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.]

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

James E. Talmage and the theory of evolution

[Richard Sherlock is a Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. What follows is excerpted from his 1978 article, "A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Responses to the Darwinist Legacy," Journal of Mormon History 4, 45-69; as reprinted in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1993, 67-91. The note numbers appear in square brackets and the parenthesized numbers at the end of each paragraph are page numbers in The Search for Harmony.]

There is not one set of truths in religion and another set of truths in science. All truths are part of one whole, one set of truths that do not conflict. This conviction led several important church authorities to attempt to account in some way for the mass of evidence that conflicted with the traditional views of the Creation and the coming of Adam. (71)

The first church leader to attempt a reconciliation of sorts was Apostle James E. Talmage, a trained geologist, president of two universities, and a man who believed that modern scientific discoveries were important and could not be denied outright. But though he was sympathetic to science, his religious convictions prevented him from becoming an unqualified supporter of evolution. Ultimately he retreated into the world view of Bishop Ussher and the coming of Adam at 4004 B.C.E. (71)

Talmage did not write or publish a great deal on evolution. His first discussion of the matter came in 1890 before he became an apostle. At the time he was president of LDS College in Salt Lake City and taught geology and natural science at the school. In an address to teachers in Utah County, he discussed evolution at some length. This speech set a pattern for Talmage's later discussions of evolutionary theory and the ideas surrounding it.[11] (71)

In the speech Talmage distinguished between a general idea of evolution as a theory of development or change and the specific hypothesis of natural selection and organic mutability advanced by Darwin and his followers. Demonstrating a wide acquaintance with the history of evolutionary thought, he discussed the background of the Darwinian synthesis in Buffon, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather. (71-72)

Talmage criticized the evolutionary ideas of Darwin's most prominent supporter, Thomas Huxley. He dismissed the idea that life originated in some primordial protoplasm as the result of chance occurrence. Any such generation had not been demonstrated, he argued, and all attempts to find or create such matter had failed. Hence on this point the theistic conclusion was obvious: "Without spontaneous generation 'miracle' in the words of Strauss was and is still necessary to explain the advent even of the hypothetical primordial germ."[12] (72)

Then he proceeded to argue against the central thesis of Darwinian synthesis, the organic mutability of species. The fixity of species was a hallmark of Talmage's thinking. Variations do occur, he admitted, but he called his audience's attention to the sterility of hybrids as a classic example of the "law" that species reproduce only "after their own kind." Each creation was a special work of the Creator adapted to its specific environment: "The insect is fitted for its abode on the leaf; the fish for the water; the bird for the air; each beast for its allotted life; and so man for his. No one form can be transmuted into another. The thought that it could be otherwise is far more wild than the alchemist's dream of transmuting base lead into royal gold. In the fable of old the frog burst when it tried to appear as an ox. Each after its kind—each to its sphere—this is the song of nature; and all praise to nature's God."[13] (72)

This hostility to the idea of mutability of species did not prevent Talmage from adopting the language of evolution. There was, he said, a "true evolution" that was not subject to the attacks that he launched. This true evolution was signified by the idea of development and growth. "Is evolution true?" he asked. "Aye: true evolution is true. The evolution that means advancement, progress, growth to a full realization of the intended measure of all things, that is true."[14] (72)

In line with many others, Talmage regarded Mormonism as the best expression of this true evolution. What more lavish evolutionary thought was there than that people could progressively develop into gods? The evolutionist who failed to see the cosmic evolution of the spirit in humankind was truly blind. Men were not the offspring of other animals, they were the offspring of God. They were evolving, developing, and progressing into divine beings themselves."[15] (72-73)

Talmage recognized that certain hard facts from geological and paleontological studies could not be ignored. He seems to have been convinced of the necessity to account in some fashion for these well established facts. The most important statement from him in this regard was his 1931 address, "The Earth and Man," but during the same time period Talmage answered many letters on topics surrounding evolutionary theory. With these sources it is not difficult to reconstruct the main contours of his thinking. (73)

Talmage began by admitting that the earth was considerably older than humanity. How old he did not know, but the church made no pronouncement on such matters and if geologists said that it was very old then that was probably true. Such a concession as this would not produce shock waves anywhere. American theologians had been saying it since the 1830s without great difficulty, and inside the LDS church many were prepared to accept it. His next move was more challenging. Plants and animals had existed for ages before the coming of man. Furthermore they had lived and died during these countless ages. This was the major concession in the 1931 address: "According to the conception of geologists the earth passed through ages of preparation during which countless generations of plants and animals existed in great variety and profusion and gave in part the very substance of their bodies to help form certain strata which are still in existence as such." (73)

As it stands this statement could be interpreted as merely a report of what geologists believe about earth history. But in a letter a few months later he was explicit about his own belief: "I cannot agree with your conception that there was no death of plants and animals anywhere upon this earth prior to the transgression of Adam, unless we assume that the history of Adam and Eve dates back many hundreds of thousands of years. The trouble with some theologians—even including many of our own good people—is that they undertake to fix the date of Adam's transgression as being approximately 4000 years before Christ and therefore about 5932 years ago. If Adam was placed upon the earth only that comparatively short time ago the rocks clearly demonstrated that life and death have been in existence and operative in this earth for ages prior to that time."[16] Talmage admitted life and death of animals for those countless ages but still believed in the biblical chronology for the coming of Adam.[17] (73-74)

If Adam only came 4,000 years before Jesus Christ, then Talmage was clearly headed for difficulty. In the 1931 speech he tentatively suggested that there might have been men on earth before Adam—"pre-Adamic men." He suggested that whatever came before the "Adamic race" (his term) was a completely different dispensation with which we are not to be concerned. Talmage realized that dogmatic assertions were not helpful. In his journal on the day the First Presidency gave its decision in the controversy between Smith and Roberts, he wrote, "This is one of the many things on which we cannot preach with assurance, and dogmatic assertions on either side are likely to do harm rather than good."[18] (74)

In a letter written a few months before his death, Talmage articulated his fundamental scheme of reference which had varied little in forty years: "Undoubtedly true evolution is true, meaning progress from the lower to the higher, from the simple to the more complex. We cannot sweep aside all the accumulated knowledge in geology, archeology or any other branch of science simply because our interpretation of some isolated passage of scripture may seem to be opposed thereto. I do not believe that Adam derived his mortal body by evolutionary processes from the lower animals. The adamic race of men are of an entirely different order."[19] In the end Talmage's thinking on evolution is an amalgam of diverse impulses, the mark of a man with divided loyalties. As a scientist he knew that the evidence could not be denied. But the safe harbor of special creationism was appealing to him. (74)


[11] James E. Talmage, The Theory of Evolution (Provo, UT: Utah County Teachers Association, 1890). (88)

[12] Ibid., 9. (88)

[13] Ibid., 17. (88)

[14] Ibid., 16. (88)

[15] James E. Talmage, "What Mormonism Stands For," Liahona 6 (Feb. 1909): 829-32; and Talmage, "Fallen But He Shall Rise Again," Improvement Era 22 (Oct. 1919): 1067-68. (88)

[16] James E. Talmage, "The Earth and Man," Deseret News, 21 Nov. 1931; also Talmage to Bee Gaddie, 28 Mar. 1930, Talmage Papers, LDS archives; Conrad Wright, "The Religion of Geology," New England Quarterly 14 (Fall 1941): 335-58; Talmage, "The Earth and Man"; Talmage to Heber Timothy, 28 Jan. 1932, Talmage Papers. (88)

[17] Talmage to Daryl Shoup, 10 Dec. 1930, and Talmage to Heber Timothy, 19 Mar. 1932, Talmage Papers. (88)

[18] Talmage, "The Earth and Man," 5; Talmage Journal, 7 Apr. 1931, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. (88)

[19] Talmage to F. C. Williamson, 22 Apr. 1933, Talmage Papers. (88)

[The above is excerpted from Richard Sherlock, "A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Responses to the Darwinist Legacy," Journal of Mormon History 4, 45-69; as reprinted in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1993, 67-91.]

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