Friday, May 23, 2008

BYU evolution courses overrated by FAIR

According to FAIR Blog's Mike Parker, the mere fact that BYU teaches evolution connotes Church acceptance of the theory.  Here is what Mike said:

"One question:  If the Church is formally and officially anti-evolution, why then is evolution taught freely in BYU science classes?

"Consider for a moment that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are the BYU board of trustees. If evolution is wholly in opposition to revealed truth, and the brethren are officially opposed to it, why is it the BYU science curriculum? "  (FAIR Blog, March 25, 2008.)

In that same discussion, commenter NorthboundZax said:  "I'd like to hear your answer to why BYU's teaching of evolution isn't an implicit endorsement from the Church of the compatibility between Mormon doctrine and evolution"  (click here).

In the end, of course, only the BYU administration and/or its Board of Trustees would be able to answer these questions;  I, myself, can only guess.  But history has left a few clues.

Dropped in 1911

Evolution was kicked out of BYU nearly a hundred years ago.  President Joseph F. Smith, in an April 1911 Improvement Era editorial, publicly berated three BYU instructors who had "advanced certain theories on evolution as applied to the origin of man."  And when their ideas came into conflict with scripture, "it required the modification of the latter to come into harmony with the former."  Cancelling BYU evolution courses, President Smith said:

"Teachers in a Church school [should] not be given opportunity to inculcate theories that [are] out of harmony with the recognized doctrines of the Church, and hence that they be required to refrain from so doing"  (click here).

In 1973, while he was serving as Church President and Chairman of the BYU Board of Trustees, Harold B. Lee summarized the 1911 BYU evolution controversy in these words:

"The doctrine of evolution ...  has been long a bone of contention so serious that in the earlier years when Darwin's theory first was enunciated [at BYU], a number of professors ...  were released because of their unwillingness to teach the theory and then counter by delivering the true doctrines of the gospel"  (click here).

And so it was that for sixty years, between 1911 and 1971, evolution courses were not taught at BYU.

Brought back in 1971

To help its students prepare for biology graduate programs at other universities, BYU resumed undergraduate evolution courses in 1971.  Harold B. Lee was involved in obtaining the required permission from the Board of Trustees.  But, he said, "don't ... beat the Church with it."  (See Duane Jeffery interview, Dialogue, Vol.  35, No.  4, Winter 2002, 12.)

This is the same Harold B. Lee who, six months after becoming Church President, expressed sorrow in an Ensign First Presidency Message over a Church member who had asked him about pre-Adamites:

"She wondered about the creation because she had read the theories of the scientists, and the question that she was really asking was:  How do you reconcile science with religion?  The answer must be, If science is not true, you cannot reconcile truth with error."  (Ensign, Dec. 1972, p.2.)

This is also the same Harold B. Lee who, just weeks before his death, praised Joseph Fielding Smith's Man, His Origin and Destiny as the finest Church book for science teachers  (click here).

It seems pretty clear that President Lee didn't view BYU evolution courses as evidence for Church acceptance of the theory.

Chairman of the Board

In 1971 when the BYU evolution courses returned, Joseph Fielding Smith was Chairman of the school's Board of Trustees.  Here is one of President Smith's legendary comments about the theory:

"Today the world ... has adopted and is promulgating in textbooks and schools the debasing doctrine that man is ... a natural development through countless ages from the lowest forms of physical life to his present form and intelligence.  Such a doctrine is an insult to our Father in whose Image we were created.  [It] is the doctrine of the devil."  (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:143-149.)

It should be obvious that permission from Joseph Fielding Smith to resume evolution courses was not an endorsement of the theory.

Students warned

President Boyd K. Packer and Elder Russell M. Nelson have each been asked to serve on the BYU Board of Trustees and both have warned BYU students about evolution (previously discussed here and here).  President Packer and Elder Nelson clearly don't believe BYU evolution courses connote Church acceptance of the theory.

President Ezra Taft Benson made this suggestion to parents:

"If your children are taught untruths on evolution in the public schools or even in our Church schools, provide them with a copy of President Joseph Fielding Smith's excellent rebuttal in his book Man, His Origin and Destiny."  (Era, Dec 1970, p.49.)

Elder Bruce R. McConkie warned BYU students that one of today's seven deadly heresies is trying to harmonize organic evolution with revealed religion (click here).  "There is no harmony," McConkie consistently taught, "between the truths of revealed religion and the theories of organic evolution"  (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p.256.)

President Benson and Elder McConkie both served on the BYU Board of Trustees, yet it seems quite apparent that neither of them felt BYU evolution courses meant Church acceptance of the theory.

The gospel perspective

Yes, BYU teaches evolution courses.  Even so, the BYU Board of Trustees has established the BYU Evolution Packet (click here) which makes clear the Church's position on evolution (click here).  In addition, BYU students are required to take religion classes where certain aspects of evolution theory are countered with the gospel perspective (click here, for example).


BYU evolution courses do not supersede the official 1909 First Presidency statement which is the predominant item in the BYU Evolution Packet and has been reprinted in major Church publications twice in this century (click here and here).

The 1909 statement is easily and usually interpreted as anti-evolutionary (click here).  Duane Jeffery himself has called it "anti-science" [1]  and "quite anti-evolutionary." [2]

For the above reasons, I think BYU evolution courses do not establish compatibility between Church doctrine and evolution, and do not connote Church approval of the theory.


1.  As quoted in William E.  Evenson and Duane E.  Jeffery, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005), p. 30.

2.  As quoted in Deseret Morning News, March 1, 2006, p. B3.


Blogger S.Faux said...

I really don't know how any life science department could pass an external review with evolution being absent from the curriculum. I presume BYU makes use of external reviews. It is a standard procedure. Such an external review would mean that some biologist (or other life scientist) from a non-LDS school would evaluate and assess a particular life science department at BYU every few years. In other words, scientists do have some obligations to their peers beyond the university, not just to their administrators. Academic freedom is NOT the freedom to act irresponsibly.

Naturally, we do not want chemistry departments teaching that wind, fire, and rain are the basic elements. We don't want psychology departments teaching about black and yellow biles as regulators of emotion. We don't want astronomy departments teaching the earth as the center of the universe. In the same vein, I cannot imagine a biology department teaching the so-called "intelligent design."

In academia, accreditation and reputation really do matter. Even so, I would think the vast majority of BYU biologists really do want evolution to be taught regardless of any external pressure (from any direction). The real effect of the external pressure would be upon the administration to keep from exercising undue influence on the curriculum.

We should keep in mind that normally faculty members have complete control over the curriculum. I have no reason to believe this is any different at BYU, which is where, by the way, I learned a significant chunk of my evolutionary understanding.

Evolution is taught at BYU not for religious policy. It is taught out of scientific necessity.

5/23/2008 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Hi Gary. I was just thinking that we hadn't heard from you in a while. I'll call off the search party.

5/23/2008 08:31:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


S.Faux:  I agree with you.  BYU science classes should teach the current scientific view.  But that doesn't make it compatible with Church doctrine.


Jared*:  I appreciate your concern.  We've had a lot going on at our house for the last seven months, but we're expecting things to settle down soon.

5/24/2008 03:20:00 AM  
Blogger Peter V. Hilton said...

Interesting blog. My personal feeling is that didacticism in anything that does not specifically pertain to salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ (see 2 Ne 31 or 3 Ne 27 for definitions of "gospel") can often close doors on the influence of the Spirit. As a student at BYU, I have found it worrisome both when religion professors teach with unbridled rabid ferocity that evolution is a doctrine of the devil or of man; by the same token, however, I have found it unsettling and worrisome when pious holier-than-thou positions are posed by pro-evolution biology professors. For what it's worth, I reckon that what with my baptism, confirmation, and weekly partaking of the sacrament--plus the rest of righteous living and repentance entailed in being a disciple of Christ--I can leave well enough alone until the great video replay of everything come judgment day.

I appreciate your efforts to compile a list of these points, however. You've gotten a good discussion going and made for a nice reference.

6/10/2008 09:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am constantly surprised how many times this issue comes up. The Church cannot split hairs on every aspect of evolution and keep the doctrine pure and simple. There is mirco & macro evolution -- which is difficult for top scientist to discern. Does the Church need to get down to the amino acid and mutation level? It would be impossible (and dangerous) for the Church to demonstrate in all cases where and how the line is drawn. That being said, the Church has clearly defined man's beginnings and lineage. I think Gary has made this crystal clear beyond any argument. BYU is an accredited university, and therefore there are curriculum requirements. Stanford University is not going to accept biology transfer credits taken from a school which only teaches biology from a Church Old Testament Institute manual.

6/14/2008 12:05:00 AM  
Blogger Peter V. Hilton said...

You make a good point. Look at all the Catholics have to keep retracting because of trigger-happy popes. I'm in your boat, but I also doubt we'll get a full answer in this life.

6/14/2008 02:54:00 PM  

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