Mormon views on evolution are evolving, says biologist

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Steve Peck is one of those renaissance people that make me sit back in wonder. His day job is as a scientist—he’s an associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University—but he also writes award-winning novels and poetry and short stories and many other things.

Along the way he’s penned some spectacular essays. In his new book Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist, Peck brings together twelve of his essays on science. Some are endearingly personal, some more technical; all are thought-provoking. Last week, I caught up with Steve about Mormons and evolution, one of the main themes of the book. — JKR

10-28_evolving_faith_for_webRNS: BYU teaches evolution. Some people might think that’s a contradiction in terms, but why? Where did some Mormons get the idea that evolution was not compatible with belief?

Peck: I think what’s happened is that it’s been culturally embedded that evolution is not OK, because there were very vocal church leaders like Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith who were unapologetically anti-evolution. Their perspective has pretty much become the dominant view in some corners of Mormonism, like among some from CES [the Church Education System], where you still see it today from time to time.

So even though the Church has no official opinion on evolution, there’s still a widely held belief that it’s not OK. A guy in my ward even told me that if evolution were true, it would be taught at BYU.

RNS: Do you think this anti-evolution attitude is changing at all?

Peck: I do, actually. It’s changed very significantly since I was an undergraduate. When I was fresh off my mission, I was as seeped in the anti-evolutionary Mormon world as you can get. When I was a student here at BYU in 1980 to 1986 there was a lot of acrimony between the biology and religion departments. That’s not the case anymore.

I was once told by my Pearl of Great Price religion teacher that I was going to hell for believing in evolution. And he didn’t seem to mean the nice Mormon hell; he meant the fire and brimstone hell. The Mormon hell was too good for the likes of me.

In the 1990s the biology and religion departments BYU put together an evolution packet, which had several statements like that the important thing is that we’re spirit children of our Heavenly Father, and the origin of the body doesn’t matter very much. So today, evolution doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue with the new students coming in. There are exceptions of course.

RNS: Does it help to have Elder Henry B. Eyring in the Quorum of the 12?

Peck: I’ve never heard him say anything about it, actually, but I may have just missed it. His dad [Princeton University scientist Henry Eyring] was clearly an evolutionist, and would even argue with Joseph Fielding Smith about it. And they were friends. But I’ve never read anything about Elder Eyring’s views, and I’ve never sensed any animosity either. He could be working behind the scenes I suppose, and smoothing things over.

If one of the Twelve said something that suggested evolution could be true, the whole debate would melt away. I don’t expect anything, though, and in a way I like it like this and think it is appropriate. I don’t mind that they don’t talk about science. I don’t think it’s in their interest to do that, so I don’t expect it or look for it. I think commenting on it would take keeping up with all the current things. Elder Scott used to talk about it. He seemed very knowledgeable about science and has talked about quarks, for example. But the General Authorities’ general silence on the topic of science is unsurprising and probably appropriate because of their role.

RNS: You point out in the book that science is built upon consensus, and it struck me that this is very different from the Mormon idea of individual revelation, especially prophetic revelation, which we see as almost magical. I wonder how much of ordinary Mormons’ suspicion of science is due to this competing epistemology.

Peck: The one thing about science, and this probably does make Mormons uncomfortable, is that it’s completely open to revision. That idea that “once true, always true” just isn’t a part of science. There are things like evolution that are on such solid ground that it would take a stunning event to overturn them, something like finding an alien spacecraft with DNA in it from a Precambrian geologic strata. Science is always open to revision, and that’s how it makes progress. Mistakes are corrected; errors are discovered and dealt with. It’s a constant re-evaluation about what you know and how you know it. And that’s not the way Mormons do things with revelation.

A very stern selfie of Steve Peck.

A very stern selfie of Steve Peck.

RNS: How does that square with beliefs about the Bible?

Peck: One thing I really do like about revelation is its grounding in scripture. I love the idea of having texts that are sacred. Every age has to reinterpret the scriptures according to their light and knowledge. It’s unacceptable to take a modern scientific viewpoint and try to pretend that the ancient Hebrews had that same view. I like the idea of having the standard of scripture that’s solid and canonical, but also reexamining it in every age with our discoveries and our knowledge. We have to bring all that to bear in our reading of the scriptures.

The scientific equivalent for me is that nature itself becomes the text. We have to reexamine it in every age, but there is that ontology that we don’t expect to differ. Mountains will come and go, but the fact that mountains follow these particular laws of nature will remain.

What do those natural laws tell us about God?

Peck: I don’t like the idea of trying to read off the attributes of God from what we see in nature like early natural theologians did. This can backfire because much of what we see in nature is horrific, cruel, and inefficient. Darwin came from a tradition that looked only at the beauty of nature, and when he came to really examine it, reading off the attributes of God became problematic for him.

I think our knowledge of God comes from scriptures, revelation, and our personal encounters with God. I especially dislike modern incarnations of natural theology like the intelligent design model. Their view that God must constantly intervene in evolution runs counter to the facts of evolution and really adds nothing to the story. They argue for a very magical view of God rather than one who uses laws. Their view is more like the Harry Potter potions master trying to get the potion exactly right by constantly tampering with the concoction. I like instead the idea of a God who just said “Go” and everything followed from there.

I think God only enters the universe through our consciousness. He doesn’t stop boulders that are rolling down the mountain towards a school bus. He tries to get through to the driver or some other person. Any time I’ve ever been helped or blessed in life, it’s been because of people receiving inspiration. When I had a wreck on my honeymoon, the first two people on the scene just happened to be EMTs who had felt, as they left their house, that they should pack all their gear. They saved our lives.

  • Larry

    A biologist who rejects Evolution is like a Dominionist lawyer. One who is completely at odds with the system their profession requires them to work within. A person of no credibility or effective knowledge within a given profession.

    Creationism requires one to forgo the scientific method, presentation of evidence, rational arguments and personal integrity in favor of one’s faith. Hence it is absolutely destructive to anyone in a scientific field.

  • Emily U

    I really like the idea that God enters the universe through our conscienceness. I’ve reached the same conclusion, though I don’t think I’ve ever said it in a single sentence. Great interview!

  • W

    Great discussion.

    This seems like a good place to link to David Bailey’s paper on Mormonism and its history with young earth creationism and evolution:

    http://www.dhbailey.com/papers/dhb-creationism.pdf

    From Bailey’s account, it seems as if the creationist/anti-evolution Joseph Fielding Smith and others have preached inside the church were assimilated rather than revealed.

  • Jared

    This is simply not true. True science and true religion will inevitably come together. It is the errors in both that lead to disagreement. Truth is truth. Mormons particularly view faith and science as both in pursuit of the truth. We just have to be careful that our interpretation of “evidence” and “faith” are always open to revision.

  • DougH

    Peck makes one glaring error in his book (as referenced in one question), the statement that science is built on consensus. It isn’t, it is built on demonstrable facts. I agree with Michael Crichton:

    ” … Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

    “Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

    “There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”

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  • Larry2

    DougH — That’s a very romantic view. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Reproducibility and replication are at the very core of the scientific method. By definition, those require more than “one investigator who happens to be right.” It may be true that the greatest scientists in history are those who broke with what was consensus at the time, but they would not be the greatest scientists in the world if the rest of the world hadn’t reproduced what they claimed. They only became great once consensus developed that they were correct.

    Jana/Steve — I disagree with the assertion that “[In science] mistakes are corrected; errors are discovered and dealt with. It’s a constant re-evaluation about what you know and how you know it. And that’s not the way Mormons do things with revelation.” That may be true of the way Mormons like to *think* about revelation, but I think the actual practice and reality of revelation in Mormonism (both historically and presently) fits that mold very well.

  • Larry

    No honest scientist or religious believer makes such assertions.

    Creationism is simply 1ying about science and religious belief to pretend both are something they are not.

    A creationist 1ies about religion by making the false claim that belief does not require faith. Instead one claims it be proven by rationally presented evidence and discovery. Since they would never accept evidence for disbelief, it is a 1ie.

    A creationist 1ies about science in making claims that it needs to accept irrational supernatural premises.

    Truth in religion is subjective, personal and requires no rational forms of discovery. It is based entirely on faith. Faith is the belief in the absence of evidence. One trusts religion because of how it makes one feel.

    Truth in science is objective, universal and requires rational forms of discovery. One trusts science to impart information because of this nature. One’s personal beliefs are immaterial to the evidence and methods.

  • articulett

    There’s a reason that Scientists don’t take Mormon supernatural or far-fetched claims any more seriously than Mormons take conflicting faiths/religions/superstitions. Faith and feelings are not valid methods for finding out what is actually true.From a scientific perspective, Mormons have no better method for understanding what is actually true than believers of other religions.

  • DougH

    If by “romantic view” you mean rejecting the careerism, closemindedness, bigotry, fad-chasing and empire-building that often pervades the scientific community in order to see science as it is needs to be in order to produce valid results, then yes, I suppose I have a romantic view of science.

    And no, only one investigator that happens to be right is needed to get the ball rolling, because being right means that others can replicate the results. But a consensus is no more required generally in true science than a consensus among mathematicians is required for 2 plus 2 to equal 4.

  • Benjamin

    Thanks for this very interesting interview! So here’s my question for Dr. Peck: does God not stop boulders because he can but chooses not to or because he’s literally constrained by natural laws that prevent him from doing so? This is relevant because it relates to the other comment “I think God only enters the universe through our consciousness.” From what little I know about the science of consciousness, there’s a strong naturalistic basis for consciousness that depends on the chemicals and interactions of neurons in our brains (although I could have the research wrong on that!) – which is particularly interesting to Mormons given Joseph Smith’s rejection of matter-spirit dualism. If God is constrained from stopping the boulder due to natural law, is he similarly constrained from entering our consciousness by manipulating those neurons to make us perceive him? This would argue no, but then it seems also to have implications for whether or not God could stop the boulder…

  • W

    “[Constant re-evaluation/correction may not be] the way Mormons like to *think* about revelation, but I think the actual practice and reality of revelation in Mormonism (both historically and presently) fits that mold very well.”

    This fits my observations too! And I think at a certain level our rhetoric even matches this: we’re often willing to admit that our *personal* revelatory processes are imperfect, or that lay leadership might need to re-evaluate and correct their decisions.

    But with our highest offices a significant portion of the church often pretends it isn’t like that in order to preserve the strongest possible sense of revelatory authority. We get some benefits out of that, but the tradeoff is that we do the re-evaluation/revelation much more slowly because we only reluctantly admit The Brethren are often working that way (and also, their authority takes on a brittle nature once it pushes anyone into a tension with other trustworthy authorities).

  • I dont buy into the idea that there are two completely separate spheres of knowledge, such as Peck subscribes to. Otherwise a great book.

    For a bit different view of Peck’s book, see here:
    https://thebuddhistbishop.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/wanting-to-know/