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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes no official position on the theory of organic evolution.  Many members accept it as the best current scientific account of the origins of life on earth.  But many reject it.  In fact, Latter-day Saints are among the least evolution-friendly religious groups in the United States.

One reason for Latter-day Saint discomfort with evolution seems to me non-scientific.  We are simply uneasy with some of the seeming implications of evolution.  Or, anyway, we are ill at ease with the implications that many have been more than happy to attach to it:  The fact is that evolution almost invariably comes with ideological baggage.  By contrast, there is no significant religious objection to relativity or quantum physics, or to Mendelian genetics, or to the germ theory of disease, or to string theory, or to plate tectonics and continental drift, or to most of the other major scientific ideas of our time.  That’s because they aren’t accompanied by such ideological baggage.

Evolution is a different case, though, because evolutionary theory affects—or, anyway, seems to affect—our notions of human nature and our status in the universe.  It can seem to portray the nature of the universe itself in a way that demeans or devalues humanity.  Germ theory does none of that.  Neither do studies of DNA nor speculations about subatomic particles.

And it is often advocates of evolution who are responsible for such perceptions.

Listen, for example, to Richard Dawkins, a vocal British evangelist of atheistic evolutionism:  “The universe we observe,” he says, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” Or consider the case of the social Darwinist Adolf Hitler, who dismissed humanity (with ghastly results) as “a ridiculous cosmic bacterium.” “I am freeing man from . . . the dirty and degrading self-mortification of a false vision called ‘conscience and morality,’” he explained.

Similar comments might be multiplied a thousand-fold.  Here, for another instance, is Anthony Wallace of the University of Pennsylvania, who predicted back in 1966 that “the evolutionary future of religion is extinction. Belief in supernatural beings and in supernatural forces that affect nature without obeying nature’s laws will erode and become only an interesting historical memory. To be sure, this event is not likely to occur in the next generation; the process will likely take several hundred years . . . but as a cultural trait, belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge . . . the process is inevitable.”

Or consider this 1994 statement, from Cornell University’s William Provine:

When Darwin deduced the theory of natural selection to explain the adaptations in which he had previously seen the handiwork of God, he knew that he was committing cultural murder. He understood immediately that if natural selection explained adaptations, and evolution by descent were true, then the argument from design was dead and all that went with it, namely the existence of a personal god, free will, life after death, immutable moral laws, and ultimate meaning in life. The immediate reaction to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in addition to favorable and admiring responses from a relatively few scientists, [was] an understandable fear and disgust that has never disappeared from Western culture.”

Religious—and specifically Latter-day Saint—unease with evolution is, in my view, mostly about what evolutionary doctrine is sometimes thought to entail beyond biology.  That the cosmos is random and without purpose, that life is a  pointless process of survival of the fittest, that human personality is nothing more than the neurochemical events in a mortal brain, which are themselves no more significant to the universe than the erosion of a rock or the rust on a piece of iron—these are not congenial thoughts to Latter-day Saints nor, probably, to the vast majority of normal people.

But are such entailments really necessary or inevitable?  Certainly—see above, and many other additional statements that might be added—some evolutionists claim that they are.

However, there might be other ways of looking at the matter.  In the final paragraph of the first edition of his 1859 classic On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin himself wrote of his theory of evolution that “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

For the 1860 second edition of the book, in fact, Darwin added three very important words to the passage, so that it reads “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.”  Many scholars believe that those three words were inserted in an attempt to calm the theological storm that had been stirred up by On the Origin of Species. Some, on the other hand, believe that he inserted them out of at least a passing conviction.  (Darwin seems to have ended his life as an agnostic, but his religious doubts probably arose at least as much out of painful family tragedy as from his biological work.)

Sounding a rather similar note, the Rev. Charles Kingsley indicated in a letter to Darwin that he had “gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.”

A new book, written by an associate professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine at Yale University, offers a fascinatingly fresh take on evolution that actually sees a religious dimension—indeed, a religious purpose—in evolution.  The book is Samuel T. Wilkinson, Purpose: What Evolution and Human Nature Imply About the Meaning of Our Existence (New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2024), and I commend it to the careful attention of anyone who is interested in questions of religious belief in an age of science or, for that matter, in evolution, human nature, and the purpose of life.

Professor Wilkinson exhibits what seems to this layman an impressive grasp of the relevant literature and does not quarrel in any way with the scientific facts developed thus far by mainstream evolutionary biology.  However, he contends that the emergence of living organisms on Planet Earth does not appear to have been random but, rather, has had a goal or goals.  (Rather like the prominent English palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris, whom he cites, he bases that contention at least in part on the “convergent evolution” of similar features—e.g., echolocation, wings, “silky threads,” eyes, similar shapes, and the like—in widely diverse organisms.)  He also argues that humans possess free will, though that freedom is obviously constrained by our biological reality.  These two points—non-randomness and “agency”—are essential to the rest of his argument.

He proceeds, thereupon, to lay out a case for the mixed legacy that, he believes, has been given to us by our evolutionary background.  For example, he acknowledges that we have a capacity for selfishness—it’s pretty undeniably obvious, even in children—but he points out that we also have a deep capacity for altruism, and particularly so with regard to our own families.  (As he notes, altruism has also been observed in very young children).  Evolution has molded us such that we are tempted in opposite directions.  In other words, nature has left us conflicted.  As the two influential biologists Edward O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson expressed it: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. But altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

When all of this is put together, it yields an intriguing view of the purpose of mortality:

“Our coming into existence was not random,” writes Professor Wilkinson, “allowing for the possibility of an overarching purpose to our lives.  But evolution seems to have shaped us in such a way that we are pulled in different directions: the dual potential of human nature.  We also find ourselves in possession of free will.  As previously noted, when we bring it all together, it seems clear—at least from my vantage point—that life is a test.  A principal purpose of our existence is to choose between the good and evil inherent within us.”

Does this sound familiar?  It certainly should, because it echoes the teachings and even sometimes the words of scripture.  Surely, for example, one of the central concepts to be taken from the creation accounts that are so prominent in our scriptural canon (at Genesis 1-3, Moses 2-4, and Abraham 4-5) and in the liturgy of temple is that both creation and the placement of human life upon the earth were deliberate, premeditated divine acts, not merely random occurrences.

Moreover, opposition and the necessity of choosing between good and evil are of fundamental importance in the plan of salvation:

“And the serpent said unto the woman . . .  God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. . . . And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5, 22)

“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. . . . Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God. . . .  [T]here is a God, and he hath created all things. . . .  And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man . . . it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.”  (2 Nephi 2:11-12, 14-16)

And, of course, the concept that this life is a test is at the heart of our understanding of mortality:

“And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.”  (Abraham 3:24-25)

In the final paragraph of his own book, Professor Wilkinson interacts with the closing paragraph of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which I’ve already cited above.  He writes:

“In my view, at least, there really is grandeur in this view of life—and to fully appreciate it, we need to recognize that we have a divinely ordained purpose.  God created us through evolution, and did so in such a way that we are to find life’s most profound joys in our family relationships.”

That is a message that, I think, will resonate with believers in the Restored Gospel, who understand that family isn’t merely the foundation of earthly society, but the organizational principle and indeed the purpose of immortality and eternal life.  And, properly, it should so resonate—for Professor Wilkinson is himself a devout and practicing member of (and, indeed, a bishop in) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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The Wikipedia article “Mormon views on evolution” offers a reasonably good survey of the range of opinions on the topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_views_on_evolution#:~:text=The%20LDS%20Church%20has%20no,is%20opposed%20to%20scriptural%20teaching