When I was a young warthog…
(Is the correct term wart-piglet?)
I grew up loving the Bible — and still do. I learned the Adam and Eve story, the six-day creation, Noah’s flood, etc. It all made sense to me. These stories just represented the way things were. And that was that.
I also really loved dinosaurs and wanted to be a paleontologist — but more on that later.
One day during my first year of high school, I was perusing my dad’s book collection. I came across a book on his shelf called The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. (Gasp!) To be honest, I was kind of shocked that my own father would even allow such a heretical book in our house. Our own home!
How could he own such garbage?
Naturally, I confronted him about the book, and he simply said to me, “You know, son, Darwin makes a lot of really good points…”
I mean, I knew my dad loved science… but not that science! Evolution was “atheist” science, wasn’t it? And we were not atheists, by golly! We were good, old-fashioned religious folk! We were people of principle, prayer, and gloriously calorific potlucks.
One thing was for sure in my mind. We were not monkeys!
That same year in high school, I was enrolled in biology. My teacher, “Mr. S,” taught biology (including evolution) in our small town — one of the many devoutly anti-evolution towns that dot America. He did a fantastic job. (I still remember him explaining how it made sense evolutionarily for near-sightedness to get passed down to future generations). I really liked the class, participated, did my homework and got an ‘A’…
But internally I still wasn’t sure I was ready to believe in something as “crazy” as evolution.
Turning Point: “The Lord’s University”
(Nobody at BYU actually calls it that.)
Seven years later, I had recently gotten home from the most gruelingly fulfilling experience of my life in the Dominican Republic as a missionary. On top of that, I had just gotten married to my long-time sweetheart. We were finally together… and at BYU no less! Wow. Everything was perfect.
Cue BYU freshman biology class, BIO 130.
Evolution was the last thing on my mind. I was still feeling just as non-monkeyish as ever (barring, of course, the bananas I loved to eat on the way to class). As the course began, things were going well. We learned about the basics: atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, organelles… I loved it. I was eating it all up just about as fast as my GMO bananas.
“Science is COOL!” I thought to myself in my ever-present, internal Bill Nye voice.
Soon, however, the topic of evolution came up. [scary music] It wasn’t just mentioned in passing or even taught for just a lecture or two — but emphasized. Every. Day. For the rest of the semester.
Thankfully, I was a little more open-minded by this point and decided to give it a chance.
I learned something essential that semester (and during the following years of school): It turns out that our entire understanding of biology rests on the platform of evolution. You simply cannot separate the two. Everything in biology and ecology practically screams evolution.
As I fell more and more in love with biology, my love for the beauty of evolution grew as well.
But, how do I reconcile my religion with science?
Below, I discuss 5 reasons why Mormons can believe in evolution. Then, 5 reasons why they (and everyone) should believe in evolution. Fun times!
Why Mormons CAN Believe in Evolution
Mormons beliefs are unique (some say weird), but this puts them in a unique position to accept evolution.
1: Acceptance of All Truth
Elder Russell M. Nelson (one of the highest ranking leaders of the LDS church) recently said:
“All truth is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether truth comes from a scientific laboratory or by revelation from the Lord, it is compatible. All truth is part of the everlasting gospel. There is no conflict between science and religion. Conflict only arises from an incomplete knowledge of either science or religion, or both.”
Mic dropped. Maybe I’ll just end the post right here. 😉
2: Belief in Deep Time
When scientists talk about speciation (the process of when two groups of organisms who were originally the same species become so different they can no longer reproduce with each other and thus become separate species), they are talking about a process that literally takes hundreds of thousands or millions of years to occur. When we look at the age of the earth itself, we’re looking at a planet that’s around four billion years old. It’s unfavobml.. unfathov… It’s without fathom.
In 1980, the famous Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley was giving a university address entitled Before Adam, when he said the following:
“The Latter-day Saints are the only Bible-oriented people who have always been taught that things were happening long, long before Adam appeared on the scene. They have never appreciated just how revolutionary that idea is.”
In fact, LDS scripture says that God has created innumerable planets, many of which have already “passed away” with age (Moses 1:35). That’s saying something.
Mormons believe that God has been at this for a long time. With so much time on His hands, why not set things in motion on a massive scale and allow evolution to run its course?
3. Perspective of Scripture
Mormons are unique (and often criticized) for their belief that scripture is not the 100% inerrant word of God. They believe that scripture is inspired but comes through the filter of humans, and it’s given in a way that makes sense to mankind at that specific time.
In the cases of scripture that simply recounts history, it’s the same as any history: It’s told from the perspective of the historian. Joseph Smith was a total radical for teaching things like this in the 1800s.
An example of perspective:
Noah says that the flood covered the entire earth. From his perspective this was the case. What were conditions like a thousand miles away? What about Australia? While still surrounded by flood water, he sent out a bird. The bird came back with a branch from a tree. Obviously Noah could only see a tiny fraction of the globe. But the bird saw dry ground when it went exploring.
Where else in scripture does it say “the earth” or “the entire face of the land”? All over the place! But we usually consider it to be mean something fairly local. When scriptures say “the world”, it almost always means “society”. Why then do we not allow those same phrases to be interpreted in a similar fashion with Noah’s story?
The answer? Tradition. Plain and simple. And traditions aren’t always correct.
Now, let’s apply this to the creation story found in Genesis. If God wants His people to understand, He’s not going to go off on topics like the enzymatic properties of RNA or the fluid mosaic model of lipid membranes. He’s going to talk about things the Hebrews understand: plants, fish, insects, birds, large land animals, etc.
Scriptural accounts aren’t (and weren’t meant to be) science textbooks. They have more to do with the central doctrine than the central dogma.
It’s all about perspective.
4: Day ≠ Day
This ties closely with the perspective thing in number 3. In Genesis, it says that God created the earth in six days. However, Mormons have 3 other sources for the creation story: The Book of Moses, The Book of Abraham, and the temple endowment ceremony. All of these sources come at the story from a slightly different angle. These other three accounts also place way more emphasis on periods of time rather than strict 24 hour “days” in the traditional sense of the word.
For example, the Book of Abraham says things like “and it was the third time” instead of “the third day”. Or, “On the seventh time we will end our work”.
Abraham even says, “Now I, Abraham, saw that it was after the Lord’s time… [He], as yet, had not appointed unto Adam his reckoning.” (Abr. 5:13). The whole 24 hour day thing comes more from the traditional understanding of Genesis.
LDS scripture actually allows for lots of flexibility with regard to how long things were going on before Adam ever came onto the scene.
5. Garden of Eden, not Planet of Eden
There is an incorrect, yet ongoing belief that the Garden of Eden comprised the entire planet earth and that no living organism became mortal until Adam transgressed (aka, the fall). Again, this is tradition and is not supported in the actual text.
Hymns with lyrics like “The earth was once a garden place with all her glories common…” throw everyone off.
What the scriptures actually say is that the garden was planted in a place called Eden. Eden was obviously a region of some sort. The garden was only a part of Eden, which was only a part of the whole earth. Eventually, Adam and Eve got kicked out into “the lone and dreary world” — a place which apparently already existed. And, as we saw earlier, it’s very possible that it had already existed for a very, very long time…
I believe that Adam and Eve were, in fact, real people. Were they the very first human-like creatures ever? Probably not. I think the Garden of Eden story represents God establishing His covenant with His children.
In the same address, Nibley said:
“Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God’s affection or even a right to exaltation—for our scriptures allow them such.”
Obviously, there are lots of varying opinions out there — which is what makes this such a fun topic!
Why Mormons SHOULD Believe in Evolution
THIENTH!! (“science” with a lisp… That’s how I say it in my head.)
This part should actually be labeled: “Why Everyone Should Believe in Evolution”. Again, there’s way more that can be written here, but these are just a few good ones.
Remember how all of us who watched Jurassic Park wanted to paleontologists? (At recess, I actually was a dinosaur, but that’s a different story.) Well, turns out dinosaur fossils are, like, super duper old. How old? The newest ones that we can find are from 65 million years ago when they went extinct. They had lived for the 165 million years leading up to that point too.
But, dinosaur bones are just a tiny fraction of all the fossils we’re finding around the world — many of which are waaaaaaaaaaay older than dinosaurs. The layers of rock in which these different types of species are found are consistent across the globe as well. It’s not like all the fossils were made all at once (like some try to say). If, for example, you find certain types of organisms in layer X of rock, you’re going to find those same types of organisms in layer X all around the world — with the layers above and below it holding different organisms all together.
This one is fascinating to me!
Inside of every cell in your body are smaller cell-looking things called mitochondria. Mitochondria produce the majority of the cell’s energy in the form of the molecule ATP. At first glance, mitochondria seem like any other organelle (a tiny cellular organ). But not so! Mitochondria are eerily similar to bacteria.
When the earliest life shows up in the fossil record (around 3.6 billion years ago), we only have prokaryotes (like bacteria). It isn’t until about 2 billion years ago that we start seeing eukaryotes — much larger, more complex cells that have tiny organs in them called organelles. You and I are made up of many billions of eukaryotic cells.
Where did these eukaryotic cells come from??
The theory is that around 2 billion years ago, a bacterium that could make ATP energy entered into a symbiotic relationship with a much larger cell. Essentially, the bigger cell engulfed the smaller one. The bacterium went on living and producing energy inside the larger cell. This larger cell took advantage of this new source of energy while providing a safe environment for the bacterium.
That bacterium was the ancestor of our mitochondria. The larger cell was the first eukaryote.
What’s the evidence for this?
- Mitochondria have a double membrane, just like bacteria. Our cells only have one membrane.
- Mitochondria have their own DNA that is completely separate from the DNA in the cell’s nucleus! Their DNA is even circular in shape, which is totally indicative of bacterial DNA. The DNA molecules in our cells nuclei are linear, never circular.
- Even the sequences of mitochondrial DNA are extremely similar to those of modern-day bacterial DNA.
- Mitochondria divide by pinching in half — which is the exact same process used by bacteria.
- All new mitochondria have to come from a parent mitochondria. If you remove all the mitochondria from a cell, the cell can’t make anymore of them!
Want more evidence of endosymbiosis? Want to learn other examples besides the mitochondria thing? Watch this awesome youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FQmAnmLZtE
Fish, lizards, birds, squirrels, pigs, and humans (and anything else with a spinal chord) all have nearly identical embryos. They all have tails and gill slits. It’s only later in development that the embryos begin to be distinguishable between species. It goes beyond what I can say here, but here’s a video that explains some more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAZmLYWEPGk
4. Vestigial Structures
Vestigial structures are those that appear in an organism that are not necessary for life but have simply been passed down from an ancient ancestor. They are “vestiges” from the past. This is similar to embryology, but it has more to do with creatures after they are already born (or hatched).
- Cave fish: These fish live in total darkness. They have eyes, but their eyes don’t work at all. This shows they had an ancestor that used eyes in sunnier conditions.
- Humans: Some people are born with tails. We all have the genes for tails. They are usually turned off though.
- Whales: Everyone knows these gentle giants have flippers, but did you know they have hind legs, too? Yup, beneath their streamline skin you will find full-on leg and feet bones. Pretty crazy huh? It makes sense that whale ancestors were land animals. If whales just started out in the water, why do they have lungs instead of gills?
- Snakes: Along with whales, some snakes also have vestigial hind limbs. They have a pelvis, leg bones, and a claw that sometimes protrudes externally on each side. Snakes are just reptiles that developed a new form of transportation that worked better without clunky external limbs — but the bones still remain.
5. Evolution is Still Happening Right Now!
Every year, scientists and public health officials become more and more concerned with our growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic drugs that once killed bacteria are no longer having an effect. Some bacteria, are now resistant to all antibiotics — making them extremely dangerous.
The bacteria that survive antibiotic treatment are the ones who pass on their genes. They are literally evolving at super speed before our eyes!
There is soooo much more to be said about both of the topics I addressed (Mormon theology and evolution) that I simply can’t get to. But that’s a good thing! This should just be a starting place for discussion.
What do you like about evolution? Or do you totally hate it? Unsure? Have unanswered questions? What are your thoughts about religion and science?
Please share your thoughts about whatever you want in the comments below!
*I switched away from using Facebook comments for several reasons, but in so doing the old comments were deleted. The following is a screenshot, and you can find the new comment section below it.