idea that all life on Earth (including humans) derive from a common biological origin deep in prehistoric time.  I'll mostly use the meld of Bill and Darwin's definitions for the purposes of this post.

Second, I state my assumption for the sake of this post that the main tenets of organic evolutionary theory are likely true (i.e. natural selection provides a sufficient, non-designed explanation for the diversity of life, genetic mutations and variety exist, and selection pressures change the frequency of traits in populations, etc.).  Support of this assumption can notably be found in Miller's Finding Darwin's God and my personhood, God of the Gaps, and Epistemology posts. 

Third, I summarize and discuss some of Niels Gregerson's five responses to emergence
(1) f lat religious naturalism,
(2) evolving theistic naturalism
(3) atemporal theism,
(4) temporal theism,
(5) eschatological theism.

(1) f lat religious naturalism- the whole spiritual, non-detectable by current human means portion of the world does not exist.  Peck describes the main ontological (study of existence/being) wrinkle thus:  "A difficulty that will make this project of bringing together
evolution and LDS theology tough slogging is that, within LDS
thinking, what we mean by a “physical universe” is often muddled.
Mormonism displays a kind of expansive physicalism suggesting
that the universe in toto is a farrago of matter of one kind or another
(D&C 131:7), that part of it (“spirit matter”) remains undetectable
by our perceptual apparatuses and instrumentation,
while we have phenomenological or manipulative access only to
the less “fine” or less “pure” part. This materiality includes Gods,
spirits, intelligences, etc., and may exist in extra-spatial and/or
temporal dimensions but does, presumably, still follow laws of
some kind. All matter is subject to God’s manipulation, thanks to
His greater knowledge and inf luence. This theological description
imposes a kind of dualism in which some aspects of the universe
are available to us and others are not. Lacking reliable
epistemic access to the “spirit matter” part of this world, it must
remain outside our scientific theories and practices, even though
it may play a role in a deeper physical reality."  If man can't observe a thing, that thing existeth not.  This view may be compatible with LDS theology since we believe we will eventually have the power to detect and observe spirit matter. 

 (2) evolving theistic naturalism- God emerged from the natural world.  He's nothing more than an outgrowth of nature itself.  This response doesn't seem very likely if God predated the universe.  Then again, one presumes He must have come from somewhere, so the emergence of God in a primal sense isn't wholly unreasonable.

(3) atemporal theism- God's omni- potent, niscient, and present, and created the universe and its laws, which he manipulated to make amenable to human life.  God's transcendent and kind of "outside" time.  It's not exactly clear how compatible this theism, and specifically its time-banishing element, is consistent with Mormonism.  Interesting tangential concepts- gnosticism, stoicism, and Plotinusian thought
(4) temporal theism- God has a core identity, but influences and is influenced by temporal changes.  He's smart enough to predict all logical possibilities, but these alternate potentials don't all come to pass in actual futures, as the actions of free agents and fundamental particles affect what comes to pass. 
(5) eschatological theism- I found this one to be the most interesting.  Under this construct emergent features in the world (such as people or consciousness) don't result solely from a Godless past.  Rather, new futures often hinge on small events that end up being major turning points.  God pulls the future into the actual present by influencing small turning points in history.  This construct asserts a unidirectional eschatology where the past can be understood only in retrospect, and even a thorough understanding of the present can't be explained merely by analyzing the potentialities in past matter.  I don't really grasp how this process works out yet.  See also mitichlorian-esque panentheism and pantheism.

So I've touched briefly on Grergeson's five responses.  Now, fourth, I'll flesh out a few less-organized concepts, then finally conclude.

There's a tension between the purposeless progress and process of evolution and the presumed teleology (the study of aim/purpose) of God, e.g. to bring about man's immortality and eternal life.  The scriptures indicate a high degree of premeditation and planning in the creation and man's role therein- the "creative destruction" of evolution doesn't much seem to plan.  Life on earth has been and continues to be brutal and seemingly wasteful teleologically.  

In 1911, some scholars were dismissed at BYU for promoting evolution and modern biblical criticism.  I smile because I've heard both on campus by BYU professors- so this debate isn't new.  See some of Margaret Barker's books for the biblical criticism.

Natural evil-  Perhaps theodicy justifies the use of evolution because there aren't better alternatives- the end of man requires that cruel path.  Then again, "Through millions of years, billions of animals experience vast amounts of pain, supposedly so that, after an enormous number of extinctions of entire species, on the tip of one twig of the evolutionary tree, there may emerge a species with the special properties that make us able to worship the Creator."

Perhaps the agency exercised by each of us and Adam and Eve in possessing a temporal body (the Fall) explains the existence of evil.  In any case, I think the problem of evil and suffering is a signifant one.

Design- Did God design His body? God seems to work within natural law.  Does He manipulate natural law?  Probably not. If God works within natural law and natural law includes evolution through natural selection, the it would be a bad plan to divorce oneself from the natural selection framework.  Thus, understanding evolution is potentially helpful and maybe even necessary in order to understand God. 
I also think the idea that limited adaptive spaces makes humans or something like them, if not inevitable, more than nominally likely to result from natural selection in an earth or earth-like environment.  Miller advocates this possibility in Only a Theory; Simon Conway Morris makes some more sophisticated arguments about its likelihood.

Embodiment- "The bodies of flesh and bone with which I am familiar do not shine, have blood, cannot hover, can be wounded and die, must move
through contiguous points of time-space. In short, they are not at all
like the bodies of the Father and the Son. So what does it mean to say
that the Father and the Son have bodies? In fact, does it mean anything
at all? ...
One could also legitimately ask: Is God a Homo sapiens? Is God
a mammal? Scientists have speculated on what a bipedal hominid
evolved from avian precursors might look like. Would it have leftover
structures like a pygostyle (a reduced fusion of vertebrae) instead
of a tail? Slime molds can take very complex shapes in some
of their life history stages. Can we imagine a human body that
evolved from slime molds on another planet? It seems that many
of our human features are part and parcel of our being mammals.
Could being a mammal be a contingent feature of our evolution
rather than an eternal part of our resurrected bodies?"   Interesting quote.

Teleology- One of the most provoking quotes in Peck's article: "Nevertheless, if we embrace an evolutionary perspective, the idea
of God’s intervention, petitionary prayer, and divine action to
bring about His purposes become thorny issues. A nice thing about
the magical view of creation is that it is no problem at all to imagine God intervening in the world.Why use evolution through natural
selection in a non-teleological fashion if waving a magic wand
was possible? In fact, if God can and sometimes does intervene,
then why doesn’t He do it all the time?Why didn’t He do it during
the Creation? This question opens an intriguing possibility: the
necessary place of consciousness in divine interventions."  This seems consistent with "The Lord worketh not among the children of Men save according to their faith." The implications are profound and support a case for urgency in persuading people to work out their own salvation in fear and trembling. 

Also, "So there seems to be something deeply important about physicality
and spirit coming together. Could it be that the physical
world can be manipulated only through consciousness-mediated
direct action? Or through this kind of body that unites spirit and
physical matter? When I read the scriptures, I see a God who makes
arrangements for irreplaceable records to be kept, preserved, and
maintained through conscious effort. He implies that, if they are
not, this knowledge will be lost and not brought back through His
intervention. I see the Lamanites languishing in unbelief until the
sons of Mosiah are inspired to go among them. Angels bear messages
to other consciousnesses but do not seem to manipulate the
world in interventionist ways. Almost all of the scriptures can be reinterpreted
as acts of consciousness acting in the world... much of how God works in the world seems to be that He communicates
to and through conscious beings who then use their agency
to act. Stories of people inspired to stop and help a widow take on
new meaning if God cannot help the widow without us."

An early 20th century First Presidency statement: "even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God." Joseph F. Smith John R. Winder Anthon H. Lund First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints November 1909.  Perhaps a Darwinian selection process requiring trial and proving are necessary to produce exaltation candidates.  Out of all the intelligences out there, perhaps natural selection drives their emergence as Gods.  Those intelligences or spirits certainly have the variability required (1. BD War in Heaven- every degree of devotion to the Father and Son among them, 2. many of the noble and great ones [thus not all were noble and great], 3. likely diversity in righteousness and obedience).  We inherit traits from God- thus the heritability requirement.  Obedience and righteousness is selected for by eternal reward and exaltation, thus the third requirement for natural selection (i.e. variability, heritability, and selection).  Even the quasi-requirement of abundant time is met (ages and aeons). 

Peck: "To me, evolution is an empowering idea. Linking it to our theology
provides answers to several perplexing questions. It suggests
that there is something wonderfully important about embodiment
and why physical access to the universe is so important. Our doctrines,
informed by evolution, answer questions about why such a
cruel and wasteful process was chosen for creation and resituate
the problem of evil. I find easy adaptations to our most important
and profound doctrines. I see no reason why Mormons cannot,
fully and without apology, embrace Darwinian evolution. As Darwin
concluded his magnificent On the Origin of Species: “There is
grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been
originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst
this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity,
from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and
most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.65"

Conclusion: The three fold take-home message of this post is 1) to read Miller's book (Finding Darwin's God or Only a Theory) for persuasive arguments about contemporary evolutionary theory, 2) I'm personally persuaded that most of the main tenets of contemporary organic evolutionary theory are reasonable and mostly compatible with LDS theology, and 3) there may be a lot gained by marrying LDS theology and Darwinian evolutionary theory, especially if both are mostly true and all truth can be circumscribed in one great whole.


  1. I just finished reading 'Finding Darwin's God' upon your recommendation on this post. Learned a lot from it.



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