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.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When James E. Talmage gave his 1931 speech, The Earth and Man, he was not defending Darwin's theories. James E. Talmage was simply trying to balance the public record regarding a three year private discussion among Church leaders about the B. H. Roberts double creation theory (see here and here). Although Roberts was proposing a theory that he himself had invented—it did not originate with the science of his day—Roberts felt strongly that it was the best way to explain scientific evidence of life before Adam in light of creation accounts in scripture. In the only other published comment about the Roberts theory, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith had explained why it was doctrinally unacceptable.

Historian James B. Allen explains: "In his lengthy hournal entry for November 21, 1931, Elder Talmage briefly reviewed all the recent discussions, then noted that many LDS students had inferred from Elder Smith's 1930 address that the Church refused to recognize the findings of science if there was even a seeming conflict with scripture and that therefore the policy of the Church was opposed to scientific research. In other words, because Elder Smith's statement had been published and Elder Roberts's had not, Elder Smith's view was catching on among the youth of the Church." (The Truth, The Way, The Life, 2nd edition, Provo: BYU Studies, 1996, 711.)

Clearly, Talmage was NOT prepared to defend either Darwin or Roberts but he did wish to make clear that he was sympathetic to science even when it's conclusions clashed with his religion. Ultimately, as Richard Sherlock points out above, those "religious convictions prevented him from becoming an unqualified supporter of evolution."

8/25/2005 07:50:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Nice post. Glad to see you are back. Just recently I was thinking that we hadn't heard from you in a while.

I've wondered, if I died, how long it would be until anybody in the bloggernacle figured it out.

8/25/2005 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

Something worth pursuing as a post over at the Mormons and Evolution blog or here is when people and GAs first started accepting evolution in a more robust fashion.

8/25/2005 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...

What GAs? I'm not aware of any public acceptance since Widtsoe.

8/25/2005 07:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8/26/2005 12:14:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...


I read your post on Widtsoe before coming back here, but I suspected the post was in reaction to my comment.

I think you read to much into my comment. I meant that I can't think of any GAs who have accepted--or at least been willing to entertain--as much as Widtsoe.

8/26/2005 08:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


What I have learned in 6 months from yours and Jeff/Jared, et. als' blogs is that the creation of Adam and Eve as described over and over in all of the Scriptures cannot be harmonized with a Darwinian origin, and, that the scientists writing here seem to all fall prey to the error pointed out by Widtsoe of failing to distinguish between fact and inferrence in Evolutionary theory.

It seems that to accept a Darwinian explanation for the origin of my body as a proven FACT places an excessive faith in science, and to accept the then necessary corrolary that the divine origin and then Fall of Adam's body as a myth diminishes the below a level where they would mean any thing at all to a person like me.

Likewise, no Apostle of Jesus Christ, scientist or otherwise, has
accepted a non-scriptural origin for man's body, which I find significant.

Finally, as one professionally trained to weigh evidence and analyze arguments, I continue to see blind spots in those who accept the Darwinian explanation as FACT, rather than theory.

8/28/2005 11:17:00 PM  
Blogger Jeff G said...


Here is my impression of your reasoning and you can say whether it is correct or not.

Scientists, as well as philosophers, are concerning with finding truth, what ever it may be. Thus, since they aren't entirely sure what that truth is (if they knew it then they wouldn't be searching would they?) they simply follow the evidence where ever it may lead them.

You, however, define church doctrine as being the truth which has already been found. Church doctrine is not wrong in any way, for this would compromise this definition. Thus all evidence must be measured by its standard. Thus there is no search for truth at all, only attempts at reconciling other possible truths with church doctrine.

Thus we come to evolution. There is lots of evidence to suggest that man evolved just as much, if not more so, as other animals from prior "species". There is no objective evidence against this idea whatsoever, only areas that could use more strengthening in order to make it absolutely iron clad. However, when it comes to historical hypotheses, there is really no such thing as something being 100% iron clad truth. Instead, there are simply things which we are really sure about and have no good reason to doubt.

The fact that our country had a civil war serves as an example of this. There is no absolute "proof" of it having happened since it can't be independently verified today, but there is simply no good reason for doubting it at all. Human evolution is also along these lines. There is lots of evidence for it coming for a far wider spectrum of evidence than that which supports the reality of the civil war. There is very little, if any evidence against it. Just as we don't run around saying that there was some sort divine conspiracy to create the appearance of the civil war, why would we ever think the same thing about human evolution?

Your method, however, is to count the scriptures and church doctrine as absolute fact, equal with evidence itself, which must be taken into account. Thus, you conclude, that there is, in fact, evidence against human evolution and therefore good reason to doubt it.

However, we should not accept this "evidence" uncritically. Nowhere in the scriptures do we find the word evolution at all. There is a creation story, but this story must be radically reinterpreted in light of other knowledge which we have now gained, even if evolution were not true.

There are other issues at hand. For starters, we are dealing with human testimony of testimony given to them. We don't have a book written by the first humans on earth. All accounts are far from first hand.

We must also deal with the independence and origin of these accounts. Clearly our account originates primarily with Moses. But where did he get it? There were other creation accounts contemporary with and prior to Moses account and to say that his account was uninfluenced by these wouldn't be reasonable. We should also mention that Moses didn't claim that he received the first chapters of Genesis by revelation either.

Independent of evolution we also have to deal with our vast knolwedge of human prehistory as well. Even if human evolution is false, there is overwhelming evidence which suggests that humans have been around for at least 50,000 years. We know a lot about their lifestyles, their migration patterns, their communities, their eating habits and even their proto-religions. There is absolutely no way of denying that these people were around. (I recommend Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" and his "The Third Chimpanzee" on this matter.) This account alone should serve to show that we simply cannot place too much trust in the Genesis account.

One also has to wonder how we can be sure that there weren't other societies of one form or another contemporary with Adam and Eve. The idea that scriptures are written from God's perspective is simply a joke, according to Nibley and I agree. Why else did Noah send out that dove if he really could tell whether the water covered all the earth or not?

I guess my point is that considering church doctrine to count as evidence for anything but the most vague conclusions is simply unwarranted. Even if you do consider to be this, however, you simply must be able to acknowledge how others simply don't see things the way you do.

8/29/2005 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeffrey said: "We should not accept ... the scriptures and church doctrine ... uncritically."

That will be a difficult sell to mainstream Latter-day Saints. Good luck, Jeffrey.

8/29/2005 08:02:00 PM  
Blogger Jeff G said...

I thought we accepted errors in scriptures and prophets. I thought we rejected infallibility. I thought that we should at least try to put those statements in context to evaluate their intended meaning. How tough of a sell should this really be?

8/30/2005 09:00:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff G said...

I should also point out Elder Widstoe's little articles entitled "Search the Scriptures Critically":

"In the field of modern thought the so-called higher criticism of the Bible has played an important part. The careful examination of the Bible in the light of our best knowledge of history, languages and literary form has brought to light many facts not sensed by the ordinary readers of the Scriptures. Based upon the facts thus gathered, scholars have in the usual manner of science proceeded to make inferences, some of considerable, others of low probability of truth...

"To Latter-day Saints there can be no objection to the careful and critical study of the scriptures, ancient or modern, provided only that it be an honest study—a search for truth. The prophet Joseph Smith voiced the attitude of the Church at a time when modern higher criticism was in its infancy. "We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly." This article of our faith is really a challenge to search the scriptures critically. Moreover, the Church had just been established, when Joseph Smith under divine direction, set about to revise or explain the incorrect and obscure passages of the Bible...

"Whether under a special call of God, or impelled by personal desire, there can be no objection to the critical study of the Bible...

"Destructive Biblical criticism leads nowhere. Constructive Biblical criticism enhances greatly the joy of reading and studying the Book of Books. All knowledge should be applied in the study of the Bible, but the labor should be approached in the true spirit of science—as a search for truth, and with a prayer for truth."

8/30/2005 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeffrey said: "There is a creation story, but this story must be radically reinterpreted in light of other knowledge which we have now gained."

Elder Widtsoe said: "Clearly the theory of evolution has added nothing to our understanding of the beginning of things. The ancient view that God is the creator of all things is still the best, because it is true."

8/30/2005 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff G said...

Its true. Elder Widstoe said that over 50 years ago. So what?

8/30/2005 01:23:00 PM  

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