Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Latter-day Saint view of evolution

With two Latter-day Saints running for president of the United States--and with both saying they believe in evolution--the question of the LDS position on the idea has again come into discussion.  (By the way, when people say they "believe in evolution," I imagine that usually means either, "I believe evolution as a process has happened and is happening," or "I believe the current scientific theory of evolution is supported by the evidence and is likely the best scientific explanation we can come up with right now."  "Theory," as I understannd it in scientific thought, does not mean an unsupported hypothesis; it means an explanation sufficiently in harmony with the available evidence that it is widely held by experts in an area of study to be the best current explanation.  One of the points of scientific research is to refine such explanations and correct them where necessary.  In the case of "evolution," though many of the elements of the theory have been revised over time, it's been tested rigorously for many years and is held by scientists and many others acquainted with the evidence to be very likely to correspond more or less accurately to reality--that is, to the reality of the development of living beings over time--at least insofar as our human minds can grasp that reality.  [End of long parenthetically introductory thought.])

What I'll present here are links and other information that lead me to conclude that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on the theory of evolution.  It does have official positions on some related topics--for instance, holding that humans are in the image of God, that Adam was the first man (meaning the first spirit son of God to live on this planet), and that neither humans nor anything else in the universe were created ex nihilo (out of nothing), but rather were organized from pre-existing materials.  I am not aware of any official statements indicating exactly how a physical body was prepared for Adam; I know of one LDS scientist, who also served as a mission president, who liked to put it this way: "In some way that we do not understand, God prepared bodies for Adam and Eve."  Some regard official statements as closing the door to the possibility of evolution for humans while leaving it open for other forms of life.  But as I've read the statements, I see nothing making it impossible for God to have used some sort of evolutionary process as a means for providing bodies for his spirit children.  You should look at the statements and judge for yourself.

First, some links. 
(1) What constitutes official doctrine, according to Robert Millet & the LDS Newsroom:
(2) Daily Beast article on the fact that the two Mormon presidential candidates (Romney and Huntsman) are the only major Republicans to affirm their belief in evolution: (note also from 4 years or so ago:
(3) Material approved to be presented at BYU, including official Church statements:
(4) (repeats some of the statements & adds more)
(5) (a history of the statements)
(6) Two BYU Studies reviews discussing the issue: &
(7) Items from an online BYU-Idaho publication titled Perspective: Expressing Mind and Spirit (Volume 4, number 2, Autumn 2004). I list them here in the order I recommend them.
(See also the table of contents-- --and the introduction:

And now some content, first, excerpts from the official statements (and related material); second, my own view as formulated in 2007.

(A) OFFICIAL STATEMENTS (AND RELATED MATERIAL, incl. an article in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism)

[From ]
October, 1992


This packet contains, as far as could be found, all statements issued by the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the subject of evolution and the origin of man, and a statement on the Church's attitude toward science. The earliest First Presidency Statement, "The Origin of Man," was issued during the administration of President Joseph F. Smith in 1909. This was followed by a First Presidency Message in 1910 that included brief comments related to the study of these topics. The second statement, "Mormon View of Evolution," was issued during the administration of President Heber J. Grant in 1925. Although 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, these documents make clear the official position of the Church regarding the origin of man.
This packet also contains the article on evolution from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, published in 1992. The current First Presidency authorized inclusion of the excerpt from the First Presidency minutes of 1931 in the 1992 Encyclopedia article.
Various views have been expressed by other Church leaders on this subject over many decades; however, formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions. It is hoped that these materials will provide a firm foundation for individual study in a context of faith in the restored gospel.

Approved by the BYU Board of Trustees

June, 1992

  • "The Origin of Man" by the First Presidency.

    Improvement Era 13:75-81. Nov. 1909.

    Words in Season From the First Presidency

    Deseret Evening News Dec. 17, 1910, part 1, p. 3.

    In this Christmas message, the First Presidency devoted several sentences to the Church's position with regard to questions raised by science:
    Diversity of opinion does not necessitate intolerance of spirit, nor should it embitter or set rational beings against each other. The Christ taught kindness, patience, and charity.
    Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us no matter where it may be found.

    Editors' Table: "Mormon" View of Evolution

    Improvement Era, Vol. XXVIII September, 1925 No. 11

    A statement by the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
    "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female created he them."
    In these plain and pointed words the inspired author of the book of Genesis made known to the world the truth concerning the origin of the human family. Moses, the prophet-historian, who was "learned" we are told, "in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," when making this important announcement, was not voicing a mere opinion. He was speaking as the mouthpiece of God, and his solemn declaration was for all time and for all people. No subsequent revelator of the truth has contradicted the great leader and law-giver of Israel. All who have since spoken by divine authority upon this theme have confirmed his simple and sublime proclamation. Nor could it be otherwise. Truth has but one source, and all revelations from heaven are harmonious one with the other.
    Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is "the express image" of his Father's person (Hebrews 1:3). He walked the earth as a human being, as a perfect man, and said, in answer to a question put to him: "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). This alone ought to solve the problem to the satisfaction of every thoughtful, reverent mind. It was in this form that the Father and the Son, as two distinct personages, appeared to Joseph Smith, when, as a boy of fourteen years, he received his first vision.
    The Father of Jesus Christ is our Father also. Jesus himself taught this truth, when he instructed his disciples how to pray: "Our Father which art in heaven," etc. Jesus, however, is the first born among all the sons of God--the first begotten in the spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh. He is our elder brother, and we, like him, are in the image of God. All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally sons and daughters of Deity.
    Adam, our great progenitor, "the first man," was, like Christ, a pre-existent spirit, and, like Christ, he took upon him an appropriate body, the body of a man, and so became a "living soul." The doctrine of pre-existence pours wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man's origin. It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality.
    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. By his Almighty power God organized the earth, and all that it contains, from spirit and element, which exist co-eternally with himself.
    Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and 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.
    Heber J. Grant,
    Anthony W. Ivins,
    Charles W. Nibley.
    First Presidency.


    Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2

    by William E. Evenson

    The position of the Church on the origin of man was published by the First Presidency in 1909 and stated again by a different First Presidency in 1925:
    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 (see Appendix, "Doctrinal Expositions of the First Presidency").
    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 (D&C 101:32-33). In 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution, the First Presidency of the Church, then consisting of Presidents Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, addressed all of the General Authorities of the Church on the matter, and concluded,
    Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church ... .
    Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: "Adam is the primal parent of our race" [First Presidency Minutes, Apr. 7, 1931].



    From Bruce Young, in response to "R. Gary":

    Thank you for correcting some of my errors. I do not have a great deal invested in this topic, though I find it interesting and it comes up occasionally in my (literature) classes. But I should still be more careful with details.

    Apparently, the BYU Board of Trustees approved the statement, "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" (whether in or out of a subordinate clause, it means the same thing).

    The other statement ("The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how") comes from Evensen's article in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which of course is not really an authoritative source, and I don't know the extent to which the Church was involved in reviewing individual articles. But I still believe the statement is true. (And the following would seem to support that view: 1910 statement [see below, about seven paragraphs further on].)

    You make much of the statement that ideas about human "development from lower orders of animal creation" are "the theories of men." No problem. Some theories of men are undoubtedly true, some are false, and most are partly true and partly false. I don't know exactly how the theories in question rank. The statement itself doesn't say.

    Sources like Preach My Gospel talk about God creating a body for Adam "from the elements of the earth." Unless you believe in ex nihilo creation (which I don't think most Latter-day Saints from Joseph Smith on do), that means a body was "organized" in some way from the elements of the earth. That could mean all sorts of things and has been taken by Latter-day Saints in various ways (some earlier leaders saying expressly that the account in Genesis is figurative). A mission president in Boston (about 25 or 30 years ago) said, "In some way we do not now understand, God provided bodies for Adam and Eve." Not that he had authority to define doctrine (though he held the keys of the kingdom at that time in that place), but I've always liked the way he put it.

    Death before the Fall? That (answered negatively) seems to be your banner. For me, making sense of scriptural statements to that effect would require some stretches of interpretation (similar to explaining why we don't yet have a temple in Jackson County). Sometimes the apparently plain meaning of a verse is not its true or authorative meaning (other examples might include scriptures indicating that Joseph Smith would never be harmed by his enemies or that the Jews would first believe in Christ and then gather in the Holy Land).

    It makes sense to me that there was no human death before the Fall because Adam was the first man. He is also called "the first flesh upon the earth," which some have taken to mean there were no animals on earth before Adam; but others have taken "flesh" here to be a synonym for "human being with a body of flesh and bones."

    If Adam was the first man or the first corporeal human being on the earth, could his body have been prepared through evolutionary processes? Speaking in simply practical terms of processes God had the power to use, I (as a non-scientist) would say, yes, I think. Speaking in terms of whether explicit revelation leaves that way of preparing a body open as an option, I'd also say, yes, as far as I understand. Could the body have been prepared in some other, non-evolutionary way--yes (God has the power), and yes (I think revelation leaves a number of possibilities open). Does scientific evidence leave non-evolutionary modes of preparation open? I have no idea, really. I'm not intimately acquainted with the evidence. The main arguments I'm acquainted with (analogy, vestigial organs, embryonic development, the fossil record, etc., etc.) are persuasive, that is, point in a certain direction with some persuasive force. But they are not compelling (so far as I know) in the sense that they do not force a given conclusion upon every honest thinker. And I am aware that the presuppositions anyone brings to the evidence have a great influence on how persuasive the evidence will seem.

    So, having confessed a large degree of ignorance, I should, in wisdom, sit back and listen to what others have to say.
    EXCERPT FROM 1910 STATEMENT FROM JOSEPH F. SMITH ET AL. (i.e., the First Presidency at the time) (from The Improvement Era 13.5 [April 1910]: 70):
    ". . . These are the authentic statements of the scriptures, ancient and modern, and it is best to rest with these, until the Lord shall see fit to give more light on the subject. Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God."
    P.S. from Bruce Young: However Adam and Eve's bodies came into being--and however our own bodies come into being and operate--I believe we have to take into account the obvious but astounding fact that each of us is a spiritual being. That is, each of us has consciousness, agency, and a capacity for understanding, wisdom, love, and goodness. Our spiritual nature as thinking, experiencing, and moral beings is, as I've said, obvious. It is constantly, immediately part of our experience--in fact, it is of the essence of our experience.
    Those who claim human beings are merely material entities are, I believe, ignoring the obvious (and as C. S. Lewis points out, they are also undercutting their own arguments, since--if all humans are merely material entities--that is also true of those who make that argument, and therefore it's hard to see how a merely material entity could have genuine insight and make a valid argument). I think most of those who make such arguments are just not thinking things through clearly or are distracted from the obvious by their very focus on the points they are making. But if anyone really is unaware of our spiritual natures or genuinely denies its reality, I believe that's comparable to being incapable of experiencing love or acknowledging its reality, or of being incapable of experiencing the saltiness of salt. Salt tastes salty, and if anyone denies that it does, there's either something seriously wrong with their taste buds or a serious disconnect between their words and their experience.
    The relevance to evolution? Simply that, whatever our physical origins and however genuinely real the physical dimension of our existence, we are also spiritual beings, something that I don't believe can be accounted for simply by physical processes. Revelation indicates that our spiritual nature is eternal and that we are the offspring of God. So whatever we conclude about evolution, those revealed truths must also be taken into account.

    [And that pretty much sums up the current state of my understanding: Evolution, as a process by which the forms of living things, possibly including humans, have come into being, is strongly supported by scientific evidence.  It does not seem to me to be precluded as a possible explanation by divine revelation or official Church statements.  Yet whatever we conclude about evolution as a process by which the physical natures of living beings have come about, we must also remember the clear, astoudning, and glorious revealed truths about our spiritual natures and our divine origins and possibilities.]