Evolution was not a big deal in my Utah education of the 1950s. We studied the ancient geology of Utah in elementary school and learned about rocks and fossils millions of years old. The subject might have come up in seminary, but I spent class time passing notes to friends and pretty much ignored Brother DeVout. Somewhere I heard the line, “Science tells you how, religion tells you who” about the creation of the earth—which satisfied me.
When I transferred to BYU from a state college, I noticed that on Day 1 of each science class, the prof gave a prepared spiel about evolution being a useful theory for the study of chemistry, bacteriology, or whatever—but that using the term in class did not mean the instructor lacked faith in God or accepted the theory of evolution as an absolute truth.
I began reading the Improvement Era in the ‘60s and noticed strong anti-evolutionary views. The Era ran articles “proving” the earth was created in 6000 years. It suggested the deluge at approximately 1800 BC and earthquakes and volcanoes at the time of the crucifixion accounted for the changes that scientists attributed to eons of time. I bought a copy of Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny. My faith in an apostle of my church and my lack of sophistication at evaluating an author’s relevant credentials caused me to accept everything Smith wrote as truth from God. I finished the book convinced that all skeletons of prehistoric man were potential Piltdown hoaxes.
Several years later, a recent BYU graduate was giving the obligatory “new move-in” speech in our ward in Renton, Washington and chose to speak on evolution—this was in the day before topics and resources were assigned to speakers. Brother Newcomer outlined the history of the LDS position on evolution—B.H. Roberts vs. Joseph Fielding Smith with David O. McKay in the middle. I was surprised to learn that the only official First Presidency statement on evolution was from Joseph F. Smith’s presidency, affirming Adam as the “primal parent of our race,” but leaving the question of geological and non-human biological evolution open.
LDS official discourse has been mostly silent on evolution for many years although that has not prevented members from expounding their own beliefs. A high school student in my Sunday School class once gave an unprompted testimony that even the thought of evolution—of humans descending from apes—made him sick to his stomach. I suspect the kid was quoting a seminary teacher since neither parent exhibited much interest in either Church doctrine or science. I left class glad our own kids had skipped seminary frequently. At least their science grades didn’t suffer.
I believe Church teachings on evolution in most wards have swung to the right in the past decade. The Ensign even reprinted the 1909 First Presidency Statement in 2002. In science as well as on many social issues, Latter-day Saints seem hell bent on following the evangelical model. A couple of years ago, a visiting teacher informed me that carbon-dating was unreliable science.
The Roman Catholic Church survived Galileo’s discoveries. Latter-day Saints could take a lesson—focus on positives of LDS philosophy without denigrating modern science research that creates paradox. The leadership for this focus, of course, must come from the top. Hopefully, we’ll evolve in that direction.