Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Genetic Jam

There's a post I'd been intending to make for some time, but it's been a very busy week. This is not that post. Maybe I'll make that post tomorrow.

This post is, instead, about an article I had just run across...about a study casting scientific doubt on certain claims within Mormonism.

Now, to their credit, the LDS church leaders, unlike those of many fundamentalist denominations, have not spoken out against the theory of evolution. On the other hand, though, they haven't spoken out in support of the theory of evolution, either. There are a number of things in church doctrine that appear to be in contradiction to the theory of evolution, and in my experience (though it's not as if I've taken a formal survey or anything), most church members believe that the theory of evolution is false--though, like most people who hold such beliefs, they've never bothered to study the matter enough to recognize what an enormous weight of evidence lies behind the theory, and their doubts are founded largely on ignorance.

However, though they may be in the minority, there are some devout Mormons who do appreciate the evidence behind the theory of evolution, and either try to reconcile it with the LDS account of creation or just decide that somehow they're both true even if they don't understand how. I fell into that category myself while I still considered myself a faithful member of the church, although I wasn't really content to just accept that somehow maybe two contradictory theories were both true without trying to figure out how this could be possible, and I did come up with what I thought was a tentative way to satisfy both. It wasn't easy, given LDS doctrine's insistence on a literal interpretation of the Genesis account (albeit with some leeway in certain matters such as the meaning of the word "day", and whether the creation story in Genesis represents the physical creation or a spiritual preparation), and the explicit statement by a past church leader that death did not enter the world until the Fall. Still, I came up with a scenario, albeit a rather strained and contrived one, that seemed to me consistent with both the theory of evolution and the known facts of geology and the LDS account of the creation; I was never convinced it was the real explanation, but at least I could be satisfied that, as a mathematician would say, a solution existed.

(Actually, creation wasn't the really hard part. The really hard thing to try to reconcile with scientific fact is the story of the Noachian flood. Never did figure out a way to get that one to work.)

I wasn't alone; another apparently faithful Mormon who was also a firm advocate of evolutionary theory was one Nathan Shumate, who runs a blog I enjoy reading at Nathan Shumate gives every indication of being a firm believer in LDS doctrine; fairly frequently in his blog he quotes LDS scripture or expounds upon his beliefs. (Considering the types of movies he reviews online, it seems Mr. Shumate (hey, I've never actually met the guy; it doesn't feel right to call him by his first name) doesn't follow the church leaders' council of avoiding movies rated R or worse, but then again that was never given as a strict commandment, and isn't something that gets asked about in temple recommend interviews.) However, he's also had extended debates with creation scientists via e-mail, in which he has--evidently in all sincerity, and not just to play devil's advocate--defended the theory of evolution. (I don't know how he personally chooses to try to reconcile it with the LDS creation account, or whether he's just content to assume it can be reconciled in some way he's not aware of--let alone what he thinks about Noah's ark.)

What it comes down to is that the LDS church is nowhere near as anti-intellectual as some of the more reactionary denominations. Overall, the church puts a high value on learning, including science education. "The glory of God is intelligence" is a scripture frequently quoted in LDS settings (Doctrine & Covenants 93:36), and the church owns and operates one of the largest private universities in the nation.

However...while the LDS church may not have an official position on the theory of evolution, there are other matters it does have a position on that are, in principle, subject to scientific verification. Such as the claim that the Native Americans, or at least a significant proportion of them, were ultimately descended from Israelites.

All of which is leading up to a newspaper article I just ran across, which described a Mormon scientist's performance of DNA tests to verify whether or not, in fact, there did seem to be a genetic link between Native Americans and Israelites. His findings were negative. And he was threatened with excommunication.

Curious to see how the matter had turned out, I started to do a little more searching around. When I looked at when the article had come out, I was surprised to see it had been in 2002--more than three years ago. I'd never heard about this before--not the sort of news, I guess, that the church spreads around.

Now, to be fair, the whole thing isn't as dire as it first seemed. For one thing, the scientist in question, Thomas W. Murphy, wasn't threatened with excommunication only because he found evidence that seemed to contradict LDS doctrine. The main reason for the excommunication threat seemed to be his explicitly stated belief that "the Book of Mormon is a piece of 19th century fiction"--which goes directly against LDS doctrine that the Book of Mormon is an inspired piece of scripture that relates events that actually occurred. And beyond that, Murphy has apparently spoken out against the church in many other matters, which make the threatened excommunication seem much less unreasonable. Moreover, in the end Murphy wasn't excommunicated, or at least hasn't been yet--the disciplinary council that was supposed to meet to decide the matter was indefinitely postponed. Furthermore, rather than deny Murphy's results, Mormon scientists did eventually come up with ways to try to reconcile them with the Book of Mormon account--ways that, looking at them now, strike me as a bit unconvincing, but that when I was still willing to accept church doctrine as the word of God I probably would have found, well, at least as satisfactory as my own personal reconciliation of Genesis with evolution.

So it's not that I really think the LDS church has really done anything egregiously wrong here. But, as inconclusive as this particular affair may have been, it does still point out that, even if it avoided coming into conflict with science on the front of evolution, there are still other potential areas for conflict between the LDS church and scientific findings. Whenever a religion makes testable claims, there's always the chance those claims will one day be tested--and that they won't pass.

Especially with how they've been allying themselves with fundamentalists lately on other matters, I'm not entirely convinced that someday the LDS church leaders won't explicitly condemn the theory of evolution ex cathedra. If that ever happens, that will probably be the day I make public my breaking with the church.


At 5/02/2010 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, it's the opposite of what you said (again only read part of the post so far). What evidence is there to SUPPORT (I would have used italics but can't figure out how) the theory of evolution. And by evolution I'm assuming we're talking about Darwin's ideas that all life evolved from a single celled organism over billions of years and all that. In other words, macro-evolution.

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