Sunday, May 06, 2007

To: Bruce Young, Re: Human Evolution


This post is in response to your comments on Friday here and here

1.  Authoritative Interpretations

You say you don't think "the Church officially opposes human evolution [and you] don't read the official statements as making that absolutely clear."

I think my reading and your reading of the official statements is of little importance.  I think God gave us apostles and prophets to interpret doctrine so that "we henceforth be no more .. carried about with every wind of doctrine."  (Eph. 4:14.)  Twice the Lord tells the elders of the Church to say "none other things" than that which the apostles and prophets teach (D&C 52:9 and 52:36).  I think the reading of official statements that counts comes from those who hold the apostolic keys.

President Boyd K. Packer holds the apostolic keys.  He is authorized to interpret scripture and official Church statements, including the 1909 First Presidency statement, which he says opposes human evolution (click here).

A second witness is found in the 1980-81 Priesthood manual where human evolution is refuted by teaching that Adam was physically "the son of God."  Based on the introductory portrait of and message from the First Presidency (click here), I believe this manual was approved for publication by the First Presidency.  The paragraph about Adam's origin was written by Bruce R. McConkie who was himself in 1980 one of the Apostles.  The paragraph interprets a portion of the 1909 First Presidency statement this way:

"Luke 3:38. What does this verse reveal about the origin of Adam's physical body?   ' As to the manner in which Adam was placed on the earth, the First Presidency of the Church ... has given us this plain statement [from Improvement Era, Nov. 1909, p. 80]: "He took upon him an appropriate body, the body of a man, and so became a  ' living soul.' ... All who have inhabited the earth since Adam have taken bodies and become souls in like manner." '  (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 17.)"  (1980-81 Priesthood manual , p. 36; bracketed comment and italics in the original; see also Mormon Doctrine, "Evolution," pp.  247-256.)

"Adam ... was the son of God" (Luke 3:38; also Moses 6:22).  He was NOT the offspring of "lower orders" of animal life.  I have searched in vain for apostolic statements that support human evolution.  I have concluded that there are none.

The 1909 First Presidency statement is official.  Two contemporary Apostles say it opposes human evolution.  No Apostle has said otherwise and until that happens, it can safely be said that the Church officially opposes human evolution.

2.  Packet Makes Church Position "Clear"

The BYU Evolution Packet cover letter states that the Packet contains all known statements issued by the First Presidency on science, evolution, and the origin of man.  The letter then names all of them.  There are three:

"The Origin of Man" was issued in November 1909.  At 2,700 words, this is the predominant item in the Packet.

"Words in Season" is a small 99 word excerpt from a First Presidency Christmas Message printed in the Deseret Evening News.  It says the Church is not hostile to "real science."  Sometimes overlooked is the fact that it also says we do not accept "human theory and mere speculations of men."

"Mormon View of Evolution" was issued in September 1925. This is a 560 word condensed version of the 1909 "Origin of Man" statement.

As evidence that the Church doesn't oppose human evolution, you quote the Packet's cover letter as follows:

"BYU's Board of Trustees stated in 1992,  ' 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.' "

But you've quoted only part of the sentence and in the context of your comment, it is a gross misrepresentation of what the sentence actually means.  The complete sentence is:

"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 [the three documents listed above] make clear the official position of the Church regarding the origin of man."

In this sentence, the words "biological species" do not include man.  Therefore, the sentence excerpt you've quoted does NOT mean (as you've implied) that there has never been a formal declaration from the First Presidency about human evolution.  In fact, the sentence explicitly says the opposite, namely that "the official position of the Church regarding the origin of man" is made "clear" in the Packet.

3.  Letter Misquoted

If you had read the BYU Evolution Packet cover letter yourself before writing your comment, you wouldn't have misquoted the BYU NewsNet article (thanks for the link).  The cover letter does NOT say:

"The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how."

The NewsNet article doesn't say that statement came from the cover letter, though the wording of the article might imply that.  The quoted statement is from an unofficial encyclopedia article that was appended to the Packet because it quotes what the 1931 First Presidency said about attempts to harmonize science with revealed truth (click here).  The words "the document" in the NewsNet article apparently refer to the complete Packet, including the encyclopedia article, not just the Packet's cover letter.

4.  "Selected Quotes"

You linked to a document titled "Selected LDS quotes on evolution" which identifies an April 1910 Improvement Era article as "the only other document on the subject identifiable to the first presidency."  There was no 1910 First Presidency statement on evolution.  The quoted comment did not originate with the First Presidency (click here).

There is also a short excerpt from an April 1911 Juvenile Instructor article by Joseph F. Smith.  As it stands, this item gives a false impression because it is incomplete.  President Joseph F. Smith also published a companion editorial in the April 1911 Improvement Era.  These two 1911 editorials should be considered together (not one without the other).

5.  We Don't Know Everything

I agree that we don't know everything about the origin of man.  In fact, President Packer made that very point in the process of showing that the Church officially opposes human evolution.  He said:

"It is my conviction that a full knowledge of the origin of man must await further discovery, further revelation." (Boyd K. Packer, "The Law and the Light," The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, to Learn with Joy, Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1990, p. 6.)

No scientist has ever made a trip back in time to actually observe the earth as it was millions or billions of years ago.  You can't even observe the earth as it was yesterday without some kind of recording (a photograph for example) and the very next day that recording is only evidence (granted, sometimes strong evidence) for what really happened the day before.  In the same way, all evidence for evolution is just that—evidence.  I like Hugh Nibley's description of this problem:

"My own children, long before they could read, write, or count, could tell you exactly how things were upon the earth millions and millions of years ago.  But did the little scholars really know?   ' What is our knowledge of the past and how do we obtain it? '  asks the eminent archaeologist Stuart Piggott, and answers:  ' The past no longer exists for us, even the past of yesterday.... This means that we can never have direct knowledge of the past.  We have only information or evidence from which we can construct a picture.'  The fossil or potsherd or photograph that I hold in my hand may be called a fact—it is direct evidence, an immediate experience; but my interpretation of it is not a fact, it is entirely a picture of my own construction.  I cannot experience ten thousand or forty million years—I can only imagine, and the fact that my picture is based on facts does not make it a fact, even when I think the evidence is so clear and unequivocal as to allow no other interpretation."  (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, vol. 1, ch. 2, 25-27.)"

In the official 1909 First Presidency declaration of Church doctrine regarding man's effort to discover human origins, there is an important and often overlooked warning:

"Man, by searching, cannot find out God. Never, unaided, will he discover the truth about the beginning of human life. The Lord must reveal Himself or remain unrevealed; and the same is true of the facts relating to the origin of Adam's race—God alone can reveal them." (Ensign, Feb. 2002, p. 30.)

I think of this every time I hear it said that science has now discovered "the facts relating to the origin of Adam's race," thus denying that "God alone can reveal them."

There are things we don't know about the origin of man.  But because in 1909 God told us, we DO know He didn't use organic evolution to create man's physical body.

6.  The Church's Current Offical Position

The Church's official position on evolution was announced in the November 1909 Improvement Era and has been reprinted twice in recent years.  The Church's 2000-2001 and 2002 reprints of the 1909 statement update its relevance and give it focus directly to the 21st century.

Regarding the notion that Adam descended "from lower orders of the animal creation," this official First Presidency pronouncement states:

"These, however, are the theories of men.  The word of the Lord declares that Adam was  ' the first man of all men '  (Moses 1:34)."

This has been authoritatively interpretated to mean Adam was not the offspring of "lower orders" of animal life.  The Church's doctrinal position is that evolution does not explain the origin of man's body.


The Church's official position on human evolution is only one reason why the theory is incompatible with LDS doctrine.  Human evolution is impossible without millions of years of death before Adam, yet the concept of "no death before the fall of Adam" permeates LDS literature.  Church magazines and approved curriculum material for the past 37 years repeatedly and consistently teach "no death before the fall."  Current LDS doctrine holds that it was only after Adam fell that the earth and all upon it fell and became mortal.

But that is a discussion for another day.


Anonymous bruce young said...

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.

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.

5/07/2007 01:32:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


Your response is appreciated.  I respect your opinions.  I freely and openly confess that I lack your education and experience.  Yet I would like to see an accurate representation of the Church's position (as I understand it) in the bloggernacle.  I feel there is an occasional subtle and covert undermining of some members of the Twelve in the bloggernacle.  I feel that by bringing certain of their views into the discussion, this is flushed out into the open where it is then recognized for what it is.

You pose the question: "Could his [Adam's] body have been prepared through evolutionary processes?"  I will assume it is an innocent question and that you are simply not aware of the following.

President Packer has stated very clearly that organic evolution as an explanation for the origin of man is not only a problem, it is "the problem." [1]  It is his conviction that to the degree evolution asserts man to be the product of an evolutionary process "it is false!" [2]  Theistic evolution, he says, "is equally false." [3]  He further maintains that evolution as a possibility for the origin of man's body is incompatible with "an understanding of the sealing authority," which he says (twice for emphasis), "cannot admit to ancestral blood lines to beasts." [4]

Elder Russell M. Nelson has been even more blunt.  He said:  "It is incumbent upon each informed and spiritually attuned person to help overcome such foolishness of men who would deny divine creation or think that man simply evolved." [5]

Honestly, it doesn't bother me when someone openly challenges President Packer and Elder Nelson on this subject.  I think it only hurts that person's credibility among the Saints.  But when it is suggested that such statements don't exist—or that opposing statements from within the First Presidency or Twelve do exist—that bothers me.  Let me repeat what I said above:  I have searched in vain for apostolic statements that support human evolution.  I have concluded that there are none.  Not once (to my knowledge) in a published speech or in a published magazine article has any member of the First Presidency or the Twelve ever advocated the idea of human evolution.

Regarding "no death before the fall," most of my fifty-plus previous posts examine evidence indicating that it is an accepted doctrine of the Church.

Once again, the comment you posted above is appreciated and I look forward to hearing from you in the future.


[1]  Boyd K. Packer, "The Law and the Light," The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, to Learn with Joy (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1990), p. 6; italics in the original.  See also an on-line pdf, p.&nbs;4, and note that the page numbers in the book don't match those in the pdf.

[2]  "The Law and the Light," p. 21; pdf p. 11.

[3]  "The Law and the Light," p. 21; pdf p. 12.

[4]  "The Law and the Light," p. 22; pdf p. 12; italics in the original.  See also "The Chicks," and "After Their Own Kind" in Boyd K. Packer, "The Pattern of Our Parentage," Ensign, Nov. 1984, p. 66.

[5]  Russell M. Nelson, "The Magnificence of Man," Ensign, Jan 1988, p. 64.

5/07/2007 08:09:00 PM  
Anonymous bruce young said...

I love and (I believe) respect all of our Church leaders, past and present, including in particular those with the apostolic calling. But because of my involvement with racial issues, I'm am keenly aware that apostles and prophets in the past, including presidents of the Church, have said things that are simply not true. Some of what they said, including some things clearly inconsistent with current Church teaching, could have been construed as the official doctrine of the Church at the time--in which case a faithful member of the Church would have been duty-bound not to oppose such doctrine publicly.

But I don't believe some of the teachings noted in relation to evolution and death before the fall meet the standard for the current official doctrine of the Church. Robert Millet of BYU, who has discussed some of these matters directly with the Brethren, has persuasively offered a series of standards for determining such doctrine (see here). On its web site, the Church has released the following statement that suggests similar standards (though in less detail): "Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church." (See this link for more.) I would say that such opinions cannot be binding--even if expressed repeatedly--because it is not the role of a single General Authority, or even of two or three or five speaking separately, to define official doctrine.

5/10/2007 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


Your last comment makes me think of something a blogger said here nearly two years ago.  He said:  "Your claim is that NDBF is currently a binding doctrine of the church."  My answer to him is apropos today (click here).

5/10/2007 07:48:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


Again, I agree with you that the Church apparently has no official doctrine regarding death before the fall.  But I believe human evolution is a different story.  I believe the Church's official doctrine regarding human evolution was announced by the 1909 First Presidency and that it has been consistently interpreted and corroborated in official Church publications by members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles ever since.  I agree with you that it would not be the role of individual Apostles to change the doctrine of the Church or announce new doctrine.  However, it appears that we disagree somewhat regarding the authority of individual Apostles to interpret and clarify existing doctrine.

5/11/2007 07:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After doing quite a bit of research in hominid precursors to man, I have found there really is nothing convincing enough to second guess anything the Church leaders have expressed in this area or believe man arrived from anything but deity. Even the famous "Lucy" supposed ancestor to humans has recently been discovered to be extinct ape. When KNM-ER 1470 came out in 1972, it was constructed with at flat face, much like a human. In 1992, when re-examined with newer technology, it was discovered to be very ape-like.

I don't believe evolutionists have such a convincing argument where an informed LDS needs to believe one or the other or try to force LDS doctrine into their theory.

As an example, it is not as if Church leaders have been saying the body only heals itself through "miracles", when science has clearly discovered how antibodies work. (although the way the immune system itself works is a miracle).

I do, however, fully agree we don't know everything and there is probably a good reason for it. A lot of wild stuff could have happened during the creation and the Fall.

5/23/2007 01:30:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


If you would please send me an email, we can discuss my editing of your comment, part of which says:

-------------- quote --------------
"In response to Gary's comment that the Encyclopedia of Mormonism does not represent more than William Evenson's opinion, I would recommend the book Mormonism and Evolution, the Authoritative LDS Statements by William Evenson and Duane Jeffery."
-------------- end quote --------------

Two previous posts, "Encyclopedia of Mormonism  ' Evolution'  article flawed" [click here] and "Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements (review - part one)" [click here], address this part of your comment.

7/30/2007 05:46:00 AM  

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