“Endless Forms Most Beautiful”: The uses and abuses of evolutionary biology in six works

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Review of:

  • Michael Dowd. Thank God for Evolution. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. 336 pp., with index. $13.95.
  • Karl W. Giberson. Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 239 pp., with index. $9.98.
  • Daniel J. Fairbanks. Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. 281 pp., with index. $15.86.
  • Howard C. Stutz. “Let the Earth Bring Forth”, Evolution and Scripture. Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2010. 130 pp., with index. $15.95
  • David C. Stove. Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution. New York: Encounter Books, 1995. 345 pp., with index. $18.95
  • William A. Dembski. The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009. 229 pp., with index. $22.99

The position of the Church on the origin of man was published by the First Presidency in 1909 and stated again by a different First Presidency in 1925:

[Page 106]The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, declares man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity…. Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes…

The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again (D&C 101:32–33). In 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution, the First Presidency of the Church, then consisting of Presidents Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, addressed all of the General Authorities of the Church on the matter and concluded,

Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.… Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: “Adam is the primal parent of our race.”

First Presidency Minutes, April 7, 1931 ((Cited in William E. Evenson, “Evolution,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 478.))


For many, evolutionary biology ranks with politics and religion as a subject best not debated in polite company. This sentiment is not without some justification, since in all except the absolute basics and fundamentals of the faith (about which there can be no compromise), it is vitally important that [Page 107]our convictions or intellectual life not alienate us from others—or alienate others from us. Our reticence to discuss a matter on which opinions have differed widely has had some occasional side effects. For example, Mormon scholarship can be affected as some Latter-day Saints invoke biological concepts in a muddled way, bringing confusion, not clarity. ((For example, see my lengthy review of a misguided and misinformed use of DNA and evo-bio concepts in Book of Mormon studies: “Often in Error, Seldom in Doubt: Rod Meldrum and Book of Mormon DNA (A review of Rediscovering the Book of Mormon Remnant through DNA by Rod L. Meldrum),” FARMS Review 22/1 (2010): 17–161. See also Michael F. Whiting, “Lamarck, Giraffes, and the Sermon on the Mount (A review of Using the Book of Mormon to Combat Falsehoods in Organic Evolution by Clark A. Peterson),” FARMS Review of Books 5/1 (1993): 209–222.)) And of greater concern is the worldly and secular philosophy, polemic, and propaganda that invoke evo-bio while going far beyond what science can tell us. Prominent examples include the militant atheism and philosophical materialism of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Such philosophical claims often intersect with vital gospel truths and invoke evo-bio, such as whether free will/moral agency is an illusion. I think these conceptual extensions of and parasitism upon evo-bio are of far more significance and a far greater intellectual and spiritual threat to me and mine than biological Darwinism.

The reader is entitled to know with what presuppositions I approach these reviews. First, I do not believe that anyone has this all figured out—theories and models will change, and where once we thought we saw the whole picture, I suspect we will eventually find that there is much more going on. Second, I think evolutionary biology is very poorly understood among most Church members (at least in North America). This is not surprising, since evo-bio is poorly understood among North Americans generally, ((For example, a 2004 Gallup poll found that one third of those surveyed felt that evolution was one of many possible scientific theories and that it was not supported by evidence, while another third felt they did not know enough to have an informed opinion. (Frank Newport, “Gallup Poll: Third of Americans say evidence has supported Darwin’s evolution theory,” (Princeton, NJ: Gallup Organization, 19 November 2004), http://www.gallup.com/poll/14107/Third-Americans-Say-Evidence-Has-Supported-Darwins-Evolution-Theory.aspx.)) and LDS members are no exception [Page 108]to that general rule. We have in addition some LDS leaders who have expressed decidedly anti-evolution ideas that might discourage some members from learning more. As a result of all these factors, nearly all critiques of evo-bio or appeals to creation science that one hears from LDS members are deeply flawed because the writers of these critiques either misunderstand or misrepresent the evo-bio position. ((Critiques of evo-bio made on theological or scriptural grounds, I leave to one side as a separate issue. Even these can be somewhat derailed, however, if their arguments get the science wrong. I provide an example below of such a failure in my review of Stove’s attempt to rebut Darwinism on philosophical grounds, Darwinian Fairytales. Those who seek to do the same thing on religious grounds can profit from studying how the secular Stove goes wrong, and thereby weakens what is, at base, a legitimate argument.)) Rarely, I think, is this inaccuracy intentional. However, its pervasive presence undercuts the many good things which such critiques hope to accomplish. Even if evo-bio were to be a complete fiction from beginning to end, those who oppose it based on limited understanding will lack credibility with those they hope to convince. Latter-day Saint youth who are indoctrinated into a poorly-reasoned critique of evo-bio (even if the field merits critique and denunciation in the strongest terms) will not be well-served when they learn in college that such critiques are built upon sand. Critics of evo-bio must first understand what evidence is invoked in its support and what concepts make it convincing to the vast majority of thinkers in the field. Evidence must be confronted and reanalyzed thoroughly and with rigorous honesty.

In short, I think there is truth and value to be found in evo-bio work, but I do not think that all the questions are adequately answered. If the theory itself is no threat to Mormonism, I do see at least spiritual dangers and sophistry in some of its [Page 109]applications. I’ve written this essay because I’m interested in how Latter-day Saints‚ and Christians generally, integrate biology with theology.

Thank God For Evolution [Michael Dowd]

Reverend Michael Dowd is former pastor of three United Church of Christ congregations. He has worked for many years in environmental causes. His book is praised by many, including “Eugene” C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education, the vice-director of the Vatican Observatory, liberal theologian and humanist Bishop John Shelby Spong, and five Nobel Prize winners. ((Scott’s first name is, in fact, “Eugenie,” and she has been head of the NSCE (a prominent lobby group for biology teachers that resists efforts to introduce creation science in public school classrooms) since 1987. While many endorsements are on the dust-jacket and first few pages, a complete collection is online at http://www.thankgodforevolution.com/book.))

It is with some trepidation that I align myself against these and other worthies. I do not exaggerate, however, when I say that this is the worst book I have ever read on religion and science—possibly only equalled in its flaws by Whitcomb and Morris’s influential but maddening The Genesis Flood. ((John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1961).))

After a long history of pastoring and marriage to his wife, Connie, Dowd encountered a course on “The New Catholic Mysticism” taught by Albert LaChance, who “began by telling the scientific story of the Universe in a way that I had never heard it told before—as a sacred epic. Less than an hour into the evening, I began to weep. I knew I would spend the rest of my life sharing this perspective as great news.” (2) It is telling that his wife—who does not believe in God—is able to embrace his current mission with equal vigor.

Dowd is certainly not modest in his goals. He tells Christians that “whether you consider yourself conservative, moderate, [Page 110]or liberal, my promise to you is that the sacred evolutionary perspective offered here will enrich your faith and inspire you in ways the believers in the past could only dream of.” Other religions are assured that “it will be easy to apply most of what you find here to your own life and faith.” Agnostics, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers “will find nothing here that you cannot wholeheartedly embrace as being grounded in a rationally sound, mainstream scientific understanding of the Universe. I also promise that the vision of ‘evolutionary spirituality’ presented here will benefit you and your loved ones without you needing to believe in everything otherworldly.” (xxii) This desire to pitch a broad tent is admirable, but to do so Rev. Dowd has essentially tossed everything that matters about Christianity except some benign bromides about wholeness and living authentically. (The science in Dowd’s book is accurate, if very broadly sketched—readers will learn little or nothing new about how science works, or why evolutionary biology or a host of other disciplines make the claims they do.)

I confess that as I read, I kept imaging Dowd as a sort of Tony Robbins: half populist preacher on tour and half motivational speaker. I picture Dowd dashing about the stage, capped teeth gleaming, wireless microphone strapped to his head, pumping up the crowd about the glories of evolution—or “The Great Story,” as he calls it (24). The book has that type of feel to it.

Dowd’s whole project smacks less of Christianity than it does of New Age spirituality and self-help seminars. “We are in the early stages of one of the most far-reaching transformations into which human consciousness has ever ascended. Today’s conflict between science and religion is the catalyst by which both will mature in healthy ways.” (12) You can almost hear the opening bars of “The Age of Aquarius.”

I apologize for being slightly silly about the book but, though evidently composed with earnest seriousness, it is an [Page 111]awfully silly book. There’s no doubt Reverend Dowd believes what he says. But his declarations (and they are declared, not argued) are either trite or patently false, depending upon how they are understood.

For example, Dowd rhapsodizes about the interconnectedness of all things and our unity with the cosmos. Fair enough, evolution would certainly argue for that. He then writes:

The good news here is that while it is possible to feel alienated from the Universe.… the fact is that it is impossible ever to be alienated—no matter what. You are part of the Universe. Achieving enlightenment, freedom, salvation, and empowerment is as easy (and as challenging) as developing a habit of trusting what’s real and growing in humility, authenticity, responsibility, and service to the Whole—that is, growing in evolutionary integrity (60-61).

If we define “the Universe” as everything that is, then it is trivially true that we (being part of all that is) are part of the Universe. On the other hand, we are also “part of humanity” or “part of a family,” and we might well feel alienated from these groups. And isn’t alienation really more about how we perceive things? If we feel hated or ignored and thus feel alienated or act alienated, that is the problem—that’s what alienation is and reassuring us that we’re in fact part of the whole by a type of logical deduction from set theory rings rather hollow.

There is a lot that rings hollow in Dowd’s project. It is easy for the worried well who feel vaguely unfulfilled in the affluent West’s suburbia to talk about how we can be enlightened or saved by being more authentic or responsible—but I wonder what this fairly vacuous declaration would say to someone in Dachau or the Killing Fields of Cambodia, suffering a civil war and famine in Africa, or with a debilitating terminal illness.

[Page 112]Dowd ventures straight into issues of death with his bubbly good cheer:

Perhaps there is no more alluring portal for discovering the benefits of evolutionary spirituality than death understood in an inspiring new way. Thanks to the sciences… we can now not only accept but celebrate that:

• Death is natural and generative at every level of reality

• Death is no less sacred than life (94).

Dowd goes on to argue that all life requires some death (from the “death” of stars to create heavy elements to the “death” of continents separated by continental drift, to animals that require the death of something for food or the death of some cells for embryo development). This strikes me as too clever by half, and it trades on the equivocation introduced by the metaphor of “death.” Stars may be said to “die,” and a supercontinent that breaks up may be “dead,” but these are analogies—they are not the same thing as the death of a living organism, much less of a thinking, feeling human with connections to others who grieve the loss. (Unless, of course, one sees humans as no more consequential than balls of fusing hydrogen or hunks of planetary crust—but that view has its own problems.) “An evolutionary understanding of death in no way diminishes the grief we suffer when a loved one dies, …if we acknowledge that there is something profoundly right with death with the fact that we grow old and that we must die, it will be easier to clean up unfinished business before it is too late” (97, italics in original). One problem, however, is that not everyone grows old and dies. Some people suffer horribly and die young. Even evolution itself requires an enormous amount of suffering and death to achieve its purposes. Virtually everyone leaves some unfinished business, and often the unfinished business [Page 113]remains so because the person who died was not willing to be reconciled with the survivors, no matter how much the latter might have wished it. Is our business with those we love ever “finished”? Can we say, “It is enough?” The celebration of death as something “profoundly right” strikes me as making a virtue of necessity, almost a type of Stoicism. It certainly isn’t Christian in any meaningful sense.

Dowd tries to make it Christian by saying that this “mirrors the core message of the early Christian scriptures: on the other side of Good Friday is Easter Sunday.” “Death,” claims Dowd, “never has the final word, that it virtually always contains the seeds of new life.” (100) I think of this as “The Circle of Life” theology. It is not calculated to bring much comfort; it strikes me as little more than the standard atheist’s whistling past the graveyard. If I told bereaved parents that their newborn daughter had just been killed, could we expect them to derive any comfort whatever from the idea that their baby was dead but that she would be eaten by bacteria and worms—and therefore new life has come from death, and there is something profoundly right about this? The idea is repugnant.

Of course, Christian scriptures do tell us that death is not the end, but that is because of personal continuity after death and eventual resurrection and renewal. Evolution (or any science) certainly cannot promise this, and the universe revealed by science alone may eventually run out of any life (even the metaphoric “life” of stars and tectonic plates) as everything sinks into a heat death of maximum entropy, Bertrand Russell’s “extinction in the vast death of the solar system.” ((Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Religion,” in his Mysticism and Logic, and other essays (New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1918.), 46–57.)) All Dowd can urge on us is “a profound faith, a radical trust, that whatever awaits us and our loved ones in the beyond, if anything, is just perfect.” (100, emphasis added) The “if anything” does not exactly fill me with hope. If there is nothing, how can this be [Page 114]said to be “perfect”? If the vast majority of humanity suffers in hell for eternity, that is also not good news. And so on.

This highlights a fundamental problem with the book—Dowd’s message is not Christian in any conventional way, save perhaps for some of the ethics. But there is certainly no hint that Jesus is Lord or that He is risen indeed. “The core teachings of Christianity will remain foundational” (76), he tells us (save, it would seem, for that aspect which featured so prominently in early Christian confessions of faith, “how that Christ died for our sins… was buried… and… rose again the third day” [1 Cor. 15:3–4]). “Of necessity,” Dowd admits, “this evolutionary effort will also mean that some of the teachings will be translated almost beyond recognition” (76). Indeed! Small wonder that atheists, skeptics, and humanists can embrace this project: it is “Christian” only in the sense that Christian imagery can be seen as a type of dim shadow or allegory of the evolutionary worldview. I had difficulty finishing the book—perhaps it gets really good in the last few pages, but I doubt it.

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution [Karl W. Giberson]

Giberson’s book is everything that Dowd’s is not—learned, measured, and a joy to read. Latter-day Saint readers will probably find it more useful for its history than its theological suggestions. That is, Giberson is a worthy guide to the sorts of questions we should be asking, though some of his answers are not as applicable to Latter-day Saints as to other Christians.

Giberson began life as a young-earth, fundamentalist creationist who entered college with a firm determination to learn everything he could about this worldview so he could better defend it. He gives a moving and nuanced description of how wrenching he found it to be compelled by the evidence to alter his perspective (1–16). Of all the books I’ve read on this subject, I think Giberson best treats young-earth fundamentalists, [Page 115]dyed-in-the-wool evolutionists, and everyone in between with real sympathy and insight. He does not disparage his younger self or treat these ideas as something childish that he had to grow out of. Those of a more traditionalist, creationist bent will likely identify with his experience. Those inclined to an evolutionary viewpoint would also do well to study Giberson’s account, especially when he points out how difficult it was to find anyone to help support his shattered fundamentalism in a way that would let him retain anything of value from the Bible:

Further complicating my struggles, the religion scholars I consulted were quite accepting of evolution. An Old Testament scholar with a Ph.D. from Boston University assured me that “Genesis was never intended to be read literally.” He and his colleagues had made their peace with evolution, apparently as toddlers, and had been at peace about this ever since. They were surprisingly disinterested in the struggles of those who, like me, were trying to hold on to some version of their childhood faith, while portions of its foundations were slowly removed, like the pieces of a Jenga tower that may or may not come crashing down as once extracts the tiny logs.

Acid is an appropriate metaphor for the erosion of my fundamentalism, as I slowly lost my confidence in the Genesis story of creation and the scientific creationism that placed this ancient story within the framework of modern science… [It] dissolved Adam and Eve; it ate through the Garden of Eden; it destroyed the historicity of the events of creation week. It etched holes in those parts of Christianity connected to these stories—the fall, “Christ as second Adam,” the origins of sin, and nearly everything else that I counted sacred (9–10).

[Page 116]Giberson spends several chapters discussing the history of creationism within Christianity. Despite its huge role in many American denominations, creationism is of relatively recent date. Most interesting for Latter-day Saint readers, I think, is the story of how the introduction of young-earth “creation science” to mainstream creedal Christianity has parallels in its rise to prominence in our own history. Despite the later popular histories that portray Darwin and religion as immediately and irrevocably locked in combat, most Christians adapted quite quickly to the new perspective if they were aware of it at all. The trend to secularization among Christians had far more to do with intellectual currents within religion than it did with an assault from science (44–58).

However, one religious leader in America threw down the gauntlet—Ellen White. White had been a member of the Millerite sect. Miller had prophesied Christ’s second coming in either 1843 or 1844. Following Christ’s non-appearance—”The Great Disappointment”—some followers went on to form the Adventist movement. White began having visions, and in 1863 the Seventh-day Adventists were formed with her as a key leader:

In 1864, five years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, White wrote that God had given her a vision of the actual creation: “I was then carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.” These and other prophetic writings by White rooted the Adventist movement firmly in the soil of young-earth creationism (58).

Thus, for much of the nineteenth century, young-earth creationism was mainly the province of Adventist groups, who were marginal to mainstream Christianity. (LDS readers can [Page 117]likely readily appreciate how well a self-proclaimed prophet—and a female one at that—was received in nineteenth-century America.)

Meanwhile, mainstream Christian denominations were preoccupied with internal conflict over the modernizing, liberalizing trends fostered by some leaders and scholars. This eventually led to the publication of The Fundamentals, a four-volume set of essays that sought to “identify the essential core ideas of Christianity—the fundamentals—and rally Christians to protect those beliefs and keep them from being swept away by the rising tide of modernism” (60). While evolution was mentioned in about a quarter of the essays, young-earth creationism was conspicuously absent. (This absence is clear to Latter-day Saints, who have the benefit of hindsight; the absence would not have been remarkable at that time precisely because young-earth views were neither widespread nor terribly vocal.) Moreover, the authors of The Fundamentals were not at all united on what “good Christians” ought to think about evolution—a sharp contrast to most labeled evangelicals or Fundamentalists today. Meanwhile, the Adventist views of Ellen White continued in relative obscurity, though the Adventist university at Loma Linda began to propagate them (123). The obscurity would come to an end with George McCready Price:

White’s interpretation of the flood became widely known outside Adventist circles through the writings of George McCready Price (1870–1963)…. A self-taught geologist with little education beyond high school, Price was a gifted writer, amateur scientist, and tireless crusader in the cause of anti-evolution. His The New Geology, published in 1923, was catapulted into relevance by William Jennings Bryan, who wielded its anti-evolutionary arguments in his crusade against [Page 118]Darwinism.… Lay readers, unfamiliar with geology, often find Price’s argument[s] convincing. William Jennings Bryan certainly did. But informed readers are appalled (124, 126).

Price, then, was the vehicle for Ellen White’s revelatory views. Regrettably, Price’s scientific arguments were not plausible when he wrote, much less today:

Despite Price’s emergence as “the principal scientific authority of the Fundamentalists,” he had little formal scientific training, virtually no publications in peer-reviewed journals, and no credentials of any sort beyond an introductory education to which he kept adding.… In the final analysis Price’s ideas served little purpose beyond providing an “authority” for fundamentalists to invoke against evolution. Bryan and other leading anti-evolutionists certainly looked to Price as an authority. And for decades he was the scientific authority (128–29).

One reader who found Price’s arguments compelling was LDS apostle (and later Church president) Joseph Fielding Smith. During discussions among the apostles about the evolution issue in the 1930s, Elder Smith referred frequently to Price’s work. ((Jeffrey E. Keller, “Discussion Continued: The Sequel to the Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15/1 (Spring 1982): 83.)) Elder James E. Talmage wrote of how he used the science of the day to “show up James [sic] McCready Price in all his unenviable colors.” ((James Talmage to Sterling Talmage, 21 May 1931; cited in Keller, “Discussion Continued,” 83.)) Arguments against Price did not, however, persuade Elder Smith, and he would appeal to the Adventist’s book when he wrote his own: Man, His Origin and Destiny (1954). ((Elder Smith would acknowledge permission to reprint extracts from Price’s The New Geology. He also recommended The Phantom of Organic Evolution and The Geological Hoax, also by Price, as being “of great benefit to any who are confused by the hypothesis of organic evolution” (Man, His Origin and Destiny [Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1954], xv).))

[Page 119](Elder Talmage’s son, Sterling, was a Harvard-trained geologist whose riposte about Price’s The New Geology is worth quoting: “All of Price’s arguments, in principle at least, were advanced and refuted from fifty to a hundred years ago. They are not ‘New.’ His ideas certainly are not ‘Geology.’ With these two corrections, the title remains the best part of the book.”) ((Sterling Talmage to James E. Talmage, 9 February 1931, italics in original; cited in Keller, “Discussion Continued,” 83.))

How, then, would Price influence the wider scope of American Christianity, especially given his “disreputable” links to Adventism? Price’s book and his “public image was that of a geological clown, a strange one-man scientific community combing the planet for evidences to support the bizarre visions of a nineteenth-century prophetess.” John Whitcomb and Henry Morris—an Old Testament scholar and a PhD hydrological engineer, respectively—set out to reclaim Christianity from the errors into which they believed it had fallen:

In Whitcomb’s early draft of The Genesis Flood, Morris had noted with caution that the geology was “merely a survey of George McCready Price’s arguments.” Mindful that Price’s book had flopped, Morris worried that a recycling might not fare much better. Whitcomb agreed, and they set out to recast Price’s work in a way that retained its strengths but hid its origins. When The Genesis Flood was finally published, there were but four references to Price in the index and nothing of substance in the text itself. Morris, forever gracious, was concerned about this move and apologized to Price when he asked him to review some of the chapters that drew heavily on his work. Price was not upset, but some of his supporters felt Whitcomb and Morris [Page 120]were disingenuous and unprofessional in concealing their debts to Price (133).

Thus did Ellen White’s views come to have an enormous influence on American Christianity and church-state jurisprudence in the twentieth century. For example, Price and those who drew on his work succeeded in convincing half of Americans that the earth was only a few thousand years old (121, 142).

Giberson goes on to review such events as the Scopes trial, the battle over creation science in the public schools, and the Intelligent Design movement. He treats legislative battles, and the concept of culture war. He also points out the real dangers of scientists imposing a scientific sheen upon pronouncements that are really philosophical or religious, and thus beyond both their expertise and hence science. He then reviews the basic categories of evidence upon which evolution rests.

Giberson seems to hope, through his review of history, to demonstrate that young-earth creationism is neither necessary to Christianity nor of ancient date. Latter-day Saints will find this interesting, but the underlying argument may be less compelling because of LDS views regarding the primacy of modern prophets and the many doctrinal errors that they believe have been propagated in other Christian churches.

Giberson concludes with an account of his experience as a teacher. Here, I think his humility and his sense that these questions are both weighty and difficult are apparent:

Today as I was leaving class a thoughtful student approached me and wanted to know if I was going to “come clean” about evolution and let the students know what I believed. I had been lecturing on Darwin, trying to get the students inside the great scientist’s head as he wrestled with the observations that eventually led him to the theory of evolution. This student, like me, was [Page 121]raised to believe that Darwin was evil and evolution was a lie. But, also like me at his age, he was having second thoughts as he was becoming better informed (or brainwashed by his professor, depending on your perspective).

When I teach Darwin, I avoid taking a position, partly so students can feel free to reject evolution if that is their choice. More important, though, I want the students to wrestle, as Darwin did and I did when I was their age, with the implications of cruelty in nature and bad design. They need to confront, on their terms, the mass of data that can’t be reconciled with the Genesis creation accounts. If I lay my position out too clearly, some students will make their decision based on what they think of me, rather than the issues at stake.

Many college students, and most Americans for that matter, have little interest in evolution as science. Their concern is that science not crowd out their religious beliefs. At some level they fear Daniel Dennett’s “universal acid” may actually have the power to dissolve their beliefs. And they don’t want to find out if that is true.

Their fear is understandable. Almost everyone who talks about evolution insists that we must make a choice between evolution or creation, materialism or God, naturalism or supernaturalism (215).

I share Giberson’s conviction that these types of stark choices are almost always unnecessary, but that the way in which some teach these matters may predispose young people to believe they must make such a choice. If we rely on the badly [Page 122]dated and flawed “science” of Price, Morris, and Whitcomb, the decision will almost inevitably be for modern science, which the student will then mistakenly decide means that the gospel must be false. Whatever the ultimate truth or falsity of various elements of evo-bio theories, our students deserve better. Price et al. granted the scientists more power and made them more of a threat than they were or are. (As is often remarked, there is irony in their decision to apply Enlightenment views of science and knowledge to the Bible in an effort to combat the excesses of the Enlightenment.)

While Giberson’s book may not point the way to an easy resolution, it helps us understand the debates more clearly. And it models an approach to teaching and discussing evo-bio that people on either side of the issue would do well to emulate.

Relics of Eden [Daniel J. Fairbanks]

I was worried about this book simply because of the publisher—Prometheus Books. ((For more background on Prometheus Books and examples of its publications, see Louis C. Midgley, “Atheist Piety: A Religion of Dogmatic Dubiety,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1, (2012): 111-143.)) I had seen enough other offerings from Prometheus—founded by atheist philosopher and strident secular humanist Paul Kurtz—to expect that a diatribe against religion or “superstition” might be ahead of me. ((On LDS matters, for example, see Ernest H. Taves, Trouble Enough: Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984). Kenneth H. Godfrey would write of this work that “at least once a decade, it seems, someone publishes a book about the Latter-day Saints without taking the necessary ‘trouble’ to adequately research the subject… Ernest H. Taves, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist with both Mormon and Mennonite roots, would be a strong candidate for the [Mormon History Association’s “Worst Book”] award this year.” (“Not Enough Trouble,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19/3 (Fall 1986): 139.))) I was pleasantly surprised, and then thrilled to find nothing of the sort. The author, Daniel J. Fairbanks, is a Latter-day Saint and obviously a gifted teacher.

[Page 123]His book sets out to detail and explore the evidence for evolution as it applies to human beings, especially the genetic evidence. As a science, the analysis of the genetic code has been possible for only about half a century, and the oceans of data in which we are now drowning have been available in only the last few decades. Even those undisposed to accept any form of evolution should read this book carefully—it gives an excellent introduction to the type and scope of evidence with which students will be confronted.

The book requires no previous genetics experience or background, and it is by far the most accessible treatment of genetics for the non-expert that I have ever read. Fairbanks is to be congratulated on both his clarity and creativity. This book will equip the reader to navigate the less-clear presentations found in other works.

After a tour through the genetic evidence, Fairbanks ranges more broadly. In the last two chapters, he addresses issues of faith and belief. The penultimate chapter describes his difficulties with and objections to Intelligent Design theory, which dovetail nicely with the genetic data he explores in the first eight chapters. In the final chapter, Fairbanks bemoans the tendency of some scientists and religionists to create a science-religion conflict where there is none. But he does not stoop to the caricature of the believer that I had feared from Prometheus Books. He lays out the risks frankly, however, and I suspect that he has seen such difficulties in Latter-day Saint youth. I share his concerns, for the same reasons:

I am dismayed over how often the authors of antievolution books misrepresent science. I can understand how a minister or a parent with little scientific training could oppose evolution on religious grounds. But many authors of antievolution literature are well educated in the sciences, and the claims they [Page 124]make in their books are, for the most part, unsupported by scientific evidence.… I suspect that most of them truly believe they are engaged in a noble cause. Once they accept the evolution-creation dichotomy as real, they seem willing to paint an extremely selective picture of science, even misrepresent it…

The irony here is that such an effort may do more to harm faith than to promote it. Especially vulnerable are college and university students. Several surveys show that a significant proportion of students enter their college years accepting the dichotomy. Although not well informed about evolution, they already reject it. A general biology course is a standard requirement at colleges and universities, and professors who teach such courses typically present abundant evidence of evolution along with the analytical skills students need to understand the evidence. Any preconceived notions that the scientific approach is weak or wrongheaded get shattered. Students quickly acquire information and discard the unsupported claims of creationists and intelligent design advocates. Recalling the propaganda about a dichotomy, they may end up questioning their faith (167–68).

I would add that the typically poor or superficial exposure to evolution in US high schools means that most students will confront this difficulty suddenly and with full force in college or university. They and their parents will not have had the opportunity to work out the implications in a “friendly” environment and at a more leisurely pace.

If only because of the above concerns, Fairbanks’s book should be read so that opponents of evolution appreciate the data they are up against. But there are far better reasons to read [Page 125]it. He does not offer a reconciliation of Genesis with modern science but shows us some of the depth and range of data that any reconciliation must address.

“Let the Earth Bring Forth”: Evolution and Scripture [Howard C. Stutz]

This is a delightful book by a Latter-day Saint, Howard Stutz. The late Dr. Stutz was a plant biologist and emeritus professor of genetics at BYU. My chief complaint with this work is simply that it is too brief (Stutz himself refers to it as an “essay”). He brings a lifetime of learning to his work, and he has the obvious love for his subject that characterizes all great teachers. He reviews major lines of evidence for evo-bio, including embryology, mutation, speciation, the fossil record, biogeography, comparative anatomy, biochemistry, and genetics.

The leitmotif for this volume is found in the title: “Let the Earth Bring forth”—Stutz here invokes the recurrent phrase from Genesis that describes the earth’s obedience to God’s commands. In his view, Abraham 4:11, which speaks of the earth being “prepared” to “bring forth,” provides an excellent theological framework to accommodate natural processes such as those described by evolutionary biology:

Being properly prepared, there could be no alternative to these processes. Operating within the framework of these conditions, with these laws, the Earth would bring forth. The numerous intricacies involved in the creation process were not the product of chance. God established them as the most probable and the most predictable of all alternatives (79, italics in original).

What I most enjoyed about Stutz’s treatment is his focus on the neglected half of biology—the plants. Evolutionary texts and polemics are quick to focus on the more flashy organisms: vertebrates get pride of place, and oceans of ink sufficient to [Page 126]drown a lungfish have been spilled over the vertebrate eye, the giraffe’s neck, and tropical isles’ finches. Practical bench research and lab work in genetics focuses on bacteria, yeast, fruit flies, or on the delicate tracery of C. elegans, a worm whose every cell is known and numbered, and whose name always seems to me to deserve the italics that adorn every species’ Latin name.

In all this, the plants are often forgotten or, worse, taken for granted. And yet, plant biology is fascinating in its own right. Plants are almost like alien life-forms, accustomed as we sometimes are to the biochemistry and lifestyles of animals (especially mammals, for obvious if parochial reasons). Plants are also far more tolerant of mutation, and their adaptation and speciation is easy to observe directly within human life spans, both in the lab and in the wild. They are also often easier to breed and study than large vertebrates. It is, after all, from Mendel’s pea plants that we scented the first bloom of the genetics revolution.

Stutz’s work is a good introduction to evo-bio, but those who have read quite a bit in the field will, if they are like me, find great satisfaction in hearing some of the same melodies in a different key. Evo-bio texts and popular science books often present a common set of examples, a sort of “Greatest Hits” that any self-respecting author feels almost obliged to cover—for good reason, because they are arresting, well-studied, and useful for illustrating broader principles and themes. (Less flattering reasons also suggest themselves, such as the human tendency to copy what has gone before rather than expend more effort to find novel examples. On occasion, errors have been perpetuated by generations of textbook authors.) Stutz’s work is something of a revelation in that it finds many examples in the plant world that throw a new light on common evo-bio themes usually described in animals or single-celled organisms. Only a specialist would have encountered them.

[Page 127]Stutz’s book is a wonderful reminder of the nearly inexhaustible richness of the natural world, much of which goes unnoticed every day. He need not venture to Africa or New Guinea for his examples. They are all around us, including in the plants of Western North America upon which Stutz focused much of his professional attention. It would have been fascinating to walk around the desert with him, and I regret that I will never have the chance.

Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution [David Stove]

This is a book that I dearly wanted to like but couldn’t. Its approach is something I appreciate—an examination of scientific or cognitive overreach. Where better to find such things than in evolutionary biology? Sadly, the book is marred by misstatements and misunderstandings about scientific matters, and this undercuts its plausibility. It demonstrates, I suspect, the perils of increasing academic specialization. Stove is a philosopher, and it is no small thing to master a completely separate discipline, especially one as complicated and rapidly changing as evo-bio. But that is what is required here, and he has too many lapses.

Stove’s goal is blunt—to rebut both Darwin and modern Darwinism: “My object is to show that Darwinism is not true: not true, at any rate, of our species. If it is true, or near enough true, of sponges, snakes, flies, or whatever, I do not mind that. What I do mind is, its being supposed to be true of man” (xiv). Stove goes on to say that he is not a Christian and is, in fact, not religious at all. His objections are based on how he sees the evidence (or lack thereof).

It is important here to realize (which I did not, until I had read the entire book and then returned to it) that when Stove says “Darwinism” or “neo-Darwinism,” he is not so much talking about evo-bio per se. Rather, he is more concerned with [Page 128]the philosophical extrapolation or claims made with Darwin as a buttress. He is not clear about this, however, and I’m not certain that it is always clear in his own mind that this is the core of his project. As a result, he veers from talking about the philosophical problems and unwarranted leaps made by people such as Richard Dawkins—about whose less scientific ideas he is generally on point—to questioning the biological evidence itself, which he often gets wrong, frequently embarrassingly so. But the clue to his real preoccupations does appear early, though the water is muddied by his unnecessary attacks upon the biology:

In 1859, [Darwinism] was the best explanation of evolution available, and hence, indirectly, the best available explanation of the many facts which evolution in turn explains: the adaptation of organisms, their distribution, their affiliations with other species existing or extinct, and so on. It is still the best explanation available of all those things. That is under-praising it, however, because the best available explanation of something need not be a good one. But the Darwinian explanation of evolution is a very good one as far as it goes, and it has turned out to go an extremely long way. Its explanatory power, even in 1859, was visibly very great, but it has turned out to be far greater than anyone then could have realized.…

Even the best available explanation need not be equally good at all points. For some of the matters it is meant to explain, a certain theory might be a good approximation or even be the complete and exact truth and at the same time glaringly incomplete or even obviously false with respect to some of the other things it is meant to explain. That is, I believe, the [Page 129]way matters actually stand with neo-Darwinism. In particular, I believe that neo-Darwinism, though a very good approximation of truth and completeness for many of the simplest organisms, is an extremely poor approximation in the case of our own species. Or rather, to tell the truth, I think that it is, at least in the hands of some of its most confident and influential advocates, a ridiculous slander on human beings (33, italics in original).

This might all seem like a sane and reasonable approach to the question: to grant the good and even embrace it, but throw out the nonsense and overreach. Yet it is hard to credit Stove’s argument completely when he surrounds it with such blunders as claiming that the whole idea of natural selection makes no sense when applied to humans:

In a “continual free fight,” any man who had on his mind, not only his own survival, but that of a wife and child, would be no match for a man not so encumbered. [Such a] man, if he wanted to maximize his own chances of survival, and had even half a brain, would simply eat his wife and child before some other man did. It is first class protein after all (7).

Clever as the phrasing is, this is just nonsense. Darwinism does not argue simply that “those who survive will prosper.” The key claim is that “those who survive and succeed in leaving more of their DNA behind than others will have descendants who prosper” in the long run. A male who did nothing but eat his mate and offspring would be a speedy loser in the evolution sweepstakes—it does not matter if he lives for centuries; if his strategy is to consume mate and offspring as soon as possible, then he leaves no progeny behind, and his DNA will perish with him. This seems such an obvious point that one wonders if Stove realizes the argument’s unfairness, but he uses it anyway.

[Page 130]Stove also makes what I think is a mistake in tactics, and that is a preoccupation with Darwin himself. While Darwin is certainly foundational to evolution by natural selection, the field has moved forward enormously. (Darwin knew nothing of genes or heredity, for example.) Stove seems to treat Darwin more as one would treat an important founder of a philosophical school. So if you want to rebut the Young Hegelians, you spend some of your fire on Hegel. (And this is perhaps not surprising if he does perceive his target, “evolution,” as more of a worldview or philosophy than an empirical science.) But if Stove is attacking evo-bio as science, the focus on Darwin is somewhat misdirected. It doesn’t really matter if Darwin got something right or wrong—what matters is the current state of the art. Yet Stove spends a lot of time fencing with Darwin.

However, he is often outmatched. For example, Darwin’s insight that organisms would tend to reproduce until they had exceeded the available resources (e.g., food, oxygen, living space) was likely influenced by Malthus’s essay on the supposed inevitability of human famine, given that humans (like other organisms) reproduce geometrically, while food supplies can only increase linearly. At some point, argued Malthus, population will outstrip food supplies, and then only famine or war or disease can prune it back. Stove regards this claim (which most would regard as self-evident, once pointed out) as absurd:

If a population is to be always as numerous as its food supply allows, or nearly so, reproduction would always have to begin as early as possible. In nearly all species of animals, all the earliest opportunities for mating are opportunities for the young to mate with a sibling or with one of their parents. You would expect, therefore, if the Malthus-Darwin principle were true, to find throughout the animal world a distinct bias towards [Page 131]incestuous reproduction, at least during early adulthood (38).

Once again, this is just silly, and it’s hard to think that Stove cannot see why. If organisms adopted an incestuous mating strategy, everyone knows what would quickly happen—the fitness of the offspring drop as genetic errors accumulate. (All—or nearly all—human cultures have strong incest taboos, for example. ((William D. Gairdner, The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 310, 318–319, 326.))) While it might be a very good thing for a generation or two of organisms to mate incestuously (and some animals do so at least some of the time), on average this is not as effective a strategy in the long term. (The whole advantage of sexual reproduction—which is costly for the individual organism—is the overwhelming benefits which genetic variety and reshuffling bring to the species as a whole.) Again, what matters in Darwinism is not the individual, but how successfully the individual passes on DNA to offspring that can likewise compete effectively. (The best DNA in the world is useless if your offspring is sterile, for example. Ask mules without fertility clinic access how well that works out.) Stove takes a very blunted “short term” view, whereas anyone who has studied, say, the Hapsburg monarchy ((Gonzalo Alvarez, Francisco C. Ceballos, and Celsa Quinteiro, “The Role of Inbreeding in the Extinction of a European Royal Dynasty,” PLoS ONE 4/4 (2009): 1–4, http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0005174.)) or any royal family in Europe can see that in-breeding is not typically the best approach for long-term (or even medium-term) biologic success. (It is, on the other hand, a wonderful strategy for conserving economic success within a lineage—hence its appeal to the imperial courts of Europe.)

[Page 132]Confused about these basic matters, Stove then concludes as follows: “Hence I am unable to suggest what a struggle or competition for life among [animals of the same species] could possibly be a struggle or competition for, except food” (56). He may be unable but should not be. Animals compete among themselves for many things: food, water, hunting or living territory (e.g., space on a coral reef, nesting sites for birds), and mates. They also compete in matters of strength, speed, or other means of evading predators—like a movie teenager pursued by zombies, a doe chased by a lion need only be faster than her neighbor. Plants likewise compete for nutrients, water, access to sunlight, and adequate growing space. Some alter soil chemistry to prevent other plants from growing near them; others produce toxins to render themselves less appealing to those who would eat them—plants with better toxins will be less likely to be eaten than their less-obnoxious fellows. Bacteria that produce enzymes to degrade penicillin outlast those sister bugs that do not, and so on.

At any rate, this confusion about competition leads Stove to deprecate “the Malthus-Darwin principle of population: that population always presses on the supply on food, and tends to increase beyond it. And this principle does require child mortality to be terrifically high, in our species and in every other” (92, italics in original). He gives too little credit to the idea that child mortality has historically been high (the introduction of practices such as birth spacing, hormonal birth control, or abortion are cultural factors with a long history—they too would be expected to alter purely Darwinian mechanisms, just as the invention of eyeglasses means that near-sightedness will no longer be a trait subject to much selection). While acknowledging high rates of child mortality, he insists that it would have had to be on the order of 80% according to Darwin, though he provides no citation for this claim (92). But Stove also ignores that Darwinian mechanisms play out of [Page 133]vastly longer periods of time—in a hypothetical example, he claims that “the Malthus-Darwin principle tells us that this ecological niche will be filled this year” (92), but the principle says nothing of the sort. Animals with small litter sizes and long generation times (such as humans) will not expand that rapidly even under ideal conditions, much less after a setback.

Nor, as Stove claims, does Darwin’s hypothesis claim that there can be no “declining or stationary numbers: all populations must always increase in numbers” (105). A population of animals could achieve a type of dynamic balance between births and death due to predation and other competition—no organisms exist in isolation, after all, save under lab conditions. Or a disease might strike that decimates a population, even though there are ample resources (a human example would be the New World’s population implosion due to Old World diseases—as many as 95% may have perished, but not because food supplies were exhausted). ((Jared M. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), 211.)) I suspect the Darwinist rejoinder would be that all organisms eventually outstrip the resources available to them if nothing else checks their reproduction. Such checks could be predation, or other environmental constraints besides food (this is where Stove’s inability to imagine anything besides food being a locus of competition leads him astray), or social behavior (such as human birth control).

But even this is not the whole of Stove’s error, since there are examples of humans doing exactly what he claims humans cannot and do not do: reproducing beyond what food supplies can support. Any time there is a famine, the demand for food exceeds supply. As human populations have grown, the only option has been to find a new source of food and other resources (e.g., emigration, switching emphasis to fishing over farming), or to find ways to increase the productivity of current sources [Page 134](e.g., England’s innovation in crop rotation prior to industrialization, the twentieth century’s “green revolution”). William Bernstein describes a fairly Malthusian scenario played out over half a millennium:

If, as historians have suggested, crop yields quadrupled in the years between ad 1000 and 1500, that represented a growth rate of just 0.28% per year over the period. Between these two dates, population increases forced poor-quality marginal land into cultivation, canceling out most, if not all, of the increase in agricultural productivity that occurred in that half-millennium. Thus, the standard of living of purely agricultural societies remained relatively static. ((William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 47, italics in original. Bernstein also points out that the shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture causes a human population boom—how are we to understand this, save as a case where the resources available (through farming, which produces more calories per square mile than hunter-gathering) have increased, allowing more children to be born and survive to reproductive age?))

Thus, for humans, these limits are not reached quickly, but they can be reached. This is most easily seen on smaller scales, such as on Pacific islands, where resources and populations are both smaller and are isolated from resource import or population export. ((See, for example, Jared Diamond’s discussion of Easter Island, where 66 square miles held perhaps as many as 15,000–30,000 people (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [New York: Viking, 2005]). At potentially over 450 people per square mile, Easter Island demanded intensive agriculture, leading one archaeologist to exclaim, “I have never been to a Polynesian island where people were so desperate, as they were on Easter, that they piled small stones together in a circle to plant a few lousy small taro and protect them against the wind! On the Cook Islands, where they have irrigated taro, people will never stoop to that effort!” (92). The population eventually decimated every single tree on the island; a total of twenty-one plant species vanished (104); the six native sea-birds are also no more. These losses decreased the islanders’ ability to deep sea fish (they lacked the trees to build sea-worthy canoes), causing severe resource strains. By the 1700s, there were 70% fewer homes constructed (strongly suggesting a population crash), and the islanders were reduced to cannibalism to survive (140). If this is not Malthusian, nothing is.))

[Page 135]Stove has much more of value to say when he turns to the hyper-Darwinism of people such as Richard Dawkins or E. O. Wilson. “As for those sociobiologists who by implication deny the very existence of human altruism,” he writes, “my reason for disagreeing with them is simply that I am not a lunatic” (96). (Sociobiology does not, however, deny altruism—it argues instead that natural selection can produce altruistic behavior in self-interested organisms, especially social ones. ((See, for example, Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003), 241-269.))) Stove is on somewhat firmer philosophical ground when he critiques Dawkins’ claims about altruism:

I do not believe that humans are the helpless puppets of their genes, and cannot even take that proposition seriously. Why? Because I have heard far too many stories like that one before, and because it is obvious what is wrong with all of them.

“Our stars rule us,” says the astrologer. “Man is what he eats,” said Feuerbach.”We are what our infantile sexual experiences made us,” says the Freudian. “The individual counts for nothing, his class situation for everything,” says the Marxist. “We are what our socioeconomic circumstances make us,” says the social worker. “We are what Almighty God created us,” says the Christian theologian. There is simply no end of this kind of stuff.

What is wrong with all such theories is this: That they deny, at least by implication, that human intentions, [Page 136]decisions, and efforts are among the causal agencies which are at work in the world. This denial is so obviously false that no rational person, who paused to consider it coolly and in itself, would ever entertain it for one minute…

The falsity of all these theories of human helplessness is so very obvious, in fact, that the puppetry theorists themselves cannot help admitting it, and thus are never able to adhere consistently to their puppetry theories. Feuerbach, though he said that man is what he eats, was also obliged to admit that meals do not eat meals. The Calvinistic theologian, after saying that the omnipotent Creator is everything and his creatures nothing, will often then go on to reproach himself and other creatures with disobeying this Creator. The Freudian therapist believes in the overpowering influence of infantile sexual experiences, but he makes an excellent living by encouraging his patients to believe that, with his help, this overpowering influence can be itself overpowered. And so on.

In this inevitable and tiresomely familiar way, Dawkins contradicts his puppetry theory. Thus, for example, writing in the full flood of conviction of human helplessness, he says that “we are… robot-vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” etc., etc. But at the same time, of course, he knows as well as the rest of us do, that there are often other causes at work, in us or around us, which are perfectly capable of counteracting genetic influences. In fact, he sometimes says so himself, and he even says that “we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth.” As you see, he is just like those writers [Page 137]of serial stories in boys’ magazines, who used to say, in order to extricate their hero from some impossible situation, “With one bound, Jack was free!” Well, it just goes to show that even the most rigid theologian of the Calvinist-Augustinian school has got to have a Pelagian blow-out occasionally and deviate toward common sense for a while.

Here is another specimen of Dawkins contradicting his own theory. He says, “let us try to teach generosity and altruism” but also says that “altruism [is] something that has no place in nature, something that never existed before in the whole history of the world.” Well, I wonder where we are, if not “in nature”? And… who are Dawkins’s “us,” the ones who are to teach altruism? Principally parents, no doubt. Well, parents are not what Dawkins implies they are, just some shoddy temporary dwellings rigged up by genes. But neither are they creatures from beyond, “sidereal messengers,” or sons and daughters of God sent down on a mission of redemption and reformation. Parents are just some more people, and hence, if you believe Dawkins, are selfish. Where are they, on his theory, to get any of the altruism which he wants then to impart to their children? And as for altruism having “never existed before”: one longs to learn, before when? Before Homo sapiens? Before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment? Before the British Labour Government of 1945? Dawkins should not have omitted to tell us at least the approximate date of an event so interesting, and (apparently) so recent, as the nativity of altruism (183–185, italics in original).

[Page 138]Now this is the stuff of philosophy, and Stove’s analysis (of which I’ve included only a small sample here) is more nuanced and cogent (though still not without flaws and missteps) than his critique of the biology. His style is infectious, and his wit sharp. He is concerned about matters of far more significance than mechanisms of speciation—he’s defending the idea of human free will and (we would say) moral agency. It is evolution’s apparent threat to values and doctrines of this sort that rightly troubles many believers. The worldview urged by many neo- or ultra-Darwinians (you will note I do not say, “by many evolutionary biologists,” since such metaphysical or philosophical claims go beyond biology, though they may invoke biology for support) is false and inadequate and ought to be withstood.

Yet Stove’s tendency to sneak in jabs—which are dead wrong—at the biology undercuts his effectiveness. His is, in this sense, a cautionary tale; even those convinced that evo-bio is fatally flawed must be careful, exceedingly careful, to get their science right. (We recall that this was George McCready Price’s chief failing.) Stove could, I am persuaded, have written a convincing, even important book. His unfamiliarity with material beyond his discipline means that he did not. And so his valid critiques are too easy to miss or dismiss because he undermines his own credibility.

The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World [William A. Dembski]

Dembski is no stranger to the creation-evolution wars. A “research professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas,” he is also “a senior fellow with [the] Discovery Institute” (dust-jacket). The Discovery Institute has been the primary force behind the “Intelligent Design” movement. But the work here reviewed is not concerned with that. Rather, Dembski sets out to create [Page 139]a justification for human and natural evil—a theodicy—and reconcile three claims of creedal Christianity:

  1. God by wisdom created the world out of nothing
  2. God exercises particular providence in the world.
  3. All evil in the world ultimately traces back to human sin (8).

Given that LDS thought rejects points #1 and #3, it is not surprising that I find Dembski’s offering unsatisfying. His work is worth examining to see why he takes these stances, and what implications follow.

Part I – Evil

Creatio Ex Nihilo—Creation Out of Nothing

Dembski does not like “open theism,” which he says consists of “a pared-down view of divine wisdom, knowledge, and power. We thus get a god who means well but can’t quite overcome the evil in the world, a god who is good but in other ways deficient…. Evolving gods constrained by natural laws are much the rage these days” (8). Open theism, says Dembski, means that “strict uncertainty about the future means that God cannot guarantee his promises because the autonomy of the world can always overrule God. Of course, we could try to get around this by saying that God can step in when things get out of hand, but that defeats the point of openness theology, which is to limit God and thereby absolve him of evil” (20). I am no expert on open theism, but it seems to me that Dembski here ignores its great driving force: the necessity of human free will, or what the Saints know as moral agency. ((LDS philosopher Blake T. Ostler has explored some of the ideas inherent in open theism in a specifically LDS context. See, for example, The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, Exploring Mormon Thought series, Vol. 2, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 409–429.)) I think most open theists would also reject the contention that any uncertainty about the future means God cannot guarantee his [Page 140]promises—God would, in an open theism, be fully capable of responding to any eventuality in a manner that would bring to pass his purposes. The point is not to simply absolve God of evil, or “limit” him, but rather to argue that the creedal view of God’s omnipotence vitiates true human free will. Open theists strive (however imperfectly) to balance God’s power and foreknowledge with genuine human moral freedom. In a creatio ex nihilo framework, this is difficult, and I do not think Dembski succeeds in doing so. He lays the problem out starkly:

Since everything is created by God [ex nihilo, from nothing], a will that turns against God is one of his creations. But a good God presumably created a good will. How, then, could a good will turn against God? I’m not sure that any final answer can be given to this question. Invoking freedom of the will is little help here. Certainly, freedom of the will contains within it the logical possibility of a will turning against God. But why should a good will created by a good God exercise its freedom in that way…? (27)

This question haunts Dembski’s theodicy, as it must. He does not here mention an even graver problem—if a created entity (call her Lilith) does choose to use the will given her by God to rebel against him or choose evil, God could have created Lilith without such a tendency or inclination to ultimately make such a choice. Or he could have created her with a character that might rebel but also respond to offers of reconciliation and salvation. This makes God directly responsible for every evil act, since he is the final cause of the beings that commit such acts and those beings’ proclivities. Dembski is right that no final answer can be given—he cannot even produce a good provisional one. All he offers is the possibility that Lilith’s sin may arise because she might reflect upon her “creaturehood” and “realize that [she] is not God… This may seem unfair [to [Page 141]her].… The question then naturally arises, Has God the Creator denied to the creature some freedom that might benefit it?” (27)

But this solves nothing—God could have a created a will uninterested in such questions, or one inclined toward sufficient trust to decide that such worries were of no moment. “Turning back to God cannot be coerced” (28), according to Dembski. But what does it mean to have a contingent, created will that is not coerced? Lilith will still respond to God’s entreaties or hints based upon her character and nature, which are ultimately entirely dependent upon God’s previous creative act. To turn back is no credit to her, any more than turning away was ultimately her moral responsibility but instead is due to God’s ex nihilo creative decision. At any rate, these issues are mentioned and dispensed in only two pages (27–28). Dembski’s failure—and, I am convinced, conventional theism’s incapacity—to answer this problem is fatal.

All Evil Derives from Human Sin

Dembski moves quickly to a second kind of evil—what philosophers call “natural” evil. These are not the evil acts of moral agents, like humans or devils, but the “bad things” that happen in nature. Animals are hunted and die in pain; terrible diseases ravage us; children are born deformed or handicapped; natural disasters kill thousands or millions.

Here, Dembski has an even more serious problem. A God who creates ex nihilo bears complete and ultimate responsibility for the natural world. Dembski has specifically denounced those who might make a “god” (the lack of capital is his) that is in any way constrained by natural law. He also wants nothing to do with a natural world that works “on its own” outside of God’s absolute foreknowledge. And one cannot even directly blame the contingent “free” wills of humans for these evils—it is not immediately obvious that we cause earthquakes, plagues, or the pain a deer feels when a lion attacks it in the same way we murder or create concentration camps.

[Page 142]For Dembski, there is a stark choice: “If you’re going to blame evil on something besides God, you’ve got two choices: conscious rebellion of creatures (as in humans or the devil disobeying God) or autonomy of the world (as in the world doing its thing and God, though wringing his hands, unable to make a difference)” (9). He opts for the first—to absolve God, all natural evil is due to human sin. The alternative, in traditional creedal Christianity, is unacceptable.

Now this might seem a huge burden to lay upon us. But Dembski assures us that “humanity, in becoming captive to evil, gave its consent. Humans are complicit in the evil from which God is striving to deliver us” (44). Really? We all gave our consent to every evil? How about my newborn son? Did he? Did I? Did I approve the Indian tsunami, guinea worms, and chimpanzees that kill infant chimps? And if I did somehow accede to all the evil in the world, if God created me, isn’t he responsible for making me inclined to do so? This seems rather like a forced contract because God is the ultimate determiner of whether I will be disposed to sign on the dotted line. And for Dembski, Adam and Eve (or some representative group of earlier humans) were the ones that spoiled it all in the first place. Am I to be made responsible for their choices? And if so, could I not in justice complain that if God had only made Adam and Eve of a more responsible disposition, none of this would have happened?

Dembski also rejects the idea that God might permit natural evils, or even create them, because his purposes for humanity require them:

According to Whorton’s Perfect Purpose Paradigm, God creates a world of suffering not in response to human sin but to accomplish some future end… But this, again, makes human suffering a means to an end. And even if this end is lofty, we are still being used. [Page 143]Used is used, and there is no way to make this palatable, much less compatible with human dignity (79).

Given Dembski’s presuppositions, he is right. After all, a God who is omnipotent and omnicompetent can create both beings and circumstances in any way he likes. Why need he waste time with a world full of suffering and evil to accomplish any purpose when he could have had that purpose realized from the moment of his ex nihilo creation? Remember, Dembski will not tolerate a God bound by any natural laws, so the sky really is the limit.

These sorts of problems go on and on. But Dembski addresses none of them.

Part II – Young Earth and Old Earth

Having defined the problem, Dembski then lays out his solution. He reviews the reasons which creedal Christians might have for accepting either an old earth or a young one (52–91). Dembski agrees that traditional Christian readings assumed a young earth, and that this produces fewer problems for scriptural literalism, adding that he “would adopt it in a heartbeat except that nature seems to present such strong evidence against it” (55). He faults the young earth position for ad hoc reasoning and special pleading: “Is there any solid evidence for nuclear decay’s acceleration that does not depend on the need to establish a young earth?” (57) “When young-earth creationists question the constancy of nature,…typically it is not because they have independent evidence to question it but because their belief in a young earth requires that nature behave inconstantly” (60). “The inference that [catastrophic plate tectonics] is a real phenomenon comes less from the evidence of science than from the presupposition of a young earth” (61).

[Page 144]To those (such as young-earth creationist Kurt Wise) who insist that the Bible must trump all these issues, Dembski replies, “Why should Wise’s particular interpretation of Scripture occupy such a privileged place? Although the truth of Scripture is inviolable, our interpretations of it are not” (75). That our interpretation of scripture is not entitled to the same respect as scripture itself is certainly true, and it also applies with at least equal force to Dembski’s view about the source of evil and ex nihilo creation, since these depend on the hellenized post-biblical creeds. ((Blake T. Ostler, “Out of Nothing: A History of Creation ex Nihilo in Early Christian Thought (review of Review of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, “Craftsman or Creator? An Examination of the Mormon Doctrine of Creation and a Defense of Creatio ex nihilo,” in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement, edited by Beckwith, Mosser, and Owen),” FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 253–320, http://mi.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=17&num=2&id=590; Stephen D. Ricks, “Ancient Views of Creation and the Doctrine of Creation ex Nihilo.” in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), https://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1122&index=13.)) But he does not seem to realize that his own interpretation is as contingent as Wise’s—but given how axiomatic most of Christian theology regards the creeds, this oversight is not surprising.

At any rate, though Dembski briefly reviews possible problems with an old-earth model (78–81), his sympathies obviously lie there and not with the young earth. But he will attempt to reconcile both approaches. The heart of his solution requires the effects of the Fall to travel backwards in time:

If humans, through their sin, are responsible for all corruption in the world, the world’s corruption must postdate human sin. Causes after all, precede their effects. Or do they?

[Page 145]I will argue that we should understand the corrupting effects of the Fall also retroactively (In other words, the consequences of the Fall can also act backward into the past). Accordingly, the Fall could take place after the natural evils for which it is responsible…

Such “backward causation” may seem counterintuitive, though science-fiction readers will recognize in it familiar paradoxes connected with time travel. The point to note is that what is impossible for science and paradoxical for science fiction can be standard operating procedure for the Christian God (50–51).

Dembski points out that Christ’s atonement is an example of an event whose effects apply both before and after it happened. This is the best that can be said for the idea, but I do not think the analogy holds, at least as Dembski describes it. I will indicate why below.

Part III – Divine Creation and Action

Dembski then shifts to a discussion of creation. He veers first into information theory and error correction, and applies this allegorically to the Nicene Trinity. “None of the preceding analogies between information theory and the God-world relation is, I submit, strained. Quite the contrary, they match up precisely and capture the essence of Christian metaphysics” (88). I would not have said “strained” so much as “pointless.” Surely analogies to the Trinity can be (and have been) found everywhere. What the existence of an analogy proves, however, is not clear. He goes on to argue that:

Information, like God, is nonmaterial and eternal. To be sure, information can be realized in objects that are in material and temporal. Moreover, when those objects disintegrate, the information in them will be [Page 146]lost—from those objects, that is. But the same information can always be recovered (certainly by God) and then realized in other objects (93).

LDS readers will disagree, obviously, with the claim that God is immaterial. But I think most scientists would also dispute the claim that information is necessarily nonmaterial. Paul J. Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton, wrote:

One of the sacred principles of physics is that information is never lost. It can be scrambled, encrypted, dissipated, and shredded, but never lost. This tenet underlies the second law of thermodynamics and a concept called unitarity, an essential component of unified theories of particles and forces. Discovering a counterexample or new ways to preserve information could be a real game changer. ((Paul J. Steinhardt, “Black Holes: The Ultimate Game Changer?” in This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future, edited by John Brockman (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 308.))

Physics is the study of the material, not the immaterial—and Steinhardt argues that this information cannot be destroyed, even in a physical sense. ((An enormous debate among theoretical physicists about whether information that fell into a black hole was lost constituted what one participant called “the black hole war.” See Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking To Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, and Co., 2008). Curiously, Susskind gets in a tangential dig at Joseph Smith (“God ordered Joseph to marry and impregnate as many young girls as possible”) and Mormonism, which he uses as a type of symbol for Stephen Hawking’s “powerful charismatic influence over many physicists” (279–81). Susskind’s grasp of LDS history (or even Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy) is tenuous. See Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History (Salt Lake City, Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 1:277–302.)) But Dembski is claiming that information is nonmaterial. Even if we provisionally grant that his claim is congruent with current science, what does it [Page 147]mean for information to be immaterial and eternal? (And if God is the only self-existent being, and creates everything ex nihilo, how can information be eternal? Can eternal things have a beginning? Did God “contain” all information from all eternity? Are, then, the world and all information in it merely an emanation or instantiation of God? Is some type of pantheism right after all? I doubt Dembski would agree—such ideas are heterodox if not heretical to creedal and LDS Christianity—but his claim seems to leave the door open for them, at least to my inexpert eye.) If information is not somehow stored (e.g., in a computer, in a brain, in a text, in nature), how can it be said to “exist” immaterially? In what does this existence consist? This sounds like some type of Platonism, where an ideal form of (say) Fermat’s Last Theorem exists somewhere perfect and immaterial, from all eternity to all eternity.

In Dembski’s theology, God knows everything in fine detail. (This is possible, in his opinion, perhaps because God created everything ex nihilo.) So no information can be said to be destroyed even when one destroys the objects in which information is realized. That much is clear, and it follows from his dogmatic premises. This claim seems, however, to be circular or merely a matter of definitions—God knows everything, God is immaterial, therefore all knowledge (which God must, by definition, possess) is immaterial and eternal. There may be great truths here, but Dembski did not make them clear enough for me to grasp, or even be sure whether I agree with them or not. And the claim that information is immaterial and thus not dependent upon any material realization strikes me as a fairly unscientific one—it is not an assertion (and Dembski only asserts it, he does not argue for it) at which many or most scientists would simply nod, I suspect.

Reviewers of Dembski’s work in Intelligent Design have not been kind to his efforts to invoke the same types of ideas. “Dembski’s idiosyncratic concepts of complexity [Page 148]and information are misleading, and his so-called Law of Conservation of Information is fatally flawed,” writes one, warning that his “standard of scholarship is abysmally low, and… is best regarded as pseudoscientific rhetoric aimed at an unwary public which may mistake Dembski’s mathematical mumbo jumbo for academic erudition.” ((Richard Wein, “Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolates: A critique of William Dembski’s book No Free Lunch,” 23 April 2002, http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/.))

This was, I must say, how I felt as I encountered these sections of his book—I felt as if I was being bamboozled but did not know exactly how. It is not clear to me how the appeals to information theory or Trinitarian signal processing add to Dembski’s argument. My reaction was a bemused “What? Where did that come from?” I cannot but wonder if Dembski isn’t just “dressing things up” to appear more scientific; he has been charged in the past with needlessly including pointless and arcane mathematical notation. ((“All these piles of mathematical notations are irrelevant to his thesis. They serve no useful role except for impressing readers with the alleged sophistication of Dembski’s discourse.” (Mark Perakh, “A Free Lunch in a Mousetrap,” 27 February 2002, updated 5 January 2003, http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dem_nfl.cfm.))) Perhaps this is a philosophical or theological version of the same tactic. Or perhaps he has found a favorite hammer, and now everything (even a rivet or screw) looks like a nail. At any rate, after reading the reviews of his other works that mention the same concepts, my gut reaction to these sections made more sense. Readers better informed than I am will have to judge Dembski’s use of information theory—all I know of it, I learned from him, ((In this, I exaggerate slightly. By pure serendipity, after reading Dembski I stumbled onto a description of the classic paper on signal processing which Dembski cites, Shannon’s work of 1948: see John MacCormick, “Error-Correcting Codes: Mistakes That Fix Themselves,” in Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today’s Computers (Princeton, NJ, and Oxford, England: Princeton University Press, 2012), 60–79. This account is much more accessible than Dembski’s, but it only deepened my confusion regarding these ideas’ appearance in Dembski’s theodicy. If I am the prototype for the kind of reader Dembski’s wanted to reach with his argument, he failed in this case.)) and I obviously do not know enough.

[Page 149]Dembski seems to want his immaterial information to allow God to affect reality in a manner that is undetected:

Thermodynamic limitations [to the flow of information] do apply if we are dealing with embodied information sources that need to output energy to transmit information. But nothing prevents God, who is immaterial from enlisting (seemingly) random processes and imparting to them information. If divine action takes this form, the problem of “moving the particles” simply does not arise. Indeterminism means that God can substantively affect the structure and dynamics of the physical world by imparting information and yet without imparting energy (117).

Here again, the same problems haunt me. Even if God is immaterial, how does he affect material things without energy? Since he ultimately intends for his immaterial actions to affect the material world (by the information he imparts to “random” physical things or processes), mustn’t it ultimately somehow come down to some thermodynamic change? If his information makes the physical world do something that it wouldn’t have done otherwise, does labeling the information and process an “immaterial” cause mean we can hand-wave away the fact that a physical, material effect has occurred? Can such effects truly have no thermodynamic consequences? I do not know the answers to these questions—but they are the questions that I took just enough thermodynamics to know need to be answered.

And if we assume that thermodynamics must apply (as Dembski seems to—else why go to all the trouble?), I do [Page 150]not think he has solved his problem. Why not rather simply conclude that God can violate the laws of thermodynamics? Since we are dealing in miracles, why not simply assert that God (who can do anything in Dembski’s world, not being limited even by time, space, or natural law) can create energy out of nothing? After all, he created everything that exists ex nihilo, so what’s a small bit of fluctuating quantum vacuum or picovolts of potential difference between friends? If nothing is too hard for God, can he not dispense with entropy as he likes? Dembski posits a God that is maximally omnipotent—that is, utterly unconstrained—and then falls back on a rather strange tale of immaterial things affecting material things so as not to violate the laws of thermodynamics. Joseph Smith’s contrary assertion that “there is no such thing as immaterial matter; [a]ll spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes” seems even more sane than usual when compared with this alternative (D&C 131:7).

Enter the Mormons

Hearing an LDS perspective was the last thing I expected at this juncture. Yet, to my delight, Dembski quoted Stephen R. Covey with approval:

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, leadership expert Stephen Covey offers an insight into creation that is at once obvious and profound: “All things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation and a physical or second creation to all things.” (107, italics in original)

Dembski then employs this idea to argue that the first (“mental,” presumably immaterial) creation is perfect, since it comes from God. The second creation is then fouled up by “the creation’s” rebellion—the Fall (108). (Even this is not entirely self-consistent—the creation of man as set out in Genesis predated the Fall; therefore, at least part of the physical creation [Page 151]must have been imperfect, since man can hardly sabotage his own creation before it happens, unless he is allowed the time paradox powers that Dembski grants God. Once again, we are back at the first difficulty which Dembski has never really answered—how do we absolve God from the fact that his ex nihilo created beings spoiled God’s perfect plan? And can God’s creation of man be said to be perfect, given the outcome that followed inexorably from it?)

Dembski evinces no awareness that Covey was a Latter-day Saint or that his perspective on the creation draws from LDS scripture—Moses 3:5–7 as well as similar ideas in Abraham 4–5, which are cited by the Saints to flesh out their understanding of Genesis. The scenario outlined in the Pearl of Great Price is not as clear-cut as the brief gloss attributed to Covey implies—though I expect Covey did not intend it to be a full exegesis of an LDS text. In the first place, the first creation is said to be “spiritual”—but “spirit” in LDS doctrine is clearly not “immaterial” nor is it necessarily simply “planning.” (In addition, from an LDS perspective, even Dembski’s category of “mind” is not immaterial.) There is planning in Abraham 4 compared to the subsequent chapter, but this planning phase need not necessarily be equated with the spiritual creation, though that is certainly a plausible and popular reading.

Some Uniquely Mormon Questions

This raises another point worth pondering in an LDS context, though I do not presume to answer it—how does the spiritual creation relate to the second presumably physical creation? Does creating “spiritually” speak only of the mental, theoretical preparation? (This is how Dembski and Covey seem to see it.) Or does it rather refer to the actual creation of spirits that will only later receive physical bodies during the second creation? Assuming (perhaps very dubiously and unwisely) that causality and temporality function in God’s world the same way they function in ours, is there a direct cause-and-effect [Page 152]relationship between the spiritual creation and the present physical world, or does the first merely lay out a set of plans and principles that will be set in motion or allowed to unroll during the second? (See Stutz’s work, discussed above, for an approach that seems to partake of this perspective.)

If there is a causal relationship between the first and second creations in LDS thought, in which direction does the effect run? Does God foreknow the outcome of the physical, temporal creation and pattern the first after it? (More, perhaps, of Dembski’s time-travel?) The more straightforward option is for cause and effect to run from first to second. If so, this creates obvious difficulties for a neat reconciliation with evo-bio, since contingency and chance play a role in evolution as currently understood, which is hard to square with a spiritual creation that is a done deal. For this to work, we might have to do as Dembski suggests with immaterial information—perhaps the material spirit creation of Mormonism somehow affects, controls, or parallels the material “natural” world, despite what appears to be a nondeterministic, even chaotic temporal process of evolution. Or does the scriptural account of the spiritual creation truly mean (as many have concluded) that evo-bio is completely (or mainly) false, a case of barking up the wrong tree of life? And if this is so, why does the evidence appear to match the evolutionary model with all its waste, inefficiency, death, and dependence upon contingency? But on the other hand, are we so confident we could distinguish God’s intervention from contingency or “chance”? If I toss a hundred coins, I expect fifty to come up heads, within statistical margins of error. But could I then determine that God had influenced the thirty-seventh coin toss to make it come up heads, while leaving the other results to random natural law? I don’t see how.

Finally, for completeness, can we rule out the possibility that the processes may, in some way we do not fathom, have a mutual influence, with feedback loops running from the spiritual to [Page 153]the physical, and back again? Are causality and temporality fundamentally different in God’s world? Is spiritual creation an ongoing process linked with the continued development and ramification of life on earth? I have not Dembski’s boldness and do not essay an answer. But at least I can cling to the questions and keep looking.

Part IV –Retroactive Effects of the Fall

Dembski is now prepared for his reading of Genesis. He sees Genesis 1 as God’s original plan for creation. “God’s immediate response to the Fall is,” according to Dembski, “not to create anew but to control the damage” (145). We are again left to wonder why God did not “control” the damage by creating humans who did not foul up the first plan. How could an all-powerful and all-wise God get it wrong in the beginning of his creative endeavors?

“The challenge God faces,” Dembski says, “is to make humans realize the full extent of their sin so that, in the fullness of time, we can fully embrace the redemption of Christ” (145). To describe an omnipotent God as “challenged” seems odd. Doing so raises some questions: Why did God not simply create humans who would choose to avoid evil? Why make a world in which there is even the possibility of evil and hence a Fall? Why did God apparently need human beings at all, or need human beings who could and would sin? He is bound by no laws or constraints, save those he wills. Why did God not simply create humans able to experience the crushing, drowning sense of the depth of their estrangement from him upon their Fall? Why was a Fall necessary? Even if we grant that he could somehow create a moral agent ex nihilo who was genuinely free, why could he not at least slip in an adequate warning system in the event the worst happens? Or why can God simply not plant the perspective of the full extent of their sin into the fallen humans as needed?

[Page 154]Instead, Dembski decides that God must use the created world to bring this needed understanding home to us. Thus,

God does not merely allow personal evils (i.e., the disordering of our souls and sins we commit as a result) to run their course subsequent to the Fall. In addition, God allows natural evils (e.g., death, predation, parasitism, disease, drought, floods, famines, earthquakes, and hurricanes) to run their course prior to the Fall. Thus, God himself wills the disordering of creation, making it defective on purpose. God wills the disorder of creation not merely as a matter of justice (to bring judgment against human sin as required by God’s holiness) but, even more significantly, as a matter of redemption (to bring humanity to its sense by making us realize the gravity of sin) (145).

There is much to digest in this extraordinary passage—it is incredible, in the formal sense of the word. In the first place, it is difficult to see how disordering all creation (because the God who created everything out of nothing and fixed it so that the first human prototype fell and became totally depraved) is a manifestation of divine love and justice—at least as that justice applies to the rest of creation. Dembski says that God, from his perspective, quite rightly inflicts the consequences of mankind’s sin upon all creation because mankind is the “covenant head… in creation” (147). As covenant head, then, humanity’s actions in effect speak for all and thereby condemn all of creation to corruption. Omitted from this argument is a consideration of why humanity is the covenant head: because God said so. “God, having placed humanity in this position, holds creation accountable for what its covenant head does” (147). Did the rest of creation “vote” for humanity to take this role? Was there informed consent? Dembski says that God [Page 155]placed us there, but God then holds creation (not himself) accountable for the covenant head’s actions.

We here encounter all the problems with the notion of ex nihilo humans, writ large. Ex nihilo bunny rabbits, bugs, birds, birches, and the rest are created from nothing and then become totally corrupt because a group of two-legged eventual reprobates will not only be at the head, and hence in charge, but will represent them all before the Creator. (Recall that God knows with absolute foreknowledge that the Fall is assured, since he caused everything out of nothing and also has absolute knowledge of everything that will ever happen in that which he has created out of nothing.) Did the plants, rabbits, and company have any choice about the matter? If they did have any choice, can this choice be said to be truly free, when their wills (if they have any), nature, and predispositions will be every bit as much a product of divine fiat as ours? All of creation obeys God, save mankind—and so, because of the Fall, all of creation must retroactively suffer?

This is no trivial problem. On the subject of animal experimentation, one wit dryly observed that he would rather that a rabbit get polio twice than he get it once. I can sympathize—I am no animal rights sentimentalist who thinks that there is no difference between the suffering of a human child and that of a monkey, a rabbit, a rat, or a frog. There is a difference—morally, if nothing else. And yet I do not and cannot regard the suffering of the rabbit with polio as of no consequence at all. There can be no question that the natural world at present (and if evo-bio is believed, the deep past as well) is full of enormous suffering on an enormous scale. Darwin himself gave a poignant and perceptive articulation of the problem:

I cannot see, as plainly as others do evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to be too [Page 156]much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice (from Giberson, 35; partially in Dembski, 149).

Giberson (reviewed above) explains Darwin’s distaste for the Ichneumonidae (a species of parasitic wasp that feeds on caterpillars):

The mother wasp inserts a paralyzing chemical into the nervous system of the caterpillar and then places her eggs inside the still-living host, where they hatch and then gradually devour the paralyzed caterpillar from the inside. The hatched baby wasps emerge with pre-programmed instincts to consume the internal organs of the caterpillar in a sequence that keeps their caterpillar host alive as long as possible (Giberson, 34).

As the product of a natural process, the above exerts a kind of morbid fascination, even admiration, at its complexity and elegance. But as a manifestation of God’s power or loving kindness, it fails. Ichneumonidae—and a thousand other equally terrible examples—are part of the “problem of evil” that Dembski has set out to solve, and his solution here seems to me to do nothing for it. Even if we grant that humans deserve everything that the Fall brought to them, we cannot say that rabbits and even the poor Ichneumonidae‘s caterpillar deserved the suffering they got because of the legal fiction that a covenant head dropped the ball, especially if that covenant head could not have done otherwise and was also not chosen freely by its ultimate victims. So in this matter, Dembski has made matters much worse—God appears guilty of copious divine overkill, a petty legalism, and a distinct lack of foresight in choosing the [Page 157]earth’s covenant head. Even on a bad day, the dolphins might well have done better. They could hardly have done worse. And God would have known it, infallibly. At the very least, why did he not advise the rest of creation a little better in whatever smoke-filled room covenant leaders were chosen?

But there is a second problem with Dembski’s account: God inflicts this punishment forward and backward in time. It is hard to think of anything better calculated to hide what God is attempting to force through our thick skulls. It would be one thing for humans to be in an idyllic world and then be forced out of it by sin. (Even such an account is difficult for most to credit when there is no evidence of it outside of scripture. Fallen corrupted beings might be expected to respond better to, say, the sudden appearance of predation in the fossil record around 4000 bc. Not being given such “proofs,” only revelation will do.) It would be even better had we all started childhood in a paradise that lacked daily drive-by feedings by Ichneumonidae toughs. Our sin and subsequent expulsion might then make the point more clearly.

But instead of this, Dembski claims that God foresees human sin and so inflicts natural evils (upon caterpillars, rabbits, and all the rest of non-sinning creation) before the sin is committed. This sort of thing may seem plausible and natural to Dembski’s atemporal, time-hopping God: but it makes absolutely no intuitive sense to those not indoctrinated in some form of sectarian creedal Christianity. We live in a temporal world, a world where time rules, a world where cause-and-effect seems to hold near absolute sway. Furthermore, Dembski claims that we are not easily able to understand what we have done—and yet he has God choose an approach that is hardly likely to teach us what we desperately need to know. How would we regard a parent who takes a sledgehammer to his son’s bicycle (and his sibling’s bikes, and all the bikes in the neighborhood, and decades later to his son’s children’s [Page 158]bikes) because he knows that his son tomorrow will throw a rock through the kitchen window? When confronted with the sledgehammer, punctured inner tubes and bent handlebars, the parent calmly assures us that it was fully just and hence all for the best, since (a) he arranged his son’s election as head of the children’s tree-house club, and so all must suffer for his son’s crime; and (b) after the son will throw the rock tomorrow, the bicycles that he finds smashed today will have made him understand how horribly he was going to have behaved. (The scheme is so convoluted that I despair of proper verb tense to describe it.) What could be more counterproductive? Even if Dembski is correct, we clearly hadn’t got the message until he finally puzzled it out.

In all this, however, I think Dembski does have a few ideas that are potentially useful—he suggests that since the fallen world must exist before humans, the Garden of Eden represents a type of “segregated area,” where the effects of the Fall are not felt, and Adam and Eve are driven out into the fallen world (whose existence pre-dates their own) after they sin (151, 154). This has obvious affinities to some LDS teachings about the Fall. Unusually for one opposed, in general, to evo-bio, Dembski even suggests that human bodies could have been the result of evolutionary processes prior to their introduction into the Garden; they become “humans”—rather than simply animals—only when God “breathes into them the breath of life” when they are placed in the Garden [152–155]. He seems, however, to prefer a “special creation” model for humans, which will resonate with many LDS readers like me. ((This is not to say I doubt the evidence—and substantial evidence it is—upon which secular theories about the human body’s origins are based (a small chunk of that evidence is reviewed in Fairbanks, above, for instance). I understand why that stance is accepted in the scientific world (including by most academically trained and believing LDS scientists), and I do not see another viable theory, given the current state of the scientific evidence. I find some of my own ambivalence expressed well by Elder Boyd K. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” in Jacob through Words of Mormon: To Learn with Joy: Papers from the Fourth Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, edited by Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, distributed by Bookcraft, 1990), 21. In deference to his request on p. 1, I have not reproduced his actual text here.))

[Page 159]With some modification, Dembski’s basic model of creation could absolve God of some natural evils. In this reading, God allows natural processes to unfold with a minimum of interference. Thus the devious but ingenious devices of the Ichneumonidae, the Black Death, and HIV are not crafted by a divine designer. They are, instead, the unfortunate outcomes of natural processes which are permitted to unfold. God might intervene to prevent any “game-ending” developments—for example, a plague too virulent, or a predator with which no other organism could cope. Dembski thinks, however, that attempts to see natural evil wholly as subversions (by Satan or evolution in a fallen world) of good things originally created by God is a non-starter, since “invoking God’s permissive will can never fully eliminate divine responsibility for natural evil (at least not if one’s conception of God is classical and thus includes omnipotence as one of his attributes)” (150). And so we have come back to the dilemma of classical theism, which Dembski has still not solved, or even really articulated fully—God is ultimately to blame for all this, because he is the only source for everything.

Advantages of LDS Understandings

The Latter-day Saint understanding of divine and human things has a number of advantages over conventional theism in confronting such questions, of which I will briefly mention five.

The first is overwhelming: God does not create everything, including mankind, ex nihilo. Our nature and our moral agency (or free will) are not the product of his or any other being’s absolute creative power. We simply are what we are, both good and evil, and reap the effects wrought by use of our moral agency. [Page 160]God could not create or alter our ability or tendency or moral temptation to sin. This is a philosophical advantage that cannot be overstated—I do not think that any other theism can offer so compelling an argument for both God’s beneficence and power and our own genuine moral autonomy. Joseph Smith almost casually hit this issue out of the park without even seeming to understand how many leagues lay between him and the fence. This doctrine is, to me, one of the great miracles—though often underappreciated—of the Restoration.

The second advantage is nearly as great: as pre-existent beings, God had our consent and support for our choice to experience mortal earth life. He did not place us in these circumstances for his own inscrutable purposes. We cannot claim that we are being used, even with the best of intent. Rather, we agreed and covenanted to come, with joy. Although we know little of how God interacts with the rest of his spirit and physical creation, their preexistence suggests to me that their involvement and consent (to the degree of which they were capable) was sought—which casts quite a different light on the suffering that we and they endure.

A third advantage involves the LDS understanding of the requirements of mortal life—we understand that the purposes for which we came to earth cannot be accomplished in any other setting. Mortal life requires a telestial world in which cause-and-effect is typically brutally indifferent to our hopes or needs. Tragedy must be frequent and unavoidable. Moral and experiential opposites must be available. Sickness and death must come to all. Thus God did not corrupt the world as punishment for a covenant head that let him down (though he presumably knew that this would happen, and set circumstances that would permit it). Instead, he created an environment that was the only way to meet his children’s (and other creations’?) needs. God is maximally powerful, but even he cannot create a morally perfect being by simple decree—mortal life in a [Page 161]telestial state is essential, perhaps even logically necessary. Even he cannot do logically impossible things, like make round triangles, or ex nihilo saints.

The fourth advantage ties into the third: LDS doctrine ought not, it seems to me, lead us to expect that we can prove God’s existence from the material world. For moral agency to be effective in a telestial mortal experience, we must be genuinely free to believe in or disbelieve in God’s existence, his commandments, and host of other ideas. A physical world that one cannot plausibly explain save by divine action would create an intellectually compulsive case for God’s existence. It is just such a case that young-earth creationists hope to establish. But I think that LDS doctrine does not anticipate that this ought to happen, which is partly why I do not find it unexpected that humans exhibit evidence of common descent. (This factor also suggests that such evidence may not be completely probative, since it must appear that we have a plausible origin that does not require God if we are to be free to choose faith or doubt. On the other hand, I do not think God deliberately deceives us either, and so that evidence must mean something.) I have said more about this advantage elsewhere, and will not belabor it here. ((“Often in Error, Seldom in Doubt,” 150–161. For an additional view that contradicts the idea that God deliberately planted evidence in the material world in order to obfuscate evidence for how creation took place, see, e.g., the article by LDS scientist David H. Bailey, “Is God a Great Deceiver?” 1 June 2013, http://www.sciencemeetsreligion.org/theology/deceiver.php.))

A final advantage of the LDS framework is compelling to me, though others may not find it so. I like the idea of evo-bio mechanisms at least playing some role in the development of creatures that impact us so terribly. I prefer to think that HIV was not concocted in God’s laboratory. I do not like the idea of him crafting the Yersinia pestis that would wipe out at least a third of Europe. The malaria parasite and its mosquito vector were not his magnum opus. I do not think he had it in for the [Page 162]Ichneumonidae‘s dinner. I prefer, rather, to see these as “biologic tsunamis”—natural disasters which telestial natural processes make inevitable in some form. God regrets the suffering they cause, but will (by agreement with us and creation) not prevent them because of the necessities of the telestial state. (God did, however, enter into mortality to suffer all their effects with us and for us [Mosiah 13:28; Alma 7:11–13].)

I am confident that God rejoiced with us when we wiped smallpox from the planet—I do not think he sighed and reached into his bioweapon toolbox for a new horror because we had thwarted a heretofore useful goad. I think the telestial world is trouble enough without his help or encouragement to it. Perhaps it is only the physician in me. But to borrow from Joseph Smith, this personal belief “tastes good” to me. Once again, if I am right then the doctrines of pre-mortal consent and the fact that such an environment is indispensable further remove any moral taint from God’s policy of non-interference.

Concluding Thoughts on Dembski

But lacking the perspectives of the restored gospel, and trapped in the straightjacket of classical creedal theism and creedal Christianity, for all Dembski’s brilliance and creativity he seems to me to advance not a step in his goal to create a workable theodicy for natural evil. It is said that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest and biologist, was asked what he thought of people who did not believe in God. He reportedly replied that they must not have heard of God in the correct way. ((Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999), ix.)) In the same spirit, I cannot blame anyone for whom theism is unconvincing morally, emotionally, or intellectually. Dembski is but the latest example of how little there is in most creeds that would appeal to my own hypothetical agnostic self. And I sympathize with those who do not feel to share my own theistic brand. Like Joseph the Prophet, “If I had not experienced what [Page 163]I have I should not have [believed] it myself.” ((“Conference Minutes,” Times and Seasons 5/15 (15 August 1844): 617.)) But we often forget the riches that are strewn with such great profusion about our feet from the Restoration. We do not claim to have all the answers—but we are vouchsafed far more satisfying responses to the questions that truly matter.

60 thoughts on ““Endless Forms Most Beautiful”: The uses and abuses of evolutionary biology in six works

  1. Pingback: Tales from the Far Side of Reality

  2. Heya! I’m at work surfing around your blog
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  3. What a marvelous article. My own background is in engineering, so I can’t say that I have an intrinsic understanding of biology other than the very basics. That said, I have often wrestled with my fellow LDS when I hear the knee-jerk attacks on many of the ideas surrounding evolution. I tend to keep my opinions to myself because it seems that there are few things that can elicit strong emotions in a church house more than trying to stand up for Darwin. But one question I found that nobody could really ever answer to my satisfaction was: why do concepts of evolution (and other sciences) stand in the way of our beliefs as church members?

    Year by year I am becoming more comfortable in quietly proclaiming that I’m alright with Darwin while holding a temple recommend at the same time.

    I am extremely grateful to Bro. Smith for this thoughtful article.

  4. I know that we do not have the whole story from either a scientific or a religious source, or a combination thereof. I also know that Heavenly Father does not lie to us, though he withholds information due to our spiritual and intellectual immaturity.

    We know that Adam and Eve were literal people who lived on this Earth and are our ancestors. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon saw them in the vision recorded in Section 76 of the D&C. Joseph also taught that Adam is the Archangel Michael mentioned at times in the Bible.

    We also know that (at some point) Adam and Eve were placed in a paradisaical Garden of Eden somewhere on Earth after the creation was “completed”. I use the term “completed” since the Book of Abraham mentions the Gods ordering things and waiting until they were obeyed. What precisely happened during this “ordering” and “obeying” period the scriptures and prophets have not said.
    Even if the entire planet and not just the Garden were in a paradisaical state during the time of the Garden, it does not preclude a lengthy, non paradisaical creation period. We also have no idea how long Adam and Eve (or the Earth) were in this paradisaical state.

    The question of whether Adam and Eve had physical parents/ancestors or were given physical bodies directly by our Heavenly Parents is unresolved. It is also unresolved how long ago the Fall occurred. Our various archaeological methods of measuring time are imperfect and the scriptures are likewise vague at many points. There is a chronology in the Book of Moses of the number of years between the Fall and the Flood (1720), but there isn’t a specific chronology of the subsequent years after the Flood. It is also possible that the Fall to Flood chronology we have is incomplete.

    I think there are a lot of things we don’t understand about the Flood and the Tower of Babel. I say that from a scriptural perspective as well as a secular one. We don’t know when these events occurred and we don’t know many details about how they occurred. I personally wish we did know more about these things, but we need to be careful about the conclusions we draw from what we have.

  5. he Younger Dryas stadial, a period of cold climatic conditions and drought which occurred between approximately 12,800 and 11,500 years BP this way to old for the Biblical Food and if Adam and Eve were in North America at this time they would have been big game hunters or transitional hunters and gathers and would have been decedents of asian immigrants or possible european immigrants depending on which theory you like. I dont see how this can helo reconcile human evolution and the biblical account. Pratt has some interisting things to say about the biblical account of the creation in ‘Key to Theology.’
    “In after years, when Paradise was lost by sin; when man was driven
    from the face of his heavenly Father, to toil, and droop, and die; when
    heaven was veiled from view; and, with few exceptions, man was no
    longer counted worthy to retain the knowledge of his heavenly origin;
    then, darkness veiled the past and future from the heathen mind; man
    neither knew himself, from whence he came, nor whither he was bound.
    At length a Moses came, who knew his God, and would fain [gladly] have
    led mankind to know Him too,and see Him face to face. But they could not receive His heavenly laws, orbide His presence.
    Thus the holy man was forced again to veil the past in mystery, and
    in the beginning of his history, assign to man an earthly origin.
    Man, moulded from the earth, as a brick!
    A Woman, manufactured from a rib!
    Thus, parents still would fain [gladly] conceal from budding
    manhood the mysteries of procreation, or the sources of life’s ever-flowing
    river, by relating some childish tale of new born life, engendered in the
    hollow trunk of some old tree, or springing with spontaneous growth like
    mushrooms from out the heaps of rubbish. O man! When wilt thou cease
    to be a child in knowledge?” Sorry for the long quote.
    When we read see the Bible as literal we have problems reconciling certain things If we can reconcile the length of the creation from the 6 days mentioned in Genesis then we should be able to see the whole story as an allegory. Remember the Lord told the brother of Jared and other many things that they we told not to share with us perhaps the answers are among those secrets.

    • Well, the problem with the Biblical flood (global immersion around 2300 BC) is not only the profound absence of evidence for it, but the overwhelming evidence against it: geological, archaeological, and biological (cf. Clayton & White’s article in Dialogue from about six years back [PDF]: https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V40N03_95.pdf). Again, I have greater trust in Book of Mormon chronology (“a great many thousand years”) than in the Old Testament. Also, if Adam and Eve were placed here (as I believe they were), then they wouldn’t be descendants of anyone — and genetics dispersion tells us that even if other ‘pre-Adamites’ were around and survived, all humans today would be descendants of Adam and Eve (just as everyone of European descent has Charlemagne and Mohammed as ancestors); cf. Moses 7:51-53, which seems to suggest that other lineages than Enoch/Noah would be around after the flood, which makes no sense if the flood killed everyone but Noah & his family.

      Beyond that, I can do no better than to quote Nibley: “The stories of the garden of Eden and the Flood have always furnished unbelievers with their best ammunition against believers, because they are the easiest to visualize, popularize, and satirize of any Bible accounts. Everyone has seen a garden and been caught in a pouring rain. It requires no effort of imagination for a six-year-old to cover concise and straightforward Sunday-school recitals into the vivid images that will stay with him the rest of his life. These stories retain the form of the nursery tales they assume in the imaginations of small children, to be defended by grownups who refuse to distinguish between childlike faith and thinking as a child when it is time to ‘put away childish things.’ (1 Corinthians 13:11)” — “Before Adam”, CWHN, Vol. 1.

  6. Thank you Gregory for a well-researched review. I also enjoy your work on polygamy. Just to preface my comment – I consider myself an active and believing LDS. I personally find there is quite a big dichotomy between Church doctrines as found in the scriptures and at least the theory of human evolution.
    According to the scriptures and what we hear at General Conference, Adam and Eve were the first man and woman on Earth and before their Fall there was even no death. Their lineage is traced back 6000 years ago. Evolutionary threory puts homo sapiens back a few hundred thousand years ago, having emerged in Africa.
    I cannot reconcile these differences and have “put it on the shelf” – I will find out one day, perhaps after I pass through the veil.
    How do you reconcile the differences? Are the scriptural Genesis stories just symbolic? That would be rational, if only our restored doctrine was not so full of Adam and Eve as literal people (just read D&C 138 yesterday).
    Anyone´s comments are welcome.

    • I think it may have been Elder James E. Talmage who pointed out that the plants that Adam and Eve and presumably animals ate in the Garden had to “die” when they were eaten, so he argued that the phrase about “no death” was referring to the condition of Adam and Eve specifically, and not to the entire ecosystem of the Garden or of the earth generally.

      The Young Earth Creation theory grows out of the fundamentalist bibliolatry. Since they reject prophets and a (hopefully) inspired church tradition as in Catholicism, they are totally dependent on the text of the Bible, and since it is all the information they believe they are going to get from God, they deduce that it has to be complete and comprehensive. They cannot tolerate the existence of any question not already answered by the Bible. But given the very limited text about the creation, the effort to find a correlation between the words of Genesis One and the observed universe forces them to extreme extrapolation from just a few words. Thus, even though most of the language is clearly about just this earth, they extrapolate the statement “Let there be light” into the creation of the entirety of the universe, other than the sun and the moon. Note that even though the classic eye-visible planets were well known anciently (especially Venus) there is no mention of them.

      The Book of Moses makes clear that the Genesis One account addresses this earth only, and that there were innumerable prior creations of similar inhabited planetary systems that predate the clock in Genesis One. We should be careful in how far we extend the meaning of sentences that applied within a subset of reality. For me personally, avoiding unjustified universality is also key to understanding the Noah story in a way that is consistent with geology, as well as some of the statements in the Book of Mormon about the extent of the events recorded. In a time before people had circumnavigated the earth and had a comprehensive geography, the meaning of the phrase “all the earth” was not the picture we now have from orbit of the “big blue marble”. Just as with the Book of Mormon, there is stuff going on offstage all through the Bible.

    • “Their lineage is traced back 6000 years ago.” Well, that’s based on a particular reading of the Old Testament. The more correct record of the Book of Mormon, on the other hand, seems to indicate that people have been here on the earth much longer than that. Nephi[2], speaking a few decades before the birth of Christ, says, “Yea, and behold I say unto you, that Abraham not only knew of these things, but there were many before the days of Abraham who were called by the border of God; yea, even after the order of his Son; and this that it should be shown unto the people, a great many thousand years before his coming, that even redemption should come unto them.” (Helaman 8:18). I’ve looked at the other usages of “many thousand” and “a great many thousand” in the Book of Mormon, and I think it’s defensible and probable that “a great many” in this case means more than 4 (i.e., “a great many thousand years” refers to much more than “four thousand years”). For what it’s worth. ..bruce..

    • Raymond and Bruce. Thanks for good responses. I would say it is not too hard to reconcile a 4.5 Billion-year-old Earth with Church doctrine. I would, however, say that Church doctrine on Adam and Eve and theory of human evolution are very hard to reconcile. And that´s what I would like to know everyone´s opinions on.
      When I attend the temple, read scriptures both ancient and modern and read the sayings of Joseph Smith and subsequent early prophets of the restoration, there is no way around considering Adam and Eve LITERAL, HISTORIC persons.
      On the other hand, human evolution just makes a lot of sense and for me it is intellectually difficult to deny it.
      So what options do we have to reconcile literal Adam and Eve with human evolution:
      1. Adam and Eve were the first homo sapiens born in Africa 250 000 years ago (presumably black people?).
      2. Adam and Eve were a pair of homo sapiens who lived about 6000 years ago whom God chose to start a special dispensation of covenant people, but human evolution theory is correct. If that is the case, though, much of our LDS scriptures about creation, Garden of Eden and the Fall have to be symbolic only, because the following parts could then not be literal – Adam and Eve being first humans, first parents, first to sin (I guess pre-Adamites from 250 000 yrs ago to 6000 yrs ago would have been considered sinners?) or first mortals.

      P.S. And also – what exactly would the Garden of Eden then been, if it WAS literal?

      Keep the thoughts coming, please. I like the conversation. It is not something I bring up in Sunday School 🙂

      • Short answer: I’m not really concerned. As the quotes in the original article showed, the First Presidency isn’t really concerned, either. There’s nothing around this issue that prevents me from seeking to live up to my covenants or otherwise being a faithful member of the Church.

        Slightly longer answer: My current favorite scenario is that Adam and Eve were actual people who likely lived on the North American continent sometime prior to the Younger Dryas Ice Age (which started around~10,900 BC), during one of the interstadials (warming periods) that preceded it. I also think the Younger Dryas itself — a very-sudden-onset (perhaps less than a decade) and short-lived (1300 years) ice age — could be the event that inspired global stories of the Flood, since it is also tied into significant human and fauna extinction, particularly in North America. Worldwide increase of glaciation would have led to stories of the time when “water” (ice and snow) covered the tops of the mountains, an observation that could later (particularly in warmer climates) be construed as liquid water somehow covering the tops of mountains, especially in warmer climates not used to snow-covered peaks.

        In this scenario, the Lord likely had Noah pull a reverse Jared/Lehi and lead a migration from North America to the Old World, either in advance of the upheaval in North America or just as it happened. Noah would likely have no concept of the ocean as an ocean per se; if he left during a period of weather upheaval, he might simply conclude as he sailed for months that the whole world had been submerged, with occasional islands being ‘peaks of mountain’ appearing above the flood.

        If you throw into this the theory (still hotly debated) regarding a possible meteor/asteroid impact over North American causing the Younger Dryas onset, then you get a real catastrophic setting for Noah’s migration. 🙂 ..bruce..

      • I hope for further revelation on the subject. I do believe that there is some evidence for creationism, but much evidence against it. I also think that there is a strong psychological reluctance on the part of both believers and non-believers to accept evidence for creationism. The reluctance for non-believers is obvious. The reluctance of believers is due to the desire to not get ones hopes up that science will prove the bible true, only to have it dashed like it has been dashed before by contrary evidence.

        Having said that, I know that the church is true. The objective and subjective (spirit) evidence is very convincing to me. So I will assume that I do not have all of the pieces of the puzzle yet and that they will fit together well in the end, giving us a complete picture. I hope that those of you who are fully convinced that evolution and an old earth are true, that you will periodically reassess and consider any new evidence with an objective eye.

    • Thank you everyone for thoughtful comments. I hope I do not do anyone injustice when I say that it seems to me that some of you lean towards Adam and Eve being literal and some towards them being symbolic / allegorical.
      I, too, have a spiritual testimony of the Gospel which keeps getting more solid as I go through life living as a latter-day saint.
      I sometimes do wish that the First Presidency or at least an apostle would come out in General Conference and say something to the extent that those having a non-literal view of the Creation, the Fall, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden do not have to be concerned. It is hard to argue against the notion that at face value our current doctrine on the matter is to treat those subjects as though they had been literal. We are to consider Adam our first parent (First Presidency 1931, Gordon B. Hinckley 2002). Literal parent or only symbolic?
      I sometimes wonder when I watch the General Conference and there is a talk that mentions Adam and Eve or the Fall, if the speaker means it literally and has a personal science-defying spiritual testimony of it or if he actually accepts human evolution and considers the matter symbolic / allegorical and simply, pardon my expression, “plays along” in a “wink-wink, nod-nod” way.
      I do not mean to go on and on about this, it is just that I think if there is hope for those who believe symbolically only, it would be really generous of Church leadership to acknowledge it.

  7. Sorry, I just remembered something else from college.

    When Darwin published Origin of the Species, there was a huge attempt among naturalists (zoologists and botanists) to find a selective advantage for every single trait in the species they studied. They often ended up frustrated and they wasted a lot of time coming up with convoluted arguments for the advantage of some of the traits they observed. I see ID as an equally frustrating search for “irreducible complexity”.

    • Thanks for your comments Michael. This is a lengthy response, and not entirely directed at you, as it contains many of my own questions and musings.

      I’ve never heard of an ID advocate being frustrated with a search for irreducible complexity, quite the contrary actually. Something is either irreducibly complex (i.e. all parts produce a necessary function for the overall system) or it is not. Many may disagree on the origin of irreducibly complex systems in biology, but this is only a problem if one limits the mechanisms to methodological naturalism. Our uniform and historical experience tells us that irreducible complex systems are the product of mind or intelligence. Minds produce irreducibly complex systems all of the time, and if minds can do so now, then is there any reason to think that they could not do so eons ago, or are unable to do so in the context of biological systems? If the glory of God is intelligence, and intelligent beings design and create, then why the apparent timidity when it comes to detecting real design in nature?

      Whence the apparent adoption by some LDS biologists of the methodologically natural evolutionary biology as the only mechanism by which God could bring about the complex and diverse body plans of creatures that have lived and died through the ages on the Earth?

      Allowing for ID, and in the context of LDS theology, the abrupt appearance and disappearance of the unique, fully formed and functional body plans of species in the fossil record may best be understood to be periods in which those creatures fulfilled their times and seasons upon the earth, in the context of their mortal existence, in the time and sphere to which they were placed, just as mankind is now.

      In regards to ID, it is probably the most misunderstood Origin of Life and Biological theory. It is nor more a philosophical argument for the existence of God as evo-bio is an argument for His non-existence. The philosophical implications follow the premise in both cases, but that is outside the limits of science and neither ID or evo-bio attempt to answer them. ID is a rigorous and disciplined study which holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random mutations. Probably the best and most recent article I’ve read defining ID (what it is and is not) can be found here:



  8. Apologies to Sharee for repeating her comment about a waiting period for the creation as described in Abraham. I hadn’t noticed her comment when I wrote my own.

    ID makes me nervous, not because I don’t believe, but because I know that it is unwise to attempt philosophical or scientific proofs for the existence of God. Hugh Nibley often remarked about the various philosophical “proofs” for the existence of God, particularly in the Medieval period. These arguments were later shown to be inadequate.

    Truman Madsen pointed out in his “Joseph Smith: the Prophet” book in the early 1980’s that Joseph Smith never presented a philosophical or scientific “proof” for the existence of God. His testimony was that God lives because he saw him. He didn’t attempt to prove that God must live. I think that as Latter Day Saints we would be wise to remember that.

    Developmental genes are very complicated. However, they are also very important and affect many other genes “downstream”. Therefore, there is huge “selection pressure” to conserve developmental alleles that function properly and provide a reproductive advantage. The vast majority of embryos with deleterious mutations in one or more developmental genes would probably never even be born, let alone reproduce.

    • Bruce, I read your article. Makes a lot of sense to me. And when you talk about a Xerox machine–well, they have 3-D copiers now that copy machinery parts, etc. I guess God could have one of those to make worlds with. 🙂

  9. One of the interesting developments in evolutionary biology in recent years has been “evo-devo”, “evolutionary development”, in which we are coming to understand that much of the evolutionary development we perceive since the Cambrian Explosion 550 million years ago has been made much easier by the existence of preexisting DNA subprograms which can be swapped out or turned on or off, like complete functional modules in a Lego kit, to create new species. Some of these modules are shared across phyla, such between insects and mammals, which indicates that they originated before the differentiation from a common ancestor. This view pushes the creativity of the evolutionary process way back earlier. But this creates significant new questions. How did all of that evolutionary development get compressed into such a relatively short time? How did this modular design process come into being, since it is a higher level of sophistication than a process of direct interaction between a DNA-created mechanism and its environment. The relationship between the standard concept of DNA mutation leading to evolution through natural selection, and the evo-devo concept of modular DNA and mechanisms adapting by turning subprograms off and on, is precisely the same as the relationship between the “spaghetti code” that computer programmers have long generated in their trial and error attempts at creating working software, and the structured programming that requires more discipline at the front end but allows more adaptability (and easier repairs) down the road. Spaghetti code (so called because the flow charts that diagram it have lines jumping all over the place like a mass of pasta) is what comes from successive adaptation of existing code in order to serve additional functions in new environments. The natural tendency of spaghetti code even in the hands of a thinking programmer is for the complexity of the interconnections to become even more complex, and that is what would surely happen with a random, undirected process. I see no logical reason to expect that spaghetti code would ever replace itself with structured programming in logical modules, because spaghetti code can be just as successful in immediate terms as any structured program. It is only down the road that structured programming provides an advantage in terms of adaptability, but future superiority cannot travel back in time and favor structured programs over the standard spaghetti code in the present competition for survivial. Yet selection in favor of structured programming is the only way that structure could come to dominate the gene pool.

    Thus, the existence of structured programming in DNA argues that the process of evolution involved foresight, which selected for features of life which gave no present advantage, but only future advantage. Darwin’s theory does not explain this foresight, so it is inadequate as an explanation for some of the most fundamental aspects of the mechanisms that enable most of the evolutionary process to actually work in the ages since the Cambrian.

    I think it is an interesting coincidence that scientific knowledge of the nature and function of DNA has grown at exactly the same time that we acquired the ability to create computers that could be controlled by similar binary programs, and came to understand that all information, no matter how complex, could be encoded into the freely sequenced ladders of the alternate matched pairs of molecules in a DNA helix. I think our knowledge of computer software should also make us skeptical of the belief that the complex software of the living cell, including the even more sophisticated structured programming being discovered in evo-devo, could come into existence purely via random processes.

    • Yes, evo-devo is very cool and very much where a lot of the action is.

      If there is a good scientific case to be made for ID, I think it will be found in those realms. As a result, it also means that the evidence might be very, very far back, and very hard to lay hold on, since fossils can’t tell you a lot about that sort of thing, and all we have by way of genome data are the survivors 3.5 billion years later.

      One of the most intriguing things, for me, is how quickly life appeared. The biggest step (abiota to biota) happened very rapidly. Or it least that strikes me as by far the biggest step.

      But, I must remember that things that wouldn’t be viable when competing with a full biosphere might be more workable in a completely abiotic environment. I don’t know. One wonders if seeding the earth with a single bacterial cell would be the most parsimonious way to go, sometimes. Frank Hoyle and Francis Crick bought it, why not me? 😉

      [A chemist who tries to account for the ‘middle ground’ between life and non-life has recently written another book: Addy Pross, What Is Life? How chemistry becomes biology, Oxford Univ Press, 2012, ISBN 9780199641017). Interesting, but I don’t feel I have the background to assess it well. I didn’t come away super convinced, but maybe I should have been. 😉 It seems to me a good place to start, at most, not a final answer.]

      We must remember, though, that evo-bio doesn’t posit a completely random, undirected process. There is a good deal of non-randomness via selection. And, for the core modules you alude to, there could well be a ruthless selection for maximum efficiency (one sees this is bacterial genomes, for example, where generation time is a really big deal–as opposed to eukaryotes who can have a lot more sprawling genomes). So, anything that far back could arguably have had a lot of the spaghetti “winnowed out”….

      • “Yes, evo-devo is very cool and very much where a lot of the action is.
        If there is a good scientific case to be made for ID, I think it will be found in those realms.”

        Pardon me for mentioning Stephen Meyer’s DNA argument again, but I think that this particular argument is a better case for ID than is evo-devo. In his argument regarding DNA he clearly demonstrates that the biological or genetic information within the DNA macromolecule is best explained as the product of an Intelligent Agent, Being, or Designer. Since DNA contains digital code and functions in some ways like an advanced computer code (in this case 4 digits, not merely binary) we make the inference to design. In our repeated experience as humans we never find information arising as the result of purposeless chance, blind forces, or some materialistic cause. When we browse the internet, we instinctively know that behind all the information through which we comb is a mind or many minds or intelligence. Digital code is frequently and most logically ascribed to be the product of some conscious activity or intelligent designer, whether we’re addressing ourselves to the subject of man-made digital code by which computers operate or the digital code by which our DNA functions. Also, because DNA requires a suite of about 100 proteins to operate it, it’s also a good example of irreducible complexity.
        In addition, the arguments for homology are not good evidence for common ancestry, but strong evidence for a common Designer, even when DNA is the homologous feature in question.

      • Although I have admired all of your papers, including this one, I wish you had done three things differently in this essay and its thread of comments.

        First, it would have been better, I think, not to have relied on what seems to me a narrow range of reviews and/or second-hand characterizations of Dembski’s mathematics and of Behe’s treatment of irreducible complexity (IC). After all, there is no reason a priori to attach greater confidence to reviews than to original works. If we assume (and we do) that authors can have biases and can make mistakes, why would we fail to assume the same of commentators? (The propensity to give reviewers a pass almost rises to the level of its own form of illogic; we could call it “the reviewer fallacy.”) That is why it is essential to engage authors’ responses to those who criticize them. In Behe’s case, for example, it is easy to find his replies to critics (I imagine the same is true of Dembski), and no dismissal of him seems fair that does not responsibly engage such replies—either by being informed by them or by thoughtfully rebutting them. If you did this somewhere, I completely missed it.

        Second, it also would have been better, I think, if you had engaged the correction Log made of your characterization of Behe’s irreducible complexity. Early in the comment thread you summarily dismiss Behe’s IC, but when Log corrects you, you fail to engage the correction (either by acknowledging it or by rebutting it), and yet later in the thread you summarily dismiss Behe again—as though your characterization of him had never been questioned, much less corrected. Along the way you defend yourself by saying that you didn’t need to take up the ID version of IC because Log had done that himself. But this misses the point. Log’s argument was not that there is a different point of view on IC that deserves to be heard; his point was that the characterization of IC that you are relying on is wrong. To dismiss Behe summarily after this requires that you demonstrate Log himself to be mistaken, and I see nowhere that you do this. (If I missed it, of course please correct me.)

        Third, I think it would have been better not to create this kind of implicit argument: (1) We should be suspicious of anything that creates a slam-dunk proof for the existence of God. (2) Finding ID would be a powerful argument for the existence of God. (3) Therefore, we should be suspicious of any evidence for ID.

        Leaving aside other problems in this way of putting the matter, the central fallacy is evident if we fashion a similar argument regarding the Book of Mormon: (1) We should be suspicious of anything that creates a slam-dunk proof for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. (2) Finding Hebraistic linguistic features in the book would be a powerful argument for its historicity. (3) Therefore, we should be suspicious of any evidence for Hebraistic linguistic features in the Book of Mormon.

        It is one thing to say that no slam-dunk evidence will ever exist for the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and thus to say that accepting it ultimately depends on our responsiveness to the Spirit. But it is another thing entirely to say that we should expect no evidence whatever of the historicity of the Book of Mormon and that we should be constitutionally suspicious of anything that looks like such evidence. If the book is historical, it is inevitable that evidence of this will be apparent in one way or another, and I see no reason to reject out of hand, or to be suspicious of, a priori, the very kind of evidence we ought to expect.

        Similarly, if God was involved in the creation of life on earth it is inevitable that evidence of this will be apparent in one way or another. Given this, why should we be prepared to reject out of hand, or to be suspicious of, a priori, the kind of evidence his involvement would predict and that we therefore ought to expect? Yet it seems to me that this is what you do. I may be wrong, but this is the way it looks to me and I can make no sense of it. The only reason I can see for adopting such a stance is a prior commitment to the proposition that it is forbidden, on philosophical grounds, to consider evidence of design to be evidence of design and to insist that it must be something else. But to a Latter-day Saint—one who knows that God was involved in the creation of life on earth—this surely must be equivalent to saying that it is forbidden, on philosophical grounds, to consider evidence of the truth to be evidence of the truth and that it must be considered to be something else. Why should a Latter-day Saint ever accept such a condition of intellectual inquiry?

        None of this is to deny that we must be exceedingly careful in our examination of evidence of one kind or another. Fools’ gold abounds and we must always bring to bear proper intellectual care. All I am saying is that I can see no reason to doubt at the outset that (at a minimum) we will find evidence of God’s hand in the creation and therefore that we should summarily dismiss the very idea of something we all already know to be true. On the surface, at least, it seems to me that this is what you are very close to doing and I don’t see how that can fail to be a mistake.

        In saying all this I recognize that I could be misunderstanding and/or mischaracterizing your comments. I am happy to be corrected where I have gotten them wrong.

        • Duane:

          Thanks for this.

          1. None of the books reviewed dealt with ID or IC. So, I have not treated those ideas in any detail. I mentioned a reviewer’s account of Dembski’s (in his view) needless obfuscation via mathematics simply because it matched my reaction to his signal processing stuff. As I said, I felt like I was being bamboozled as a reader, but not knowing a lot about signal processing, there may well be things there that are profound and true. But, I figured the reader should at least know I didn’t get it, and others have had the same reaction in another context.

          2. As for ID, I deliberately didn’t want the comments to be dominated by that discussion, because a) none of the reviewed works dealt with it; b) I’ve watched enough such debates to know they are interminable, and people tend to speak past each other; c) I don’t regard myself as having anything novel to add.

          So, I frankly acknowledge not addressing Log’s questions rigorously on that front, but rather declining to do so in any detail. I was just trying to thumbnail sketch areas I’d see as problematic, more for full disclosure of me as the author than hoping to persuade. Figured people should know sort of where I was situated.

          I tried to provide a few links to what I take to be “mainstream” evo-bio responses for general readers for those who wanted to get into what can be a technical area. I don’t pretend–and apologize if I gave the impression–of regarding this alone as an adequate or complete treatment. I see ID as off-topic for my review (save that many have seen the same kinds of rhetorical trickery–if such it is–in Dembski’s other works) and this type of comment thread as a bad place to hash it out. I was trying to ackowledge the question while being brief and avoiding derailing, and prob didn’t handle it well. Apologies all around.

          3) On point #3, I think we’re in violent agreement. :-)I think there’s just far too much (as you say) intellectual fool’s gold in them thar hills. Plus, things like IC seem to me to be very all-or-nothing constructs. There isn’t as much potential for gradations of evidence. (Can something be 50% IC? Can we be 75% sure it is IC? How would we know? What is our confidence interval? How could we confirm or disprove our estimates? Tricky.)

          I don’t think evidence for God doesn’t or can’t exist. I’m just skeptical of the certainty many evince on this score with ID or “creation science” in regard to how powerful the current state of the art is. I think our predisposition to see that evidence is due to more than just the data, so I was hoping to encourage those who can’t understand why everyone doesn’t see what to them is so plain to consider that our theology may require us to expect more nuance than your typical (say) YEC of the Henry Morris school.

          But I feel that way about all the philosophical “proofs” (I realize they weren’t intended as proofs in the formal sense) for God’s existence. Which may well reflect an intellectual or spiritual defect.

          Pray for us, poor sinners!


  10. I really enjoyed your reviews, that you for your insite. As I was looking for the Dr. Stutz book on Amazon I came across the this DVD “Unlocking the Mystery of Life DVD + Using the Book of Mormon to Combat Falsehoods in Organic Evolution” I wonder if you have heard of this before. It is produced by Illustra Media and purports to be the “Scientific case for ID”

      • Thanks for the reference. I did a little research on Illustar Media and found that Stephen Meyer is somehow involved with them and is used quite a bit in the DVD.

      • I have watched several of the presentations by Illustra Media. All of them are very well done. The most recent that I watched is called “Metamorphosis.” The scientists and lepidopterists interviewed gave various reasons as to why they felt that intelligent causation was the best explanation for the functions and development of butterflies. I cannot remember if Stephen Meyer was in it, though I highly recommend his book, “Signature in the Cell.” I think that he makes some great arguments as to why the information-rich DNA macromolecule is good evidence of an Intelligent Designer rather than a strictly materialistic process, such as, natural selection acting on random mutations of genes. I think it’s worth the read. The last chapter is for people more versed in the technical literature and less so for amateurs like me (but I read it anyway). I don’t think that Meyer’s DNA argument is compelling in the sense that you have to believe it, but it is simply very clear logically; and it’s much more intuitive and logical than maintaining that all of life descended from a common ancestor via natural selection acting on random variations and mutations IMHO.
        In addition to Stephen Meyer, I also like the work of Douglas Axe and Ann Gauger, and how they seek to test the claims of Neo-Darwinism and make a solid case for an Intelligent Designer. They work at the Biologic Institute: http://www.biologicinstitute.org/
        Please forgive me for the length, but I just wanted to post some of the critiques that mathematician and philosopher, David Berlinski (an agnostic) made regarding the adequacy of the Neo-Darwinian mechanism to account for life as we observe it. I think that his article is interesting and so are the responses to it, including from Richard Dawkins, and others. It’s a long article, but I thought it was worth looking at: http://www.discovery.org/a/130
        Cheers 🙂

  11. “We are also told in scripture that intelligence cannot be created or destroyed, it just eternally exists. If Heavenly Father cannot create intelligence, then maybe He has to deal with the properties of intelligence as they are. I suspect that the problems in our telestial world are partly a result of this and not entirely a result of engineering of a telestial world by Heavenly Father.”

    A very interesting idea.

  12. I am a member of the LDS church and I have a BS in Biology from the University of Utah. I spent 1.5 years in a Molecular Biology PhD program before obtaining a master’s degree in an unrelated field (librarianship). I appreciate this very well written article and I have a few observations.

    We are told in scripture and prophetic statements that we existed as intelligences even before we existed as spirit children. We were given spirit bodies by our heavenly parents in order to further our progression. I suspect that even as intelligences there were differences between us. I remember the statement in Abraham about intelligences higher than others and that God is the most intelligent of all. I suspect that our spirit bodies (and minds) reflect this difference in our original form as intelligences. Likewise, our mortal decisions are affected by this.

    We are also told in scripture that intelligence cannot be created or destroyed, it just eternally exists. If Heavenly Father cannot create intelligence, then maybe He has to deal with the properties of intelligence as they are. I suspect that the problems in our telestial world are partly a result of this and not entirely a result of engineering of a telestial world by Heavenly Father.

    The Book of Abraham provides important information about the physical creation of the earth. These verses imply that the creation (or ordering) of our planet took an unspecified amount of time. The Gods waited until they were obeyed. Since Heavenly Father perceives time very differently than we do, I find the use of the term “waited” to be very interesting.

    Again, thanks for writing this article

  13. Thank you for a rather exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) review of these books. Stephen Smoot’s quotes from Elder Widtsoe were great as well. My own background is information technology, not biology or its many branches, but I did write a brief blog post on evolution some years ago that started with a well-known quote from my own field: “The best way [and some would say, the only way] to build a large, complex system that works is to evolve it from a small, simple system that works.” (Gall’s Law) I concluded the post by saying, “I think we in the Church set up for ourselves some unnecessary dichotomies and dilemmas, particularly on issues for which we have relatively little scriptural information.” I still feel that way. ..bruce..

  14. To me the scripture in Abraham that mentions the gods watching the things they had made until they obeyed means evolution.

    By the way, vave you read The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton. I’d be interested in your take on his theories.

    • I’ve read it and enjoyed it. It dovetailed with what I myself had sort of thought after I read a monograph called Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible (Catholic Biblical Association, 1994) which I found for $5 and couldn’t resist buying. (Walton cites this work, actually, which made me feel slightly clever….) So, I’m kind of inclined to like it because it meshed with my pre-existing ideas, less well-formed though they were.

      But, I’m not a Hebrew Bible expert, so I have to trust Walton or not trust him. I would be comfortable with his read of scripture if it was a scholarly-rigorous one, but I’m not really well-placed to assess it independently.

      His take is, however, more how I see the purposes of scripture, rather than as a scientific revelation of the mechanisms behind creation, which don’t strike me of much salvational importance or of interest to the original audience of Genesis.The kinds of questions

  15. I don’t see the word evo-bio defined when it is first used. I’m not familiar with the word. Is it a short hand for evolution biology?

    • Yes, “evo-bio” = “evolutionary biology”.

      Sorry for the slip into jargon; it’s an abbreviation I don’t even think about as being an abbreviation: sort of like “EKG” or “ASAP”. 🙂

  16. As luck would have it, I’m currently reading a book by Elder John A. Widtsoe (who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve from 1921-1952) titled “In Search of Truth.” In this short and (unfortunately) relatively obscure volume, Elder Widtsoe makes the following wise observations about organic evolution (I’m quoting from the Grandin Press reprint):

    1. “The evolution squabble, undignified and often unfair on both sides, is a good illustration of the unscientific treatment of a scientific subject” (p. 35).
    2. “No one, least of all the Church, objects to these facts [of evolution] if properly verified. They are all accepted, acceptable, and welcome. The work of gathering more knowledge in the field of biology is favored by the Church” (p. 37).
    3. “The Church, which comprehends all truth, accepts all the reliably determined facts used in building the hypothesis of organic evolution. It does not question the observed order of advancement or progression in nature, whether called the law of evolution or by any other name” (p. 40).

    There is more Elder Widtsoe says on this subject, but the above statements give a general impression of what he was getting at: the Church accepts scientific facts relating to organic evolution. What the Church rejects, according to Elder Widtsoe, and this is something highlighted by Smith in his new article, are many of the non-scientific inferences made by those who wish to use evolution to discredit belief in God. Although Elder Widtsoe didn’t have them in directly mind, I think his caution could be directly applied to many of the inferences made by Neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins, who want to use evolution as a sort of omni-explanatory theory that can account for nearly every aspect of life and society (and the question of God’s existence).

    I appreciate both Elder Widtsoe and now Greg Smith for urging caution in accepting many of the (questionable) inferences scientists and philosophers make out of the facts of evolution without denying the facts of evolution themselves. Certainly there is much we don’t fully understand about the origins of life, from either a Gospel or scientific perspective. But that doesn’t mean we should reject what we do know.

    So kudos to Greg on a very thought-provoking article.

    (And, BTW, I totally agree with Greg that an LDS theodicy can more easily accommodate the facts of evolution than many “mainstream” Christian theodicies.)

  17. Greg, I enjoyed reading your insightful reviews.

    After reading Stephen Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” and more recent “Darwin’s Doubt” I find myself wondering why Latter-Day-Saint academics are slow to embrace the scientific theory of Intelligent Design as set forth in these books and other publications by members of the Discovery Institute. I believe this is due to the rather unfortunate preaching of a false equivalence of ID to Young Earth Creationism by ID critics and a resulting reluctance to read and understand the theory of ID properly. This is a shame really, as I believe the evidence for ID presents a clear picture of a designer, intimately involved with the creatures of various kinds as they fulfilled their unique times and seasons here upon the Earth.

    If you haven’t read them already, I highly recommend both of these books. They present some challenging questions to prevailing beliefs about the capabilities of Neo-darwinism mechanisms that I believe Latter-Day-Scientists should consider.

    Kind regards.

      • Thanks, see above — philosophically, I am a bit leery of anything that can be made intellectually compulsive for a belief in God, ID included. These are discussions I’d enjoy, but Interpreter work, my day job, and Church stuff sadly leaves me too short of time to do it justice….

        I’ll have to look for these books if you think they’re the best thing on ID at present. I didn’t find Behe very convincing, as I noted above.

        • I also read Stephen Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” and highly recommend it.

          According to Meyer, it is a mischaracerization of ID to say that it attempts to make a slam-dunk, irrefutable proof of the existence of God. Meyer would say that specified complexity is evidence of design, with life being a major example of specified complexity. But ID scientists would say that presence of design doesn’t immediately prove presence of the God of the Genesis, and in fact there are lots of atheist and/or agnostic intelligent design advocates. It is not accurate to represent ID as a branch of religious apologetics.

          As an engineer, I find Intelligent Design to be very compelling. The more I learn about how cells work, the more I see the similarity between DNA and the software I write. It’s a compelling analogy. The more evo-biologists try to dismiss Intelligent Design with smears, deliberately and dishonestly conflating it with young-earth creationism, calling it “pseudo-science” without addressing any of its arguments, the more I think they don’t have any real arguments against it.

          • Yes, realize ID does not necessarily imply a Judeo-Christian God.

            I think, though, that anything that was definitely ID (i.e., could not have arisen spontaneously, required some type of intelligence to design it) would be a pretty good argument for a divinity of some type. The designing intelligence:

            a) must either be a divinity; or
            b) must be some non-divine creature (call it a super-intelligent alien, or SIA).

            But, if the SIA created earth life, this simply pushes the question back a step–OK, so whence the SIA? God can–in either conventional creedal theology or LDS theology–be self-existent. Harder for a SIA to be self-existent without divine aid–or, without something very like evolution to produce them.

            The existence of the SIA itself is thus either proof of divine existence (one could regress through several generations of SIA, of course, though it would have to end somewhere) or the product of evolution. And, if evolution can create the SIA, then the ID structure on earth is, in a roundabout way, also the product of evolution, since it was produced by an intelligent agent that arose via evolutionary means. 🙂

            I suspect this argument is not new, but it seems fairly compelling to me. So, I think that finding ID would be a powerful argument for a god’s existence.

            I have not claimed that ID is only religious apologists. I know that some have made that claim–and, in fairness, much of it certainly has been driven by such groups (or has been co-opted to be so).

            I will look forward to reading Meyer if he is an improvement on Behe.

  18. “God could not create or alter our ability or tendency or moral temptation to sin.”

    I’m not quite certain of this. The usual statement regarding agency is along the lines of that Satan cannot, and God *will not* force us. It’s not incapacity, but respect for our agency that restrains him. And he does indeed ‘alter our ability or tendency or moral temptation to sin’ as we yield to the enticings of the spirit and become sanctified through the atonement – namely *as we let him*. Of course (and close to your point here), it’s the idea that a portion of us has always existed that means that this respect for our agency explains anything, as creation ex nihilo leaves the question of why not create morally perfect beings in the first place.

    Otherwise, interesting thoughts. I suspect this is one of those things where we’re not only missing the full picture, but we can’t even imagine what those missing pieces are yet. And causality can be a bit of an assumption (as you note regarding the atonement, there’s already an exception there).

    • You’re right; I should have gone with a more wordy version, something like, “God could not–without violating the principles of moral agency and/or his own nature as one who will not compel love or obedience–create or alter our ability or tendency or moral temptation to sin (without, of course, our cooperation).”


  19. Thank you Greg for your very thorough review of these books. I would love it if you would spend time on the forum uncommondescent.com where a lot of these issues are debated and discussed in a (usually) polite manner among YECs, OECs, atheists etc.

    I also am frustrated that so few mormon scholars engage in the stronger and more intellectually honest and rigorous Intelligent Design or creationist literature. I haven’t found anybody who has engaged in Michael Behe’s work or Hugh Ross’s “More than a Theory.” I know that creationists have shot themselves in the foot with bad scholarship in the past, so I was hoping that David Stowe’s book would be as good as Jonathan Wells’ “Icons of Evolution” which is much better known among Intelligent Design advocates. Both Wells and Behe are biologists as is John Sanford who wrote “Genetic Entropy” (which is another book I wish mormon scholars would pay attention to. Sanford is a retired geneticist who became a young earth creationist by studying plant genomes, so his view could be a good counterpoint to Fairbank’s work.

    Anyway, thanks again for your insightful reviews!

    • I can’t speak for LDS scientists on the matter. I didn’t find Behe at all persuasive–he seems to me have yet to overcome the hurdle of how to even identify “ID” when he sees it (and how do we know that he’s right?). The examples which he first gave are all demonstrably not ID–the bacterial flagellum, the mammalian clotting cascade, etc.

      And, the further one goes back phylogenetically, the harder some evidence is to find–but, this doesn’t make it ID, just sometimes difficult to study something at (say) 3.5 billion years’ remove.

      As I indicated in my review, I think LDS doctrine makes it unlikely that a “slam dunk” argument for God from the natural world will be forthcoming. ID would be such an argument, in my view–since by definition, ID cannot exist via natural, non-intelligently directed processes. And, it seems to me that this is precisely what the Discovery Institute is trying to do–I sympathize with their motives, but have yet to embrace their tactics or conclusions.

      So, from a personal philosophical point of view, I wouldn’t expect something like ID to work out–and in its Behe incarnation, anyway, I didn’t think that it did. I’ve not read Stephen Meyer’s works cited below; perhaps they have more to offer than Behe did.

      If you want an LDS biologist’s take, the Fairbanks book I cited treats the matter somewhat in the last couple of chapters.

      • “The examples which he first gave are all demonstrably not ID–the bacterial flagellum, the mammalian clotting cascade, etc.”

        I humbly disagree.

        I hope that your philosophy does not prevent you from looking at the evidence dispassionately. I have wondered if some are worried that if they let science possibly prove God, then they run the risk of science disproving God and that risk is just too hard to bear. It is much more comfortable (and perhaps much wiser and less contentious, I admit!) to defer the question and let God reveal the truth in His own time.

        • I hope so too. 🙂

          But, the flagellum seems phylogenetically related to a type 3 eubacterial secretory protein, and the coag cascade is found in various forms.

          See Catholic biologist’s discussion here, if you’re interested:


          The first problem it seems to me is identifying IC, which has turned out to be not straightforward. As an interested amateur, perhaps my understanding is inadequate.

          But–as I argue–with this and other such debates, I think the Church is a large tent and we ought to be charitable to each other. I think the gospel can comfortably accomodate everyone from Young earthers to ID to dyed in the wool Darwinists.

          • I appreciate the response. This is probably not the appropriate forum to go further on this tangent. But I hope you will join us at uncommondescent.com occasionally. (I don’t mean to imply that I own that blog. I just frequent it often. It was founded by William Dempski, but he turned it over to others a while back).

          • “The examples which he first gave are all demonstrably not ID–the bacterial flagellum, the mammalian clotting cascade, etc.”

            Has there been a stepwise evolutionary path from the type-3 secretory system and the bacterial flagellum demonstrated? It’s all well and good to assert evolution because “similarity” but it is quite a different beast to show each step and how it was selected for.

            The same question can be asked of the other examples, as well, and the answer will be the same in each case – “no, a plausible evolutionary path from the purported precursor system to the target has not been demonstrated.”

          • Log:

            The point is simply that the flagellar assembly itself is not IC: there are both structural and sequence homologies to structures that are simpler and yet still functional.

            One can play the game of infinite regress, but that won’t get you very far with a scientific audience, because unless one demands a base-pair-by base-pair fine grained series (which it is unreasonable to expect, esp with something that old phylogenetically) you can always complain that we don’t know the series precisely. Which is true, but also irrelevant.

            IC claims that the structure cannot lose even a single part and still have (some) function and that it also cannot have had structural aspects in the past which it has now lost, making the current structure (but not its ‘evolved’ antecedants) IC.

            As negative claim this is very hard to prove, and part of the problem is even identifying IC with confidence in an objective way that has good “inter-examiner reliability”….

          • “IC claims that the structure cannot lose even a single part and still have (some) function and that it also cannot have had structural aspects in the past which it has now lost, making the current structure (but not its ‘evolved’ antecedants) IC.”

            They have done knockout studies with each piece of the bacterial flagellum. The system cannot lose even one part and retain any selectable function (the actual claim of IC). That rules out the existence of direct Darwinian pathways to produce the bacterial flagellum.

            There has never been a single demonstrated instance of an indirect evolutionary pathway to a functioning system, either – so the objection you raise would have teeth if it were to be observed in nature. As it stands, it is simply a theoretical claim, the sheer logical possibility of which is held to preclude design inferences. However, it is analogous to claiming Santa Claus truly is the source of the presents under the tree at Christmas.

          • Log:

            I don’t want this to “devolve” into a discussion of ID, which I didn’t address in my review. Pun intended. 😉

            But, a “knock-out” study of the flagellum is simply not enough to declare something IC. You have to also prove that there was no step-wise way to get there and then LATER lose parts. That’s why this is tricky, and what some people claim is IC doesn’t look IC to those who know more about possible (or putative) mechanisms for getting from A to B to C.

            It’s sort of like building an arch with scaffolding. You can’t just pile one stone on another and make an arch-it will fall down before you get done. But, if you first build a scaffold, assemble the stones, and then remove the scaffold, the arch stands. Remove any stone and it collapses, but you can build t one stone at a time with the scaffold in place. The trick is identifying the scaffold (or ruling it out) in a biologic system.)

            IC structures need not only to be IC in their present configuration, but there has to be no route from the putative precursor to the current state without intermediaries that can later be lost.

            There’s a graphic here that shows a bridge with irreducibly complex structure that was formed via stepwise addition and later removal of parts:


            It also points out an irreducibly complex bacterial metabolic system that has developed within a human lifetime in the last 70 years–likely by stepwise mutation unless you posit that it was intelligently designed in that time frame. So the claim that such things can never happen is not sustained by the evidence. (Whether such things are sufficient for all biodiversity is an entirely separate question.)

            That’s why I say I think IC is much harder to see (much less prove) than its advocates believe. Proving a negative is very difficult.

          • The metabolic pathway in question has selectable function even if not all of the pathway exists. Therefore it is not an example of irreducible complexity.

            The diagram of the bridge is – unfortunately – an example of intelligent design in action.

            And this – “IC structures need not only to be IC in their present configuration, but there has to be no route from the putative precursor to the current state without intermediaries that can later be lost.” – is to again require ID to prove logical impossibility, a requirement not found anywhere but in mathematics (as noted in the link I posted).

            ID doesn’t have to prove a negative. All it has to do is prove that a structure is inaccessible to direct Darwinian pathways, and, given the utter lack of observed indirect Darwinian pathways, it wins. The job of evolutionary biology is to produce a demonstrable process which renders these things more likely than not given the time and resources claimed for them. The fact that evolutionary biology has thus far failed to demonstrate this is why we are having this conversation. The ID theorists have given us good grounds for expecting such a demonstration shall not be forthcoming.

            As an aside, Mormonism is doctrinally wedded to the argument from design.

            In Alma 30:44, Alma says the following – [A]ll things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

            It would be interesting indeed if Darwin, and not the prophet of God, was right, and order imposed upon chaos, matter organized into planets with regular orbits, and biological life in all its beauty and varieties indeed witnessed not so much any such thing as a Supreme Creator, but the awe-inspiring power of sheer dumb luck.

            • I think we’re speaking past each other:t bridge is an analogy of how extraneous material, processes, or structures can become irreducibly complex. If that isn’t clear, I don’t think we’ll accomplish much by discussing these matters.

              I suspect this is a fair example of why ID has yet to make much scientific headway.

              I believe in divine design. I don’t believe in pure dumb luck.

              Alma believed the planets were evidence for God. I think they are too–but that doesn’t mean that their accretion or orbits can’t be predicted by gravity. Such arguments will convince–according to Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, or whoever you conclude wrote this excerpt from the Lectures on Faith–only following, and not preceding, revelation:

              “In order to present this part of the subject in a clear and conspicuous point of light,” reads Lectures on Faith, “it is necessary to go back and show the evidences which mankind have had to believe in the existence of a God and also to show the foundation on which these evidences are and have been based since the creation.” And what were these evidences? Not the natural world: “We do not mean those evidences which are manifested by the works of creation which we daily behold with our natural eyes. We are sensible that, after a revelation of Jesus Christ, the works of creation clearly exhibit his eternal power and Godhead throughout their vast forms and varieties.” But such things are only compelling afterward. The initial ground for belief lies elsewhere:

              The way by which mankind were first made acquainted with the existence of a God was by a manifestation of God to man.

              It was by reason of the manifestation which God first made to our father Adam, when he stood in his presence and conversed with him face to face at the time of his creation, that the first thought ever existed in the mind of any individual that there was such a being as a God who had created and did uphold all things.

              God became an object of faith for rational beings, and . . . [the] foundation the testimony was based [on] which excited the inquiry and diligent search of the ancient Saints to seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God . . . was human testimony, and human testimony only. . . . It was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers, it having aroused their minds to inquire after the knowledge of God . . . [that] always terminated when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries and eternal certainty.

              Science, however, does not factor in revelation. It cannot. That is neither a slur on science or a weakness–it is simply all that science was intended to do.

              So, I think many believers will continue to find ID compelling, but for reasons which are simply not accessible to those without revelation, ie, those reasons will not be purely, or ultimately, scientific.

          • “I think we’re speaking past each other:t[he] bridge is an analogy of how extraneous material, processes, or structures can become irreducibly complex. If that isn’t clear, I don’t think we’ll accomplish much by discussing these matters.”

            Yes, we are speaking past one another. The reason is because you have gotten your notion of irreducible complexity from the talk-origins folks, rather than the design theorists.

            The reason the bridge is not an example of irreducible complexity is because the first piece of the bridge, alone, does the job the finished bridge does, or else it doesn’t get laid out, in biological terms – if it serves no function, natural selection weeds it out because, well, it’s a waste of resources. That’s why the bridge is an example of ID in action – the first piece of the bridge is laid out with future function in mind, something natural selection does not do. There is no biological analogy to the bridge.

            The metabolic pathway you have adopted from the talkorigins folks is not irreducibly complex because the first step in the pathway performs the same function as the whole pathway. Granted, it doesn’t do it very well, but it does it well enough where a bacterium which has that sole portion of the whole metabolic pathway has selective advantage over a bacterium which does not have any portion of the pathway. Therefore, it is not irreducibly complex.

            I wish you had read the link I posted.

            The reason why the bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex, despite its similarity and perhaps part reuse from the type-3 secretory system is because when you knock out any number of its N parts, from 1 part to N-1 parts, the system as a whole performs no function at all. It is a waste of resources, and confers no selective advantage.

            “So, I think many believers will continue to find ID compelling, but for reasons which are simply not accessible to those without revelation, ie, those reasons will not be purely, or ultimately, scientific.”

            This position can only be taken if you have taken talkorigins for your sole source. Having the necessary mathematical and computer science background to understand The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities, and its follow up No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased Without Intelligence, and the latest paper on the topic – Specification: The Pattern That Signifies Intelligence (available here: http://www.designinference.com/documents/2005.06.Specification.pdf ) I can say that your characterization of ID as an essentially religious position can only be maintained in ignorance. It is an information theoretic – statistical tool which gives us a rigorous and rational basis for asserting certain events are, at least in part, the product of intervening intelligences. This tool is already a part of science; and its status only gets denied when it is applied to biology and produces unwanted results.

            Just as some doctors get irritated when it is asserted there is a link between autism and certain vaccines, I find it wearisome to see the my co-religionists refusing to engage both sides of an issue fairly, and, in particular, this one, which actually strikes at the foundations of the faith. I sometimes can excuse misunderstandings, because, after all, math and logic are hard, but the attitudes and posturing concerning this topic strike me as more befitting the great and spacious building rather than those who are tenaciously pursuing the truth.

          • I misspoke – the bridge *is* irreducibly complex; my point was that there is no biological analogy to it for the reasons stated. I would replace that paragraph with this.

            “In biological terms, the first piece of the bridge, alone, does the job the finished bridge does, or else it doesn’t get laid out – if it serves no function, natural selection weeds it out because, well, it’s a waste of resources. That’s why the bridge is an example of ID in action – the first piece of the bridge, which does nothing of itself, is laid out with future function in mind, something natural selection does not do. There is no biological analogy to the bridge.”

            • I think we’re still speaking past each other. As I’ve argued, I think that those who opine on this topic ought to treat Saints on whatever side they come down on with charity and forbearance. To disagree or be unconvinced is not to rent rooms in the Great and Spacious Third Rate Hotel.

              I cite Talk.origins for the benefit of non-specialist readers who would like an accessible discussion of the mainstream scientific view, with extensive links to the peer-reviewed literature.

              It is not my only source of information.

              I have seen the material from Dembski you posted, thank-you. He has, unfortunately, yet to persuade me. I cannot do all his math, but many who know more than me are not convinced either.

              There is, by contrast, no such disagreement on the vaccine issue among those skilled in the relevant disciplines.

              I’m sorry if my suggestion about “many believers” was offensive. I did not intend to apply it to anyone in particular. I maintain that it is worth considering that no one can approach these matters ideologically untainted. If you can claim the truth of ID is ignored because of ideology, must we not also in humility recognize that we might find the idea compelling for other ideological reasons, despite evidentiary or logical lacunae?

              If that is posturing, I can only apologize and say that that is not my intent. People of good will can in good conscience differ. Since you feel I’m being unfair, I will leave you the last word. Again, my apologies.

          • Greg,

            Thanks for your graciousness in allowing opposing viewpoints to be aired.

            “I cite Talk.origins for the benefit of non-specialist readers who would like an accessible discussion of the mainstream scientific view, with extensive links to the peer-reviewed literature.”

            To use TalkOrigins as an authoritative source on ID is analogous to going to Catholics for information on Mormonism. In both cases, one is better served going directly to the source.

            The scientific status of design theory is also red herring, as well, since whether a thing is “science” or not depends solely upon the definition of “science” being used, and not the nature of the thing itself. It is similar to discussions as to whether Mormonism is a “cult.” Much heat is generated, and not much light.

            “There is, by contrast, no such disagreement on the vaccine issue among those skilled in the relevant disciplines.”

            There has not, to my knowledge, been a double-blind experiment performed with an unvaccinated control group, which would be the only way to test the hypothesis that there is a link between vaccinations and incidence of autism. The experts in the relevant disciplines are operating in ignorance without this experiment being performed, and lacking this evidential foundation also goes far to explain the hostility and mockery which the mere suggestion that there could be a causal link between vaccination and incidence of autism arouses. One sees from the rhetoric deployed that these are not dispassionate debates.

            “I maintain that it is worth considering that no one can approach these matters ideologically untainted. If you can claim the truth of ID is ignored because of ideology, must we not also in humility recognize that we might find the idea compelling for other ideological reasons, despite evidentiary or logical lacunae?”

            I believed my instructors when they told me that speciation had been observed, and that the same processes which produced these species – sheer dumb luck, on the final analysis – was, in fact, responsible for all of biological diversity. It was not until years later, and many courses in advanced mathematics and computer science, that I ran across Behe and Dembski. Because I had a lot of experience writing mathematical proofs, I recognized in Behe’s work as tight a formal proof as can be made on both theoretical and empirical grounds against the notion that sheer dumb luck can produce anything like what has been claimed for it.

            Since then, the search has been for counterexamples, as their logic is sound. No counterexamples have been forthcoming, and those which are proposed as counterexamples rely upon defective applications, or even intentionally misrepresented definitions, of the concept of irreducible complexity.

            In the end, it is odd to me that design theory should be controversial because the concept of design detection is readily applied in law, medicine, and the sciences. It is how we detect insurance fraud, scientific fraud, election fraud, plagiarism, and why we don’t look at Mount Rushmore and marvel at the awesome creative power of sheer dumb luck, in the form of, say, wind, rain, and erosion.

            Sometimes, truth in a secular setting can be hard to recognize when we don’t have the necessary background to understand it when it is presented. Ofttimes, as a shortcut to the laborious acquisition of knowledge necessary to apprehend certain things, we simply choose sides based on the appearance of credibility of the advocates, and I fear that there is altogether too much of that going on within this particular topic.

            I applaud your willingness to allow others to hold forth contrary views in this forum.

            • I repeat, I offered talk.origins for the mainstream scientific view of the issues raised. You had already provided the ID view.

              Randomized controlled trials for vaccines known to be effective would likely not clear ethics approval looking for autism, given that no association between vaccine status and autism has been detected by other analyses. RCT are the gold standard, but retrospective cohort analysis and the like are not without value, especially in hypothesis generation for RCT checking. Since they have not detected any such linkage, it would be foolhardy to spend the time and money (to say nothing of exposing both trial participants and general population to deadly illness) to do a RCT.

              References and data here:


              Certainty is rare in biology, especially human biology. But we need not succumb to therapeutic nihilism and conclude we know nothing.