Commentary: Many Mormons have forgotten that evolution isn’t a Satanic heresy

As a Mormon with formal training in Hebrew, science and history, I have felt dismayed by recent discussions on Utah science standards. While many seem aware of general opposition to atheistic evolution in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or even Joseph Fielding Smith’s young-earth creationism, far fewer Mormons seem aware of the other side of those in-house arguments or know that the church’s official position today is neutrality.

Indeed, some seem to be doing just what LDS Apostle James E. Talmage warned against in 1933: “We cannot sweep aside all the accumulated knowledge in geology, archeology or any other branch of science simply because our interpretation of some isolated passage of scripture may seem to be opposed thereto.”

The amount of “accumulated knowledge”that would need to be “swept away” in science and scripture today has multiplied far beyond Talmage’s Ph.D. knowledge in 1933. Modern DNA studies would demonstrate that many of us Mormons have some Neanderthal in our genealogy, a fact acknowledged by LDS geneticist Ugo Perego at this summer’s FAIRMormon Conference.

How many know of President David O. McKay’s support for evolution? In the July 1965 issue of the official LDS magazine The Instructor, McKay went out of his way to make sure readers knew he explicitly approved a pro-evolution article including the phrase, “One must have a broad understanding of biology to be competent to judge whether evolution is true or not.”

Framed as a conversation between a biologist and his dairyman neighbor, the article addressed Genesis, “special creation,” natural selection, the fixity of the species, DNA, Charles Darwin and the recentness of much relevant scientific knowledge. Not a scientist himself, McKay did read scientists. He particularly liked Pierre Noüy, a French biophysicist and convert to Christianity. Noüy interpreted the Genesis story of the forbidding and eating of Eden’s fruit as that point in evolution when humans gained conscious control over their instincts and impulses, putting them beyond mere animals. That may sound radical to Mormons, but McKay chose to quote Noüy on the power of choice in the October 1963 General Conference.

McKay clearly did not understand scripture to exclude evolution and disagreed with those who did, even fellow Apostles. This disagreement also shows that the LDS Church leadership had no particular revelation or internal unity on the topic.The result is that Brigham Young University has offered high-quality courses in evolution since 1971, approved by Joseph Fielding Smith himself. Evolution has been required at BYU-Idaho since 2007 in the form of a Science Foundations class taught by science faculty.

But Mormonism is not alone in having highly religious professors who teach evolution. Those who continue to categorize evolution as inherently “liberal” or “secular,” I would wager, are generally unaware of the number of prominent Catholics or Evangelicals who are able to square evolution with scripture, even a “high” or “inerrant” view of scripture. This includes evangelical scientists like Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health and previous head of the Human Genome project, as well as Biblical scholars like Scot McKnight, co-author of “Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science” with evangelical geneticist Dennis Venema. Covering both sides of the issue, evangelical scholar Denis Lamoureux has Ph.D.s in both biology and theology, and writes books such as “Evolution: Scripture and Nature say Yes!”

Pope John Paul II declared evolution to be “more than a hypothesis,” even “an effectively proven fact.” Any characterization that puts the pontiff in the “secular” category needs some examination.

My wife and each of her siblings in turn have returned home from BYU to casually announce, “Hey, did you know evolution isn’t a Satanic heresy?” an idea likely absorbed from their Mormon-belt cultural milieu. Perhaps it is time for Mormons to take part in the larger conversation, learning a fuller, more balanced version of our own history and also from the excellent work being done by our theological cousins. There should be no religious reluctance on the part of Mormons to making evolution the Utah science standard.

Ben Spackman holds a master’s degree in comparative Semitics and researches interpretations of Genesis, creationism and evolution as a Ph.D. student in the history of Christianity at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, Calif.