Evolution and Latter-day Saint Theology: The Tree of Life and DNA
by Trent D. Stephens
I’d like to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon. This is a topic that has been of interest to me in my entire education and academic career starting when I was here at BYU as an undergraduate many years ago; and I’m going to talk about a number of issues that is in a book that I co-authored with Dr. Jeff Meldrum who is also at ISU. He will be speaking tomorrow morning on another topic dealing with DNA and the Book of Mormon issues.
It is my belief that I am a child of God. What part of me is a child of God? My spirit part or my physical body part? Who cares! If you’re a banker, or a lawyer, or a carpenter, you may not care. But as biologists we deal with this issue every single day. And physicians–those of us who are teachers (which I’m going to talk about next)–are interacting constantly with students who are on their way to becoming physicians or other medical professionals.
This is from the FDA Consumer magazine by Ricky Lewis who stated:
The increased prevalence of antibiotic resistance is an outcome of evolution. Any population of organisms, bacteria included, naturally includes variants with unusual traits–in this case, the ability to withstand an antibiotic’s attack on a microbe. When a person takes an antibiotic, the drug kills the defenseless bacteria, leaving behind–or “selecting,” in biological terms–those that can resist it. These renegade bacteria then multiply, increasing their numbers a millionfold in a day, becoming the predominant microorganism.1
It’s been discussed in issues dealing with creationism and evolution that physicians who don’t fully understand, in their undergraduate education in biology, the implications of evolution are simply perpetuating the problem that’s discussed here by Dr. Lewis.
So what about teachers? How many of us are teachers here? Ah, great profession! Those of us who teach biology students or those of us who are seminary or institute teachers or other religion teachers (and I guess I should have, when I was asking about teachers, asked both professional and in term of Church callings, because we–and when we add family to that we end up with basically everybody here just about I think.)
This is a statement that we wrote in the introduction of our book on this issue of evolution and the Church, and what it talks about is the fact that we have students who in their past education, either at home or in, say, a Sunday school class or a seminary class, have been taught by someone that evolution is not only incorrect–it doesn’t agree with the Church doctrine–but it’s also evil and pernicious to their spiritual wellbeing.
These students then come to a university setting where they’re faced with biology classes where they are taught the data that support the theory of evolution and the concept as Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” and that’s so; it’s a redundancy to say that I’m an evolutionary biologist because, essentially, modern biology is based on this whole entire concept.
And so the problem is these students faced with this dilemma then ask, ‘Should I then ignore what I’m learning in my college classes?’ As they go on to become, for example, a physician and perpetuate this problem of antibiotic resistance or, ‘Should I ignore what I’ve been taught in the past?’
We don’t believe that either of those has to occur. We believe that our religious background and the biological data and our religious concepts are not incompatible–and that’s what I’m going to be talking about.
Going back to this issue of the spirit and the body, Elder James Talmage said, “In speaking of the origin of man we generally have reference to the creation of man’s body; and, of all the mistakes that man has made concerning himself, one of the greatest and the gravest is that of mistaking the body for the man. The body is no more truly the whole man than is the coat the body.”2
Now we can compare that, for example, to the construction of a temple. The Salt Lake Temple was built of granite quarried in the Wasatch Front. Those blocks of granite that are a part of the Salt Lake Temple were right next to those blocks which are not now part of the Temple and some in fact fell off the wagons, rolled down into the stream on the way down the hill. Are those granite blocks any different from the ones that are still up in the canyon? And I would say the answer is no.
If we look at the old Nauvoo Temple–the original Nauvoo Temple–once it was destroyed, after the Saints left Nauvoo, the blocks in the temple were used to construct houses all over that town. It’s the spirit there that’s the holy part of it, not the physical blocks.
Likewise with our bodies, we have come from the dust and we will return to the dust.
In terms of the issue at hand–of evolution and Mormon theology–the first question is, ‘What is the official Church position?’ Because when a lot of people make comments about this they’re stating their own opinions and not necessarily the official position of the Church.
Now the official position can be obtained in a number of ways. When Jeff [Meldrum] and I, and Forrest Peterson who was a student who worked with us on this project, first began writing our book a few years ago we went to my bishop and then to our stake president and obtained permission for the bishop to write to the First Presidency to obtain the official statement of the Church. They then sent us a cover letter and a xeroxed copy of the section on evolution in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
Since that time the letters have slightly changed but essentially if you want to look at the official Church position read that statement in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and this is part of that:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, declares man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity…. Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes.3
Now that was published in November 1909. It answered the questions and raised some questions–like any good statement should do.
This is the Improvement Era from 1910, this is under the heading “Priesthood Quorums’ Table.” It’s an anonymous statement, it’s not signed by the First Presidency, but it is published in the Improvement Era. The question that was raised immediately (and in many of your minds this question may have come up with the previous statement):
In just what manner did the mortal bodies of Adam and Eve come into existence on this earth?4
Coming from this other question, when we talk about us being children of God, does that refer to our physical bodies? That’s what this question is really asking.
“This question comes from several High Priests’ quorums.”5 Which obviously were having some very lively discussions around this time unlike a lot of their meetings (Laughter).
What I’m going to do is pull up the very last part of this quote. This is from the “Priesthood Quorums’ Table.” Joseph F. Smith was president of the Church at this time and was listed as the editor for The Improvement Era.
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…whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.6
Now if we look at that statement carefully we have three propositions: One is that we evolved. The other is, and the corollary of that, number three, is that we were born here in mortality–which is essentially saying the same thing as far as a biologist is concerned. Or we were transplanted.
Now what does the DNA evidence suggest? We’re going to talk about that in just a moment.
If we were transplanted there ought to be evidence of our alienness in our DNA unless all other organisms on this planet were transplanted in some great ark that came across space along with us and then that simply moves the question of evolution back to some other planet. It doesn’t really answer the question; it simply puts it off to someone else’s concern, some alien debate. The discussion is going on exactly at the same time across on the other side of the universe as we’re talking right now! (Laughter)
Now in continuing this discussion, in 1931, Heber J. Grant, who was president of the Church at that time, in a message to the General Authorities made the following statement, “Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology…to scientific research.”7
Now we’re going to look for just a moment at the evidence that we have as biologists, the evidence that is taught to all–essentially all biology students no matter where you are in the world, learning from the very basic freshman introductory biology courses all the way on up–and, I should add, in most high schools as well.
I’m going to talk about two witnesses today. First of all is the DNA evidence which provides circumstantial evidence of the unity and continuity of life, suggesting that we as humans at the DNA level are no different than any other animal or plant for that matter on the earth.
If we look at, for example, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as most of you know one of those tombs is now empty because there is no unknown soldier buried there from the Vietnam era because that soldier is now known. We can use DNA evidence to identify individuals and in fact it is now the military’s policy to have blood samples taken on all the people who enter the military for the sake of identification. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is now an anachronism in our lives thanks to DNA.
Work that’s going on–a lot of this would rate being very close at hand, looking at the ancestry, the interrelatedness of various Egyptian mummies particularly looking at the some of the royalty. And to settle disputes that have been longstanding such as the claim by Anna Anderson that she was actually Anastasia Romanov and the DNA evidence demonstrated that she had this happy fantasy, but that’s all it was. And one of the most famous cases is the O.J. Simpson case.
All of this work that I’ve just showed you is based on what is referred to as a DNA fingerprint. Here is a particular example from a sexual assault case. We simply can take the DNA and cut it up into small segments and run it on a gel and it’s just like taking a fingerprint from an individual. We have enough difference in terms of small differences in our DNA that we can identify us as though by a fingerprint.
On the other side of that same coin, as was mentioned this morning, when we talk about races of humans, it’s an anachronism nowadays because we now know from the DNA data that all humans that are living on the earth today, in spite of color or ethnic origins or religious preference or whatever, are more closely related to each other than two different inbred strains of mice are related to each other. So, humans are indeed one great large family.
So these applications that have been used in the past, or are being used now in terms of forensics, can establish identity; can establish paternity; can establish extended genealogies; and a lot of other tasks to which they are being used.
These very same techniques which are accepted as authoritative and accepted in courts of law–as long as the police do their job right–are applied by science to address the question of human’s closest relative in the animal kingdom.
The Human Genome Project has opened a whole new world to us. February 12, 2001, the preliminary work on the Human Genome Project was completed–four years ahead of schedule. And on February 12 of this year the entire project was declared finished in terms of collecting the data. This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning. Opening up what is now being referred to as the “genomics era.”
So our closest living relative which has been suggested by anthropologists and biologists for many years is the chimpanzee. The differences between humans and chimpanzee DNA is only twice that between any two of us sitting here in the room. We have essentially the same genes, which creates a very interesting question from the perspective of the developmental biologist like myself. Ever since Mendel, when we understood what genes were all about, we have talked about the fact (inaudible) the differences between us and the differences between us and the chimpanzee are in the genes. Well how can they be in the genes if the genes are the same? And from the perspective of the developmental biologist it appears that what’s happening is that we’re looking at the same orchestra simply playing two different pieces. One can play something from Beethoven versus something from Grieg with essentially the same orchestra at the same concert if you would like, but it’s the score that’s different.
So the challenge in modern biology is now to understand where is the score written? Apparently it’s the organism (inaudible) of those genes that’s a critical feature not the genes themselves. But what’s really interesting about all of this is that the history of each and every one of us is written in our genetic code and we can go in and read that as though we were opening up some ancient manuscript for the first time in history.
The other witness that I want to talk about is the fossil record and this is just an example of Homo erectus, the famous Lucy skeleton. That second witness, the fossil record, provides a direct historical evidence of the succession of life forms through time. As biologists are wont to say, 97% of all the species that have ever lived are now extinct which is extremely interesting. We go to the fossils and we see a very clear succession through the fossil record which has been known for well over 150 years.
The thing that’s interesting about the human fossil record is that, if any of you have been reading very much in the popular literature in the last five years, we have a veritable explosion of information on human origins; and every piece of information that we collect adds more missing links. There is no longer a missing link between us and the chimpanzee because the fossil record has now demonstrated a huge number of hominids and that number is increasing all the time. Organisms that are very closely related to both us and chimpanzees structurally and must fit somewhere in between in terms of the actual phylogeny.
So these are the two witnesses: the DNA evidence provides circumstantial evidence that we are related to every single organism on the earth and very closely related to our closest relative–that is the living relative–the chimpanzee; the fossil record then in turn provides actual historical evidence for our relatedness.
So the real question then that I want to address next is, do the DNA and fossil data require that we reject the creation story in the scriptures?
My opinion is the answer to that is “no,” and the reason for that is that it’s not the story that has the problem but our interpretation of the story. It’s interesting how many times the word interpretation was used this morning in various talks, to talk about what’s there versus what we think is there. And, in fact, as one reads a document like the Bible or like the Book of Mormon that you may have read fifteen times, it’s amazing that you wake up tomorrow morning and you have a slightly different mindset than what you’ve ever had before when you looked at it and all of a sudden something brand new comes out. Or something, some paradigm, is dropped off. How many of us go into reading a document, like say the creation story in the Bible, with a paradigm that already exists that we’re not even aware of. In fact the most dangerous paradigms are those that we don’t recognize.
So let me ask a few questions about your understanding of the creation story and particularly the Garden of Eden and the circumstances there. If the entire earth was in a paradisiacal state, what was the role of the Garden of Eden? The purpose of an isolated location? “And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8).
Were Adam and Eve inherently immortal when they were placed in the Garden? If so, please give me all the scriptural references that you can find–the one that’s usually referred to is 2 Nephi 2:22. Let’s look at that scripture: “And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the Garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.”
That seems fairly straightforward and it’s used quite commonly to establish the idea that there was a paradisiacal state and that all things, everything would have remained in the same state in which it was created. And in fact, the word “all things” there is used oftentimes to include literally all living things–not only Adam and Eve but everything else.
But let’s read the very next verse which is oftentimes left out, verse 23, which says, “And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.”
Is this talking about grass? Or is this just talking about the humans?
Now, I have highlighted the word “they” because if we use–if we’re using proper grammatical construction “all things” or “things” indeed is the noun of that sentence; “they,” then, in both the remainder of that sentence and the following sentence should refer back to the previous noun. So “all things” are not talking about all things; it’s not talking about the grass, it’s not talking about the fruit tress necessarily. It seems to be talking, when we get down to verse 23, about something that’s capable of sinning, i.e., apparently Adam and Eve.
Now we use that same vernacular today. “Hey, if I hadn’t gotten in a car wreck, things would’ve been fine today.” Right? All things would have been hunky dory, they would have continued on just the way they had been.
Because if “all things” really refers to all things in the garden–including say the fruit–how do we account for this scripture: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat” (Genesis 2:16). Now, look at something like a mango growing in the garden; in what inflorescent stage was the mango created in the first place? Or was it maybe a full-grown fruit and if it was a fruit, that suggests that there was reproduction going on in the garden. And when Eve prepared that mango for dinner that evening, how did it remain in a state in which it was created once it had been chowed down?
The most reasonable interpretation of 2 Nephi 2:22 is that it referred to Adam and Eve specifically, not to other organisms in the garden. Now, once 2 Nephi 2:22 is dealt with, then I would throw out the challenge (and I’ve done this to many students over a number of years) to identify any other scripture that tells us that Adam and Eve were inherently immortal. Interesting question!
Well where do we get the idea that we were inherently immortal? From St. John. He says in Paradise Lost, Book XI: “I, at first,” meaning God, “with two fair gifts Created him endowed; with happiness, And immortality.”8
Now, this actually came as a result of a discussion I was having with my daughter-in-law a few years ago when I was working on this project. We were simply talking about, ‘Well where did this idea come from?’ And she said, ‘Well gee, I just studied Milton last year in school and I think that you ought to read Paradise Lost.’ So I got my copy of Paradise Lost, marked it all up. It’s a fascinating work. It will put any Greek myth to shame. My favourite part is the idea that the earth is hanging by a golden chain from the corner of the castle of heaven–there’s great imagery there.
But we have this paradigm that’s part of the baggage of Christianity that was talked about this morning in a couple of the talks. This is added as a part of our interpretation when we read the scriptures.
Oh, by the way, did Adam and Eve have hair? Did they have skin? If they had hair and skin–those are dead cells! So as a biologist what’s the difference between cell death and organismal death? It’s just a matter of size. If they didn’t have hair and skin they would’ve looked a lot like this frog (laughter)–frogs do in fact have moist, stratified epithelium. We are keratinized, stratified epithelium, which requires that the outer layers are dead.
“And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). Now if Adam and Eve were inherently immortal, what in the world was the function of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden? This is the entire reference to the tree of life, in Genesis 2:9. It just simply says, ‘Hey there was a tree of life planted in the middle of the Garden of Eden.’ We’re not told what function it had.
Until Adam of Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and were kicked out, “Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3:23-24). So with the Genesis account, you know, that’s basically all we have.
And if we go to the Book of Mormon, it then gives a little bit more explanation. “Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil; and lest he should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit” (Alma 42:3). This reference, and one other in the Book of Mormon, makes it clear that the tree of life had the capability of making someone immortal. Well, why in the world would you need to make someone immortal if they were already immortal to begin with?
The conclusion from this then is that Adam and Eve were created as mortal beings, kept in a state of immortality by the tree of life, separation from that tree returned them to their original mortal condition. And going back to this Improvement Era statement in 1910, “Whether the mortal bodies of man…were born here in mortality” is not fully revealed by the word of God.
Now if we interpret the scriptures and we look at this Genesis story and we read not into it what’s not there, but if we only read what’s there, that story is not inconsistent with two mortal beings–Adam and Eve–being plucked out of the mainstream, whatever that looked like at that time, and isolated in a garden where they had access to a tree that kept them immortal. Once they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil–which was part of the plan and it was placed there specifically for them to do that as an inevitable action–then they were cast out of the Garden of Eden.
Now, the only single place in all of recorded scriptural history where God placed an ‘armed guard’ on something, including the ark of the covenant, was the tree of life. That’s the only place where we’ve ever been told that there was an ‘armed guard’ to keep them from coming there. Why? Well ask yourselves that. Being mortal yourselves, if you had access to the tree of life what would you try to do to partake of the fruit; sneak around a cherubim with a flaming sword maybe even!
Now lastly I’d just like to talk for a minute about one other issue here. What I’ve tried to do is talk about the data that science presents to us in terms of the DNA data and the fossil record data. Incidentally, one of the reasons we started on this project is that I had a student come to me a number of years ago by the name of Forrest Peterson who was a non-traditional student at ISU. He was a theatre major, and was taking a biology class as a required course. And in that class, evolution was being taught as we do in any biology class but at the same time the instructor, who was a graduate student, was putting down the idea of religion as being demonstrated to be completely fallacious because of what we knew about evolution, et cetera.
Do the student went to the department chairman and complained about the way the course was being taught and the department chairman sent him to me so that we could sit down and talk about his issues. He’s LDS and wanted to know my opinion. So we sat down and talked for a while. And after we finished talking, and I told him basically what I’ve been telling you to a certain degree, he said, ‘Well is there a book I can read about this?’
And I said, ‘No, there really isn’t. Because most of the books that have been written on this subject, or almost all the books that have been written on the subject, were written before 1970 or 1972.’
Now, the molecular revolution can almost be dated to approximately 1972 when the first DNA sequencing was done. So before 1972 we really can’t say a lot about the DNA evidence. We can say; I mean, papers were written back in the late ’60s about cytochrome c, amino acid sequences, and et cetera, and those were very fine data, but nothing in terms of the power of what we now know from DNA data.
So over the last thirty years we have learned more than we ever knew in the past about our relatedness to other animals.
Secondly, the entire hominid fossil record, it’s been said, could fit in a shoebox. Now before 1970 that may have been approximately true. Today, we would have a difficult time holding all the specimens in this room and displaying them adequately.
There’s a huge explosion in both of these two witnesses, both the DNA evidence–the molecular evidence–and the fossil record evidence in the last thirty years. So that’s what I wanted; that’s what I’ve been talking about.
Now, the other issue that I want to talk about is this question: If we are created in the image of God, then how does that happen through an evolutionary process if that process is number one, random, and number two, has no direction to it as we teach in biology? How can those two things not be incompatible? How is it that we can have physical bodies which look like God’s and therefore have some design if they weren’t designed?
The answer, in my opinion, and this is where a large portion of my research in the field of biological research is centered and that is the concept of developmental constraint. We have both developmental constraints and evolutionary constraints–and I’m not talking here about intelligent design which is an issue that’s been now created by the creationists to try to fill in some of the missing gaps that have been blocked up by other data. (Let me just leave it here for right now.)
What this concept–and I didn’t add any more slides to talk about this because I didn’t think I would be done by now–what this concept is dealing with is the issue that… Well, let me start with the simplest biological form that exists. Anybody have any idea what that might be?
Voice from audience: A virus?
Dr. Stephens: Viruses are very complex in shape. Simple; very simple. The simplest object in the universe is? A sphere.
That’s where you and I all began. We all began as a single-celled sphere, an oocyte once it was fertilized it then became a zygote and that zygote is still spherical. Now, the question then can be raised and it really was raised a long time ago by a brilliant biologist by the name of Darcy Thompson, and what I’ve been trying to do is apply what Darcy Thompson applied to adult organisms to the developing embryo.
Now if a sphere is the simplest object in the universe and I can take a bottle of soap and I can blow soap bubbles and they’re all spherical until they land on a flat surface; then how many genes does it take to make an oocyte or a zygote spherical? That seems to be a waste of genes right? Why would you have to use any genes to make something spherical if it’s already spherical inherently? And so that raises some very intriguing questions, particularly when we now recognize that we only have about 30,000 genes to make us rather than 150,000 genes that we had a mere ten years ago–we’ve lost a considerable degree of sophistication in the last 10 years.
If we only have those 30,000 genes to make us, then maybe a lot of what we are is not genetic in the first place but rather inherent qualities of the physics of the stuff from which we are formed. Now if that’s the case, then there’s a lot of predictability out there. There’s a lot of predictability inherent in biology which I would argue for the last 150 years that biologists have not looked for because we have expected, based on our paradigm of randomness, we have expected to find disorder. We have not looked for order in biological systems, with a few exceptions like Darcy Thompson, for example.
As we look, and I have been looking in embryonic development for these developmental constraints, we can find them. They’re there; they’re numerous. In fact, in my opinion, they are so numerous that they can constrain us to the form that we now see.
So, in final conclusion, the data support the scientific interpretation of an evolutionary process for human origins. The scriptures that state that God created humans in His image, we believe these two apparently contradictory paradigms can be reconciled if God created the natural laws by which humans were created. We refer to those natural laws as evolution in a package. Conflicts between the scientific data and the scriptural accounts result from our interpretation of the scriptures and our interpretation of the scientific data. They’re not in the data or in the scriptures inherently.
Question and Answer Session
Q: It seems to me that our problem right now is that we have a lot of authorities of the Church that are putting out the teachings that come out in our Sunday School classes, our priesthood meetings, that doesn’t seem to jibe with modern-day science. For example, we have the teaching that Adam and Eve are the mother and the father of all living when we know from Carbon-14 dating, for example, goes back to such skeletons as the Cheddar Man in England. That in fact the human line goes flying right past Adam and Eve back into antiquity, clear back 150,000 years ago and that there’s such a thing as a mitochondrial Eve that the scientists are referring to back at that date approximately. What do we do about this sort of a situation?
Another is, here’s a little quote here from last year’s priesthood manual; this was Harold B. Lee’s Teachings, and it says,
How did the Fall of Adam and Eve make the blessings of mortality possible? 9
Concerning the Fall of Adam and Eve, Harold B. Lee said:
They were forced to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, for now they had become mortals.
…Pain, misery, death, all now came in their wake …
…Besides the Fall having had to do with Adam and Eve, causing a change to come over them, that change affected all human nature, all of the natural creations, all of the creation of animals, plants–all kinds of life were changed. The earth itself became subject to death.
Intimating that prior to that nothing on the earth died.
…How it took place no one can explain, and anyone who would attempt to make an explanation would be going far beyond anything the Lord has told us. But a change was wrought over the whole face of the creation, which up to that time had not been subject to death.
That sounds pretty plain to me from Harold B. Lee.
From that time henceforth all in nature was in a state of gradual dissolution until mortal death was to come, after which there would be required a restoration in a resurrected state. …
The end. Comments?
A: Yes. I’m very familiar with that statement from last year’s priesthood manual and as was stated this morning, I think very nicely, prophets have the right to their opinions. If the Lord speaks to the prophet that becomes scripture, we are held accountable to the scripture. We’re not held accountable for people’s opinions.
Now let me address the issue of how did human evolution bypass Adam and Eve as you suggested. And this is just an idea; this is my opinion.
Christ lived in what we call the meridian of time. His Atonement affected those who were yet to be born and those who were already born. So it was retroactive and proactive. It was part of a divine plan that we believe was established in a council in heaven.
Christ stepped forward and offered to be our Savior, to save us from the Fall which was also part of that same plan. Now if Christ’s atonement could be both proactive and retroactive, why could not the other half of that plan work just the same way?
Q: Two comments actually and I’m interested in your reaction to them.
Number one is, I’ve always heard that–again and you brought up quite an interesting concept–that we always keep looking for maximum entropy and minimal enthalpy, you know, randomness, low amount of heat; and that’s the first time I’ve really heard anyone propose or say that, ‘No this has been looked at and there’s actually far more to suggest that there is an organizing factor in the material world than there is this dissolution and falling apart.’
Number two is, it’s been my understanding that with Joseph F. Smith’s comment or the official doctrine of the Church that actually that was a debate. Again, perhaps you can clarify but I understood it was a debate between Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts at the time they were both apostles and that–again, I can stand corrected–and that the debate went on. Joseph F. Smith got to give his part of the deal and then the prophet said, ‘That’s enough. We’re not going to talk about this anymore.’ So B.H. Roberts never got his point brought out about how he was pro-evolutionary, or anyway, that he disagreed with Joseph F. Smith.
A: There are a number of debates that have gone on historically in the Church between apostles on these issues. This particular date–by this time Joseph F. Smith was the President of the Church. This is an official Church statement by the First Presidency. But notice, it doesn’t go beyond saying that we children of God. Again, it doesn’t state that this is the physical body or the spiritual body. And if you look at the date, those of you who know much about the history of the science should recognize that date as being significant.
The date was, at the end of the year of the anniversary of the 50th year of the publication of The Origin of Species and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin on February 12 earlier that year. So what really happened that year, the reason the Church came out with this official statement, is because of all the hoop-de-la that was going on internationally about this huge event–the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Origin. So that’s really what caused the date here to come out.
And I think that in spite of Joseph F. Smith’s personal opinions and his views, this is a very conservative statement when you read it and look at the context of what other statements could possibly have been given. This is a pretty conservative statement.
Q: You’re clearly aware of the fact that the thing you’re talking about is something that everyone in this room and probably in the Church has had to deal with. My own take on this, I’d like to get your opinion on, has been over the years (especially recently) that there is no theory of evolution and I speak of that as a physicist. To me a theory, if it’s going to explain something like the origin of man, you’ve got to show that at least it’s possible to do it and no one yet has worked out the numbers.
We know roughly how many genomes there are, we can rough out within a couple of orders of magnitude maybe what the rate of mutations would be but the big question is how many kinds of human beings could there be? I think it’s not a ridiculous question. I mean the genome project maybe ultimately could answer that. Do you have any take on that objection to the existence of the theory and is there any estimate for the number of different ways you can make a human?
A: That’s a very good question. First of all, in terms of defining a theory, when we teach introductory science courses, oftentimes theories are defined according to the way Popper, who was not a scientist but a philosopher, tried to define science. In reality what a theory is is a model that we use to attempt to describe a very large accumulation of data. In fact there’s this thought that there’s some kind of a hierarchy–that you start with a hypothesis and advance to a theory and then go to a law.
Well in reality, it’s the other way around, theories encompass laws; laws are smaller bits of information. For example, I’ll give you a good example from biology that I hope will answer your question and that is the cell theory. The cell theory was advanced at the end of the nineteenth century and we knew very little about what cells actually were. We didn’t even know anything about a nucleus at that time.
But we did know that all living things could be broken down into these little cells, these little things that were bounded, that we then called cells, and we are only now learning more and more about cells–structure and function. We still have an enormous distance to go before we understand the cell.
And I think your question is very correct and that is that we really do not fully understand, as I indicated, the differences between individuals.
Let me just emphasize that by one point. What is the basis of Down’s syndrome? We have one extra chromosome. Well so what? So what does one extra chromosome do? We don’t have a clue. That gives you an idea of how far we are away from understanding the difference between say us, and CroMagnon or us and Homo Erectus or us and chimpanzee. We have an enormous distance to go.
The Human Genome Project just opened the door a little crack–the future belongs to the biologists! (Laughter)
1 Ricki Lewis, Ph.D., “The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections,” in FDA Consumer magazine (September 1995).
2 James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” in The Instructor, vol. 100, no. 12 (Dec. 1965) and vol. 101, no. 1 (Jan. 1966) [Address Delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah, Sunday, August 9, 1931.]
3 William Evenson, “Evolution,” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 2, edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 478.
4 “Priesthood Quorums’ Table,” in the Improvement Era, 1910, Vol. xiii. April, 1910. No 6.
7 First Presidency Minutes, April 7, 1931.
8 Milton, John. Paradise Lost, Book XI.
9 “The Lamb Slain from the Foundation of the World” in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (2002), 20.