Mormons need not shy away from evolution, says BYU biologist

Mormons should be as friendly to evolution as any people on Earth, a Brigham Young University biologist unequivocally declared this week.

They believe in “eternal progression,” for example, and that the universe was organized from pre-existing matter, Steven L. Peck told a packed audience Thursday on the Utah Valley University campus. Those are ideas embraced by evolutionary biologists, too.

Peck delivered the Eugene England Memorial Lecture at a two-day conference, “Heaven & Earth: Mormonism and the Challenges of Science, Revelation and Faith,” organized by the Orem school’s Mormon studies program.

“The relationship between science and religion has been among the most fiercely debated issues since the Copernican Revolution displaced traditional wisdom regarding the nature of the cosmos,” program director Brian Birch said in his opening remarks. “Some have argued for a sharp division of labor while others have sought to harmonize spiritual and empirical truths.”

That’s equally true of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A Pew Forum poll from a decade ago show that 21 percent of Latter-day Saints agreed with the statement that “evolution is the best explanation for life on Earth.” In 2014, however, another Pew survey found nearly 50 percent believed in some form of evolution.

The Utah-based faith takes no official stand on the question, and it has been taught at LDS Church-owned BYU for decades.

“Mormonism has wrestled with the implications of modern science,” Birch said Thursday, “and has produced a variety of theological responses.”

Peck, who has written several books, including “Science the Key to Theology,” was almost gleeful as he addressed the relationship between science and Mormon doctrines.

He began with a personal story that triggered profound questions about the nature of God.

A few days after he and his wife married in the Salt Lake LDS Temple, they traveled to Seattle for a reception in his bride’s hometown. As they were returning to the Beehive State, their car was hit by a drunken driver. Both barely survived. For six weeks, their jaws were wired shut.

“As I hobbled around on my cane, I wondered what happened,” Peck said. “We did everything right and it was supposed to work out. Nothing made sense.”

If God can help people find lost car keys, as many Mormons testify, the biologist wondered: Why didn’t he stop this collision?

After reading the words of the late Eugene England, an influential Mormon writer who died in 2001, Peck became convinced that such tragedies are not only possible but also an essential part of existence.

“We see this all the time in evolution,” he said. “Evolution is a struggle for existence. It is messy and complex.”

The whole universe is “rather violent,” Peck said. “Our own star began with an explosion.”

Biologists also teach that it is filled with matter, which Mormon founder Joseph Smith preached in the 1840s.

There certainly are surprises in the development of complex structures, he said. “Things that occur on one level — like DNA mutations — are truly random. And they can bubble up to the macro world.”

In response, life “organizes networks to manage this universe,” he said. “There is genuine novelty in this process. We see surprises being mothered into the universe. … We see it everywhere — rocks, strata and developmental processes.”

Complexity is in the fossil record and in human cells, Peck said. “And development is not the simple story we used to think it was.”

Organisms change their environment, and the environment changes them — it is a case of “constant complexity.”

Biologists also see a pattern of symbiotic relationships all around.

Paraphrasing French philosopher Henri Bergson, the BYU biologist said there is no end goal in evolution.

“There’s no direction in evolution; it is not trying to get somewhere,” Peck said. “The universe is making itself up as it goes along.”

But Bergson insisted God would have to be embedded in matter.

“God is nothing,” Peck quoted Bergson as saying, “if conceived of as external to or separate from this course of events.”

Mormons would definitely agree.

“A plan of no agency would require a deterministic universe, where God sits above time and broods over an endless loop where nothing new ever occurs,” he said. “Like a ‘Gilligan’s Island’ rerun on loop forever.”

As a scientist, Peck said, he was struck by “a universe brimming with dynamic flows of energy and material, a universe of objects, hills and processes that advances with ebbs and flows, with randomness, chaos and order.”

It is an open universe, he said, where God lives, too.

The struggle for existence is paramount but should not lead humans into despair, Peck said, because they are “joined in a confederation of love … in relationship with each other and with God.”

Mortals are like shipmates “learning the skills [and attributes] necessary for existence — faith, hope and charity,” he said, necessary to “travel into eternity.”