This month is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. I thought it would be interesting to post some thoughts about Darwin and what he has spawned, but I’ll break it up into smaller posts. The first question I’d like to consider is, do the scriptures provide any support for his theory, or does it truly deserve the fierce objections some (though not all) LDS people have directed at him? I will list here four areas where I think the scriptures support Darwinian evolution.

Before we start I do need to briefly describe the theory of Darwinian evolution. It is meant to describe how different species get created. It says that due to limited resources, disease, predation, only certain individuals survive to reproduce the next set of offspring. Various random variations happen which, if they improve that individual’s ability to survive to reproduction, will then also get passed on. (Darwin had no idea how; we had to wait until Watson & Crick discovered the structure of DNA.) Species adapt in order to best exploit the available resources locally. When Darwin described it as “the survival of the fittest” he meant “fit” in the same way your clothes fit. He didn’t mean necessarily the survival of the strongest or smartest or fastest, but the survival of the individuals who were best adapted to their immediate environment would be most likely to survive–and sometimes being weak, slow, and dumb is an advantage.

There’s a lot more to it than that, but that will do for now. But before I go too far I’ll briefly mention my own position on Darwinian Evolution. I believe it is the best explanation we have for speciation and adaptation in biology, and it is a powerful mechanism that clearly operates in a very wide variety of areas in biology (though not universally). It also has a number of limitations and flaws. I will explain all of that more fully in later posts.

The first and most important reason that our scriptures support Darwin’s theory of evolution is the creation account found in the Book of Abraham. (Any italics you find in these scripture quotes are added by me.) Let’s start with 4:31: “And the Gods said: We will do everything that we have said, and organize them.” The ‘them’ here refers to all the varieties of life. The entire creation process in Abraham is depicted as organizing rather than creating out of nothing.

But it gets more interesting. Look at verse 18: “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.”

It’s a surprisingly passive approach dictated here. It’s almost like they are laying the groundwork for the world to create its own creatures. Read on in verse 20:

And the Gods said: Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life; and the fowl, that they may fly above the earth in the open expanse of heaven.

The same thing happens for all the varieties of creation. It’s not entirely passive, but definitely “hands off”. The way I read it, “the Gods” are putting their thumbs on the scale in order to favor certain outcomes, as here in verse 21-22:

And the Gods prepared the waters that they might bring forth great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters were to bring forth abundantly after their kind; and every winged fowl after their kind. And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good. And the Gods said: We will bless them, and cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas or great waters; and cause the fowl to multiply in the earth.

Note all these creatures are multiplying greatly and spreading through the whole earth. Darwin called these the laws of “Growth with Reproduction,” “Inheritance,” and “[High] Ratio of Increase.” A modern biologist would describe it as adaptive and evolutionary radiation, but I think Abraham’s description is more pleasing to the non-biologist ear.

I don’t want to overstate my case, because this “hands off” process clearly doesn’t apply when it comes to the creation of man. The scriptures are very clear that the descendants from Adam are a special creation, one Heavenly Father and Jesus were personally involved with. Verses 26 and 27 have the Gods personally going down and forming man in their own likeness and image.

But when and how was “man” (Adam) created? During the same time as homo sapiens was created, or after? After Homo habilus? But before Homo sapiens neanderthalis? Were there humans before Adam? Until I’ve asked it, you’ve probably never even thought about it, assuming that “human species” is the same as “descendant of Adam”. And what about the human genus? Or human subspecies like neanderthals? (Let’s refresh on the definition of a species: two organisms of the same species can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Subspecies are distinct but can still interbreed. Whether we interbred with neanderthals is still controversial; so far the weight of the evidence says no.)

What do the scriptures say about any of that? Do they talk in terms of species at all? They only say that all men alive today descended from Adam. And what makes him a man? His species? His genes? No. It’s the simple (but very important) fact that the very first one of them had his “living soul” breathed into him by God Himself. Once that happened, did that change his genetic code or who he was capable of breeding with (i.e., make him a new species)? I don’t know, but my point here is only that the scriptures obviously don’t say anything about that.

Note that these things happen in sequence, not all at once. First, man is formed. Then, his spirit is put into him. Next, God breathes into his nostrils, whereupon he became a “living soul”. Finally, he is moved into a “garden,” which clearly is not the same thing as the whole Earth or he wouldn’t have had to be moved. How much time passed between each of these steps? Did other events happen between the events the scriptures mention? I have no idea, really, and I have probably already gone too far mingling the doctrines of Darwin with scripture. But I hope to have at least provided you with room to reconsider whether the animosity directed at Darwin’s theories on the origin of man have more to do with what some people think the scriptures say about the origin of species, rather than what they actually say.

As Hugh Nibley (who first pointed me to what the Book of Abraham’s account of the creation might be suggesting) said in his essay “Before Adam”,

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 convert concise and straightforward Sunday-school recitals into the vivid images that will stay with him for 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.) It is equally easy and deceptive to fall into adolescent disillusionment and with one’s emancipated teachers to smile tolerantly at the simple gullibility of bygone days…

Elsewhere in the same essay:

The Latter-day Saints have four basic Adam stories, those found in the Bible, the book of Moses, the book of Abraham, and the temple—each seen from a different angle, like the four Gospels, but not conflicting if each is put into its proper context. And what is that context? One vitally important principle that everyone seems to have ignored until now is the consideration that everything is presented to us in these accounts through the eyes, or from the point of view of, the individual observers who tell the story… The Latter-day Saints… [instead] are constantly converting statements of limited application to universal or at least sweeping generalities. To illustrate, I was told as a child that the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians, and the Andes all came into existence overnight during the great upheavals of nature that took place at the time of the Crucifixion—an absurdity that plays into the hands of critics of the Book of Mormon.

In other words, do you really know what the Bible is talking about when it says Adam lived in a “garden”? Or when it says that God “formed” man out of the “dust” of the earth? It is possible to retain belief in the truthfulness of scripture and also believe in many aspects of Darwinism without contradiction. But you will almost certainly have to discard your Sunbeam-era images of the creation in the bargain.

Moving on to our second case of scriptural support for elements of Darwinian evolution, consider the scriptural passages in the creation which discuss each creature producing seed “after its own kind.”

(Now, this very scripture was used to oppose the idea of changes within species and post-creation speciation (speciation means the creation of new species), but that’s not what it says. It doesn’t say that the “kinds” can never change or adapt, does it? God pronounces his work finished and good, but does it mean the end of speciation? No, not any more than it means it was the end of the rest of God’s work. If all was finished after the 6th day, what about all the prophets he called and covenants he made with His people? What about the atonement? What about the work God is performing Himself and through His angels in the Latter days? If we took that verse to mean everything was finished, then all of God’s subsequent works would be a contradiction in terms. So that’s not how I read verses 21 and 22. I see the Gods seeing the earth filling with creation and pronouncing that process good. The changes have just begun. And Darwin certainly never claimed species don’t produce seed after their own kind, in fact it was an essential bedrock of his theory that species cannot change willy-nilly! So I think this argument is totally bogus and shows some real ignorance of both scripture and Darwin.)

The main competitor to Darwin’s theory of how species change and new species are created was Larmarckian evolution, which said traits are aquired through use and lost through disuse. Darwin disagreed, as did Mendel even later and more emphatically. They said that all the changes happen through the germ line, as opposed to somatic cells having some influence on the germ line cells (germ line cells being the cells in the ovaries and testes that produce eggs and sperm). (In fact, the term “germ” as Darwin used it and the term “seed” as Moses used it are exactly the same thing.) We now know Darwin (and Mendel) to be almost entirely correct about that (though, Lamarck is having a bit of a renaissance in some limited ways right now), and each kind it produced from its seed, as the Bible suggests.

Third, consider the question of limited resources, disease, and death. We know that this is a world where all must toil and work. Death is omnipresent. Darwin’s theory depends greatly on death and the Fall brought death into the world. When there is no death and no limited resources and where there is still reproduction, it will be the end of Darwinian evolution. Though definitely not the end of evolution in general:

The works of God continue
And worlds and live abound
Improvement and progression
Have one eternal round

Our fourth and final point considers the idea in that verse of the hymn, eternal progression. Evolution really only means the process of change through time. Darwin himself did not always take evolution to mean “improvement,” in fact he explicitly denied it. But anyone with a sense of wonder really cannot help thinking it means that. And Darwin certainly had that, visible here quite vividly in this passage found at the end of the Origin of Species (emphasis mine):

And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection. It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us… Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. [He almost sounds here like Lehi talking about opposition being required in all things] There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

I think every Mormon believes in evolution in this sense. In fact, we take it much further than anyone else I know, even Darwinians. We are evolutionary maximalists. Not only do we believe that evolutionary progress is essential to this life (“line upon line,” “he received not of the fulness at the first,” “light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day”), but it also was important in our first estate, as it will be in our work in the Spirit World when we die, and then finally when we are resurrected and receive (hopefully) the eternal increase in the Celestial Kingdom. This entire process could be called “the progress of the fittest,” with the essential caveat that it is only possible if we rely fully on the atonement of Jesus Christ, rather than our own works. Darwin’s evolution is limited to the fallen world.

No one should read this as a massive apologia for Darwinian evolution. I think it has some major limitations and failings, which, don’t worry, we’ll get to soon enough. But I do believe the core of it is probably essentially correct, very well established experimentally and observationally, and has proven very useful to biology. It is a theory which informed believers need to accommodate on at least some level. Over the next few posts I’ll show how I’ve done that as well as what I think should be received skeptically.