One Greater Family

Many churches take a stand on the issue of evolution. Fundamentalists chuck their scriptures at science, and more progressive denominations think of their stories of creation as metaphorical descriptions of the process of evolution. But what are we to make of the fact that the Mormon church, that the Latter Day Saints have a position of no position on evolution?

Kudos to Pat Hayes for pointing out this article by Carrie Moore, answering the question that is often on the minds of young Mormons – what is the position of the LDS church on evolution? Their opinion on the foundational underpinnings of modern biology can be summed up in this: Eh, whatever. The LDS church has an official position of no position on evolution. Sorry, but that’s a position in itself.
I know only a little about the beliefs of Mormons. I’ve known a few, they come to convert me two by two every year or so, and I’ve gotten emails from a couple Mormons when I compared the door-to-door strategy of proselytizing to the way viruses spread. (strangely, they agreed with me. Whoa.)

But there is one thing that I know is very dear to Mormons – the concept of family.

LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote, “God, angels, and men are all of one species, one race, one great family, widely diffused among the planetary systems as colonies, kingdoms, nations, etc…Angels are of the same race as men. (emphasis mine)

There is a point of profound potential agreement between this Mormon passage and the theory of evolution – in the thesis of common descent. The idea that all life, at least genetically, descended from one organism. Just as Mormons believe that all humans were descended from Adam & Eve, every plant on this planet is descended from the same algae, every animal and fungus a descendant of the same protozoan, and this alga and protozoan together from the same eukaryotic cell formed from the archae and bacterium that joined up symbiotically. Farther back, we find these two prokaryotic cells joining up together from the same cell, and on back to the formation of life itself and the genetic code.

Darwin called it the Tree of Life, in contrast to the Great Chain of Being which was the dominant way of describing things at the time. The idea that organisms progressed toward some goal made way for the idea that life descended from the same simple beginnings. It branched forth, splitting, budding, some dying, and some radiating outwards with such prolific growth as to seem like a giant grotesque tree mercilessly pruned by the shears of catastrophies, singed by flames and broken by frost. Except for a few stumps here and there, each time the tree is trimmed a host of new species would vie for dominance in newly created niches, like buds reaching for a new gap in the foliage.

Mormons believe, as many Christians do, that humans have all descended from two people, Adam & Eve, like buds on a branch. Humanity is one Great Family in their view. But this is like cutting off a twig of a tree and calling it a tree. The Greater Family encompasses all life on this planet, of which humans are but a scion. We were not grafted onto this planet, like some little bud pasted onto a rootstock, we grew from one of the many branches of Darwin’s Tree of Life.

I often ask Mormons I come across what their position on evolution is. Sadly, all of them so far recognize that the church has no position on it, and they personally do not believe in it. I start talking about chromosome #2, and the evidence for common ancestry between chimpanzees and humans.

One pair I met at a Farmer’s Market said that they are open to new information, echoing the LDS church’s position on science in general:

“Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy . . . ”

Evolution has been demonstrated, again and again, with research article upon research article. The problem is, sometimes people are always moving the goalposts farther away every time more information is discovered. And so each generation decides that the current state of scientific understanding is not enough, and it must advance farther. I’ve got no problem with encouraging scientific advancement, but you’ve got to set a point beyond which you will be convinced of a fact.
But their position of non-position is problematic. How would they sound if they issued a statement that the church has no position on the Germ Theory of Disease? AIDS being caused by HIV? Plate Tectonics? In one sense, you might think: Good, people should accept these concepts, like evolution, because of the evidence, not because their religion has sanctioned belief in them. But on the other hand, by their lackadaisical stance on evolution – that it really doesn’t matter or doesn’t worry them, they are saying that the basis of modern biology, on which fields such as medicine and ecology are dependent, doesn’t matter. We’re not worried about the question of whether the H5N1 strain of avian flu will jump to Homo sapiens.
Well, at least they aren’t anti-science, although I can’t say that they are terribly pro-science, either. Our world depends upon science to an ever-increasing degree, and to say that various aspects of science really don’t matter is a troubling position to take. I would be happier if they made stronger statements about the value of science, and the conclusions derived from observation, which includes evolution.
What fascinates me about Mormons is that they are so very concerned with family relationships that many of them become interested in genetics. It is through genetics that we can trace familial lineages both within… and between species. It is only a matter of time that the LDS church will become so saturated with knowledge about genetic data that they will have to accept that humans, chimps, cats, pine trees, and cyanobacteria are all One Greater Family.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

One thought on “One Greater Family”

  1. Your observations of what most LDS folk would say are true. In short, we think that science and scientific theory can be built on things that might not be true, hence polluting further science whose findings are dependent on previously discovered “truths”. We trust in what is revealed to us by God and we know how to tell what is from God and what is not. Our focus and purpose of life is really not to embrace the science of the earth and carry it forward, it is to learn to master some simple principles of righteousness and help others do the same. This seemingly simple task can consume our entire lives, but that is what we are born to do.

    The arm of flesh cannot overpower the arm of God, meaning, what this earth has done and is going to do to us is probably meant to be. True it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t involve ourselves in scientific advances, saving the environment, etc… but most LDS are sticking to the simple purpose of why we are here that I mentioned.

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