Friday, August 26, 2005

John A. Widtsoe and the theory of evolution

[What follows is a quotation from John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, arr. G. Homer Durham, 3 vols. in 1 [1960], 153-165. All italics are in the original.]

Chapter 5. What Is the Origin of Life On Earth?

This question has occupied the best minds since the beginning of human history. The answer has not yet been found in the halls of science.

From the earliest time, many men of sound thought have believed in the spontaneous generation of life. Aristotle (384-322 B. C.) for example taught that decaying matter, under the influence of moisture and the sun's heat will produce living things. He even went so far as to teach that the higher forms of life were spontaneously generated. St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), made the doctrine one of the church. His reasoning was simple: As the Lord could make wine from water, so life could be made from the soil and water and air of earth. In his opinion, spontaneous generation was but a manifestation of the will of God. Even such minds as that of Newton (1643-1727) could see no inconsistency in the doctrine. Up to the middle of the last century, the doctrine was very generally accepted.

However as the more exact methods of science were developed, doubt was cast upon the theory. For example, van Helmont, great scientist as he was, had explained that dirty linen, mixed with grain, would, in twenty-one days produce mice. Subjected to scientific scrutiny, the folly of this formula was revealed.

Finally came Louis Pasteur, who, in the middle of the last century by a series of brilliant experiments, laid low the doctrine of spontaneous generation. It was, however, only after a terrific battle with his contemporaries that he set up the law that only life can beget life. For a number of decades now, the world has rested secure in the correctness of his conclusion.

Recently, however, it has been suggested that, while, under the conditions now prevailing on earth, spontaneous generation of life is impossible, there may have been times under different conditions, when living organisms might have been produced from lifeless matter. The reasoning is somewhat as follows: As the molten earth cooled conditions were such as to form large quantities of the substance cyanogen, composed of carbon and nitrogen, essential constituents of living tissue. As the new-born atmosphere gradually changed to its present conditions, complex chemical compounds were formed from the cyanogen, which, as the earth cooled, increased in complexity, approached the nature of living tissue, and at last acquired the properties that characterize life. From these simple units of life, the theory holds, have developed the forms of life now known to man. It is added that life cannot be so formed today, for conditions are so different. It requires an abnormal faith in science to accept this theory (Oparin, The Origin of Life, 1938).

The question has been raised with respect to the viruses, which are so small as to pass through filters: Do they perpetuate life? Existing evidence favors the belief that they also obey the law that life begets life.

If life was not spontaneously generated on earth, if life is necessary to beget life, the first life on earth must have come from some point outside of the earth. So reasoned many men of unimpeachable standing in the world of sound thinking. That raised two questions at once: Does life exist beyond thee earth? And if life exists beyond the earth, how can it reach the earth?

Men of the highest standing have believed that the earth is not the only home of living beings—such men as von Liebig, von Helmholtz, and Lord Kelvin.

The existence of life in space is exceedingly difficult to prove by the methods of science for us who live on earth. An attempt was made by the famous bacteriologist, Charles B. Lippman, to discover whether meteorites, which fall from the sky, contain living organisms. Every precaution against error was taken. The best-known technique was followed. Lippman came to the conclusion after this careful work that live bacteria and spores of living things were found in the interior of the rocky meteorites studied by him. Many objections were offered against these findings. The bacteria he found were identical with some known on the earth; the heat generated by the falling body would kill the germs—and so on. The controversy still goes on.

Other workers, assuming that life does exist beyond the earth, undertook to study the possible means by which living germs could be carried through space to the earth. The scientist, Richter, called attention to the fact that it has been shown that germs of life may remain dormant for long periods of time, may exist without food or water, yet may be revivified as soon as the conditions necessary for active life are available. The eminent physicist, von Helmholtz, followed this up with the proposition that meteorites in their descent through the air are heated only on the surface. Carbon, easily combustible, is found unchanged inside of meteorites—hence life germs could survive any heat that might be generated.

In the progress of science it has been found that light, passing through space, exerts a pressure on the objects it encounters. This principle was seized upon to explain how life might have been brought from other heavenly bodies to the earth. The world-famous physicist, Arrhenius, suggested that microscopic germs of life might be carried within atmospheric currents and electrical disturbances into space and, under the pressure of light, be carried within reach of other bodies in space. Arrhenius even subjected the hypothesis to mathematical treatment, and showed that such particles, leaving the earth, would pass beyond the limits of our planetary system in fourteen months, and in nine thousand years would reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. He also showed that the heat attendant upon such a journey would not exceed 100° and that only for a short time (Arrhenius, Worlds in the Making, 1908). A barrage of objections was pointed upon this hypothesis. The chief weakness, it was claimed, was that the ultra-violet light and cosmic rays of space, not softened by the atmosphere, would destroy quickly any life germs floating in space. There the matter stands today.

Now, from the very beginning of thinking on the subject of the origin of life on earth, a group of powerful thinkers have insisted that life is one of the eternal realities of the universe, uncreated, eternal, as eternal as any other of the ultimate elements of the universe. One school of Greek thought held that the universe, the solar system, and the earth itself were living organisms.

The doctrine of the eternity of life implies that things become alive when the life force enters them. Thus came the doctrine of vitalism, or vital force, which has met such fierce opposition from the school of materialism. Under this doctrine all living things are dual in their composition; they are of matter and of life. Those who so believe declare that either life is spontaneously generated, or it is of eternal existence. The majority of them also are believers in God, and inclined to hold that things are made alive by His power, through means not understood by man, or perhaps beyond his understanding.

The corollary of the doctrine that life is eternal is the doctrine of pre-existence. The essential part of any living being is its life. If life is eternal then the living thing is eternal also. Driven by such logic, schools of thought, from the Greeks to our own day, have harbored more or less completely the doctrine of pre-existence.

As far as the data of science or the speculations of philosophers go, no light is shed upon the origin of life on earth.

The teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith leave the conviction that life is eternal, or at least that it had a pre-existent life, not of spontaneous origin on earth. For example:

...these are the generations of the heaven and of the earth, when they were created, in the day that I, the Lord God, made the heaven and the earth;

And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. For I, the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. . . . And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air;

...all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word. (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:4, 5, 7; see also Abraham 5:2-5)

One may read into these sayings that individuality itself is eternal. With respect to man, that is a well-settled doctrine. "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be" (D. & C. 93:29). This doctrine is confirmed in the Book of Abraham:

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them and he said: These will I make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;

And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever (Pearl of Great Price, Abraham 3:22-26).

From the organization of the Church to the present day, the pre-existence of man has been taught as a necessary element in the plan of salvation.

Whether the references in sacred writ concerning the pre-existence of all life, plant and animal, justify the belief that individuality is preserved even in the lower orders of creation, must remain, until further light is obtained, a matter of personal opinion. The wording of the above quotations from the Pearl of Great Price seems to imply the pre-existence of individual life everywhere. Certainly, the earth on which we live is an imperishable, living organism:

And again, verily I say unto you, the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation, and transgresseth not the law --

Wherefore, it shall be sanctified; yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it. (D. & C. 88:25, 26)

That man, as perhaps all creation, is a dual being, is an equally certain doctrine. Man is composed of the eternal spirit residing in a mortal body. The gospel centers upon the conversion of a perishable into an imperishable body to be possessed by the everlasting spirit. "The spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D. & C. 88:15).

Science stands at present helpless before the mystery of the origin of life on earth. It offers guesses which have no precedence over theological inferences. Through revelation we know that life existed before the earth was, and that "man was in the beginning with God." Life was placed upon earth by God, through His power. That doctrine satisfies the inmost need of man. In time, that doctrine will be confirmed by the accumulation of human knowledge. The method by which life was brought upon earth is not known by anyone.

Chapter 6. To What Extent Should the Doctrine of Evolution Be Accepted?

The answer to the above question depends on the meaning assigned to the word evolution. Among people generally, as well as lay a group of scientists who should know better, the word is used with unpardonable looseness. Especially should the difference between the law of evolution and the theory or theories of evolution be stressed whenever the word is used.

In its widest meaning evolution refers to the unceasing changes within our universe. Nothing is static; all things change. Stars explode in space; mountains rise and are worn down; men are not the same today as yesterday. Even the regularities of nature, such as the succession of the seasons or of night and day, cause continuous changes upon earth. Everywhere, a process of upbuilding or degradation is in evidence. The face of nature has been achieved by continuous small and slow degrees. This has been observed by man from the beginning, and must be accepted by all thinking people. Darwin knew it no better than the peoples of antiquity. The law of change, an undeniable fact of human experience, is the essence of the law of evolution (H. F. Osborn, From the Greeks to Darwin).

The great champion and amplifier of the doctrine of evolution, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, defined the law of evolution by saying, in substance, that whatever moves from the indefinite to the definite, is evolving; while that which moves from the definite to the indefinite, is dissolution or the opposite of evolution. Nebulae passing into stars are evolving; stars broken into cosmic dust are dissolving (Herbert Spencer, First Principles). When simple units are used to build up more complex structures we have evolution. When any structure is broken down into constituent elements, we have its opposite, dissolution. Evolution in this sense is the same as progression or growth.

From this point of view the law of evolution, representing eternal change upward, becomes a basic, universal law, by which nature in her many moods may in part be explained. Indeed, it has been one of the most useful means of interpreting the phenomena of the universe. The first and most notable deduction from the law of evolution is that, in the words of Spencer, "We can no longer contemplate the visible creation as having a definite beginning or end, or as being isolated" (Herbert Spencer, First Principles). That is, existence is eternal.

The noisy babble about evolution, often disgraceful to both sides since Darwin wrote Origin of Species, has been confined almost wholly to speculations or guesses concerning the cause, methods and consequences of the law of evolution. The law itself has not been challenged. It is so with every well-established, natural phenomenon. Inferences are set up to explain observed facts. Such hypotheses or theories, which are often helpful, become dangerous when confused with the facts themselves. There are now many theories of evolution, all subject to the normal scrutiny to which all theories should be subjected; and until their probability is demonstrated, it is well to remain wary of them.

The foremost and best-known theory of evolution is that all living things on earth, whether fish, insect, bird, beast, or man, are of the same pedigree. All creation, it declares, has come from a common stock, from a cell formed in the distant past. Man and beast have the same ancestry. In support of this theory numerous well-established observations are presented. These may be grouped into five classes:

First, the fossil remains of prehistoric life on earth show that in the oldest rocks are remains of the simplest forms of life; and as the rocks become younger, more complex or more advanced life forms seem to appear. The scale of life appears to ascend from amoeba to man, as the age of the particular part of the earth's crust diminishes.

Second, each group of living things has much the same bodily organization. In the case of mammals, all, including man, have similar skeletons, muscular arrangements, nervous systems, sense organizations, etc. In some species the organs are merely rudimentary—but they are there.

Third, the embryos of man and higher animals, in the earlier stages, are identical, as far as the microscope can reveal. This is held to mean that embryonic development summarizes or recapitulates the stages of man's development through the ages of the past.

Fourth, all organic creatures may be so grouped, according to structure and chemical nature, as to show gradually increasing relationships from the lowest to the highest forms of life. Similarities in blood composition are held to indicate nearness of kinship. The blood of the great apes is very similar to the blood of man.

Fifth, it has been possible, within historic times, to domesticate many animals, often with real changes in bodily form, as the various breeds of cattle, sheep, or dogs. Besides, isolated animals, as on the islands of the sea, have become unique forms differing from those on connected continents.

These facts, so claim the proponents of the theory of evolution, all point to the common origin, and an advancing existence, of all animal forms on earth. To many minds these observations, upon which in the main the theory of evolution rests, are sufficient proof of the correctness of the theory of evolution. It is indeed an easy way of explaining the endless variety of life. All life has grown out of a common root. The ease of explaining the origins and differences among life forms has won much support for the theory of evolution (Sir Arthur Keith, Concerning Man's Origin, and Darwinism and What It Implies; H. H. Newman, Evolution Yesterday and Today).

Yet, at the best the doctrine of the common origin of all life is only an inference of science. After these many years of searching, its truth has not been demonstrated. To many competent minds it is but a working hypothesis of temporary value.

Many weaknesses in the theory of evolution are recognized by its adherents. Two are especially notable.

First, many reported similarities are far-fetched and not well enough established to be acceptable as the foundation of a world-sweeping theory. It is surprising how many such cases have been found. (Douglas Dewar, Man a Special Creation; Sir Ambrose Fleming, Evolution or Creation; E. C. Wren, Evolution, Fact or Fiction) Moreover, many actual similarities may be interpreted in more than one way. The theory of a common origin is only one of several possible explanations of the mass of biological facts.

Second the theory fails utterly to explain the emotional, reasoning, and religious nature of man which distinguishes him so completely from the lower animals. One defender of the theory declares that the brains of man and monkey are identical anatomically, but that the larger size of the human brain accounts for the higher intelligence of man. This suggestion falls to the ground in face of well-known facts such as that the ant shows greater intelligence than the cow. Many notable advocates of the theory, such as Darwin and Huxley, have stood helpless before the mental emotional, and moral supremacy of man over the ape, the animal most like man in body. Conscience is peculiar to man. Evil, sin, goodness, truth, love, sacrifice, hope, and religion separate man from the highest animal by a gulf not yet bridged by any scientific theory.

The doctrine of the common origin of life on earth is but a scientific theory, and should be viewed as such. Clear thinkers will distinguish between the general law of change or evolution accepted by all, and the special theories of evolution which, like all scientific theories, are subject to variation with the increase of knowledge. Honest thinkers will not attempt to confuse law and theory in the minds of laymen. The man, learned or unlearned, who declares the doctrine of the common origin of life on earth to be demonstrated beyond doubt, has yet to master the philosophy of science. The failure to differentiate between facts and inferences is the most grievous and the most common sin of scientists.

This is the trend of thought in the best scientific circles. In the words of Professor Punnett of Cambridge University, scientists "still hold by the theory of evolution, regarding the world of living things as dynamic, and not a static concern." But the interpretation of Darwinism has changed greatly. The theory of evolution "is released today from the necessity of finding a use for everything merely because it exists." More interesting, the glib talk about changing species is subdued. "Species are once more sharply marked off things with hard outlines, and we are faced once more with the problem of their origin as such. The idea of yesterday has become the illusion of today; today's idea may become the illusion of tomorrow" (Punnett, "Forty Years of Evolution Theory," in Background to Modern Science). That is the spirit of science. By slow degrees, among many changes, accepting, rejecting, striving, it may in the distant future reach the correct understanding of final causes.

The majority of the advocates of the theory that all life came from one stock believe that the primeval cell originated by the chance assembling under favorable conditions of the constituent elements of cellular substance. That means that life is only an accidental intruder into the universe. The immediate logical weakness of this view is that if life on earth began by the fortuitous assembling of inorganic materials in a slimy, primitive pool, other equally favorable pools for the generation of life may have existed, thus providing more than one origin of life.

Those who insist that all life on earth has come from one source are almost obliged to rule God out of the picture; for, if a Supreme Being is allowed to create a living cell in the beginning, He may at will create other life at different periods of time. Even believers in God who accept the theory of evolution as a final explanation of the origin of life forms, are inclined to insist that the theory represents Gods only method of creation. Nearly always, those who so believe refuse to admit that any other process may also be in operation. They would limit God to one method of operation. Fettering God, or unbelief in Him, or making Him merely a universal super-force, have been usual companions of the theory of evolution (W. W. Keen, I Believe in God and Evolution).

Latter-day Saints accept every scientific fact, but rate theories based upon the facts as human explanations of the facts, likely to change as new facts appear. They do not deny that an evolutionary process, a reflection of the gospel law of progression, may be one of the methods of the Lord's labor in the universe. That does not mean, however, that the Almighty cannot perform other acts of will for the promotion of His plan, as, for example, the special creation of man. God is a purposeful Being; whatever is on earth or in heaven has been designed for the accomplishment of the divine purpose—the welfare of man. The spirit of man, itself intelligent, purposeful, is an eternal pre-existent being. He reaches beyond the confines of earth. He was with God before the earth was made. The theory of evolution does not explain the external man.

Any theory that leaves out God as a personal, purposeful Being, and accepts chance as a first cause cannot be accepted by Latter-day Saints. The evidence for God is yet greater than for the chance creation of the earth and its inhabitants. Mind and thought shape a work of art from the marble block. More marvelous than any human work of art is man. However he may have risen to his present high estate, it has been by the operation of mind and thought. That man and the whole of creation came by chance is unthinkable. It is equally unthinkable that if man came into being by the will and power of God, the divine creative power is limited to one process dimly sensed by mortal man. The great law of evolution may have many forms of expression, far beyond man's present comprehension.

In fact, the whole squabble about evolution centers upon two questions. Did life on earth come by chance or by divine will? If by divine will, is God limited to one process? These questions are as old as history. The ancients asked them; and those who come after us will ask them.[1]

Here, then, is the answer to the question at the head of this chapter: The law of evolution or change may be accepted fully. It is an established fact so far as human power can determine. It is nothing more or less than the gospel law of progression or its opposite. Joseph Smith taught that men could rise towards Godhood only "by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace; from exaltation to exaltation." Modern revelation also says, "For I, the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth" (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:5), and further that each creation "remaineth in the sphere in which I, God created it" (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:9) This last statement suggests limitations placed upon development under the general law of progressive change. The theory of evolution which may contain partial truth, should be looked upon as one of the changing hypotheses of science, man's explanation of a multitude of observed facts. It would be folly to make it the foundation of a life's philosophy. Latter-day Saints build upon something more secure—the operation of God's will, free and untrammelled, among the realities of the Universe.


[1] The real problem of evolution has been well stated by H. F. Osborne: "The Greeks left the later world fact to face with the problem of causation in three forms: first, whether intelligent design is constantly operating in Nature; second, whether Nature is under the operation of natural causes originally implanted by Intelligent Design; and third, whether Nature is under the operation of natural causes due from the beginning to the laws of chance, and containing no evidences of design, even in their origin." (From the Greeks to Darwin) Latter-day Saints accept the first of these alternatives. Evolution then is but a part of the "intelligent design constantly operating in nature." The intelligence operating in Nature is left free to use other means of carrying out its purposes.

[The above is a quotation from John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, arr. G. Homer Durham, 3 vols. in 1 [1960], 153-165. All italics are in the original.]


Anonymous Gary said...

In spite of its length, I think the above quotation from Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve is a good read. Especially for those who criticize President Joseph Fielding Smith for using outdated science in Man: His Origin and Destiny. I suspect President Smith enjoyed reading these two chapters, as did I.

8/26/2005 12:12:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

To Widtsoe's classes of evidence should be added DNA sequences. The embryology could also be expanded, and fossil evidence has been strengthened.

"The immediate logical weakness of this view is that if life on earth began by the fortuitous assembling of inorganic materials in a slimy, primitive pool, other equally favorable pools for the generation of life may have existed, thus providing more than one origin of life."

I don't see how that is a weakness. In fact if I'm not mistaken it is accepted as quite possible.

FYI, the concept of life arising on earth from chemical constituents is called abiogenesis.

8/26/2005 07:54:00 AM  
Anonymous J. Stapley said...

Thanks for bringing this up. I would just be careful in reproducing so much. It is still under copyright and a whole chapter is likely in violation of fair use. (Sorry to be a party pooper).

8/26/2005 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Widtsoe's point about distinguishing facts from inferences is well taken. Yet very much of our scientific understanding is based on inference, especially the congruence of a number of inferences. At what point does a well-supported inference become a fact? It's a philosphical question, but one to keep in mind.

I might add that some of our doctrine is based on inference.

8/26/2005 03:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Greg said...



Elder Widtsoe's reasoning, all of it, in my view, is not in any way weakened by recent theory. Here is a true scientist filled with the Holy Ghost, expressing himself plainly and unimpeachably. He lays out all of the parameters for any possible dialogue for serious students of the Scriptures that touch on these matters.

In my opinion, one must quench, drench, and flush the Spirit to find
fault with his reasoning or conclusions.

8/28/2005 10:37:00 PM  

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